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Composer Portraits: Tyshawn Sorey

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create this season’s Composer Portraits program notes, featuring a snapshot of each composer in words through exploration of the many possible meanings of the term “practice.”

“When the restrictions you have do not limit you, this is what we mean by practice.”  —Shunryū Suzuki​
“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”  —Miles Davis​

https://tyshawnsorey.com/

Photo by Matt Zugale for Miller Theatre

Tyshawn Sorey’s ability to summon real power from the drums is rivaled only by his stillness and the incredible quiet of his touch.

Back in January, as a member of the Vijay Iyer Trio at the Jazz Standard, he held his position behind the set without fanfare, guided, it would seem, by inner vision rather than feedback from the lively, sold-out room. As Iyer dispatched spidery melodies from the piano that entwined with Linda May Han Oh’s shivery bass, Sorey cooled them with his cymbals, allowing sonorous tones to decay like long exhalations. In rapid passages, he could upend time through the single rhythmic pinpoint of a stick on the ride cymbal, or simmer towards climaxes that resulted in low rumbling peaks on snare and bass drum.

Musicians and critics alike avow Sorey’s fierce musicianship, readily placing him among his generation’s most gifted jazz drummers. And yet, he longs for a day when that role does not define him. “In people’s imaginations,” he says, “I’m always playing in some smoky nightclub.”

It’s true that Sorey rose to prominence in the bands of forward-leaning musicians like Iyer and saxophonist Steve Coleman, stepping out to make his own debut as a leader with That/Not (Firehouse 12) in 2007.

But his ability to excel simultaneously on new music terrain has long defied the racialized stereotypes surrounding jazz musicians. Furthermore, it’s important to acknowledge that his musical openness does not make Sorey a trailblazer: he should be seen instead as an extension of the generations of creative musicians of color who have come before him. (And while we’re undoing mythologies that have no place in the year 2019, the air in New York City’s jazz clubs has been clear for a good 15 years, the result of Mayor Bloomberg’s once controversial smoking ban.)
 


When we spoke recently via Skype, Sorey was caught in a maelstrom of activity. Awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2017, he has amassed a list of commissions—including one recently announced for the Seattle Symphony, where he will be the Composer-in-Residence for the 2019-20 season—so long that he is booked for the next three years.

This spring has already seen the premieres of For Fred Lerdahl by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, dedicated to one of Sorey’s composition mentors here at Columbia, and For Bill Dixon and A. Spencer Barefield by the Louisville Orchestra, a joint tribute to a free-jazz pioneer and a notable Detroit guitarist-composer. Sorey revisited Perle Noire, his Josephine Baker song cycle for soprano Julia Bullock, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Bertha’s Lair, a duo with flutist Claire Chase (also on tonight’s program), at The Kitchen. Earlier this month, he joined guitarist Lily Maase’s quartet at The Stone, and saxophonist Joe Lovano’s Trioism with legend Bill Frisell at SF Jazz. And all of this is on top of his professorship at Wesleyan University.
 


“There isn’t really any downtime,” Sorey explains, describing his routine. “I’m raising my two-year-old daughter part of the day. I teach Mondays and Wednesdays, and sometimes have meetings at school on Thursdays. During the academic year, it’s hard to schedule time to compose. If a deadline is coming up, my wife and I will block specific days off of the calendar where I can put in as much as 16 hours. I like to write in thick chunks, sometimes right before the deadline. I try not to start too early, so I don’t lose my inspiration.”

For many musicians, “practice” is physical and mechanical. Sorey’s attention to his playing—he also performs on trombone and piano—is now secondary to his compositional commitments. “I’m lucky if I can get in an hour on my instrument,” he says, a common problem among busy composer/performers. Keeping up his facility is mostly something that happens on the job.

He might look at a score before a rehearsal—like those he played on John Zorn’s Composer Portrait here at Miller earlier this month—but he doesn’t think much about spontaneous elements that live in the moment of performance and in coming together with other musicians. He doesn’t have to. They come naturally after a lifetime of improvisation. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that he has perfect pitch and a photographic memory.

“Practice is something I’m constantly doing in my head to make myself a better composer and performer,” he says, shedding light on his more covert work habits. “I’m always listening to new things and looking for new things in the familiar.”

“Everything I do in life is practice. I could be listening to music or I could be talking about music with someone else. I could be reading about composition or following threads on Facebook by some of my outspoken friends there. When I teach composition classes and my new-music group—all of that is practice.”

One imagines that Sorey’s brain has always been in overdrive. He grew up in the Weequahic section of Newark, NJ, a middle class Jewish neighborhood until the 1960s that faced the double challenge of the Newark Riots—perhaps better termed the Newark Rebellion—and the construction of Interstate I-78, which cut the neighborhood off from the rest of the city. During Sorey’s childhood, Newark was notorious for failing schools and high crime. His unquenchable musical curiosity both isolated him, and opened doors of possibility.

