Tyshawn Sorey: Composite Reality

Daniel Lehner By

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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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