Tyshawn Sorey: Composite Reality
Zen and concepts of meditation (gleaned from authors like Alan Watts) began to seriously influence Sorey at this point. It led him to write a long and controversial piece that seriously departed from his quintet oeuvre"Permutations for Solo Piano." The work, which clocks in at 45 minutes in length, explored the concepts of manipulating small pieces of sound information by repeating a single chord with various uses of silence, registral shifts and pitch attack/decay. "I thought that it would never get performed, but at least I'd have it as a signifier for where things would go after that," he explained. "So I wrote that and a few other pieces for the That/Not CD. Already you can tell that the music breathed a lot more. It's still quite difficult to play. There is an element that the music is breathing and really speaking to you. It was more melodic than some of the stuff I wrote for Oblique, though that's melodic in a sense also."
That/Not (Firehouse 12, 2007) acted as a compendium of works reflecting Sorey's newer compositional approaches. Pieces like "Template" rearranged, manipulated and juxtaposed a small number of musical events, and "Sacred and Profane" used two key centers (A minor and Bb minor) to create different progressions. "There's a lot of chromaticism and voice-leading but also more common things like minor triads. I like ['Sacred and Profane'] a lot. It's actually singable, to an extent, whereas you can't really do that with the Oblique stuff; you'd have to listen repeatedly for that."
Sorey's next release, Koan (482 Music, 2009), was actually a continuation of his experiences in Japan, more so than a sequel to That/Not. More so than anything else, Koan explored a multitude of different languages of composition. "It really tested my whole idea of my relation to sound and time and these kinds of things. There's no system in place, really, for that music; it's sort of conceived in the moment where I would hear something and just write it. We're not just dealing in musical terms either; we're dealing in existential terms, thinking about how you experience listening."
Koan exhibited an incredible spectrum of musical ideas and tempers. Pieces like "Nocturnal" again exhibited the concept of saying a musical phrase many different ways and "Two Guitars" uses limited pitch material, but works like "Correct Truth" explored not only 12-tone writing but also more abstract concepts like audibility, and "Awakening" dealt with different strata of time. Sorey found that the breadth of compositional mechanisms may have alienated some.
"It's amazing how much press the first and last records got whereas Koan hasn't gotten nearly as much. I think people didn't really get that record. We were exploring all these different devices on one CD. It's really hard to suss out what the band's character was. Those who did listen to it are really attentive to it. It's either you hate it or love. With That/Not or Oblique, you could take some different things out of it."
The initial reception of Sorey's music as a composer has unfortunately been tempered not only by his role as a drummer, but also by his identity as an African-American musician. The trifecta of adjectives"black," "drummer" and "composer"that can be applied to Sorey's both musical and personal profiles often rub together in less-than-opportune ways and has pigeon-holed and wrongly classified him amongst fans, peers and critics alike. Sorey has identified common tropes and stereotypes for the imposed archetype of the "black drummer."
"The idea of the African-American jazz drummer is one who postulates himself as a guy who primarily deals with that music specifically, where you're swinging or where you're playing 2 and 4, showing off your chops and basically 'killing on the drums.' However, if you go outside that continuum, you're not black enough. I've gotten that comment several times about my work, because it doesn't swing or whatever. This is the same problem a lot of composers in the AACM or even someone like Charles Mingus faced. I mean, with Mingus, how could you say his music wasn't black enough? You can hear so much African-American music, from the church to the blues to so-called 'jazz,' but then you also have stuff like [Igor] Stravinsky and Stockhausen also; he was a huge Stockhausen fan. My music is highly influenced by Max Roach, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, but also by trans-European composers, American Experimentalists, Indian musicians, etc. It's like someone telling me that I need to play the blues on my record to demonstrate that I come from an African-American generation. I mean, I've lived the blues; I grew up in a ghetto! What more do these people want from me?"