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First Person

All the right keys

Jazz pianist and 2013 MacArthur “genius” grant winner Vijay Iyer joins Harvard in January to teach music. The New Yorker’s arrival is good news for local audiences, too. 

Vijay Iyer.Jimmy Katz

Music has been part of my life since I was 3, so I don’t really remember a time when there wasn’t music in my life. For me it’s one mode through which I interact with others. I think that most of all it comes from collaboration. That’s where I’ve learned the most about music.

The MacArthur Foundation does not use the word, the “G word” I’ll call it. So I don’t use that word myself. It kind of shuts down conversations, so I don’t find it that useful. I think the award provides what they call freedom and ease to continue doing your work. That means I can think larger or think more about impact or service, think more in terms of what the work can do for other people and not really be concerned with marketplace issues.


In my first semester I’ll be running a workshop course for advanced composer-improvisers. Students will be developing collaborative projects and generating informed discourse about the work. I’ll also be organizing a speaker series of composer-performers from the current creative music landscape. In future terms there will also be more general courses on listening, studies of specific musical individuals and communities, and collaborations with [other groups and departments].

Boston is a very musical city. We’ve always had wonderful experiences performing there, but our visits have tended to be very brief. This new post gives me a chance to cultivate deeper relationships with the many musical communities in the Boston area. Through Harvard’s Office for the Arts, we are planning special events featuring different projects of mine later in the spring and more and more in the years to come.

— As told to Visi R. Tilak (Interview has been edited and condensed.)

HEAR HIM The Vijay Iyer Trio performs with poet Robert Pinsky on March 14 at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. 617-482-6661;