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Tyshawn Sorey: Composite Reality


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I don't really like to judge anything as good or bad, because I won't learn from it if I start judging it right away. That can be for later, but when you're making music in the moment, you have to sort go with the flow, no matter how good or bad.
Though Tyshawn Sorey's Oblique-I (Pi Recordings, 2011) is his most recent release to date, it's actually comprised of some of the percussionist/composer's earliest work. Containing music that is sonically dense, enormously challenging and (as the title suggests) consistently blurs and obscures the lines drawn between improvisation and composition, it has been hailed by critics and fans alike as a combination of what has come to be expected from Sorey: a masterful drummer and visionary, and unique composer. The story, however, goes much deeper than a simple culmination of elements. There is a reason that the lowest number in the numerically titled arrangement of compositions on the album is "Eight"; The Oblique songbook represents a turning point for Sorey as a musician and a person.

"I had a conversation with [saxophonist] Anthony Braxton about how to begin a body of work that I actually believe in," recalled Sorey, "because I had thought, 'Well, who cares? I'm just a drummer and I'll be playing in so-called jazz bands and that's all I'm going to be doing and nobody's going to be playing my music' and at that time, I had written six or seven more 'jazzy' sounding tunes that I didn't care for at all, because they weren't reflective of what I was hearing or experiencing."

Sorey's dialogue with Braxton would continue in his time at Wesleyan University, where Sorey studied compositional approaches not only with the famously iconoclastic Braxton, but also American experimentalist Alvin Lucier, as well as jazz vibraphonist Jay Hoggard. During and after his undergraduate studies at William Paterson University, Sorey had become increasingly interested in composition, specifically non-traditional compositional forms. "We did this recording called Child Real Eyes (2002) with Andre Vida, who's another student of Anthony [Braxton]'s. When we did his recording, we were talking about composition mostly. It was really exciting, because he saw that I was interested in the composers he was also checking out at the time, like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage and people like that. I was about 21 when I had this conversation. I told Anthony 'who cares?' and at William Paterson, I was at a point where I was integrating things compositionally like new music and odd meters and dodecaphonic things."

It was at this point that Braxton gave Sorey a sound piece of advice. "I had given up on the idea of being a composer and Braxton said, 'Well, you should keep writing your music, because there's somebody out there who will believe in your work, whether or not it's somebody you want to believe in it. There's going to always be people out there who will want to do your music. Just write a book of music that you believe. You don't want to pander compositionally; you want to do what you do.'" This goaded Sorey almost instantaneously to write what would be the Oblique songbook also referred to as "41 Compositions." This compendium of compositions represented a change in approach to composing music for improvisers, one that requires a highly sensitive musical awareness on the part of the musicians involved.

Tyshawn Sorey—Oblique I"Starting from composition no. 7, the music took this approach where there weren't just a lot of dodecaphonic elements but also a lot of rhythmic counterpoint," explained Sorey. "Also, it caused a lot of problems, just in terms of ensemble playing. What's happening in the music, no one really is together in much of it. For example, bass and piano don't play at the same time at a certain point. There's a lot of layering going on in terms of where the pulse is felt and even I don't really play with what everybody else has necessarily. The melodic phrasing on top makes it feel like there's almost no time at all, as do the piano and bass part. It almost feels like everything is in ¼. You can't really say that it's in a set meter or here's the downbeat of so and so. When you're listening to it without the score in hand, you can't really tell where everything is and that was really fascinating to me. It no longer was about the idea of counting as a listener. I get this response at almost every concert I do where if I count off a tune as '1,2,3,4' that's the only thing that sounds familiar and they'll ask, 'Was that tune in 4?' [laughs]."

Sorey's prolific understanding of compositional devices and the amalgam of influences that have crafted his composerly presence has shown through in both performing contexts with groups like Fieldwork and Paradoxical Frog and within the spectrum of concert music like Roulette and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Sorey has, to date, composed 160 works and is now private instructor of composition and improvisation at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. However, Sorey's other most accomplished skill, perhaps the one that has gained him the most notoriety within the jazz and improvised music world, has also been something of a detriment to work as a composer. The idea of drummer-as-composer is neither paradoxical nor is it particularly new, but Sorey still finds it to be a false conundrum that continues to permeate itself.

"The whole thing with being pigeonholed as a drummer, right away I'm not supposed to be a composer. I'm not supposed to know about music theory. We hear the classic 'three musicians and a drummer' joke. I think it's not cool at all but fortunately there are a growing number of drummers who are composers, especially in New York who have produced very good work over the last ten years or so. I still feel that the 'drummer as composer' has never really had any respect, whether or not it's so-called jazz or not, that's not even important. What he or she will write is frowned upon."

