An Interview with Tyshawn Sorey

By · Photography © Camille Blake · Date 11/09/2017

The composer and performer Tyshawn Sorey was in Berlin recently as the very first Artist in Residence at the Berlin Festival’s JazzFest. At a concert on November 2, he played an array of highly differentiated sounds, combining subtly with his trio colleagues Christopher Tordini and Cory Smythe. For large chunks of the work, Sorey’s face was covered by a gong. At one point, he knelt in front of the tam-tam, played an ear-splitting tremolo, and screamed. We met a few days later and talked over Vietnamese food.

VAN: Can you share a memory of Muhal Richard Abrams?

Tyshawn Sorey: I was performing in his quartet at one of the AACM concerts up in New York, doing a rehearsal of this really difficult piece. I was looking at this really difficult percussion part that he handed to me, and I had some questions I was going to ask him. And he said, “I don’t want to hear it that way. You play it the way you hear it.” [Laughs]

He wanted me to play with an improvisational quality. For him, that was basically playing it correct. It’s like what [Anthony] Braxton says, and what I believe: if you played everything exactly correct, then you played the music wrong. Muhal’s statement affirmed that idea for me, in terms of having this real human quality in the music.

Do you approach it the same way in your own rehearsals?

I don’t even rehearse [laughs]. All I do is send the music ahead of time, and our soundcheck is the rehearsal essentially [laughs]. We may not even get to rehearse the piece that I’ve sent them at all. I remember at the Newport Jazz Festival how I sent [trio colleagues Cory Smythe and Chris Tordini] the two brand new pieces that we were going to do for that festival. I sent them like a week in advance or whatever. They had the pieces nailed. But the festival was running late, so we didn’t have a chance to soundcheck at all; all we had a chance to do was a line check. We did this line check—we didn’t look at any of this new music at all together—and we just played [the concert]. And not everything was super exact, but it had this really amazing flow to it that I thought worked. And I was like, “Well, we’re not even going to rehearse this next time. We’re going to go to the recording studio and just play it down.”

If your only rehearsal is the soundcheck, do you still change things afterwards?

Oh yeah, that happens often.

Things like balance and volume?

Structure. For example—I’m speaking arbitrarily in terms of measure numbers—sometimes I’ll say: “Start this piece at measure 13 and go to measure 29. Then when you get to measure 29, take out this composition, and play from the beginning to measure 40. Improvise at measure 40, but using material of this other composition.”

Or I’ll do something like, “Play the score all the way down, but when you get to the improvisation section, use material from a different section of the piece as opposed to what’s prescribed.” The directions are always changing. They’re very malleable structures.

“Obsidian” from the album “Verisimilitude”; Tyshawn Sorey (Drums, Percussion), Cory Smythe (Piano, Toy Piano, Electronics), Chris Tordini (Bass) 

I know you don’t like to talk about whether a certain moment was improvised or composed, but I was particularly curious about a section from the concert with bass harmonics, and you were playing bass drum tremolos and cymbal hits.

That was structurally incorporated. It wasn’t composed in terms of Western notation, but it was an instruction: “When I have the rub mallet in my hand and I’m at the bass drum, start playing harmonics here.”

You’ve said that you think the phrase “black composer” is an oxymoron. Do you think that’ll change in your lifetime?

I don’t think so. I don’t have much hope for the future in terms of that [laughs]. That’s the nihilist in me. All I can do is continue doing the work I’m doing and hopefully people will enjoy it. I’m tired of fighting—because no matter what you do to explain to people how things work, people still think what they think about the music.

For me, the best attitude is to not even care about that. Just document the work and write about it in the best way that you can, and hope that everybody gets it. And if they don’t get it, then, oh well! It’s not the end of the world.

Was there a moment that made you decide to stop fighting?

It was gradual. I mean, if the idea of being a black composer still seems foreign to people; if it seems like it shouldn’t really exist in terms of the existing narrative or historiography; if people can’t see how necessary it is to be considered a composer; and if people still call Duke Ellington, who wrote these multifaceted works and long suites, a jazz musician; then I honestly don’t know what else to say [laughs].

The same goes for Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Cecil Taylor, and George Lewis. It’s ridiculous that they’re still calling them jazz composers after all this time. At a certain point it’s like, “Well, fuck it.” I’m not even going to bother to hope for the best. I just know that I probably won’t ever be [accepted as a composer]. But I know for myself that that’s what I’m doing, so it’s fine.

I feel like classical music is going through a belated push to get more diversity in the scene…

They don’t seem to be talking about African American composers. You get these articles about composer stereotypes, and often it’ll be white women who write about this issue. They’d never touch race, they’d just talk about gender or other stereotypes.

The composer and performer Elizabeth A. Baker has made a similar point.

Unless you come from a special family background, you’re never told to become a black composer. Nobody told me, “You should want to become a black composer. You’ve got people like William Grant Still, Duke Ellington, George Walker, Ulysses Kay, all of these people.” I had to find that all out myself, go to the library and look these guys up and see what they did.

