Tyshawn Sorey is a virtuosic percussionist. And a wildly imaginative composer. And a dedicated educator. And a tireless intellectual. The “ands” go on.
Sorey has composed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, International Contemporary Ensemble, and the JACK Quartet. He’s been awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and a Doris Duke Impact Award. He composed the music for “Cycles of My Being,” a collaboration with poet Terrance Hayes and tenor Lawrence Brownlee that reflected on the experience of being a black man in today’s America, and which Brownlee toured around the country after its premiere at Opera Philadelphia.
Sorey may be one of the most decorated and active musicians working today, but the engine of his creativity is internal: He is driven by a relentless curiosity and a desire both to honor and develop his individual voice. When “Cycles of My Being” was performed at DePauw University, Mark Rabideau had the chance to sit down with Sorey and discuss his path and motivations as an artist.
Mark Rabideau: How do you tap into your own creativity – look out and see a horizon of opportunities and just chase down those that are most unique to yourself? I think about your career as a composer, performer, teacher and as somebody who brings this giant intellectual capacity to the work they’re doing. And I see it happening in so many ways. Tell us how you do that.
Tyshawn Sorey: For me the idea is definitely to stay open, and to stay open to any particular music, literature or anything related to art. … You can never stop learning, no matter where in your career you are. I try to stay open, just as many of my predecessors have done. I try to learn from them. How do I become those people? How do I become my heroes? How can what I do be in dialogue with the lives they’ve lived?
Rabideau: When I think about your career and your output, the only way I can make sense of it is to think about you as a wildly creative person.
Sorey: That’s been my life story. Since I was a kid, I was always interested in some form of creativity, whether it was drawing, painting, coloring, reading or even writing short stories.
The different types of art that I would engage with [depended] on what I was interested in at that time. I didn’t really set myself up to subscribe to things that were going on with peer pressure, regarding things that I was “supposed” to be doing as a kid, or the music I was “supposed” to be listening to or the social life that I was “supposed” to have. I just never really bought into that. All I was interested in was being creative and doing something that truly meant something to me.
Rabideau: I’m fascinated to learn more about this project you launched at BANFF, [Real-Time Autoschediasms]. It’s not just an orchestra, it’s a group that at its core is improvisatory.
Yes. Real-Time Autoschediasms is a lexicon of visual and gestural cues that I give to all of the ensemble members to create music in real time. It involves three different methods for improvisation, or what I call spontaneous composition. [These] methods basically express actions or get the musicians to perform specific actions. One of these is gesture, which is a variety of gestures for musicians to [see when they] look at me as the conductor [and] perform specific actions that I give them.
Another [is] autonomous cues. The autonomy aspect … involves numerical signals all given with one hand. There are 10 signals that I give them, each meaning a particular type of action for musicians to perform at their own accord.
The third, and most involved, of these three methods is category, which is a set of directives given via whiteboard. The whiteboard works in a number of ways. [It] can work as a way to get musicians to perform in relation to one another by distance. Another way … would be a series of events using things from either the gesture method or the autonomy method and kind of mixing up these different events together. Another way could be giving the musicians certain extended techniques that you can only do on that instrument.
Rabideau: So this is an enormous vocabulary.
Sorey: It is. It’s an evolution from the great work that the late, great Butch Morris has done with conduction language, as well as Anthony Braxton’s language music. I see Autoschediasms as both an evolution and a departure from both of these.
Rabideau: Tell me about your mindset when you were writing “Cycles of My Being.”
Sorey: [Poet] Terrance Hayes fortunately provided the lyrics, and so did [vocalist] Lawrence Brownlee. Other than that, when I set to work on “Cycles of my Being,” the first thing I did was research Lawrence Brownlee. I listened to what he was able to do, notably his collaboration with Jason Moran. I watched that several times just to get an idea of where I could take this. It was a fortuitous opportunity getting to work with [Brownlee], but at the same time, I didn’t want to get into a situation where I would write music for him that was easy. Or something that he’d already done before. I wanted to take it a little further. Not only in the way that he sings and the passion with which he invokes a lot of the lyrical content, but also in my own writing, as a logical extension of who I am and where I come from. I wanted to include all these things in “Cycles of My Being.” It’s a very challenging piece of music.
Rabideau: Thank you so much for being here.
Sorey: Absolutely. Thank you.
These highlights have been edited for clarity and length.