Tyshawn Sorey’s music emerges from a vast array of experiences, communities, storytelling, and a deep engagement in mentor-mentee relationships. When I listen to his recent works Pillars I, II, III, and Everything Changes, Nothing Changes, I hear imagined worlds and sonic environments that are anchored in numerous histories and traditions. The detailed timbral designs within his compositions amplify a spiritual and creative focus in the music, asking the listener to employ mindfulness, to breathe, and to engage with spontaneity.
Sorey’s creative practice is multifaceted. His musical journey began as a trombone player in New Jersey where he listened to everything from be-bop to hip-hop and country music. He is in regular demand as a new music composer, writing for ensembles such as the International Contemporary Ensemble and the JACK Quartet. As a drummer, Sorey is a fixture on the jazz scene and can be heard performing with artists such as Vijay Iyer, Kris Davis, Marilyn Crispell, and Jason Moran, in addition to leading his own ensembles. Sorey has also developed a unique voice as a pianist and has played piano with artists such as composer/trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith and mrudangam artist Rajna Swaminathan.
Throughout his rigorous career as a composer and performer, Sorey regularly teaches and mentors other artists to support the creation of their own work. This practice has led him to become an assistant professor of music and African American studies at Wesleyan University. It is here, in his new creative home on the Wesleyan campus, that Tyshawn Sorey and I sat down to discuss his history as an educator, his latest works, and his thoughts about the word “improvisation.”
Aakash Mittal in conversation with Tyshawn Sorey
at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT
September 11, 2019, 1:30 PM
Photography and video presentations (embedded throughout the transcript)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu; edited by Frank J. Oteri
Aakash Mittal: I wanted to start off by talking about your teaching artist work.
Tyshawn Sorey: Teaching artist? What do you mean?
AM: I’ve heard that term thrown out to describe an artist who teaches and mentors students as part of their creative practice…
AM: I first got to hang out with you at Banff in 2013. My experience there was utterly transformative and life-changing. I started thinking about music differently. You and Vijay Iyer were talking about genres not being real and the idea of the genre being this thing record labels created to make more sales. I was coming from a really genre-focused community, so hearing that was like whoa, music’s really about communities, these continuums, and finding the language for it. And it seems like from that point you’ve been going to Banff regularly.
AM: And now you’re also teaching at Wesleyan. So I’m just curious about your relationship to being in this mentorship role. I know it’s been really meaningful to the students, but what has the experience been for you?
TS: Being in this sort of mentorship role when it comes to anything revolving around arts and arts education has always been something that’s been a part of me since my days growing up in Newark. I was at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which is located in Newark. I was part of their Jazz for Teens program. I was first there as a student in ’97, I believe; ’97 or ’98, something like that. At around 1999, I won the first Star-Ledger Scholarship for the Performing Arts, which was administered by NJPAC. That scholarship includes an internship that you can do there.
So suddenly I found myself being this intern for the Jazz for Teens program for the next maybe two, three years. During those times I would help the faculty out, help people get what they need, that sort of thing. I would also watch how the faculty would teach students, and it made me in love with teaching and the idea of being an artist and teaching. That’s what spurred that on. When I served as an intern at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center for the Jazz for Teens program, I also did a summer program called the Summer Youth Performance Workshop, which is more or less a multi-disciplinary program where there’s theater and some dance elements involved. There’s also some music in it. I did that for one year. And the Jazz for Teens program I did for all four years of my scholarship.
At the age of 24, I was going to apply for the School for Improvisational Music, which by that time was in its third year, I think. I was going to apply as a student and then lo and behold Ralph Alessi contacts me and asks if I could you be a part of the faculty for the School of Improvisational Music. I hadn’t even graduated from college yet. So I’m asked if I wanted to do it and of course, I said yes. And before that I had already begun teaching students at the New School University, teaching mostly drum set and some composition. So I’d had some experience teaching at around that time, but when Ralph asked me to do it, this was the first time I got to work in an ensemble context where people really had the drive to do this, professional musicians who were very close to my age. And I was able to relate to them in a lot of ways that probably the students couldn’t really relate to some of the older faculty. That’s usually how that goes when you have somebody who’s closer to your age.
So at that program, I taught along with Mark Helias. We ran an ensemble together there. At that time at the School of Improvisational Music, which hereafter [I’ll call] SIM, usually in those days the classes would consist of one large master class with all the students. Everybody would play for each other and the faculty would talk about their work. Then there’d be a break for lunch and after that would be ensemble time. We spent hours working on music, maybe three hours just working as an ensemble. It was a great experience. Then all of a sudden during the first week of SIM’s program, maybe I think the last two days or so, Mark tells me that he has to leave to go out on the road for the remainder of that time. So I was left to continue running the ensemble. Meanwhile, we’re looking at a piece of music of his, which was also very difficult. Okay, so now it’s on me to help these students out and to help them figure out ways of playing this music in a way that’s going to really work. We spent those last two afternoons working on the music, then we had a concert on that Friday night, and we did the concert to much success and actually I snuck a few of my own ideas into Mark’s composition.