Sorey does not feel that this has just affected him, either; he points to several other drummer friends and colleagues with the same issue. "You still don't hear about somebody like Gerald Cleaver, who has a breadth of compositions in his own name, playing his own music in Europe or New York the same way people he plays with are known for. The same thing goes for somebody like Kendrick Scott, who you don't about playing his own compositions except in New York. Same thing goes for me. I was asking a friend of mine 'How did we go from playing Zebulon twice a month to twice a year?' I understand what is happening on practical level, with the closing of venues, but it limits the overall output as to what people get to hear. Even Paul Motian was a great composer and now only since he passed away do we get to hear about his compositional work. While I might not have the resources to do something like this now, I think the [Dave Douglas's] Festival of New Trumpet Music is an excellent model to follow, because they've been going on now for at least 10 years and there needs to be a similar things for drummers and percussionists. There needs to be something that puts the drummer as composer on the map, because there's too much of it to not have it be represented correctly."

It only speaks to Sorey's depth as a musical figure that his career as a drummer could stand formidably without the presence of his compositional work. He has worked in diverse musical languages with luminaries like Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas, Tim Berne and countless others. Sorey's drumming has come to encompass hundreds of musical assets, paying vital attention to qualities like space, texture, polyrhythmic complexity and sound organization. Interestingly enough, Sorey's first musical endeavors were not the drums alone. Very much like his current standing in the musical world, Sorey's formative years had him soaking up assorted musical idioms.

Paradoxical FrogSorey recalls some of his earliest musical influences by way of television. "When I was a kid, it was watching music videos. We don't think of music videos the same way we do now as we did in the '80s. I mean before MTV, when it was actually video footage of bands performing. My dad and I would sit down and watch those. I would gravitate towards the music and also the drummers a lot of the time. I also watched the piano players and even the horn sections sometimes. I started getting into watching reruns of things like The Ed Sullivan Show and Flip Wilson, where you'd see actual bands performing and there was all kinds of music: jazz, rock, R&B, pop, etc. This all led to me getting interested in music through the church, messing around on their piano and picking up the church songs by ear. I also had a little keyboard at home and I would play those songs the exact same way. At that time, it was mostly by ear. I was also beating around on a lot of pots and pans, too."

As time progressed, Sorey gained the idea that he might want to be a musician, but he thought of it more as a hobby than anything else. When Sorey was about eight, he started to take trombone lessons, which became one of the first instruments he gained proficiency in. "This guy Fields Howard was the first to show me the ropes, which ultimately led me to become a student of the Newark Community School of the Arts. That wasn't too far where I was going to school at the time. I was there on scholarship and I got mostly classical lessons, just basic trombone lessons and learning how to read music. That's what I did every Saturday for few years, and then it got to where I was going twice a week because I really liked it."

Sorey's first shot at the drum set came by way of Newark musician and educator Michael Cupolo. "I was around 13 or 14 and he was the instrumental music instructor and I was bugging him forever to play on his drum set and he wouldn't let me play. Eventually, by December, I just bugged him so much he said 'Alright look, take this key, take out the drum kit, and knock yourself out.' And that's what I did for most of my time there, just played on the drums. I didn't really know how to set it up, I just put it together intuitively, but I didn't really know about the intricacies of the height or angles of the drums. I just adjusted myself to that."

Not only did Cupolo give Sorey his exposure to the drums, he also opened up the young musician to the world of improvised music. "He would be practicing scales and modes and stuff at about 7:00 or so in the morning. One morning I walked in and at that time they really didn't let students into the building before class, but the security guard let me in. He took at liking to me because he saw that I was serious. I asked him what he was doing, these things like diminished scales and modes, and he sat me down for about two class periods where he showed me the Charlie Parker Omnibook, where I first learned "Ornithology," which was the first tune I really learned how to improvise on. That tune is pretty hard as it is and I'm just learning how to improvise really and then he puts this Charlie Parker Omnibook in front of me. He gave me the book to take home and I looked at it a bit. We had this concert and I took one chorus on "Ornithology." Then he kept having me play more and more and when I ran out of ideas, he just went to someone else."

By 1999, Sorey had gained considerable experience learning the ins and outs of jazz drumming, participating in youth jazz programs and studying with figures like Kenny Washington and Billy Hart. He would eventually find himself at William Paterson University, but not immediately: Sorey had missed the initial deadline for the jazz track. He decided to apply the classical track on trombone, which ended up being a short-lived experience. "I was still very serious about the trombone at the time and I was playing a lot of classical rep. I was interested in being a classical trombonist and they let me because I had a lot of stuff together. I didn't want to do percussion because I didn't think that I was very good. So finally one semester passes, and I was already somewhat dissatisfied with the program and the level of seriousness that the students took to the music. Of course, I was 20 years old at the time and I might not have felt that way now.

