Visionary pianist Iyer gets a well-earned MacArthur

Surely that contributes to the freshness of Iyer's music, its delicate embrace of Indian rhythmic ideas and melodic patterns woven into bracing jazz improvisation. Iyer is quick to note, however, that saxophonist John Coltrane and his wife, pianist Alice Coltrane, got to this idea first, and their work influenced him at least as much as his own studies of Indian music, he says.

There's a political side to Iyer's art, as well. His suite “Far From Over” (2008), for instance, addressed a police shooting and a forthcoming Barack Obama presidency, the work emerging as a shattering statement articulated on an enormous scale. Iyer's newest recording, “Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project” weaves his atmospheric, often pulsing music with searing words from veterans of color from America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“A lot of (this) comes from asking basic questions about what I'm doing and why and what it's for, beyond any sense of myself,” says Iyer. “I feel like whatever we're doing, it can't just be about ourselves. It has to be about somehow reflecting and responding to the world around us — doing something that you feel is necessary in the world.”

Iyer now is uniquely positioned to build upon that mission. In January, he will assume a tenured position in Harvard University's department of music as the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt professor of the arts.

And the MacArthur Fellowship — which provides $625,000 over five years — will alter the way he goes about making art, he says.

“A lot of us who are in the arts, we live either from gig to gig or from grant to grant and from some combination of those things,” he says. “We always have to raise money to do things.

“This is kind of like: Suppose you didn't have to think about that thing, like how you're going to get through this year. Instead, you can think about what you actually want to do and why.”

Here is an opportunity “to rise above the scramble of being an artist in America and think more in terms of what I can do for other people.”

Which would seem an excellent use of the MacArthur funds.

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