Interview | Tyshawn Sorey

This Friday night, March 11, Ars Nova Workshop begins its three-day Composer Portrait: Fieldwork series with a performance of Fieldwork drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s composition, “For Kathy Change.” Inspired by Kathy Change, an American performance artist and political activist who killed herself in an act of self-immolation on the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1996, Sorey’s ensemble includes trombonist Ben Gerstein, pianist Kris Davis, cellist Okkyung Lee, and guitarist Terrence McManus. One of the newest stars of New York's creative music scene, multi-instrumentalist Sorey is an active composer, performer, educator and scholar who works across an extensive range of musical idioms. As a percussionist, trombonist and pianist, Sorey has worked nationally and internationally with his own ensembles and those led by Muhal Richard Abrams, Steve Coleman, Wadada Leo Smith, and Dave Douglas. ANW caught up with Sorey to talk about the relationship between musical theory and practice, Fieldwork’s “open form” compositional approach, and his motivations for composing “For Kathy Change.”

One of the objectives you’ve articulated is the creation of a system where, simply put, academic theory and musical practice co-exist. Can you elaborate on this?

My body of works (as opposed to the term “system,” which has proven problematic for me, given its somewhat subjective nature) seeks to incorporate learned theory into the expression of life experiences. This most certainly isn’t the first time that this has happened; this is not a new concept – in fact, nothing’s “new” in my opinion. For, to understand what my work consists of, in terms of its objectivity, we have to look at the fact that since the beginning of time, this line of thinking has existed among many traditions in the East and in the West, if not all of them. 

In my works, the “academic” musical axioms and the world of genres that defines the music of our time do not mean much to me; I never, ever compose works utilizing theory alone. Nor do I think of style when I am writing music. In other words, I do not compose works specifically for purposes of proving any theoretical arguments, or to invalidate any music that does not utilize “advanced” compositional principles. To put it simply, I like to compose music in the moment – in the way that I imagine and hear it. That is not to say, however, that there is no room for one to analyze my work in theoretical terms. In this sense, my music is no different from any other form of creative improvised music. All of my works employ an expansive range of compositional techniques ranging from twelve-tone theory to so-called “jazz” harmony – and nearly all of my works allow for performers to improvise (sonically expressed life experience shared in a given context) within varying contexts. So “free music” would be the best term for me to describe my work: composed and improvised elements in a composition are unified (this makes up for the “music” part). The “free” in free music would define the flexibility pertaining to contextual dynamics in the music; the music can function anywhere from a “jazz club” setting to a concert hall and can be performed by anyone. In my mind, there is no necessity for the venue, the type of musician, or the context to define how the work should be appreciated anyway.

Some of the music I compose is not necessarily performable only by trained musicians or any certain kinds of musicians. In fact, I have found that composing for such a musician sometimes has a tendency to invite unwanted limitations to the music due to the superimposition of tastes (and ego) on the part of the performer.  That is to say, in these cases, the purpose and intent of the music often becomes misunderstood. My music is not classical, it is not jazz, it is not Western art music, and it is not Eastern art music. The music is not a style, in the way that we speak of what style “is.” However, it is a unification of concepts derived from these musics and their respective philosophies (most notably, Zen) in addition to my life experience – the human experience, both on a practical and metaphysical level.

If teaching a course on a single critical theory text chosen for its practical value for composers and improvisers, what would the text be and why?

It would be the Tri-Axium Writings, a three-volume series of texts on music by Anthony Braxton. These books discuss many of the common misconceptions inside and outside of the marketplace that surround creativity in manifold ways based on gender, and race, as well as the reality of what has been going on in the music business during the past several decades. Here we are in 2011, nearly 30 years after these books were published, and amazingly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) enough, these misconceptions remain with us, for the most part, anyway. As far as I am concerned, this collection of books is very relevant to what is going on today, which is what I think the music itself is about anyway.

You’ve spoken about how particular ensemble arrangements and modes of writing open unique “area space logics.” Can you say more about this concept and how it’s realized specifically in Fieldwork?

When we speak of area space logics, we could be referring to a number of things. “Area space logics” would therefore not be the correct term to define my way of composing pieces for Fieldwork. I think that what you are referring to is the concept of “open form,” which applies in nearly every single composition in the Fieldwork book of works.  By open form, I am referring to working with a set of materials while incorporating improvisation in real time. The music is largely improvisatory in its very nature, in that even the “forms” for the compositions vary from performance to performance. We compose music having this aspect of form in mind. Sometimes we do not even play full versions of certain compositions. Concerning my music for Fieldwork and other groups that I compose for that navigate through open forms in this manner – this is okay, because even if all of the composition hasn’t been performed, the composition’s identity remains the same – not only in sonic terms, but also in terms of the meta-reality that exists in each experience of the performance.  By this, I mean that the assemblage of Fieldwork in and of itself is a significant compositional means for the development of these works. I consider this as much a part of anyone’s composition as the schematic material that we utilize creatively in real time, which is only one aspect of the work.

