The Sonic Universes of Tyshawn Sorey / by Liquid Music

by Liquid Music Blog contributor Patrick Marschke


There is a clarity to the way Tyshawn Sorey talks about music and his relationship to it. A way of speaking that becomes a bit disorienting when considering how prolific and diverse his career has been from such a young age. He could claim many titles  — composer, performer, teacher, musician, scholar, trombonist, percussionist — but all seem to barely scratch the surface of his artistic identity. In a recent conversation with Sorey, I realized that there is one thing that ties these facets together, and simplifies his prolific and perplexing body of work. He summed it up when speaking about his expectations of the musicians he works with:

“We’re all creating something, and we are all equally responsible for how the composition, in the end, comes out.”

Sorey sees music-making as a very serious responsibility — one that he is willing to go very far to serve. And within each segment of his practice, you can see that he is willing to go just a bit further to truly serve the music than most. In taking on full responsibility for each of the sonic universes he participates in, he has found novel and unique ways to challenge himself to serve the music completely, going so far as placing extreme limitations on his own instrumentation or removing himself as an instrumentalist altogether as we will see in his upcoming performance with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra via a unique approach to large ensemble improvisation generally referred to as conduction.

Sorey has developed his own vocabulary of conduction, called Autoschediasms, which he described as “essentially a lexicon of visual and gestural cues that I use — it is essentially a duet for conductor and orchestra.“ He is quick to note two of his main influences in his approach to conduction — Butch Morris and Walter Thompson.

Butch Morris, the originator of the practice, defines conduction as:

“The practice of conveying and interpreting a lexicon of directives to construct or modify sonic arrangement or composition.”

Walter Thompson’s “Soundpainting” is a similar gesturally controlled improvisation that Sorey cites as influential on his practice. Thompson describes the practice as “a universal multidisciplinary live composing sign language for musicians, actors, dancers, and visual artists.”

I asked Sorey if there are common misconceptions about the practice:

“I think what happens is that one falls into the trap of thinking that conduction is one language and the music is always going to sound pretty much sound the same because you have the same gestures and the same cues and everything. But the user is what makes each interpretation of it very different. So one common misconception is that people think that it is always going to be the same thing where in fact it isn’t.

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Also, conduction is not really a free for all. There is no such thing, to me, as some kind of existential freedom when it comes to performing conduction in any kind of music setting. A misconception from audience members is that they think that all these musicians up there are just creating some random songs, like picking notes out of thin air without any kind of thought paid or any kind of attention paid to what they are doing and that couldn’t be further from the case. No matter what gesture I give a musician they have to own up to whatever the sound you contributed to the situation. We’re all creating something and we are all equally responsible for how the composition, in the end, comes out. This is not an opportunity for somebody to get up there and take a solo and display some kind of crazy virtuosity or something without regard to anything that the other orchestra members are doing.

I think people tend to think that whenever there is a conduction situation or everybody is not reading a bunch of music on the stage that everybody is just playing some random noise or some random sounds. The way that I use conduction is far from that — I’m thinking compositionally all the time. All the players should also think compositionally in their decision making and understand that any actions that they make are going to affect the overall outcome of the total composition. They can’t take any part of the music making process for granted at any point, no matter if you have 25 musicians or 100 musicians up there. Every contribution you make has to be something of value and something that can be useful for the creation of a real-time work with all of the rest of the orchestra.”

I asked Sorey if he thought it was important to see conduction in person rather than just hear the results:

“I think it is very good that people see it, that people see the process of what is going on. But I also don’t want to give people too much information about the process itself because I’d rather they experience the music itself.

I think to see it would be a rewarding experience to anyone coming to witness because I don’t think it is something that is seen all that much: A conductor up there potentially with just a baton and a bunch of musicians there with no sheet music in front of them and yet they are able to develop something that is as coherent as any written composition by any composer of any century. I think it is pretty much seeing what one could view as impossible, where in fact it is very possible to craft something in real time with a large or small group — it’s just as just valid as anything else.

I think it is as important for an audience to come witness conduction and to actually see the process of how it’s done so that way they can take with them the fact that everybody is communicating using a particular language because that’s all I am interested in in the end: communication. I think that will give the audience something to realize about themselves and their way of picturing what music should or about how music should be made. It will change for their whole conception of that, which I always would hope and strive for even in my own music.”

Tyshawn seems to rarely show up to a performance with the same instrumental set up more than once, and I wondered if he thought of the instrument selection process for his set up as part of the compositional process, and if so, had he always utilized orchestration in improvisation in such a way:

“I’ve always thought of it that way since I’ve first started making music — the drumset is just one part of it. What I call a percussion setup could also involve a piano or a trombone. Even though the trombone is not a “percussion” instrument per se, I see it as being part of one big sound world. I’m not quite sure what to call my setup — I don’t want to call it a “multi-instrumental setup” because then one instrument out of the setup might get favored.

Part of the reason why I do that, especially in my own music is not that I get “bored” of the drumset at all, it’s really for reasons of wanting to be as explorative as I can be in my music. Where I can contribute to the music by creating a sound world that maybe I wouldn't get to create just using a regular drum set. I want to get to the other thing in my music. I am always interested in how the set up can affect the music or how it can affect the outcome of the music.

I see it as these multiple universes that are existing within a small unit. That’s how I like to look at the way that I produce sound: this universe for me to go to one place to explore one sound world and then come to another place where I explore a different sound world. Just to go between these multiple sound worlds at any given time.”

I asked if Sorey if he had recently been inspired by anything not related to music:

“One thing that inspires me so much is my daughter, raising my daughter and taking care of my family — that is a very big influence for me. Watching my daughter discover things and watching her grow and just seeing how her mind develops from different things, related to art or not. That stuff is super influential, just in terms of understanding the process of openness and understanding the process of discovery. And the realization of one’s potential for making something or becoming something. I think that stuff is so important to see.

Sometimes what is missing in a lot of us as musicians is that we tend to get stuck in a particular way of thought or doing things as related to music or as related to whatever it is we are doing — sometimes we forget what it means to experience something for the first time or what it means to discover something that we really like and we want to have more of that experience. We forget that and take that stuff for granted. Just to watch my daughter grow and really become curious about things that even as far the music that I play or anything else, it’s never a judgemental kind of thing that exists. She's receptive to whatever information is out there. She picks stuff up very very quickly. To see that going on for the last two years that I have been raising my daughter is just fascinating just to watch that happening.

Children, in general, are inspirational in that regard.“

See Tyshawn Sorey with Jennifer Koh and Vijay Iyer

See Tyshawn Sorey perform his Autoschediasms with The SPCO

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