Photo by John Rogers

Acclaimed percussionist, conductor and composer Tyshawn Sorey loves to move and flow with the music, but he is also precise and logical in his approach to composition.

Spontaneity and technical mastery have been a part of Sorey’s musical process since he was a child. He recalls practicing orchestral excerpts until they were perfect, but then he’d begin to experiment. He would see what would happen if he played the notes backward or skipped a measure, constantly toying with the music. “It was always the thing about questioning whatever it was I had in front of me and how do I respond to it,” said Sorey.

Sorey will be bringing that lifelong love of spontaneity and experimentation to Spoleto Festival USA for three events:

  • June 2 for a Jazz Talk with Wall Street Journal jazz critic Larry Blumenfeld.
  • June 4 as part of a jazz trio with pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer. Sorey will be playing percussion.
  • June 6 he will conduct the Spoleto USA Orchestra as they play his piece “For Roscoe Mitchell,” and they will create a spontaneous composition in the moment. Sorey calls this “Autoschediasms.”

“I would describe [my music] as risky,” Sorey said. “I would also describe it as very highly detailed, something that is very, very logical, and also something that hopefully can transform the listener and take care of the listener in a healthy way. That’s what I hope the work does. I mean, I see myself as an artist who creates work that hopefully can expand one’s consciousness.”

It’s not often that there is crossover between classical and jazz, and Sorey will be the first ever to play in both programs at Spoleto this year, said John Kennedy, the resident conductor and director of orchestral activities at the Spoleto Festival USA.

“I think it does speak to the fact that the silos, which we’ve been living in for many decades and the labels that we put on music, are inadequate now,” Kennedy said.

A musical dialogue

Sorey said he has always been able to naturally transition between jazz and classical music. He sees the two genres as a dialogue, able to take aspects of each and apply it to the other. For example, the spontaneity of jazz is something Sorey applies into his orchestral music. In “Autoschediasms,” he has developed a language for musicians to create music in the moment.

“Autoschediasms” literally means something that is off the cuff, Sorey said. He described it as a language that “is a lexicon using visual and gestural cues.”

There are three components to the cues. The first is gesture, when Sorey gives the orchestra specific actions through his direction. The second is autonomy, meaning the musicians are given numerical cues and each number stands for a different cue for the musician to play at their own will without Sorey directing them. The third category is done through a whiteboard. Sorey said this method can indicate action from the whole ensemble, a sub ensemble or an individual. All these cues are given at any time throughout a performance to create one composition.

Spontaneous, but not a free-for-all

“The thing I often say about this is that no group of performers should ever take this for granted,” said Sorey. “Because in the end, what we are creating is a composition. And everybody is responsible for how the composition comes out. In the end, it’s not necessarily a free-for-all at all. In fact, this is a situation that is full of rules. But once one gets an understanding of those rules, they can then break those rules.”

Kennedy described Sorey’s notation as a reflection of his sensibility regarding the elasticity of time and its relationship with pitch and rhythm.

“It’s like it’s a world unto its own and there’s the spontaneous music making he does, like with his trio and in the format that might be typically called jazz,” Kennedy said. “But then there’s this side to him compositionally for the orchestral program we’re doing in which his music is notated with extreme precision.”

With his jazz trio, Sorey, Diehl and Brewer will be taking classics from the American Songbook and recomposing them. Sorey compared it to sampling music. Some of the songs on the album include “Detour Ahead,” a standard popularized by the piano player Bill Evans and “Autumn Leaves” by Joseph Kosma.

“I was always one to respond to things that already exist,” said Sorey. “That’s sort of the tradition through which this music comes from, so called jazz in particular. It’s like how do you respond to something that’s already been done?”

The set is made up of tracks that will appear on the trio’s upcoming album Mesmerism. It will include tracks like “REM Blues” by Duke Ellington, “Enchantment” by Horace Silver, “From Time to Time” by Paul Motian and more. Sorey had been playing with Brewer for more than 20 years in various contexts. Diehl was someone he had been recently connected with when they played together on the bandstand in 2021. The three came together to create a spontaneous and fresh album that wasn’t fixed on any idea. They simply played with minimal rehearsal to see what would happen.

Sorey said his goal is to challenge the audience. He wants them to come in with no expectation and prepare to be surprised.

Kennedy said Sorey’s programs and body of work complement the Spoleto program very well. It’s the festival’s deliberate intention, he said, to highlight musical visionaries from Black American musical traditions who will all coalesce in Charleston for a brief moment.

“Everything I’m doing now is basically an extension of the joy that I get out of creating something in the moment,” Sorey said. “[It’s something] that I can say is mine and feeling like this is something that I’m very proud of, and something that is a reflection of who I am.”

Riley Utley is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications Program at Syracuse University.

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