Asked what he was like as a kid, Sorey answers without hesitation: “I was never a kid.” When his cousins went out to play, he would stay inside to listen to the radio or practice, interests that his dad and grandfather fostered. “I never succumbed to peer pressure regarding what music I was supposed to listen to,” he says. “Hip hop was the thing growing up in the ’80s. It was great and I have a lot of respect for it, but there was other music I wanted to explore.”

That included classical, jazz, country, and anything else he thought was cool. Sorey made mix cassettes to play every day on his bus ride to school, though first he had to convince a skeptical driver that he should be allowed on with his boombox—he didn’t have any headphones. At Newark Arts High School, whose distinguished alumni include vocalist Sarah Vaughan, saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter, and dancer Savion Glover, Sorey studied trombone. When he discovered that one of the teachers came in early to practice, he asked for permission to join him. He often arrived at 5:30am, and stayed late after school until his grandmother could pick him up. “I was always the first one there and the last one to leave,” he remembers.

That discipline, which prepared him for his marathon workdays today, saw him through an undergraduate degree at William Paterson, where he eventually switched from classical studies to jazz, and his Master’s in Composition at Wesleyan under the brilliant maverick composer/improviser Anthony Braxton, whose faculty chair Sorey now occupies. He went on to doctoral study at Columbia, graduating in 2017 with Perle Noir serving as his thesis. But as a person of color who did not wish to be bound by the confines of either classical or improvised musical traditions, he was frustrated by aspects of his formal training and the attitudes accompanying it.

“At times, it was empowering,” he says about his schooling. “At other times, it was very depressing. It’s that thing where you feel, ‘Why can’t I get these other people to accept me for who I am?’

“It’s separatist thinking, even when you use the term hybridity. We think of hybridity as fusion. That’s not what I do. The way I look at my work is about mobility—being able to do what I want at any given moment as a performer or a composer, without any obligation to a particular institution or musical model.”

Thankfully, Sorey had tall shoulders to stand on. Many of his mentors, including Braxton and Columbia’s George Lewis, are members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM); originating in Chicago, the historic collective dissolved musical boundaries by fostering experimentation and self-determination. Lewis profiles the organization in A Power Stronger Than Itself: the AACM and American Experimental Music, explaining to The New York Times in 2008, “With the AACM, you’re not rooted in a set of simple, codifiable practices, but you’re rooted in an attitude, in a creation of an atmosphere, in an orientation to experience.

These artists helped Sorey come to terms with the preconceived notions others might have about his music, as did Fred Lerdahl here at Columbia. “Fred told me, “If you really want to pursue this concept of being mobile, then you’ve got to be even more of yourself than someone else,’” Sorey remembers. “‘Embrace yourself as a composer. And that will come through in the work that you do.’ I’ll never forget that he said that.”

“That’s what all of my music is. Whether or not I’m performing in it. No matter what it sounds like to anybody else. It’s a reflection of who I am.”

For Sorey, practice has been not only a means to attain mastery, or a route to musical discovery, but also a process for attaining self-awareness in order to create art without limitations.

Being able to “play like yourself,” a value articulated by Miles Davis and numerous other jazz musicians, is deeply rooted in jazz culture. As icon Charlie Parker once said, “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.” A practice geared towards developing one’s own voice and producing highly individualistic music was a skillful adaptation in a society that was more likely to judge a man by the color of his skin than the content of his character. Creative mobility was an aspiration.

To be himself, Sorey believes, has meant a reversal from composing and performing the kind of music at which he has excelled since early in his career: fast, complex, and dense. An introvert by nature, he has been striving to make music that is quiet, and reflects his preference to take his time (as demonstrated on his most recent release Pillars (Firehouse 12), which presents a nearly four-hour-long composition over three CDS). Often his compositions are directly inspired by the music of his elders, like those recently dedicated to Lerdahl, Dixon, and Barefield. Not only do the references pay fitting tribute to artists who deserve greater recognition, but they also show Sorey deliberately placing himself within a lineage and a community. Through his music, he seems to be saying, I am not alone…


in Memoriam Muhal Richard Abrams

Tonight’s program opens with a piece dedicated to pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, another of Sorey’s mentors and the founding president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Abrams’ legacy is at once musical, spiritual, and communal. “It is a hard connection to put into words,” says Sorey, “but there was a kinship with Muhal that I hadn’t yet experienced with anyone else. The time that I spent with him on and offstage has proven invaluable beyond measure.”

Sorey’s inspiration was Abrams’ 30-minute solo piano exploration Young at Heart from the recording Young at Heart, Wise in Time (Delmark). As Sorey describes it, Abrams created “an all-encompassing structure that allows him to take a multitude of approaches in turn. In listening to the kaleidoscopic nature of the work, it soon became very clear to me that the idea of whether or not this piece was completely improvised or composed is an irrelevant and moot point, a fundamental attitude that had led to the establishment of my own musical model.”
 


Ornations

During Sorey’s first year in the doctoral program at Columbia University, he attended George Lewis’s Miller Theatre Composer Portrait, and remembers being “knocked out” by the orchestral piece The Will to Adorn. Drawing from Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Characteristics of Negro Expression,” in which she writes that the will to adorn is the second most important characteristic in African American creative traditions after drama, Lewis created a piece that, in Hurston’s words, “decorates a decoration.”