This was in 2004 right after I was working with Butch Morris, the conductor and cornetist who passed away. I miss him so much. Anyway, I had some of my own ideas regarding conduction and conducting improvisation and directing improvisation and that sort of thing by that time. And Mark’s piece afforded the opportunity for me to do something like that. I wanted to experiment with the students. So I tried it on the spot and it really worked. This was a piece for everybody in the ensemble. Mark had a score of these different events, for improvisers to perform certain actions. I juxtaposed different cues that he had and different indications. The piece went from like maybe a ten-, fifteen-minute sort of thing with these instructions to like an hour-long piece with all of these different juxtapositions happening. And I thought, “Wow, this is amazing! This is what I want to do. This is composition. This means a lot to me.” I wanted to demonstrate to the students that you can make so much out of whatever little information that you have on a given page. And that was my attempt to demonstrate that. So that was my SIM experience.
Following that, I also taught at several other places as a teaching artist. I was invited to teach several courses, several masterclasses and different things like that internationally. Places like Germany because that’s where I was a lot of the time, and Italy, and a number of other places where I would visit universities and conservatories. So I was doing all of that work and then in 2011 things changed in terms of opportunities to be a teaching artist at an international program for improvised music. The first time that happened was in Vallekilde in Denmark, somewhere on the outskirts of Copenhagen. I was invited to do that program in 2011. This happened just after I moved back to New York, after graduating Wesleyan and after having experienced my tenure as a teaching assistant for Anthony Braxton’s classes. I was his teaching assistant for two years while I did my master’s degree at Wesleyan. After that, I was invited to go to Vallekilde. So I went there and I taught for a week, and I spontaneously came up with this conducting-improvisation seminar, which I did while I was there.
I talked about the history of conducting improvisation because I wanted to give the students a bit of historical background from the language of [Butch Morris’s] conduction and Anthony Braxton’s language music and Walter Thompson’s soundpainting systems. I wanted to talk about how all of that stuff worked, and where the historical basis of much of that stuff lies, even some of the stuff that predates conduction. I wanted to mention a bit of that stuff, things like what Muhal Richard Abrams was doing in the Experimental Band. Or things that Frank Zappa was doing with his own groups. I talked a bit about all of that stuff.
So I did that in Vallekilde and then in 2012, Vijay sent me an email. By that point, we’ve already known each other for over ten years. So he sent me an email asking if I’m willing to do this Banff program with him for a week, the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. Vijay asked me if I was willing to do it with him, but the only rule was that we could only do it together in the first week because Dave Douglas was stepping down. Dave Douglas was running the program, and this was his last year running it. I guess they were sort of turning a tide and now Vijay became the director. So he asked me to participate as a faculty member. I remember Okkyung Lee and Rich Brown were on the faculty and a lot of other dear collaborators and friends. The reports I’ve gotten was that that very first week was what was needed. People really had a great time and we really dug deep with those people. And then the remaining two weeks seemed like it was night and day for them.
Finally, the next year, Vijay became director, and you were there for that, in 2013. It was during that time that I decided to establish the large Conduction Ensemble which I called it at that time which basically used a lot of Butch Morris’s vocabulary. In addition to that, I also had office hours. I got together with students on a more informal basis. So I hung out a lot with the participants inside and outside of classes. Again, it was one of those things where a lot of people were closer to my age. I was maybe 31, 32 at the time when I started there. I don’t know if you remember, but there were some participants that were older than me. There was this interesting way that I could relate to a lot of the participants there. From there, it just took off and blossomed. Every year Vijay would ask me to do it, and of course, I’d say yes every year, because there’s no other place I’d rather be. I see a lot of myself in each and every one of the participants that walk in that place. I understand what they’re going through. I understand what they’re dealing with, and I can relate to it on a very deep level. So everybody who comes in already has somebody who they have a lot of things in common with; it’s just a matter of really getting to know each other. Hopefully I can give them some wisdom and advice about things that I’ve experienced. I share my stories with them, and I also share time making music with them.
Even my office hours today are such that they can be lessons or they can be opportunities to play. They can be opportunities for us to talk. They can be opportunities for career advice. It can be anything, anything you want it to be. You as a person have to know what you’re desiring in order to get everything you need. And so almost every time I post a sign-up sheet for office hours, it fills up way beyond the amount of times that are available for people to meet because again, it goes back to that thing where you can relate more to the students. I never treat it as a clinical thing where I’m the teacher and you’re the participant. Now, of course, in certain situations that can apply, but when you’re dealing with another professional musician, I try not to take that approach. I always try to come at them from the basis of we have something in common. What adventure can we go on here in our discussion, or in our performance playing together. That’s what I look for, for things that we have in common, and I try to find ways to make them find themselves. Because if you’re coming to me for advice, you’re coming to me to learn something, right? But the thing is I’m not going to say, “This is how you should play this note over this chord” or “This is how you should play the saxophone.” I’m not going to tell you how to do that because you should already know how to do that. You know what I’m saying? But if you’re coming to me to enhance what you already have developed and finding your own fingerprint as it were, then yeah, I’m up for doing that. I’m always up for doing that at any time. So 2012 to 2013, by then the way that I taught as an artist really solidified in a deep way.
