Dr. Tyshawn Sorey doesn’t like staying put. Not only is the revered composer, multi-instrumentalist and professor of contemporary music a highly prolific and dedicated composer – tirelessly committed to performing his work and challenging his listeners – but, conceptually speaking, he’s also disinclined to adhere to any single musical categorization, continually questioning the parameters of genre at every turn. His music boldly aggregates elements from a wide array of influences, disciplines, and musical traditions, and he is as versed in the complexities of composition as he is improvisation and indeed seeks to blur the distinction between the terms. Over the past couple of decades, Dr. Sorey has become a highly decorated figure in the jazz and classical communities, earning countless accolades for his innovative work and his iconoclastic approach.
BMI was honored to sit down with Dr. Sorey recently, in New York City during a residency at the legendary Village Vanguard to hear about his remarkable career and creative process.
You got your start in jazz, but you’ve mentioned that you oppose the categorization of music by distinct genres. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Though I got my start in jazz, the categorization of music by distinct genres was a thing that never occurred to me since I was much younger listening to music. I mean, of course, when you’re as young as maybe two or three years old, one doesn’t think of genre. I didn’t think of genre at all until I became aware of it just through the lens of going record shopping and things like that and seeing these different categories for all of this music that I had been exposed to prior to that experience.
I was maybe about seven or eight years old when I first learned of these different genres, and I think that at one point I started to take a preference to certain genres, jazz being one of them. After a while, I thought to myself, “Well, wait a minute, I’m only limiting myself to this category. There’s way more music out there in the world that I’ve experienced up till that point and that I have yet to experience.”
I wanted to do away with that whole notion of just thinking of becoming a purist of any sort, and just starting all over again and just listening to music without any kind of discrimination towards any style. I came up during an era where Hip-Hop was just starting to become popular. I was already experiencing this music on the radio along with R&B and classical music—everything from the classics to contemporary stuff. So, it’s like, well why not simply listen to music that way across the board? Of course, I didn’t think that deeply at that age, but it was just something that I naturally did. For example, my uncle was a D.J., and he would deejay a lot of early hip-hop and house music – Chicago, New Jersey, New York, wherever – that was a genre of music I grew up listening to as well, and I still love it today. My trips to the barber shop, for example, also informed me – where the barber who used to cut my hair at those ages had a lot of different records. He would hand me a short stack of records to take home after every haircutting session because he wasn’t really listening to them anymore.
He knew you were coming back.
Yeah, he knew I was coming back. So, every time I came back, he would give me another stack of records. I would go home with these stacks of records all the time and would be listening to them obsessively and, like I said, it never occurred to me that this music is better than that music or this music is superior to that one. I mean it was all great music to me.
A little bit later when I started studying instrumental music, my teachers were mostly jazz performers who moonlighted on gigs at night before teaching the next day. So I not only gravitated to their expertise and their interest in jazz and other forms of improvisation and things like this, but I was also interested in actually playing this music. These teachers would point me in the direction of the music and musicians they were checking out. So, it just blossomed from there.
You’ve said that improvisation and composition are not mutually exclusive and that you’re more interested in celebrating collaborative modeling. So, can you explain what you mean by that - collaborative modeling specifically?
As far as collaborative modeling goes, the music is nothing until it’s played by yourself, with others, or by others. A composer can have a vision, sure. But it takes multiple people to realize that vision and it takes people – particularly those with a collaborative mindset – to perhaps inspire you to go forward with that vision or find other aspects of that vision that are yet to be examined. I say often that the most important step in composition is the decision on the group of people for whom you write. This is a compositional decision that I take very seriously. When it comes to assembling bands, and when it comes to writing for different ensembles, I always try to be aware of the individuals in that ensemble and what they’re capable of doing. Sometimes, I may choose to write within their language, against their language, or juxtapose these two things together - I mean this to say that I may choose to write within the limits of what they do or to expand past the limits of what they do.
