Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts
Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry (on leave 2021-22)
Composer-pianist VIJAY IYER has released two dozen albums, including seven on ECM Records, and has collaborated with Amiri Baraka, Wadada Leo Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, Teju Cole, Tyshawn Sorey, Pamela Z, Henry Threadgill, Jennifer Koh, Matt Haimovitz, Brentano Quartet, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and many other artists across disciplines. He received a MacArthur Fellowship, a U.S. Artists Fellowship, the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, the Alpert Award in the Arts, and two German Echo Awards, and was the four-time Jazz Artist of the Year in the DownBeat International Critics’ Poll. At Harvard he holds a joint appointment in the Department of Music and the Department of African and African American Studies, and he founded the Department of Music’s doctoral program in Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry. His recent writings appear in The Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory, The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Sounding Together: Collaborative Perspectives on U.S. Music in the 21st Century, and the journal Jazz and Culture. He earned a PhD from U.C. Berkeley in an interdisciplinary program in Technology and the Arts.
Described by The New York Times as a “social conscience, multimedia collaborator, system builder, rhapsodist, historical thinker and multicultural gateway,” VIJAY IYER has carved out a unique path as a prolific, shape-shifting presence in American music. A composer and pianist active across multiple musical communities, Iyer has created a consistently innovative, emotionally resonant body of work over the last twenty-five years.
He received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, a United States Artist Fellowship, the Greenfield Prize, a Grammy nomination, the Alpert Award in the Arts, and two German “Echo” awards, and was voted DownBeat Magazine’s Jazz Artist of the Year in 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2018. Iyer’s musical language is grounded in the rhythmic traditions of South Asia and West Africa, the African American creative music movement of the 60s and 70s, and the lineage of composer-pianists from Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk to Alice Coltrane and Geri Allen. He has released twenty-four albums of his music, most recently Uneasy (ECM Records, 2021), a widely acclaimed trio session with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Linda May Han Oh; The Transitory Poems (ECM, 2019), a live recording of spontaneous duets with pianist Craig Taborn; Far From Over (ECM, 2017) with Iyer’s award-winning sextet; and A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (ECM, 2016) a suite of joint creations with visionary composer-trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith in tribute to the artist Nasreen Mohamedi.
In addition to his work as a composer-performer and ensemble leader, Iyer is also an active composer for classical ensembles and soloists. His works have been commissioned, premiered, and recorded by Brentano Quartet, Imani Winds, Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Silk Road Ensemble, International Contemporary Ensemble, A Far Cry, So Percussion, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, LAPhil Group for New Music, American Composers Orchestra, The Knights, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and virtuosi Jennifer Koh, Matt Haimowitz, Claire Chase, Shai Wosner, Inbal Segev, and Mishka Rushdie Momen, among others. He recently served as composer-in-residence at London’s Wigmore Hall, music director of the Ojai Music Festival, and artist-in-residence at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. An enthusiastic collaborator, he has also written big-band music for Arturo O’Farrill and Darcy James Argue, remixed classic recordings of Talvin Singh and Meredith Monk, joined forces with renowned musicians Arooj Aftab, Henry Threadgill, Reggie Workman, Zakir Hussain, and L. Subramanian, and developed interdisciplinary projects with Teju Cole, Carrie Mae Weems, Mike Ladd, Prashant Bhargava, and Karole Armitage.
Iyer’s scholarship dwells at the intersections of music studies, Black studies, and the sciences. After graduating from Yale College in Mathematics and Physics in 1992, he began a doctoral program in physics at UC Berkeley, but soon chose to focus on his musical pursuits instead. In 1995 he assembled an ad hoc interdisciplinary Phd program at UC Berkeley, titled Technology and the Arts. His 1998 PhD dissertation developed a perspective on embodied music cognition, drawing on case studies and epistemologies from West African and Afrodiasporic musics and the then-emerging paradigms of embodied and situated cognition. This research at once supplemented and critiqued the prevailing information-processing paradigm in music cognition, decentered that field’s Eurocentric orientation, and harkened the so-called “embodied turn” in music studies. His dissertation advisors included David Wessel, George E. Lewis, Olly Wilson, and Erv Hafter. His subsequent writings have appeared in edited volumes The Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory, The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Sounding Together: Collaborative Perspectives on U.S. Music in the 21st Century, Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies, Arcana IV: Musicians on Music, Epiphanies, and the journals Jazz and Culture, Current Musicology, Journal of the Society for American Music, Critical Studies in Improvisation, Journal of Consciousness Studies, Music Perception, and Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
At Harvard, Iyer is the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts, with a joint appointment in the Department of Music and the Department of African and African American Studies. Many of his courses are cross-listed in both departments. He teaches at the undergraduate and graduate level, both for student music-makers of all kinds and for music scholars in training. Iyer also founded the Department of Music’s doctoral program in Creative Practice and Critical Inquiry (CPCI), a unique program geared towards exceptional music-makers with a research orientation.
Recent course offerings:
- Composer-Performers of the African Diaspora (co-taught with Yosvany Terry)
- Musicality (graduate seminar, co-taught with Christopher Hasty)
- Black Speculative Musicalities (graduate seminar)
- Theorizing Improvisation (graduate seminar)
- Critical Listening
- Creative Music: Composer-Pianists
- Creative Music: Critical Practice Studio
- Creative Music: Advanced Ensembles Workshop