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Tyshawn Sorey: Composite Reality

Daniel Lehner By

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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]."

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