One of the more technically demanding pieces in Sorey’s oeuvre (as of this writing, Claire Chase and Joshua Rubin are one of only three duos to take on performing this challenging work), Ornations is an explosive tour-de-force of duo interplay between contrabass clarinet (doubling on B-flat clarinet) and flute. Here, Sorey likewise takes ornamentation as his starting point, composing music of discontinuity, angularity, and raucous high-intensity structures that are full of detail.


Everything Changes, Nothing Changes

Commissioned by the JACK Quartet and premiered at the Banff Festival last summer, Everything Changes, Nothing Changes was inspired largely by sudoku puzzles and the time Sorey spent with visual artists during a retreat at Robert Rauschenberg’s former studio in Captiva, Florida.

The piece derives its formal structure from a grid consisting of 14 sections that contain 16 permuted rhythmic units over time, though the tempo is so slow that these permutations will likely be imperceptible to the listener. Amid seemingly endless shifting harmonies, one constant is how the quartet functions as a unit without featuring single voices throughout the work’s entirety. “When two or three voices are playing a given sonority (an event),” says Sorey, “the ear tends to go horizontally towards the arrival of a new voice that enters. In other words, when one or two voices arrive within any event, the sonority then intensifies so that the resulting harmony is perceived more quickly than the way in which the voices move within that event.”


Ode To Gust Burns

Sorey learned about pianist Gust Burns from Vijay Iyer. “It was one of the first times I got together with Vijay,” says Sorey. “He handed me a disk with four solo pieces that contained a great degree of shape and density along with amazing flourishing lines, but also incredible clarity. It made me think of Art Tatum’s treatment of standards—and Cecil Taylor’s piano playing, notably on Tales (8 Whisps). So when I hear Gust Burns play, that ‘whispfulness’ is ever so present.” These are also characteristics Sorey ascribes to pianist Cory Smythe, who is also a regular member of Sorey’s critically-acclaimed trio and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). This piece was composed as a mini-concerto for Smythe and filled with opportunities for him to go off the written page.


Autoschediasms

A “spontaneous composition,” Autoschedisms finds its roots in Butch Morris’s “Conductions” (a term coined by Morris for his conducted improvisations) and deconstructs the inherent limitations of referring to music as strictly composed or improvised. Sorey will conduct the ensemble via a set of visual gestures, textual directives, and autonomous prompts relayed via the hands, baton (or several batons), and a white board. Some cues are technique specific, or they can also be relational: for example, directing musicians to play a sound based on their distance from other players, or prompting musicians to execute a given order of events. No matter the gesture, all players are free to create these sounds in their own tempo from the time they are cued until they are given another direction. The form of the composition is almost never predetermined, although Sorey is quick to point out that “there is nothing random or ‘free’ about what happens whenever I conduct an ensemble—in fact, I always think compositionally. Much of what I do is craft even when I spontaneously create something, no matter who I am doing it with. The performers must do the same and they’re also equally responsible for the result. They have to own up to all of their contributions. This is not a work in which musicians will just get up on stage, blank their minds, and pick sounds out of thin air without any attention paid to what they are doing. At no point can one performer take this process of making music for granted.”


Bertha’s Lair

When Sorey first approached ICE to be a composer-in-residence in 2009-10, he told its then-director Claire Chase that he “wasn’t interested in becoming some ‘jazz guy who writes classical music.’” He wanted to work with musicians to create something that is simultaneously in dialogue with and counter to what is contained in a musical score. Bertha’s Lair was written for Chase and Sorey, and was first performed on contrabass flute with percussion. “Bertha” was the name given to Chase’s titanic instrument by composer Pauline Oliveros; she passed away on the first day of rehearsals for the piece and the title was a fitting remembrance. 

Chase and Sorey face off in the fiery duo. Some pages of the score are dense with notation. Others are empty, but Chase always has the option of creating something spontaneous and organic. “The piece’s focus is more on shape, line, color, texture, ritual, and, most of all, the physicality of live performance,” says Sorey. “We have performed Bertha’s Lair in myriad configurations over the years. The form of the piece is also malleable; no two performances are the same.” Chase has performed it with C flute and piccolo, and Sorey on various percussion setups or on piano. What they will use tonight will only be revealed when they take the stage. As Chase has eloquently stated, “It is in Pauline Oliveros’ forever improvising spirit that the many different iterations of Bertha continue to evolve.”


Instead of characterizing Sorey’s practice as one that blurs boundaries, it’s high time to acknowledge that those lines are artificial in the first place, drawn and maintained to foist identities on groups of people, while preserving the prestige of some traditions at the expense of others. Once you’ve seen those lines, it may not be possible to forget them. Yet, we can work to erase them. And to see Sorey the way he sees himself. His music gives us the opportunity to consider our own biases and limitations as listeners, and to rethink what might be possible in a musical future that embraces his mobility.
 

Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.