The Composer Tyshawn Sorey Enters a New Phase

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Iyer sensed Sorey’s unease with the role of a drummer, “something that was both too much and not enough for him.” Sorey loved playing with Fieldwork, but it infuriated him that when they went on tour, people saw him as the large Black man pounding the drums — “someone who’s supposed to perform music designed to entertain,” he says, “because that’s one of the only two things we’re ‘really good at,’ other than sports.” (As much as he admires the rapper Kendrick Lamar, Sorey thinks awarding a 2018 Pulitzer Prize to a commercial hip-hop record was something of an insult to the many Black composers of concert music who have been overlooked for the prize.) He had similar misgivings during a 2009 European tour with Paradoxical Frog — a trio with two white women, the Canadian pianist Kris Davis and the German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock — but he never shared them with his bandmates. Davis worried that Sorey was expressing discontent (or boredom) by playing loud or walking offstage, sabotaging the music, but Sorey felt he was simply “responding to the energy in the room,” reclaiming his power with wordless protests. “That question about sabotaging the music comes from a place of privilege,” he says. “They have the luxury of not being asked, ‘Did you write that?’ like it’s some kind of surprise.” After I told him about Davis’s remarks, he emailed her; they’ve since reconciled and made plans to play together again. But even today, Sorey confessed to me, “I sometimes think I’m being too careful or overly sensitive about how others might view me as a large Black man making music.”

By the end of the Paradoxical Frog tour, Sorey had grown tired of playing in other people’s groups. He had already released two albums of his own music, both quietly forceful declarations of artistic independence. The first, a two-disc set called “That/Not,” was full of long tones, with austere, almost ritualistic repetition and passages of silence; one piano piece had six notes sounded in an almost relentless variety of voicings and sequences for more than 40 minutes. The next, “Koan,” was even more abstract, a mesmerizingly atmospheric work for drums, bass and guitars.

Sorey’s career as a leader was beginning to take off, but he was still living from gig to gig. On his occasional visits to Newark, relatives would ask how he planned to make a living; his father thought he would be better off getting a job at the Essex County jail, where his uncle Kevin worked. Instead, he applied to the master’s program in composition at Wesleyan, where he studied under his hero Anthony Braxton and the experimental composer Alvin Lucier. He also met his wife, Amanda L. Scherbenske, a violinist from a German-Russian family in North Dakota who was writing her Ph.D. thesis in ethnomusicology and leading a klezmer group on the side. Sorey joined her band in part, he says, to win her over. They soon found themselves “exquisitely connected,” in her words, by their love of music and their experiences of family trauma. Scherbenske was dazzled, and a little intimidated, by Sorey’s musical facility, especially when he picked up an old violin and, within five minutes, taught himself to play a few things. But she also understood his insecurities in a way no one else had before, and she helped him wrestle with feelings of shame and lack of “self-love” that go back to his childhood in Newark. She was also instinctively pragmatic about his career. When Sorey considered doing his Ph.D. at SUNY-Buffalo, because Morton Feldman once taught there, she told him: “Buffalo is not going to do anything for you. Columbia is where you go.”

By way of introduction, first-year composition students at Columbia University are required to present some of their work. Sorey’s first presentation, in the fall of 2011, was such a flop that he nearly quit the program. The other students wrote in a more academic style; Sorey presented experimental jazz. At first no one said anything. Finally, someone asked about his approach to improvisation. “I made some kind of intellectualized comment, and then he said, ‘Can you say it in your own words?’ He might as well have said, ‘Speak Ebonics.’ So I spoke without intellectual poise, and he said, ‘That’s the answer I was looking for.’ I never presented a single other piece of music in that seminar.”

Still, he tried to fit in by writing his first piece of 12-tone serialism. At its premiere, he felt as if he’d betrayed himself. In 2012, at an artists’ residency in Northern California, he was explaining the formal devices he used to write the piece to a group of senior composers, when the ambient composer Harold Budd helpfully shouted, “I don’t give a damn how it’s made!” “Everyone laughed,” Sorey remembers. “I laughed, too.” Then he played a selection from “Koan.” “Now that sounds like you,” Budd declared. “Here I was trying to be this Princeton-Columbia type of intellectual composer,” Sorey says, “and everybody hated it. Even I hated it.”

Back on campus, he attended a performance at which Courtney Bryan, one of the few Black students in the composition program, played a piano solo inspired by an African-American spiritual. “It moved into a very dark area in terms of harmony, with a real acerbic sense. I heard the struggle that I was feeling at that time at Columbia in her left hand.” He started to work on a new piece for piano, vibraphone and alto flute, taking the opening chords of an obscure late composition by Coltrane, “Untitled 90320,” and radically slowing them down to distill their melodic essence. The language is classical, but the tone colors are steeped in the Eastern-tinged modal jazz Coltrane pioneered. Sorey called this beguiling piece “Trio for Harold Budd,” in homage to the composer who reminded him that the beauty of his music mattered more than the beauty of his ideas. Since that moment, he said, he lost interest in “being the most avant-garde person in the room.”

During his first year at Columbia, Sorey took classes with the composer, trombonist and musicologist George Lewis, a member of the A.A.C.M. But at Lewis’s urging, he worked most closely with the composer Fred Lerdahl, a specialist in tonal harmony, who advised his thesis. (“We’re going to work together beyond Columbia,” Lewis told him — and “you’re going to get so much from Fred that you’re not going to get from me.”) At their first class, Sorey listened to Lerdahl playing Brahms, and “a light bulb went off in my head — I felt at home there, with him playing this beautiful music.” He said he wanted to learn how to build larger forms with chromatic harmony; Lerdahl told him to return the next week having written something reflecting that. This was the beginning of Sorey’s “Slow Movement for Piano,” a work of wintry Romanticism later recorded by his trio. Lerdahl liked Sorey’s initial sketch but says he encouraged him to “make your compositions as coherent and logical as your improvisations. It almost sounds like you’re speaking two languages, and you need a unified language.” Sorey was so shaken by Lerdahl’s respect for him as a composer that “I literally broke down and told him some of my insecurities and issues. He said, ‘You really need to embrace everywhere you come from, and the difference between yourself and your colleagues.’”

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