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Overnight, 24 outstanding talents learned that they had received one of the biggest windfalls imaginable: They are the newest class of grant winners from the MacArthur Foundation. These "geniuses," as the MacArthur recipients have become popularly known, earned this honor by being "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." As such, they are free to spend their $625,000 of MacArthur money however they see fit.
Two of this year's grant winners are pianists who exemplify creative thinking and varied intellectual and artistic pursuits: classical musician Jeremy Denk and jazz artist and composer Vijay Iyer. And as it happens, NPR has a long history with each of this year's musical winners.
In 2001, Denk was a Performance Today Young Artist in Residence; more recently, he has collaborated with NPR Classical on a video project documenting his work with Gyorgy Ligeti's Etudes and in a week-long series of essays and videos exploring Bach's Goldberg Variations. All this week, you can stream his new recording of the Goldbergs as part of our First Listen series.
Iyer has been frequently featured on NPR as well, in an array of musical settings. This spring, we featured his collaboration with filmmaker Prashant Bhargava in their multimedia project Radhe Radhe, which transported the kernel of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to India; you can watch excerpts from their work. You can also watch Iyer perform with his trio, including bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, in a show recorded live in New York in January 2012. And before the MacArthur announcement, Iyer was already slated to be featured on All Things Considered this Saturday.
While Iyer and Denk work in very different musical spheres, they are both masters of the keyboard — and also share stunningly expansive gifts away from the piano. Denk is as beloved for his funny and brilliant essays and videos explaining the music he loves as he is for his performances of composers like Bach, Ives and Ligeti; he is writing a book for Random House titled Every Good Boy Does Fine.
Iyer — a self-taught pianist who earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in an interdisciplinary study of the cognitive science of music — has, along with his own incisive compositions and work as a bandleader, produced fascinating collaborative projects that include partnerships with such poets as Mike Ladd and Robert Pinsky. In January, Iyer will join Harvard University as its first Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts.
This year's announcement came at an unusual hour. The list of this year's recipients was leaked, apparently by accident, by a Mississippi newspaper that published the names of the winners the night before the information was supposed to be made public.
This particularly odd state of affairs meant that congratulations were pouring in to the two pianists on social media in the middle of the night. The recurrent theme offered by friends and colleagues of both artists? "We knew this was coming."