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The Path to Vijay Iyer’s Composer Portrait

Melissa Smey

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create the program notes for the 20th year of Composer Portraits as well as a series of Q&As with Executive Director Melissa Smey. Here is the second installment, centering around our upcoming Portrait featuring the music of Vijay Iyer.   

Q. It’s my understanding that Vijay Iyer has already performed at Miller Theatre on the Jazz series.

A. That’s exactly right. We’ve been working with Vijay for quite a long time now, since he performed in a duo here with pianist Craig Taborn nearly ten years ago. We’ve had his trio on the Jazz series as well as his sextet.


Photo by Kyle Dorosz for Miller Theatre

Vijay has been on my Composer Portraits wish list for a while. Back in 2014, I saw the International Contemporary Ensemble perform his soundtrack for Prashant Bhargava's experimental documentary Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi at BAM and thought it was absolutely brilliant.

In 2017, he was director of the Ojai Music Festival and premiered a new concerto with violinist Jennifer Koh. I knew I wanted to make this happen at Miller. So I talked to both Vijay and Jenny in rapid succession and started planning his portrait from there.

Q. How did the rest of the program fall into place?

A. In addition to the violin concerto, which is titled Trouble, there is a quartet called Law of Returns, inspired by pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams, that hadn’t been performed yet in New York. And a new work, Crisis Modes, that when we were planning the portrait hadn’t yet had its premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Vijay hadn’t heard it yet and said he didn’t want to put it on the portrait concert until he knew that he liked it. I’d never heard a composer say that before! It's unusual for me to wait that long to finalize concert repertoire, but, needless to say, it went on the portrait.

At Columbia, this is the Year of Water, a multi-disciplinary investigation that will highlight the political, environmental, economic and social issues around this precious resource. I am involved in producing Dutch artist Daan Roosengaarde’s WATERLICHT, which is an immersive light installation at the Lenfest Center on October 22-24. I asked Vijay if he’d be open to a short commission from Miller that would have resonance with the events taking place across the university and he said yes, settling on a piece for solo viola that will be performed by Kyle Armbrust. It is titled Song for Flint.  

Every work on this program is new or very recent. It is my fondest wish that this portrait will be the first of many ongoing projects with Vijay because he's an incredible musician and composer. I think the world of him.

Q. This will be the first time that the orchestral collective The Knights will appear at Miller Theatre. What can you tell us about them?

A. The Knights are based in Brooklyn and a number of them were classmates at Juilliard. Even though they’ve never been here before, the group is full of familiar faces: flutist Alex Sopp, percussionist Joe Gramley, pianist Steven Beck. We did a Pop-Up concert with Steven in 2018 and Alex was here last spring with Jason Treuting’s project Go Placidly With Haste. And, of course, violist Kyle Armbrust has performed here many times with ICE. The Knights performed Trouble with Jennifer Koh at Tanglewood in 2017, winning high praise from both the composer and the violinist.

This is a large ensemble for us – we will make sure everyone fits on our stage – and it is absolutely what Vijay wanted. It is how he wanted a New York audience to hear his music. And I wanted to support that. It is a privilege and a pleasure for me to make this happen and the perfect choice during the 20th Anniversary of the series.

Photo of Melissa Smey by Kyle Dorosz for Miller Theatre.

Related Composer Portrait posts:

20 Years of Composer Portraits and 10 Years as Executive Director

8 Questions to Executive Director Melissa Smey About Composer Portraits

Melissa Smey on Anthony Braxton at 75

Cracking the Code: David T. Little 

How Tyshawn Sorey’s Portrait Came About 

Why is John Zorn so important?

More People Need to Know About Wang Lu

Building the Unique Universe of Du Yun's Composer Portrait

Bringing Kate Soper’s IPSA DIXIT to Miller