5 Questions to Tyshawn Sorey (composer, multi-instrumentalist)

Tyshawn Sorey is an acclaimed composer and multi-instrumentalist from Newark, New Jersey. A virtuosic drummer immersed in jazz, experimental music, and Western classical styles, Sorey’s own work transcends genre. He has worked nationally and internationally with Vijay Iyer, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, Marilyn Crispell, George Lewis, Claire Chase, Anthony Braxton, Myra Melford, and written music for the International Contemporary Ensemble, PRISM Quartet, Davóne Tines, Alarm Will Sound, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A 2017 MacArthur Fellow, Sorey has released more than a dozen critically-acclaimed recordings. His 2018 album, Pillars (Firehouse 12 Records), is an extraordinary four-hour trance for octet spread across three CDs.

On Friday, October 30th at 11:00am EDT, Sorey will collaborate virtually with Alarm Will Sound on a new piece in his Autoschediasms project; live compositions composed in the moment, collapsing the distinction between improvisation and composition. Audiences can tune in to Alarm Will Sound’s YouTube channel to watch.

How did you originally conceive of the Autoschediasms project, and what can we expect with this new (partly-virtual) collaboration with Alarm Will Sound?

Autoschediasms is three-dimensional hybrid system of live composition that is both an evolution of and a departure from the Conduction™ vocabulary of Butch Morris and the Language Music vocabulary of Anthony Braxton. This music system interpolates three large components: they are Gesture, Autonomy, and Category. Around 2009 or so, I began doing my own conducted improvisation performances with large ensembles as simple hybrid works that use both of these systems simultaneously.

During the past decade, it has evolved into a system where, for instance, in some of the Morris gestures, I have added many additional distinct cases in which these cues are to be performed, therefore increasing the possibilities of creative interpretation. This would then become the first component, titled Gesture. In Autonomy, the second component, I developed a different numbering system using 10 performance/sound classifications for the musicians to perform at their own accord and in response to or independently of what is happening in the music.

Tyshawn Sorey leads Alarm Will Sound in a rehearsal of Autoschediasms--Screenshot courtesy Alarm Will Sound

Tyshawn Sorey leads Alarm Will Sound in a rehearsal of Autoschediasms–Screenshot courtesy Alarm Will Sound

Where Autoschediasms becomes most involved, however, is through the third component: Category. Similar to Autonomythis method includes indications for musicians to perform activities in their own manner. However, the cues in Category are all indicated by either one or two small whiteboards. Moreover, there are multiple parallel series (strata) that may or may not coexist within this method. For example, players are sometimes asked to perform a number of actions that are relational to another musician or a group. Another example could be a situation where players are asked to perform or repeat a series of distinct musical events (these could range from assigned memories that recall earlier performed actions to instrument specific playing techniques, among many other possibilities) or one or more notated events.

All three of these methods demand a considerable amount of time to learn and rehearse and are often juxtaposed into a complete whole, therefore creating a unique compositional model for electroacoustic orchestra music: one that incorporates detailed formal processes and calls for both instrumental and virtual soloists to navigate highly prescribed performance parameters that may otherwise be ignored. For this virtual collaboration, we will mostly focus on a color-coded system that utilizes various forms of musical, graphic, and textual notation for the performers to generate material in real time. Autonomy and Category cues will be of significant focus here, as some Gesture cues would become much too complicated for the performers to interpret, given latency concerns and such. As I usually prefer to say, expect nothing and let the music wash over you as one does with any other music.

What conditions for a collaborative improvisation make a satisfying musical experience?

I tend to eschew the word “improvisation” whenever I discuss my/our music, as I don’t think it fully defines what is really going on. Besides, I think people have a very limited view of what “improvisation” is–as if improvisation as a practice does not at all come from some kind of craft, methodology, thought, or context from which to spontaneously create. I prefer to call Autoschediams a spontaneous composition. As a composer who works both within spontaneous and “formal” composition, I find that what is rewarding about spontaneous composition is the understanding, by the self and others, that it allows for the coming together of people who have similar and sometimes very different viewpoints, such that creating music together feels like a form of bonding and trusting that one never forgets. We can’t take this for granted. This works best when one lets go of their insecurities or ego that often gets in the way of achieving something greater than what they imagined. Trusting and being kind to yourself is what makes for a satisfying experience when you improvise alone and collectively with other bodies in the room (or on screens, in this case). 

