Before listening to drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey's music, check your expectations. Pulseless, drone-based passages stretch on for minutes, with shifting piano harmonies above. Spontaneous and notated passages continuously interact, directed by Sorey from the podium or behind the kit, where he will play with sticks or with his bare hands.
On "Verisimilitude," his latest album (to be released on Aug. 4) with pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini, Sorey adds electronically manipulated textures and extended percussion techniques to an ever-growing bag of sonic resources.
Sorey is a new hire at Middletown's Wesleyan University, where he'll replace creative music master Anthony Braxton. His latest septet, Koan II — trombonist Ben Gerstein, trumpeter Stephen Haynes, guitarist Todd Neufield and three bass players: Mark Helias, Joe Morris and Carl Testa — performs at Real Art Ways in Hartford on July 29 at 7:30 p.m. Sorey talked at length about his new role and recent musical directions.
Q: What attracted you to the Wesleyan position?
A: It was the close proximity with [New York City], but it's also the fact that I came out of here, that I've learned so much from being here, working with Anthony [Braxton] and everything. I want to give that inspiration to other people who come here. That's why I wanted to do this.
Q: What will you carry on from Anthony Braxton's legacy, and what will you try to do that's different?
A: What Anthony provided was so important to lineage of not only creative music, but also black music generally. The idea for me would be to definitely continue it, but also to expand on that legacy, to get to more of what he talks about, which is "world creativity."
Instead of talking about the canonical figures all the time, without paying attention to what has been going on for the last 15 or 20 years. ... So much great music has come out of what I would call the post-genre era within creative music. I'd like to talk about that quite a bit, and also to investigate some of the issues with the work that's currently happening. It's a continuation, but I'd also like to add a few current topics to the canonical curriculum.
Q: What would you like to see happen in five or 10 years?
A: I'd like to expose some of the students here to the New York scene, as well as what's happening in the New Haven scene, all of the fresh music that's coming out of both of those places. … It's important that they see this stuff. It's sometimes hard to get some of those musicians up here to do stuff, but my plan is to hopefully contribute to making that happen, to get musicians up here that you might not otherwise see at all.
I'm a believer in accessibility. For me, that's the main goal, in terms of what I'd like students to pursue, to seek out information in order to develop their own language, their own musical or critical thinking skills, listening, that kind of thing. There's also the collaboration that can happen among the faculty. It's a really great department with a rich history, but I think it can be made even richer through cross-collaborative experiences with other departments. … The greater the collaborative experience we see in the department, the more students are going to be inspired to do the same thing.
As Muhal Richard Abrams once said, "When you make music with somebody, it creates a bond that can't be broken." I'm interested in building upon that, just taking that statement and running with it, at this institution or any institution, really. Coming out of certain institutions: I've seen a lot of division within the student body, and also among faculty. It's important to keep that spirit there, so that way it will encourage a lot of students coming in to be self-determined, to keep the musical and creative dialogue fruitful among their colleagues.
Q: You left Connecticut some time ago, but you've maintained musical relationships with improvisers in the state, including the musicians who'll join you at Real Art Ways.
A: That's really what it's all about for me. In fact, ever since leaving Middletown in 2011, as much as my wife and I were looking for jobs at other institutions, I always had a feeling that somehow I'd maintain all of my ties up here. I wanted to keep in touch with everyone in the musical communities in New Haven and Hartford. Those two years that I was here were so special to me. I had opportunities to collaborate with both Joe [Morris] and Stephen [Haynes], and also Carl [Testa] and [cornetist] Taylor Ho Bynum. When I lived in New York, every time I came up here felt like I still lived here. No matter how little we get to play together, we always pick up where we left off. It never stops, the chemistry that all of us share together.
The spirit of openness, to whatever colleagues you meet, wherever you go, maintaining that throughout your life: that's been modeled by so many different collectives and groups, even when people live far apart. ... The connection never ends.
Q: Aside from the same trio of musicians [Sorey, pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini] being involved, what's the relationship between your last three records: "Alloy," "The Inner Spectrum of Variables" and "Verisimilitude" [which comes out on Aug. 4]?
A: It's interesting how my music has changed over the last six or seven years, since arriving here at Wesleyan. A lot of what the trio did on "Alloy," I feel, is more closely related to "Inner Spectrum," in terms of the language I was using at that time. "Verisimilitude" departs from that a little bit. It's more like unfinished business, to me, the idea of integrating electronics into the work. That was inspired largely by my studies at Columbia, getting into computer music and understanding how it works, as well as developing an extended percussion setup, which extends from my experiences here at Wesleyan. It's all kind of tied together.
But in terms of the musical and sonic language, "Verisimilitude" is much more arid, in terms of what sound worlds I wanted to investigate. I felt like I started to do that here [at Wesleyan], but I didn't really get to explore it much further.
