Home Read Vijay Iyer Is Back In Deep Trouble

Vijay Iyer Is Back In Deep Trouble

The musical polymath makes his orchestral debut with this timely collection.

Vijay Iyer doesn’t shy away from Trouble in his topical, powerful and sophisticated new orchestral album — showcasing today on Tinnitist.

Marking his debut recording as an orchestral composer, polymath Iyer showcases his high-minded yet emotionally expressive approach to music-making with this collection of bustling textures, surprising forms, and pulsating rhythms.

The latest instalment in the Grammy-winning Boston Modern Orchestra Project led by conductor Gil Rose, Trouble comprises three of Iyer’s holistic musical responses to living in times of struggle. Asunder (2017) employs an Ellingtonian palette to portray American life as “pulled apart, broken, anxious, untethered”; Trouble (2017) uses the violin concerto format to voice our unfinished quest for equal rights; and Crisis Modes (2019) speaks of an unease around rising threats to humanity via strings and percussion. Alongside Iyer’s meteoric career in the jazz universe, he has maintained a parallel life as a classical composer that has often gone unnoticed… until now.

“I’m most at home as a pianist, composer, and improviser, but I grew up playing violin,” says Iyer. “From ages three to 18, I had classical lessons, played in orchestras and string quartets, and studied a lot of the solo repertoire. I taught myself piano in those same years, grew up on rock, pop, and soul music, and got into jazz in high school. In college I quit the violin and stayed focused on Black and South Asian musical approaches until my early 30s, when some friends in New York invited me to write chamber music.

Photo by Ebru Yildiz.

“By then I’d developed the beginnings of a ‘voice’ by writing for my bands, playing shows, and making albums, and from my apprenticeships with Butch Morris, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith and others,” he continues. “I finally wrote my first orchestra piece in 2007, at age 35. All these years later, writing for orchestra still poses a unique set of challenges for someone accustomed to real-time creation like me — but I find that the rewards are vast.”

“As an American with roots in South Asia, enjoying longstanding relationships with Black creative musicians as well as with classical artists, I am at home moving among worlds. I hope this recording empowers listeners to embrace difference as if our lives depended on it — because I believe they do.”

The album’s centerpiece is the 30-minute violin concerto Trouble, which in 2017 joined a wave of new concert works by composers of color commenting on injustice in America. Trouble is part of Jennifer Koh’s critically acclaimed series The New American Concerto — an ongoing, multi-season commissioning project that explores the form of the violin concerto and its potential for artistic engagement with contemporary societal issues. Trouble borrows the late congressman John Lewis’s use of the titular term to describe the necessity of protest, and responds to what Iyer described at the time as “the return of overt white supremacy in American public life.” The work presents a musical journey of birth, realization, an elegy (dedicated to slain auto worker Vincent Chin), and the gathering of a multitude of voices within the ensemble, with the violin leading the call to assemble.

Iyer has carved out a unique path as an influential, prolific, shape-shifting presence in 21st-century music. A composer and pianist active and revered across multiple musical communities, Iyer has created a consistently innovative, emotionally resonant body of work over the last 25 years, earning him a place as one of the leading music-makers of his generation.

Photo by Ebru Yildiz.

He received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, a United States Artist Fellowship, three Grammy nominations, the Alpert Award In The Arts, the Greenfield Prize, and two German Echo awards, and was voted DownBeat Magazine’s Jazz Artist Of The Year four times in the last decade.

Iyer’s musical language is indebted to the great composer-pianists from Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk to Alice Coltrane and Geri Allen, the rhythmic traditions of South Asia and West Africa, and the African American creative music movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Iyer is an active composer for classical ensembles and soloists, and 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. He is a tenured professor at Harvard University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Music and the Department of African and African American Studies.

Rose is one of today’s most trailblazing conductors. Equally at home performing core repertoire, new music, and lesser-known historic symphonic and operative works, Grammy-winner Rose is the founder of the performing and recording ensemble the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the premier U.S. orchestra dedicated exclusively to commissioning, performing, and recording music of the 20th and 21st centuries. A unique institution of crucial artistic importance to today’s musical world, BMOP exist to disseminate exceptional orchestral music of the present and recent past via performances and recordings of the highest caliber. The musicians of BMOP are consistently lauded for the energy, imagination, and passion with which they infuse the music of the present era.


Photo by Ebru Yildiz.