Wesleyan Music Professor Tyshawn Sorey Awarded 'Genius Grant'

Tyshawn Sorey, a composer, experimental musician and music professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, popularly referred to as a "genius grant," it was announced Wednesday.

A release from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation cited Sorey for "assimilating and transforming ideas from a broad spectrum of musical idioms and defying distinctions between genres, composition, and improvisation in a singular expression of contemporary music."

Reached by phone at his office in Middletown, Sorey said he is stunned by the grant, even weeks after being told he got it.

"It's the biggest honor I've ever received in my life," he said. "I'm still processing it."

Sorey's life for the past year has been a series of high points.

"I just had a daughter on Dec. 26. I got my doctorate at Columbia, in composition. I moved to New Haven. I got a new job. I had a new recording," he said

The fellowship is a $625,000, no-strings-attached award given to individuals who show exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments, and who have potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work. It comes in five annual increments.

Sorey, who is 37, said the grant money will be used for future projects, but the honor is more than money.

"It's a lot about advancing my career beyond where it is, increasing visibility, being able to show my work at new venues," he said.

Sorey said he has a few ideas for his next musical projects, but he would not go into detail.

Sorey said growing up in Newark, N.J., he had a limited notion of what an African American composer could be.

"There was that tradition of a black composer writing tunes, assembling a collective of musicians to play them," he said. Then he discovered the work of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, an all-black collective of creative thinkers.

"There were so many different avenues of composition to go into. You can explore alternate ways and not be confined in how you think about music," he said. "You don't have to be confined to structures, so-called jazz or whatever. You don't have to worry about fitting into any category."

This is the third year in a row that an artist with Connecticut connections has won a genius grant. In 2016, poet Claudia Rankine, a professor at Yale University, became a MacArthur fellow. In 2015, Wesleyan grad Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway musical "Hamilton," was honored.

The MacArthur Foundation described Sorey: "A virtuosic percussionist and drum-set player who is fluent in piano and trombone, Sorey is an ever-curious explorer of the nature of sound and rhythm, ensemble behavior and the physicality of live performance. He erodes distinctions among musical genres as well as the line between composition and improvisation and incorporates sophisticated rhythmic and harmonic phrasing, highly prescribed improvisational sound worlds and real-time experimentation with sound, among many other structural elements. At the same time, he possesses a refined sense of restraint and balance that allows him to maintain his own unique voice while bringing a vast array of musical settings to life."

In a July interview with the Courant's music writer Michael Hamad, Sorey described his approach to his work, and how he believed that the lesser regard for improvised music compared to composed music was inappropriate and limiting.

"We're in a society that looks at composition and improvisation as separate things, with composition being superior. In my music system, that's not how it works.

"Even jazz musicians feel that way sometimes: When you're reading music, you're seen as being 'white,' or somebody who's 'not playing the real music' or 'real black music,' or whatever. Even in that world, you see that happening," Sorey said.

"I wanted to avoid that in all of my work. For me, when I make a record or when I'm working on some music, sometimes it's best for me when nobody knows anything, for the audience to just appreciate the sounds. If people are curious about how much is improvised and how much is composed, I'll tell them. But when they're listening and coming to the music for the first time, I want to keep them guessing.

"Quite frankly, I've encountered some better situations with improvisation. When I write composed pieces, I've decide to open up some sort of compositional parameters within that piece. Some of the best stuff comes out when we're improvising," Sorey continued. "The audience can choose to see it as a dialogical relationship between spontaneous and formal composition, but I'd rather they not look at it in any way, just listen. Sometimes it's best to have that mystery, to see how that inspires you."

Sorey's latest album, "Verisimilitude" — on which he performs with pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini — was released in August. Previous releases include "Koan" (2009), "Alloy" (2014), "Inner Spectrum of Variables" (2015) and the song cycle "Perle Noire: Meditations for Josephine" (2016).

Last summer, Sorey took the position at Wesleyan as an assistant professor specializing in creative improvised and experimental music traditions. Sorey also performs with the septet Koan II, made up of himself, trombonist Ben Gerstein, trumpeter Stephen Haynes, guitarist Todd Neufield and bassists Mark Helias, Joe Morris and Carl Testa.

Three members of the MacArthur class of 2017 are graduates of Yale: painter Njideka Akunyili Crosby, photographer Dawoud Bey and psychologist Betsy Levy Paluck.

The rest of the class of 2017 are historian Sunil Amrith, human-rights strategist Greg Asbed, playwright Annie Baker, computer scientist Regina Barzilay, mathematician Emmanuel Candès, anthropologist Jason De León, singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, social-justice organizer Cristina Jiménez Moreta, theater artist Taylor Mac, community leader Rami Nashashibi, writer-critic Viet Thanh Nguyen, landscape architect Kate Orff, artist-geographer Trevor Paglen, historian Derek Peterson, designer-urban planner Damon Rich, computer scientist Stefan Savage, opera director and producer Yuval Sharon, immunologist Gabriel Victora and writer Jesmyn Ward.

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