So many practitioners, particularly in so-called jazz or improvised music or whatever, also champion the idea of collaborative modeling. I’m thinking of people like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, the AACM, Wayne Shorter, the M-Base Collective, Butch Morris, John Zorn, and the list goes on. There are so many pioneering figures in this music who had incredible vision, but they all worked with groups of people around them to help really realize their singular vision in a deeply profound way.
And about the first part of your question about improvisation and composition not being mutually exclusive, what I mean by that is that Improvisation – or what I prefer to call spontaneous composition – is composition that is instantaneous. It’s instant composition, where you have that very moment, right there, to create something.
Composition, to me, is anything that is put together by an artist logically in a way that makes sense to them. But then in my mind, it’s really no different when one is spontaneously creating something. You’re putting one idea against another idea. Or you can explore a single idea and find other things to do within it for whatever period of time you’re dealing with. It’s only a matter of how much time you have to do it.
I’m thinking of the saxophonist Steve Lacy who once said that in composition, you have all the time in the world to say what you want to say in thirty seconds, whereas in improvisation…you have thirty seconds. [laughter]
When you create music, you really do think about the people listening to it in certain aspects. Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process?
Well, first, I do think of the people listening to it. But I also think about how a composer or performer has to take care of a listener while challenging them at the same time. Because all too often, we’re living in a McDonald’s-like mentality where instant gratification, especially when it comes to music, is something of high importance to people. Of course there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, and I don’t mean to disrespect any kind of music that doesn’t challenge listeners in the way I would prefer…not all music has to. But speaking strictly for myself, my interest is in challenging an audience and really getting them to think and feel when they listen to any piece of music of mine. What I do is not designed to entertain (in the shallow sense of the word).
I mean, of course, everybody who watches us and sees us perform on stage – we’re viewed as entertainers in some way. People see us before they hear us, that’s true. But for me, it’s beyond that. I guess I’m arguing that what I do is more art than entertainment, where art requires something more from the viewer or the listener to get something out of it – where they have to put themselves into it and they get more out of it than they put in.
I think the problem is that these distinctions are often blurred. And what happens is when someone who has no familiarity with my work sees or hears it for the first time, they might expect to be entertained or pandered to. They expect me to do so, but without necessarily challenging them on the level that they need to be challenged. Sometimes such people may find themselves disappointed by these experiences. But for me, it’s not really the goal of having some big audience or being popular or anything of that sort – although, naturally, we want people to like what we do than less people – but the goal is to really have an audience of people who really appreciate art for its sake, and who value what it means to really perceive something that goes and expands their consciousness rather than contracts it.
Absolutely. But clearly you have an audience who’s okay with being challenged because you have a large one.
That’s right, that’s right. So, it’s a blessing to me. It’s absolutely a blessing to have as many supporters of my work as I do. I never thought that my career would end up where having such an audience is possible. I hope to gain more of a following as a result of what I’m continuing to do.
What advice would you share with aspiring music creators who are looking to emulate the impact that your career has made? And we know that your career is still growing, of course, but it’s so big now and clearly you have such a large audience, what advice would you give?
Well, being truthful, I will say that this is not an easy career for anyone to get into and they have to realize for themselves that if they’re really going to pursue this, if they’re going to do this, that they do it because they have to do it, they have to go all the way, so to speak. They should feel that there is no other avenue that they’d rather explore than getting into the depths of what it means to compose music, to teach music, to engage with musical activity on this kind of level.
So, no Plan B. Is that what you mean by that?
Well, not necessarily no plan B. Because, let’s face it, if you don’t have a plan B, then you don’t have a plan, right? [laughter] That’s how I put it. So I would say that if this is something that truly speaks to you, then go forward and pursue the highest artistic thing that you can dream of. When you couple that with imagination, commitment, integrity, consistency, and the nerve to continue doing whatever it is you’re doing – no matter what anyone says, no matter what critics and detractors you have that try to discourage you from pursuing whatever it is you want to pursue – then you’re going to become the greatest you can be because you are consistent. Consistency and discipline breed successful results, and to be successful requires so much discipline on the part of the person who is interested in exploring whatever it is they want to do to the point where it might even drive one crazy to do this. You may lose friends, family members who may not approve of the work you’re doing, or you may even lose some of your mind…but as long as you get to a point where you artistically are able to express whatever it is you want to express with consistency and discipline and not cause any harm to anyone; as long as your work is of service to the good of humanity and is reflective of one’s life experiences, then I say go for it! Fully. At least that’s the way I want to do it.
