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How Tyshawn Sorey’s Portrait Came About

Melissa Smey

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create this season’s Composer Portraits program notes, as well as a series of Q&As with Executive Director Melissa Smey. Here is the sixth installment, centering around our upcoming evening of music from composer Tyshawn Sorey.

Q. Tyshawn Sorey will be performing on John Zorn’s Composer Portrait; he’s a drummer and a trombonist. He also has his own Composer Portrait in March.

A. He played on Zorn’s portrait in 2016, too. When Tyshawn was an undergrad at William Patterson College, what seems like a million years ago, my husband David was teaching there. I remember him telling me, “There's this young phenom named Tyshawn Sorey. Pay attention.” Even back then, the people around him could tell he was very special. When he was a student here in the Doctor of Musical Arts program, I’d see him around. I remember him playing a workshop with ICE where they were trying out some challenging new work. He heard the piece twice and was then able to play it from memory. His ear is incredible.

Tyshawn Sorey

Photo by Matt Zugale

Q. I’ve heard that he only has to read a score once and then he knows the piece, which is mind-boggling.

A. When he’s improvising with his trio, sometimes I’ll notice that he’s playing back a figure I didn’t realize I’d heard the first time. I imagine he’s like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, where he can see everything at once as if it’s on an imaginary whiteboard in front of him. The way he plays makes you aware of things you weren’t even conscious of knowing.


"I remember him playing a workshop with ICE where they were trying out some challenging new work. He heard the piece twice and was then able to play it from memory. His ear is incredible."

Q. Tyshawn has been asked in many interviews what is composed in his music and what is improvised. His responses would seem to indicate that he thinks such a distinction is completely beside the point.

A. Some people think that improvisation is just making it up as you go along, which isn't true. It requires a foundation. When he says it doesn't matter, I imagine that’s to deflect those who are not enlightened and might think that only notated music is “real” music. For me, the music of great artists like Henry Threadgill or Butch Morris is as masterful as anything made by someone who labored on paper.

Q. Or George Lewis and Anthony Braxton, who also belong to that zone in between classical music and jazz. Tyshawn studied with both of them and I wonder if they’ve opened up a path for him.

A. Those two seem to be touchstones for a younger generation. Decades ago, perhaps they were thought of as being more avant-garde and the center has moved a little, so that Tyshawn can, for example, collaborate with a group like ICE that is in the middle of the new music scene. Or he can work with Zorn or Vijay Iyer. He has this amazing faculty position at Wesleyan as such a young man—it had been Braxton’s before he retired. A piece on the program is dedicated to another of his precursors in this music: Muhal Richard Abrams, among the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM).

Q. How did Tyshawn’s portrait come about?

A. He'd been on my wishlist for a really long time and I learned that he was commissioned to write this new piece for the JACK Quartet at Banff as part of their summer program “Evolution of the String Quartet.” I’ve heard it on recording and they’ve worked on tunings where the quartet no longer sounds like individual string instruments, but like an accordion. It’s wild. I thought, we have to do it here. And it was obvious that we’d involve ICE because they'd worked so closely with him. In this case, the portrait is definitely more like a snapshot because Tyshawn’s output is so vast and multi-faceted. The hope is that it’s a starting point and we’ll have a chance to work together again and again.


>> Learn more about Tyshawn Sorey's upcoming Composer Portrait

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