That’s not something that’s taught in inner city households; it certainly didn’t get brought up in my household. It’s interesting how we’re positioned in the media as being entertainers. That’s what we’re “good at.” Sports, movies, comedy, Real Housewives of Wherever [laughs]. We’re taught to want to be famous, to make a lot of money. If you do music, you’d better be someone like a 50 Cent or Jay-Z, or you’re not going to be anything. But I don’t believe that—I’ve never believed that.

Do your students at Wesleyan University agree that being a black composer is an oxymoron?

They see it—I have really brilliant students in my class, and they can tell that it’s a problem. It’s amazing how that still exists today. There was a grant where I’ve been nominated multiple times and each year I didn’t get anything. And I’ll look at the roster, and all of [the winners] are either East Asian or white. With so many of the things I apply for, you see only white faces getting the awards. Finally, I just said, “Fuck you, I’m not gonna apply anymore!”

Do you still need to apply for grants after winning a MacArthur Fellowship?

I’m not sure if you can technically [laughs]. It is what it is, I deal with it. I’d rather spend time making my work.

For the sake of argument, let’s say for a minute that it’s plausible that me not getting these grants isn’t because of racism. So why is it that you’ll see a couple of East Asian people getting these awards, and a bunch of white people—almost like they’re treating the East Asians as token white people. At the same time, I’ve seen only one black face during an entire six year period.

In the context of what you’ve called “the punitive jazz label,” is it strange to be invited to the JazzFest here, rather than one of the other contemporary music series that the Berlin Festival puts on?

Definitely, just based on how polarized the response to my work has been since I’ve been here.

“Twenty” from the album “oblique – I”

What responses have you been getting?

Some really great comments, and some really strange ones. People saying how much they love the music, and having a lot of questions to ask about it. Then I get people telling me how this music is close to the death of Western civilization.

An audience member said that?

Literally his own words: “It’s the death of Western civilization. When I hear your music I picture men dying,” or whatever. How avant-garde music means nothing anymore, how it’s dead music.

I do wish in a way that it were at a contemporary music festival, because putting my music in any sort of “jazz” festival positions it to a point where the audience can say, “Well, that’s not how jazz is supposed to be played,” or “You’re not playing ‘jazz’ correctly.”

But maybe if it had been at a contemporary music festival, it would have been the same, unwelcoming thing. My music doesn’t sound like Stockhausen, even though it’s very much influenced by him; it doesn’t sound like Xenaxis, even though it’s directly influenced by him. It doesn’t sound like anybody from that canon, because of the music’s refusal to belong to any particular canon.

Now, when you see a white composer doing something like this you don’t really see this problem. They don’t get the same charges as, say, anybody in the AACM has gotten in terms of their compositional work. You don’t hear anybody making charges against [white composers] when they borrow from African American music, Southeast Asian music, Native American music…but if you see a black composer doing something like that, immediately it’s a problem. It’s incredible.

How has Stockhausen influenced you?

His piano music, the Klaverstücke, were very influential for the development of the work: his structural approach, pitch selection, and the way, for each Klavierstück, he’d have a completely different syntax. He’d have a different language for a lot of the work that he did: “Zeitmaße” is a different compositional language, “Kontakte,” or “Aus den sieben Tagen.”

My music operates in a similar way. A series of pieces might have the same language, but another series of pieces might have another language. You operate in these different sonic zones.

Movement I (Introduction) from the album “The Inner Spectrum of Variables”; Tyshawn Sorey (Drumset, Compositions), Cory Smythe (Piano), Chris Tordini (Contrabass), Kyle Armbrust (Viola), Fung Chern Hwei (Violin), Rubin Kodheli (Cello)

Do you dislike repeating yourself in pieces?

No, I’m fine with it. Repetition is the mother of skill. It helps me get a better understanding of what I’ve done before.

In the Times, a reporter had said that you can look at a score once and know it by heart.

Yeah, that’s the legend, I guess. I don’t like to talk about that much.

Why not? Do people talk about it as if it were a party trick?

Yeah, like some kind of freak show. You know, I work hard at what I do—it’s not like I was given all this talent and didn’t work at it.

So if you look at a Stockhausen Klavierstück once, you remember all of it?

I remember a lot of it. But a lot of that stuff I had heard by ear before I even saw the score. Some of it is through osmosis. And some of it is through just really internalizing music, with a lot of different scores. I try my best to internalize the music, because I don’t like to have my head buried in the music when I’m playing. I want to be fully engaged with what I’m doing, with everybody.

In a review of your album “Verisimilitude,” Seth Colter Walls writes that “it’s almost frightening to imagine what Sorey could conceive, with a full orchestra at his disposal.” Would you ever want to write a piece for orchestra?

[Laughs] Totally. I’d love to do that. Maybe not a big orchestra, but like a chamber orchestra. I’d be into that.

Why not a big orchestra?

Too much sound for me. I want to hear every detail. I don’t want the detail to be masked by the size of the thing. I gotta hear everything. ¶