Music is your vocation, your calling and your primary mode of expression. Every aspect of it is hugely important to your work. But again, when you simply want to enjoy the act of listening to music, what do you find yourself gravitating towards?
I’m always appreciative of any sounds that I’m hearing no matter what it is – even if it’s music that I consider to be on the “entertainment” side of the musical spectrum…I enjoy that stuff too – we all have it, we all can enjoy it. I enjoy listening to all kinds of music all the time - if I like the way the music makes me feel, I will just keep listening to it, whatever it is.
We know you’re here in New York for obviously one reason but what are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on developing a series of albums featuring my piano trio; we are currently playing a week-long run at the Village Vanguard. We will go into the studio to record during the first half of December, so I’m looking forward to that. We will be recording selections from the Great American Songbook. But before any conclusions are drawn regarding what we do as a trio, I’ll say now that what we call the Great American Songbook is not, nor has it ever been, a finite document. I see it as a living document where so many composers in so-called jazz, outside of jazz, have contributed so many great songs to the soundtracks of everyday lives, so why not include some of that as part of the canon? It’s not just show tunes on Broadway, to me anyway.
I’m also working on a revision of a piece that I wrote for the JACK Quartet and myself for percussion and string quartet. I’m in the middle of creating several ensemble pieces, chamber ensemble pieces, for various new music groups in the United States and abroad.
Also, I’m in the middle of developing a big project with an amazing human, artist, poet, rapper, and writer, Akua Naru. We’re working on a big project together centering on music scholar Tricia Rose’s book Longing to Tell. We’re going to start workshopping these things in Hamburg, Germany and a number of other places. We also plan to visit Brown University with Tricia (who is a professor there) and explore some of the topics that are part of this book and discuss ways of dealing with this material in the music.
There are two solo piano pieces that I’m working on – one for pianist Jonathan Biss and another for Sarah Rothenberg, who I find to be an extraordinary performer of classical and contemporary classical music. I’m also hoping to put out my beat tape that I made during the pandemic. There are about 80 beats that I’ve put together in isolation during the pandemic and that now I’m beginning to have mixed and mastered by someone who knows what they’re doing. So, there are a lot of different things on my calendar that run the gamut.
When do you sleep?
[laughter] I hardly sleep. I wish I could sleep more.
Are you working on all these pieces simultaneously?
Finally, why did you choose BMI?
I knew of its reputation of being a very supportive performing rights organization from very early on. It’s been nothing but a wonderful, supportive environment to me. The staff at BMI, the people who I would often talk with, Deirdre Chadwick of course, who you know. She has been so amazing to work with over these years.
But all in all, it’s really about keeping track of what you’re doing and about making sure that you’re getting everything that you rightfully deserve as a result of the work that you make. And without having somebody from BMI constantly telling you ‘Look, this is how you stay on top of your game with how you register work.’ All these things must matter to an artist on the business side of things. If an artist wants to be successful, they should also be aware of the rights they are granted for every composition they write, what they’re getting (or not), and how to get an accounting of royalty earnings from performances of their music. That’s very important. And I think a lot of us tend to overlook this because sometimes we only think about the music itself and not the logistics behind it – rights, royalties, representation, etc. So, it’s great to have BMI as that beacon of support and the constant communication with us about not only our royalty statements and other individual matters, but also what is going on with the organization, who joined, who is part of it. It’s just an incredible community to be a part of and I could not be more honored to be a part of it for all of this time.
BMI’s The Intersection
with Dr. Tyshawn Sorey