Steve Coleman Five Elements—The Mancy of Sound"There was an arrangement made that even I was in the classical track and participated in brass ensembles and concert band, I was also allowed to participate in combos. It was arranged that I would be in Richard DeRosa 's combo. That was sort of my way of practicing because I was in ensembles with great players and I was inspired by all of these great drummers around me like Eric McClendon, Mark Guiliana and Jonathan Blake. I wanted to swing and know the drums as well as I knew the trombone." Sorey eventually got into the jazz program, though in retrospect, it came as something as a surprise to him, given his opinion of himself as a drummer. "I thought that I sucked. I didn't really have any dynamics, had no real touch, didn't really have a great control or nuance and my Latin was just non-existent."

Sorey's early drum and percussion mentors at William Paterson were diverse in both their stature as musicians and their effect on the young drummer. Among those he encountered were jazz drummers like John Riley, Bill Goodwin and Kevin Norton, who all managed to impress different aspects of drumming and musicianship. "[Riley] impressed that you don't always just listen to jazz drumming and even though I was listening to other types of music, at the time I only wanted to be the workinest jazz drummer I could be and only play in that style. What he told me was that I need to check out African music and Indian music and other stuff like that. After every lesson, he would give me recommendations and then I would come back to the next lesson with questions and they would go over the scheduled hour with the talking that we did. I don't think he really talked to other drummers as much as he did with me. He recommended me the Royal Hartigan book of African rhythms and also recommended books on Hindustani and Carnatic music as well. "

With Goodwin, he initially clashed with the LA drummer. Sorey had reached a point wherein he was involved with more "free" playing and wasn't particularly interested in traditional drum pedagogy. What could have been an awkward experience, however, managed to be a worthwhile mentorship on extra-musical properties. "I just walked into a lesson saying I didn't want to talk about drums or time or trading fours at all; I just wanted to talk about life. That became our study period ever since. He gave me a copy of Effortless Mastery, the Kenny Werner book, which was leading toward a way of making music that I felt like I was doing but actually needed to work on more. We would just have lunch together and just talk about how to appreciate each moment, even if it's a bad one, because there's always something to learn."

Sorey also gained much of his influence in the compositional world at William Paterson, some of which came from the classical faculty like Jeffery Kresky and Elliot Carter scholar John Link, but also from drummer/vibraphonist/composer Kevin Norton. "When I was starting to write in the language that I was hearing as opposed to writing over 'traditional' harmonies and 32-bar form, [Norton] told me, 'Well that's fine and all, but you really have to know every part like the back of your hand, to the point where if a musician questions a part and questions your musical judgment, you have to be able to explain it in an effective way,' which was very good for me."

Sorey's post-graduate career was filled with noteworthy engagements as a drummer, ranging from Dave Douglas's NOMAD ensemble to Vijay Iyer. Sorey continued to flesh out the concept of the Oblique songbook with early inceptions of the group. Some of the current standing members, like saxophonist Loren Stillman, had been there from the beginning, but both members and the sound/textural concepts of the group have changed since the first outing.

"I didn't really think about creating a body of this music until I started playing it regularly in about 2005 at Zebulon [in Brooklyn]," says Sorey. "I had done it as a senior recital at WPUNJ in 2004, which went okay. Loren Stillman he was on that recital and has been playing that music ever since, but as far as the other guys, I needed to find some people who were able to deal with this material in the same way that I was dealing with it. It's very difficult to play as far as keeping your place, because the parts are weaving in and out of each other."

Tyshawn Sorey—KoanThe quintet was initially rounded out with pianist Carl Maguire and bassist Carlo Derosa. Sorey and company began finding themselves in a scenario wherein initial mistakes were not thought of as errors, but as new structural material. Ryan Clackner joined the group on guitar, which eventually solidified the alto/guitar sound concept seen in the group today. The group would move in and out of different numerical arrangements (sometimes up to eight musicians at a time), slowly developing the nuances of the tricky songbook.

However, something significant happened in Sorey's composition approach once he visited Japan in 2006. "I went to Japan that same year and visited a monastery when I had a day off. When I returned, my interest in Zen Buddhism began, not just in terms of my own well being but also musically. I felt that the music that I was doing was good music but there was something that didn't really resonate with me correctly. At that point, I felt like it was difficult music for difficulty's sake."

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."

Tyshawn Sorey—That/Not"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?"

Sorey has also pointed out an irritating conundrum in the criticism of his musical choices: the scrutinizing of the lack of swing and "traditional" jazz elements in his music has sometimes locked him out of participating in that music. "For me," said Sorey, "to put out the records that I put out and to play the way that I do, I never really get to operate within the sphere of swinging music. That's one of the ironic parts about it. Even having come up in jam sessions where there were a lot of African-American musicians playing swing and a lot of bebop vocabulary, I never get to do that, ever. The only music that I do is the stuff that you hear about. I never get the opportunity to sit down in a context where I get to play time, make the band sound good and essentially swing my nuts off. A lot of people say, 'Oh you play all that weird shit, I'm surprised you even want to do this.' It's documented on record that I can do that, but nobody knows about it because they put me in this box of 'weird music.' People are going to position me in certain ways. I can only do the music that I believe in. If it involves me swinging on 2 and 4, then so be it; if it involves me barely playing the drums on a CD for an hour, that works too."