"Inner Spectrum of Variables" while it uses a multitude of improvisational and conductive vocabularies. "Verisimilitude," I'd say, is a scaled-down version of that. The trio is part of both groups, obviously. It's almost like code-switching: with "Inner Spectrum," we're not necessarily in the foreground. It did it that way for a reason: It's too typical otherwise to have a string quartet paired with, say, a jazz group.
Q: You can hear the seams.
A: Yes, and I didn't want that. And with "Verisimilitude," we have another language, another syntax, where we go about dealing with musical form, whereas both "Alloy" and "Inner Spectrum" were very highly structured compositions. They're very lengthy, in terms of notated material, whereas "Verisimilitude" was almost not at all about that. The new group that's going to happen [Koan II] takes that even further: There's not a ton of notated material. There are a lot of directives and careful decision-making that we have to exercise on the spot. That's why I picked those players.
But with the trio: It's like going to different countries and speaking different languages. That's what I mean by code-switching. [In "Verisimilitude"] [w]e're speaking this very dark, atonal language in that music that integrates electronics and all kinds of different instruments and textures, whereas in "Inner Spectrum of Variables" we let some of the strings do some of the work in that field. With "Alloy," we're reading a lot of notated material and getting more into the relationship between notation and composition. We've done concerts in the past where we've only explored one piece, and we found all these different ways of navigating through the form, sometimes on the spot.
Q: The relationship between composition and improvisation always comes up in discussions of your music. It also sounds like you're heading more toward compositions without notated music.
A: Yes. I think it's clear now to the general public that composition and improvisation are equally important things to me. On my first record, there was so much compositional detail everywhere. Now, I want to get interested in the chemistry, but also to find compositional ways of dealing with that that don't necessarily always require the use of sheet music. For example, some of my conductive language techniques — that's one big thing I'm going to incorporate into this new project [Koan II], as well as some things on whiteboard, cues that I've developed myself that I'm going to integrate into the recording of Koan II.
Q: The conductive language is yours?
A: It derives from Butch Morris' language of conduction, Anthony Braxton's language/music signals, Walter Thompson's soundpainting signals, and to a degree what Muhal Richard Abrams was doing with the Experimental Band. I'm trying to contribute something that's original and historically pays tribute to all of these things, but also, at the same time, is something that is personal and unique to making music.
Q: To appreciate your music, is it important for listeners, to some degree, to know what is notated and what isn't?
A: I actually prefer that they not know. We have really fixed ways of how we think about music. We look at composition as this sort of upper partial of how we create or play music. We're in a culture that views that as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then you look at improvisation as the opposite of that, this kind of lesser form of music-making than composition. 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. 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. 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.
Q: Mario Pavone told me you have the ability to scan a page of music and just know it. That either took a lot of work, or you just realized one day you could do that.
A: I guess it's a combination of both. I come from a classical background, playing classical trombone repertoire, so I was used to reading a lot of complex music. I've been doing it for a very long time. In my later teenage years, I realized, "Oh, wow, I can pick this up right away" and remember it. I guess I have some sort of musical photographic memory. Maybe it was something I've always had. I don't quite know, and I don't talk about it. But it wasn't until my later teenage years, and I thought: I can use this to learn music as quickly as possible, so I only have to focus on making music spontaneously, and just inspire the music in some form. I wanted to develop it further, to where I could just look at a piece of music and know what's happening. I hear it in my head as I'm looking at it, and I can dream up whatever's possible, what I can do.
Q: You just finished up a residency at the Stone in N.Y.C. What happens to your music over the course of five nights?
A: A certain kind of connection with myself that I could never get any other way. What I decided to do various small groups, not do some super-big project, just more on the casual side, but also very artistically serious, something I'm interested in this moment. In all of my curatorships, I want to give other people opportunities to present their music, people who've hardly been heard from. I can be part of the project, or somebody else could be part of the project, or whatever.
I don't really expect too much. The only thing I expect is to be one-million percent in tune with myself, to get more and more in tune with myself as the week goes on and with the musicians around me, to develop a very high state of consciousness every time, and to hopefully maintain that throughout the week, to not feel like I've had any off nights.
It's the Wu Wei principle, which is a tenet of Zen Buddhism. It talks about non-doing or effortless doing. Without actually trying to stay on top of my game or be highly conscious of what's happening musically, it's just natural for me to go there.
For me, it's about quantity as well as quality. The quantity being: to have more and more of those experiences, to have higher and higher and higher states of consciousness as it goes. It's been a blast.
Q: What can we expect at Real Art Ways?
A: I'm more interested in dealing things that are off the page, so we won't be seeing too much conducted stuff in the live concert. We'll be improvising, but I know just from the selection of these players: that's a compositional decision that I've made. We'll play some notated material, but nobody will know that. There will be improvisation happening, or one piece that's played underneath something else. A lot of these things can happen at any given time. I don't know myself.
TYSHAWN SOREY SEPTET performs at Real Art Ways in Hartford on Saturday, July 29, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free. realartways.org