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 Stories for April 15, 1998

Jazz Pianist Vijay Iyer Combines Art and Technology

by Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
posted Apr. 15, 1998

Vijay Iyer (pronounced VIDGEay EYEyer) came to Berkeley in 1992 as a star doctoral student in physics, but his other career as a ground-breaking jazz pianist-composer-bandleader inexorably took over. To combine his two passions, he created an interdisciplinary PhD program for himself, “Technology and the Arts.”

This year Iyer will receive his PhD and continue to perform in the Bay Area and beyond. You can hear him and his ensemble at a release party for his second CD, “Architextures,” at Yoshi’s in Oakland Monday, April 27, at 8 p.m. One of his sidemen is bass player Jeff Bilmes, a Berkeley PhD student in computer science.

Only two or three PhD students a year create their own fields of study, says Iyer, and it’s not easy to get Graduate Division approval.

Iyer assembled a dissertation committee consisting of music professor David Wessel, director of Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Acoustic Technologies; music professor and former chair Olly Wilson; psychology professor Erv Hafter; UC San Diego music professor George Lewis; and Nobel laureate/physics and neurobiology professor emeritus Don Glaser. Iyer’s dissertation title is “Aspects of Rhythm Perception and Cognition in African and African-American Musics.”

“I’m using some of those concepts in my music,” says Iyer. “I’m studying the cognitive strategies that we use to understand and produce music in so-called ‘real’ time. Why don’t humans sound like computers, and vice versa? What is the difference, and why?”

“Vijay’s thesis research is an ideal match to our mission at CNMAT to promote creative interactions among music, science and technology,” says Wessel. “The centerpiece of his thesis concerns the cognitive processes involved in the perception and production of rhythmic structures – a subject almost entirely neglected by traditional music theory. He has made effective use of computer simulations to inquire about the fine temporal organization of phrasing and articulation. This cognitive science research is informed by his wide-ranging experience as a performer and composer and by his extensive study of African, Indian and jazz music.”

Iyer, whose parents emigrated from southern India to the United States in the ’60s, started violin lessons at 3, then taught himself piano. In high school in Rochester, N.Y., he was both orchestra concertmaster and rock band keyboardist.

At Yale, where he received a BS in math and physics, Iyer continued his jazz career.

After earning a Berkeley MA in physics in 1994, Iyer took time off to focus on music. He met Wessel, a former jazz musician with degrees in math and psychology. “David took me under his wing,” Iyer recalls.

A second turning point for Iyer was meeting famed alto saxophone player Steve Coleman, who took Iyer on tour to Europe and Africa.

Iyer describes himself as a “rhythmic pianist in the Duke Ellington-Thelonious Monk-Cecil Taylor tradition whose music pays homage to my culturally rich South Asian heritage.”

Besides his own groups – the Vijay Iyer Trio and Poisonous Prophets – Iyer performs with the hip-hop group Midnight Voices and several of the leaders in avant-garde jazz. He has appeared at jazz festivals throughout North America and Europe and was featured in a recent New York Times article on the new wave of Asian-American jazz musicians. “The way I focus on rhythm combines African-American and Indian techniques,” he says.

Iyer’s next step is to look for an academic post in New York, where he hopes to pursue his music career. “Indian-American musicians don’t have a high profile,” he says.

He plans to change that.

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