Often thought of as being sidemen, sidewomen or mere time-keepers, drummers are under-represented as composers. Do you think this bias is rooted in the jazz tradition? Can you name one contemporary drummer-composer whose work you think is forcefully dismantling this structure?

I can name many drummer-composers who are not only under-represented as composers, but who are also under-represented as complete musicians. This bias, for a long time, has existed not only in the so-called jazz tradition – but also within that, this argument is applicable to bassists. However, very briefly, to answer the second part of your question, one drummer-composer who for decades has consistently dismantled this structure is Jack DeJohnette. He is a prime example of a complete musician in the highest order.  This great man has quite an extensive compositional output – a huge catalogue of works, and I find it a bit disturbing that there are hardly any opportunities to see him performing his own music. Here is a contemporary musician whose catalogue of works extends all the way to the mid-1960s, and we still do not get to hear enough of his own music. I have no idea as to the reason for this, but I think that the fact that we as drummer-composers still face such predispositions in 2011 is incredible.

However, the good news is that we are now in a period where there is a fast-evolving lineage of contemporary drummer-composers who write just as well as anybody, if not better than those who are not drummers! People like Marcus Gilmore, Ches Smith, Tomas Fujiwara, Joey Baron, Kevin Norton, Mike Reed, Susie Ibarra – they, among many others, are producing some fresh and vital music that is relevant for our time (not to mention how brilliant they are as human beings and as musicians). We can also see that there is a growing community of drummers who play more than one instrument, which I especially value. Multi-instrumentalism informs their playing and their compositions on a musical level, which contributes to their brilliance.

I look forward to seeing more drummers’ music released and documented as correctly as possible. I hope to see the day when a lot of these drummer-composers get to take their groups on the road and/or are able to perform their work as often as they can, so that they can continue to evolve their body of works – even if it is for a single context, that’s fine. I am not saying that all drummers must write a symphony or an opera or anything, but if that is what they want to do, that is great! What I am saying is that drummer-composers should perform more of their work (or have their music performed by other groups) as often as possible. Speaking for myself, I have no intention on leaving this planet with nothing to show, as far as my work goes. I have been composing for well over ten years now, and I cannot afford to continue being limited by the “drummer-as-sideman” trap. It is a tough fight, but someone has to go through with it. How else can people become familiar with the totality of the drummer-composer’s output?

Tonight you’ll be playing a piece called “For Kathy Change.” When did you first hear about Kathy Change and how did she inspire this piece?

For Kathy Change is a work performed in one movement, totaling around three and a half hours in length, and I feel that this is probably some of my strongest work yet. I can get into the technical details about the composition, but I would rather not because I think it’s besides the point of the piece and I would prefer having the listener create their own emotional experience when listening to the work. Kathy Change is an inspirational figure for me, and I wanted to dedicate my composition to her for that reason. During my studies at William Paterson University, I became aware of Kathy Change’s work. At that time, I had been studying drum set and composition with Kevin Norton, a fabulous drummer-composer whose work I greatly admire. Actually, he was one of the first people at the University to encourage me to compose and perform my own music and to present it as correctly as possible. Anyway, he composed an extended work in 2001 that was also dedicated to Kathy Change – Change Dance: Troubled Energy (incidentally, this extended work also features Steve Lehman on saxophones). Coupled with the fact that I loved the music, I also became interested in learning about Change’s life – to find out what her vision was for the world and her vision was expressed in manifold ways. And since I feel that music is reflective of experience, the work that Change put forth is no different from this line of thinking; her art and writings also reflects her experience – not only her experience, but she shared the opinions of many people on this planet. She had a unique way of demonstrating how she viewed the world and its complexities through her performances and demonstrations.

People all over the world who have learned of Kathy Change, especially Pennsylvanians, know that Change was never afraid to stand for what she believed in; she was a true lover of freedom. She only wanted the world to improve for the benefit of humankind. Kathy Change was a genius, in my opinion. She believed in transforming the nation and the world in a positive direction – her beliefs were only for the good of the people. And I think it’s quite surprising that in 2011, 15 years after her death, not that many people know much about the contributions brought about by this courageous woman.  So for me, music is not separate from any other art. Nor do I feel that it is separate from the reality of what we experience, and Change is a perfect example of that.

