Jeremy Denk And Vijay Iyer On Receiving MacArthur Foundation 'Genius Grants'

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Last night, 24 people across a wide variety of disciplines learned they had become the latest class of grant winners from the MacArthur Foundation. Among the "geniuses" -- as the recipients are commonly called -- are two exceptional pianists: concert pianist and writer Jeremy Denk and jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer.

The "genius grant" recipients are awarded this honor -- and a "no strings attached" $625,000 grant stipend to spend however they wish -- by being "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction."

Soundcheck spoke with both Denk and Iyer about their reactions to receiving the MacArthur fellowships and their latest projects, including Denk's upcoming Goldberg Variations recording and Iyer's Open City work, a collaboration with author Teju Cole which will premiere in early October. 

Watch Vijay Iyer and his trio perform at the Winter Jazz Fest in 2012.



Watch Jeremy Denk perform “The Alcotts” movement from Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata live at The Greene Space at WNYC.


Interview Highlights

On what they were doing when they got the phone call that they had won: 

Jeremy Denk: "I got the call on the Stairmaster at the gym, so I was drenched in sweat. I don't know if fate was trying to tell me that I should go to the gym more often."

Iyer: "I was standing at the sink, opening a can of salmon. A salmon sandwich is now called a 'MacArthur.'"

Iyer, on whether the two pianists know each other: 

No, although we know a lot of people in common. I have to say, I got wind that there was another pianist in this year's recipients and I immediately guessed that it was [Jeremy].

Denk, on his career as a writer, in addition to his concert piano career:

It's funny how my life changed when my friend Anya yelled at me over the phone to start a blog. I started pouring out this stream of almost subconscious deranged rantings about classical music, and gradually found a way that I wanted to talk about it. I think it also helped to build an audience, and came around to influence the way that I played.

I've always liked to play classical masterworks in sort of unexpected ways. I like to write about classical music in an unexpected and strange way also. 

Iyer, on whether he views the award as affirmation of community-based work like his "Veterans' Dreams Project":  

I'm not sure that the award is validating one thing over another, but for me, it makes me want to do more things like that, where what I'm doing is responding to the world around me and to my community. 


Hear Vijay Iyer perform works from his Veterans' Dreams Project in the Soundcheck studio last fall.