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Breaking Barriers: Tyshawn Sorey at Miller Theater

Music Review
Sat Mar 30th, 2019

Tyshawn Sorey. Photo by John Rogers.

When drummer-composer Tyshwan Sorey (who also plays trombone as well as piano) performs, people listen. He has something to say. Sometimes it is the music itself, sometimes it in the silence surrounding it. In Memorial to Michael Richard Abrams silences, or empty spaces filled only with your own thoughts suggested by seeing a violin played but not hearing (because there was no sound) we come to grips with Sorey’s musical vocabulary: it is different, difficult, challenging, thoughtful, and engaging.  He demands that you accept him and his music despite its breaking those boundaries that makes music familiar. The silence is broken by a thin scratching like a tiny bird on a tin roof. Sound changes and develops, but not in measured phrases or tones we are familiar with, but in half-tones that follow no apparent set of rules. It is spatial, three dimensional, unconventional, and intensely personal—a conversation between Sorey and you the listener. You are suddenly engaged in that conversation well before you realize it. When it dawns upon you, it can be surprising, like “hey, he’s talking to me and I didn’t even realize it.”

In his interview with Clare Chase during intermission (Clare is a fellow MacArthur recipient), he mentioned that he was in no hurry.  He takes his time. One of his pieces runs for three hours and takes three discs. He runs the three pieces on each half of the program into each other, so they seem seamless. He demands of the listener patience, even endurance. But having endured, we acknowledge the experience, for we are wiser, even astounded. The world of music has been expanded.  A new universe has been discovered.  A new dimension of music unfolds before us.

“Everything Changes, Nothing Changes” premiered that evening by the Jack Quartet, introduces us to this new world of Sorey’s sound. The program notes by Lara Pellegrinelli notes that “amid seemingly endless shifting harmonies, one constant is how the quartet functions as a unit without featuring single voices throughout the work’s entirety.”

“Autoschediasms” provided a spontaneous composition with seven players including Clare Chase on flutes and Corey Smythe on piano that is “conducted improvisation” that is neither strictly composed nor strictly improvised. Sorey conducted with a baton giving instructions that are relentlessly followed with amazing precision and according to a set of instructions and predilections that we know not, but which seem to make ultimate sense.  The musicians are free to play what they will but under prior and conducted restraint, and always in relationship to what has passed and what will be. It thus evolves, with changes directed by Sorey’s scribbled messages held up briefly so they are instructed on the change. It is an amazing performance combining subtle changes and spontaneity.

The final and most exciting piece (“Bertha’s Lair”) presented a duet with Clare Chase on flutes (plural) and Sorey on drums. Bertha is a giant flute which looks like it was designed by Frank Stella.  It was one of several flutes Claire used to create a passage of music with drive, energy, a seamless stream of musical ideas flowing freeing into space that you share with the musicians guided by Sorey’s own playing which remains as visual as it is sonic.

 As Ms Pellegrinelli concludes, we are invited “to rethink what might be possible in a musical future” that embraces what Sorey calls “mobility.” Tyshawn regularly performs with Vijay Iyer, and has performed with Julia Bullock, Clare Chase and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).  He has been commissioned by leading symphony orchestras. He said he was booked solid for the next three years. This performance at Columbia College's Miller Theater took place March 27th. 

Tyshawn regularly performs with noted author Vijay Iyer and has performed with actress Julia Bullock, Clare Chase and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). His most recent album is Verisimilitude from Pi recordings.  

A short interview wherein Sorey explains musical influences on him and some of his unusual techniques appears below.