In Autoschediasms, everybody is a composer. Everyone in the group, including myself, shares the collective responsibility of whether or not a given performance is successful in its achievement. Some performances are more successful than others, but that’s life. 

Tyshawn Sorey leads Alarm Will Sound in a rehearsal of Autoschediasms--Screenshot courtesy Alarm Will Sound

Tyshawn Sorey leads Alarm Will Sound in a rehearsal of Autoschediasms–Screenshot courtesy Alarm Will Sound

You’re a prodigious performer and composer. How do you balance working on your own projects, commissioned projects, performing other people’s work, and having a life outside of music?

After 25 years or so of writing and performing music on a regular basis, this is an area of my life I’m still figuring out, so the idea of balance stays with me day by day. I see this also as discipline. The value of time and how it is used remains of critical importance to me, and it has always been that way for about as long as I can remember. Planning my days and really sticking to the schedule without procrastination is a huge part of what goes into it. Taking time out for myself, and forcing that issue–sometimes things just have to wait because, life. Thinking realistically about what is possible to do on a given day helps me. You have to make time work for you and not against you. 

Then again, like anything else, life is thrown out of balance sometimes. Of course, I want to do and be my best every day…I want to be successful–in this day and age, you have got to be crazy to want to succeed, no matter what it is you do in life. Doing your best doesn’t mean that you should only do that to the point of not practicing self-love or self-care and losing whatever mind you have left! (laughs) But being able to get up the courage and the nerve to maintain that balance and discipline along with the drive to be successful requires so much from a person! It’s difficult sometimes, but when one sees how such a degree of balance and discipline can really serve them in a fruitful way, that feeling of “difficulty” will cease to exist.

Tyshawn Sorey--Photo by John Rogers

Tyshawn Sorey–Photo by John Rogers

In light of the BLM movement and growing unrest in the U.S., there seems to be a gradual reckoning among white musicians and institutions–with credit to people like Philip Ewell and George Lewis who’ve been leading this discourse for a long time–that classical music is founded on racist structures. How do you think about racism in Western classical and jazz music?

I still wonder to myself: where were these reactions regarding the exclusion, misrepresentation, and (might I say) disrespect of BIPOC composers and performers in the classical and new music worlds during the past decade? 20 years? 50 years? 100 years?

But nevertheless, I’m glad to see that people are finally starting recognize humanity and are realizing how ridiculous this all is–but I remain cautious as I think that some of this comes off as (and I’m being nice here) disingenuous, given the very long history of how we have been treated in these institutions (i.e. orchestras, new music groups, composition programs, and the like). History has cried wolf many times, and at this point, I would like to see tangible results from this unrest in the art music world. If you’re going to be an ally in support of this shift, then do it because it makes you a human being–not because it’s what everyone else is doing, or to earn some kind of allyship or a reward for it. Having said all of that, I continue to wish for more BIPOC representation in all of these institutions.

Also, we BIPOC composers have a responsibility–we have to do more than just complain about the problem. We need to really support each other and each other’s art, now more than ever, and understand that we are not a monolith. If some of these classical/new music institutions and even academic composition programs operated in a similar way as, say, the AACM or the long-defunct Society of Black Composers and the like, I think we’d be in a much better place than where we are today. These are groups that persevered and included a cohort of individuals who worked and “talked shop” together in spite of the existence of these racist structures, and they all made some of the most groundbreaking music ever! I feel that we may need support systems like those to emerge again sometime soon in order to bring about any kind of positive change for us BIPOC composers as a collective.

What are some of the things that you’re excited about at the moment? What’s giving you joy?

There’s nothing that I’m not looking forward to! I’ll just say that I’m grateful for my family; my students; my colleagues; my mentors; this project with Alarm Will Sound; my upcoming projects with Opera Philadelphia; my upcoming virtual premieres of pieces for Jenny Koh and orchestra, and one for Seth Parker Woods and orchestra; among so many other things on the docket. Being alive and able to do the work I love to do. That’s enough to keep me inspired.



I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is a program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. A gift to ACF helps support the work of ICIYL. Editorial decisions are made at the sole discretion of the editor-in-chief. For more on ACF, visit the “At ACF” section or composersforum.org.