In its annual critics’ poll, DownBeat magazine has just rated him its Rising Star Jazz Artist and Composer of the Year, but Vijay Iyer takes it with more than a grain of salt. “I won by one vote,” he points out, adding, “Often when someone who’s sort of an outlier like me ends up winning, it’s because the mainstream vote got split, so the weirdos got to rise.”
The 34-year-old pianist with math and physics degrees from Yale and a Ph.D. in music and cognitive science from Berkeley feels no need to “obey a genre.” One minute he’s playing a quiet, lyrical solo piano piece or acoustic jazz with his quartet; the next he’s deep into a rap-and-electronica-infused collaboration with post-hip-hop poet Michael Ladd. The latter is what brings him to BAM’s Next Wave Festival in December, to perform Still Life With Commentator, a multimedia oratorio he wrote with director Ibrahim Quraishi. He describes it as a “long, hard look at our relationship to TV news—at the way we experience violence and atrocity through the media and how that ends up being an aesthetic experience. Our leaves and trees are images that flicker across the TV screen.”
To make the point, Still Life includes movements such as “Lake Aaron” (as in Aaron Brown), “Mt. Rather” (Dan), and “Shep’s Brook” (Shepard Smith). “It sounds like a poem about a lake, but when you know it’s actually about Aaron Brown, it’s hilarious.” Another song draws from Jon Stewart’s now-famous plea on CNN’s Crossfire: “Please stop ... you’re hurting America.” Iyer describes the music, performed by an ensemble that includes the excellent new-music vocalist Pamela Z, as “ironically beautiful.” With lyrics like The home secretary has a lemon-fresh scent / His powers gently lift all potential threats out of the fabric of our society, how could it not be?
Still Life With Commentator, By Vijay Iyer; Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater; December 6 through 10.