What about the ensemble members and their group dialogue made them the right choice for this performance?

My collaborations with all these members go back over 10 years. I met Terrence during the first year of my studies at William Paterson University, who is a few years older than I am. His knowledge of different musics and guitar playing inspired me in some way to continue in the musical direction I was headed at that time.  But we never got to play together until a few years later, and since then we have played many projects together – some of his and some of mine. This brings me to Ben Gerstein, with whom we also have a collaborative project, 3-O. It’s an improvising group featuring Terry on guitars and electronics along with Ben and me on trombones (sometimes on other instruments).

Gerstein was someone I knew about through my relationship with the drummer-composer Dan Weiss (another one of the most brilliant musicians of my generation). I met Ben in 2002 at the 55 Bar in New York City, where I heard his Collective play concerts of all-improvised music. Ben and I share extremely similar values as regards improvisation, composition, art, film, and other matters. Through my knowledge of musicians, composers, and filmmakers he was interested in at that time (him and I share a deep appreciation of Morton Feldman and Elliott Carter), we would usually talk about music and whatever musical projects we were up to after his sets. Then we finally got to play together for the first time in August 2004 with saxophonist/composer Tony Malaby. We collaborated on many occasions since then (Ben is also a member of my quartet w/ Cory Smythe and Thomas Morgan). And, until summer 2009 when I moved up to Connecticut, there would be times where we would spend all day in his apartment listening to and playing music together. I miss those days because this was a great period of study and musical growth for me and I’ve never really had the chance to initiate this kind of study with other people. It’s always a pleasure to have him as a colleague and as a friend.

I first began playing with Okkyung in Butch Morris’ New York Skyscraper concerts that were held in the summer months of 2002 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We have been playing together in various configurations since then, and besides her wonderful musicianship, she is an amazing human being, which manifests itself in the music!

Kris Davis is one of my more recent collaborators and I had no doubt whatsoever that she would be the perfect fit for interpreting this composition. We have a collaborative trio, Paradoxical Frog, which also features Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones (we also have a CD released with the title of the same name). Actually, I think it has been over two years since we’ve first played together. Moreover, in my history of working with her in Paradoxical Frog, I never had to communicate anything to her about how to play my music. She always plays it correctly, and she never plays it too correctly, which I love!  I, too, share the sentiment with Anthony Braxton that if the music is played super correctly, without any kind of risk or fun in it, without the musicians putting themselves into the work, then it was probably played wrong.

Kris and all of the other musicians I mentioned above are all very sensitive to the needs of the music and they serve the music ego-free and agenda-free. They are all very easy to work with, and they bring a lot to the music, not to mention the fact that they are all brilliant composers in their own right. So, I am very fortunate to be in good company.

How do you think Composer Portrait: Fieldwork is important for the trio and also the larger narrative of contemporary music?

This composer portrait series is very important because I think that it represents a broader spectrum of the work that we do as composers and improvisers. This will serve as a demonstration to the fact that it is valid to have an extensive musical makeup and to not produce work confined to a particular frame. We, as a collective, celebrate an approach to music that transcends genre – which I think has a lot to do with our musical makeup. It almost seems that even the term “contemporary music” is becoming a genre, and how this is being defined is problematic. In this way, I do not see my work in any context as such.  Nevertheless, besides that, I think this will be a great event for the music community in general. Not often is it the case, especially in “creative music,” that young artists in this field can have their works performed on this level. I mean, to have works performed by ensembles like Wet Ink, ICE, JACK Quartet – this is quite an amazing thing, and it is rare that events like this happen for young composer-performers like us who are working in multiple fields. But, we know now that in 2011, where it seems nearly impossible to put together a weekend of concerts like this, it can be done. On that note, much gratitude and thanks to Mark Christman and Ars Nova Workshop for making this event possible. I am most certainly looking forward to next weekend!

To learn more about Tyshawn Sorey and Fieldwork, please see the event pages on our website, where you can also choose between two ticket options: $12 for single events and $30 for a 3-Concert Pass.  Below is a summary of the events, all of which will take place at Old City's Christ Church Neighborhood House Theatre (20 North American Street).

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork
March 11, 2011, 8pm | Tyshawn Sorey’s For Kathy Change
March 12, 2011, 8pm | Fieldwork
March 13, 2011, 6pm | Free Public Discussion with Fieldwork + The New York Times’ Nate Chinen
March 13, 2011, 8pm | An evening of chamber works by Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman performed by JACK Quartet

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Music Project with support from Chamber Music America’s Presenting Jazz Program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.