The clock had barely hit 7 a.m. when I phoned up avant-garde composer and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Tyshawn Sorey, and he sounded as if he’d already been up hours. He was preparing for a day of teaching at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music, where he’s been a staple every summer for the last six years. But for Sorey, this year’s edition was special. Not only were two of his pieces premiered as part of Banff’s Summer Music Series, but he was also appointed the workshop’s co-artistic director, in tandem with his longtime collaborator, composer/pianist Vijay Iyer. Given this turn of events, the headline of JazzTimes’ last feature on Sorey—“The Maestro,” published two years ago—seems even more appropriate now than it was then.
“It seems like 10 years has passed,” Sorey says when that November 2016 article is brought up. “It’s a very busy time on so many levels, mostly since the MacArthur thing happened”—meaning the MacArthur Fellowship, commonly referred to as a “genius grant,” that he received in 2017. “Now I’m doing a lot more writing than performing, which is fine for me because this is what I’ve always wanted to do: exclusively focus on my own music. I’ve always felt that that was necessary for me to move forward in my work.”
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This change has affected Sorey’s once-packed schedule as a sideman. Although he has shown up on a few recent albums by other artists—Roscoe Mitchell’s Bells for the South Side and Iyer’s Far from Over, for example—and performs “sometimes here and there” with Iyer’s sextet, those gigs are rarer now. (The 38-year-old’s day job as assistant professor of music at Wesleyan University plays a role here too.) “The sideman thing was cool and there’s parts of it that I miss,” he says. “But at the same time, I feel like I’m in, I don’t want to say a better place, but I’ve arrived at a point with my own music where I want to continue to present from now on.”
And present he has: In 2018, Sorey’s creative output has ballooned. Besides the two Banff premieres in July (one a collaboration with flutist Claire Chase, the other written for a program called “EQ: Evolution of the String Quartet”), there was Autoschediasms for Crash Ensemble, composed for the Irish new-music collective Crash Ensemble and performed earlier this year at Cincinnati’s MusicNow Festival, founded by Bryce Dessner, guitarist and composer for the National. (Sorey’s link to that acclaimed rock band doesn’t end there; Autoschediasms for Crash Ensemble can be streamed on PEOPLE, the artist-directed listening platform co-founded by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner, Bryce’s twin brother and fellow National guitarist.)
Now Sorey has upped the ante with what is arguably his most ambitious work to date: the meditative, droning Pillars, a nearly four-hour marathon separated into three hour-plus parts (for CD and digital formats; the double-LP version, which he calls “an alternative listening experience,” is a mere 90 minutes long). Pillars first took shape nearly a decade ago at the Brooklyn experimental music space Roulette. “It goes back to 2010 when I first presented it as the second installment of Koan,” Sorey says, referring to his 2009 sophomore album as a leader. “A lot of that music was quite different from what I did on Koan. I imagined it as being [played by] a five-piece mini-orchestra.”
The group he originally had in mind has since morphed into an eight-piece ensemble, featuring players both old and new to his fold: cornetist Stephen Haynes, trombonist Ben Gerstein, guitarist Todd Neufeld, and the four-pronged double bass crew of Carl Testa, Mark Helias, Zach Rowden, and Joe Morris (who also contributes guitar). Besides conducting the group, Sorey plays drums, a Tibetan horn called the dungchen, percussion, and trombone. “For me,” he explains, “the idea was to have a collective of musicians who doubled, tripled, or quadrupled on different instruments, just like what I’m doing with my own percussion station.”
As usual, Sorey’s sound-world shatters classifications and is rooted in many influences. “Bill Dixon’s probably the biggest,” he notes, before also naming Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, and Frank Zappa. “When I think of these individuals, I’m thinking of orchestras, and I’m thinking of the very wide palette of sound that all of these people use.”
Pillars is deep, dense, and imposing; Sorey doesn’t expect listeners to tune into it from start to finish, but rather in doses. Sublimely hypnotic and ritualistic, with its array of instruments drifting in and out in swirls and rumbles, it requires concentrated listening in order to absorb its labyrinthine textures, patterns, and tones. “Pillars is one of the hardest things I’ve done, from a conceptual and compositional point of view, because it’s a polyvalent structure,” he says. “There’s so many different layers to it, and so many different layers of listening and types of listening that go into it.”
With Pillars now out in the world, don’t expect Sorey to take a break. A duo project with pianist Marilyn Crispell will have premiered at the Kitchen in Manhattan by the time you read this. He’s also writing a piece for the L.A. Philharmonic New Music Group’s “Green Umbrella” series in December, and two more new Sorey compositions will be premiered by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and JACK Quartet at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre in 2019. “I look forward to presenting these different things,” he says. “There’s definitely a lot going on writing-wise.” Understatement, thy name is Tyshawn.
Top photo: John Rogers