Sorey has pointed out similar issues with being a black composer. "African-American composers that go outside of their idiom are frowned upon. Having come from the so-called jazz tradition, it was the thing that was closest to me as far as lineage. That doesn't mean that I have to be positioned there forever. When I started to explore experimental/trans-European music, right away people were surprised that I was checking that music out. For me to do a 43-minute piano work that's an homage to Morton Feldman, that shocked some people. As far as I know, no other drummer in the history of this music has done anything like that. For some people, it seemed like I was a person deliberately trying to become a traitor of some sort. But I love that music just as much as I love the music of Max Roach or William Grant Still or Hale Smith. It's funny; you don't really hear much talk about the next, say, new music Indian composer or the next great composer from South Africa. It seems like the white composer is positioned very highly as the intellectual technocrats, someone who knows a lot about voice leading and the music that came before him, whereas black musicians have the so-called "feeling," but no intellect. Someone who has more 'spirit' to what he does than the white composer. It's unfortunate because there are black intellectuals out there putting out valid work that we don't hear about."

Sorey's lasting musical relationships have been with musicians who have been as adept at creating unique musical languages out of diverse influences as he has. His consistent band mates, including but not limited to pianist Kris Davis and saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Steve Lehman, have utilized Sorey as a percussionist, composer and musical thinker. For Sorey, the quality of accepting, synthesizing and re-forming diverse musical and extra-musical elements is a necessary function for playing the types of music he aspires to do.

Samuel Blaser—Pieces of Old Sky"They expect a musician that's accepting of composite reality," says Sorey. "We can no longer have a thing where we function within a fixed parameter in terms as what we do as improvisers. I think that's what a lot of those guys expect and not just in a musical plane, either. Watching someone like Steve Coleman work, for example, has been very influential to me. When I started with his group, I came at it like 'Okay, where do I come in?' or 'When does this beat happen?' but then the more I worked with him, the more I understood he was interested in a whole lot more than just music. Yet, everything else he was interested in tied into music somehow. Like boxing for example, I never thought of boxing in terms of music. The only thing I would have thought of as far as musical qualities in boxing would be the rhythm. But he has this whole essay about the relationship. The same goes for his interest in astronomy and astrological relationships. I think these guys want someone who is interested in these things and those functions on a practical and a musical level. I won't say 'religion,' but I think certain ways of thinking, like Daoism, Buddhism, all of these ways of being, can contribute also.

"I don't really like to judge anything as good or bad, because I won't learn from it if I start judging it right away. That can be for later, but when you're making music in the moment, you have to sort go with the flow, no matter how good or bad. For example, if Lehman wrote a piece that dealt with all of these asymmetrical rhythms with tuplets and I'll be able execute it technically, but I think he's looking for a lot more than that. I don't want it to sound like a drum exercise over this hip stuff going on harmonically; I want to be able to put myself into it with as much of my experience with these rhythms and my feeling. I don't want to necessarily say that being a composer of all these musical idioms sets me apart from other musicians, but I will say that it has allowed me to continue on composing and playing and thinking in a style that keeps me thinking about the continuum."

Selected Discography

Tyshawn Sorey, Oblique-I (Pi Recordings, 2011)
Paradoxical Frog, Paradoxical Frog (Clean Feed, 2011)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, The Mancy of Sound (Pi Recordings, 2011)
Samuel Blaser Quartet, Pieces of Old Sky (Clean Feed, 2011)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (Pi Recordings, 2010)
Lawrence D, "Butch" Morris, Conduction/Induction (Rai Trade, 2010)
Pete Robbins, Silent Z (Hate Laugh Music, 2010)
Tyshawn Sorey, Koan (482 Music, 2009)\
Steve Lehman Octet,Travail, Transformation and Flow (Pi Recordings, 2009)
Timucin Sahin, Bafa (Between the Line, 2009)
John Escreet, Consequences(Posi-Tone Records, 2009)
Fieldwork, Door (Pi Recordings, 2008)
Steve Lehman, On Meaning (Pi Recordings, 2007)
Tyshawn Sorey, That/Not (Firehouse 12, 2007)
Steve Lehman, Demian as Posthuman (Pi Recordings, 2005)
Vijay Iyer, Blood Sutra (Pi Recordings, 2003)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Hardy Stewart

Page 2: Maarten van de Ven

Page 3: Madli-Liis Parts

Page 4: Courtesy of Moers Festival

Page 5: Dave Kaufman

Page 6: Courtesy of Tyshawn Sorey

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