That Banff program was a defining moment for me in terms of how I can better develop my teaching and how to rethink and reconsider some things on a pedagogical level. Banff was the defining program to me in which that happened. Then, of course, years followed and I said yes to every year. You get to 2017 and then I’m asked to become co-director of that program, along with Vijay. The job is more intense, more involved. But you know, it’s not a job. This ain’t no job for me, you know. It’s never been a job for me to get together with all of these beautiful personalities and learning about them and learning about what they’ve been through in life. This is not about playing music. This is about how we can learn from each other and enhance each other, and learn a lot more about each other and how to get better through that enhancement, through cultivating relationships that are not only about learning but also about really enhancing one’s art.
How long was that answer?
MS: Fifteen minutes.
TS: Jesus. Sorry. I can get longwinded. As brief as I am on the internet, it can get pretty deep.
AM: I love it. It kind of reminds me of Banff and the conversations that we’d have in that environment among everybody. It feels nurturing honestly. Both remembering being a participant, and then hearing about that story and trajectory just feels like you’re creating an environment where students can discover their creativity and potential and develop it.
TS: That’s the same way that I’ve learned. It’s the same exact way that I learned in that Jazz for Teens program. It goes all the way back to those experiences. By that point, I had already learned how to play over chord changes. I already had a good deal of technical facility on the trombone at that time, which was what I was playing at that program. I already had certain things together, so it was really up to me to listen to the advice that a lot of the teachers there would offer us. Also, there was a program in Montclair, New Jersey that I forgot to mention, which at that time was called the Summer Jazz Workshops. Now it’s called Jazz House Kids. In that program was Michelle Rosewoman, who actually was a very influential figure for me, one of the most important figures for me, and still is, because were it not for her, I don’t think I’d be doing this right now. So we’ll get to her a little bit later, but she was there. And Billy Hart was there. It got to a point where Billy Hart sort of took me in. It seemed like I was one of the more serious kids in that program, and so I would work with him, and then we had a one-on-one individual teaching session. I’m gonna show him that I can play. I’m gonna show him that I know all these things. So I go in there with that kind of attitude, right? And he stopped me when I was in the middle of playing this exercise or whatever they wanted me to play. He was like, “Look, I know you can read, and I know you can do all of these different things and all of that, but you know, I’m very serious about what we’re doing here. Are you serious about this?” And I said, “Absolutely. Yeah.” And right away, the light switch went off at that point. Or the light switch went on rather, which is to say I had come to the realization of why I wanted to do this. Why do I want to participate in music? What fulfillment am I getting out of music? At that point, that lesson was no longer about the drums. You know. Because he already saw that I was able to do a lot of drums things. Now the question is: What am I going to with it? What am I going to do with it on a technical level, but also what am I going to do with it in terms of a way of life? How am I going to think of pursuing creativity as a way of life?
Those questions immediately popped into my head the moment that he stopped me from doing all this technically fancy stuff, or whatever you want to call it, which is hardly anything. Which isn’t saying much because I don’t think I had that much together at all. But anyway, so it was moments like that that sort of struck me and stuck with me. So the way that I teach now is something like that. What is your purpose? What do you want out of this? Are you doing this to make some kind of living? Are you not doing it to make a living? What kind of fulfillment are you getting out of making music? Or out of creating with other people? Or even creating by yourself? What is it about that that speaks to you? It goes all the way back to that time.
Michelle Rosewoman, coming back to her, she was another influential person for me in that regard. She would hand me all of this complex music to play, all of this mixed meter music and everything. Not to sound a particular kind of way, but that stuff to me was quite easy. You know what I mean? It was like anything else. You know you’re playing something in 4/4 and if you see a five on top of the four, I’m not going to freak out. I’m going to try it. I’m going to go for it. That’s always been my attitude. Michelle saw that in me, saw that I was willing to really go there and take a lot of chances with a bunch of the music that’s there. She gravitated towards students like me, I think, because she saw that I was very serious about what I wanted to do, and she saw that. But she also understood that there was a lot of other work that I needed to do as a player: how to be sensitive to things that the band is doing; how to even carry yourself. That was something I learned being on the road with her. She took me on my first trip to Europe.
That was an extension of a lot of the things that I learned from her in that Summer Jazz Workshop program, except now this is adults; you’re in the real world now and you better get your act together. Being on the road with her, she was very nice and very gracious, really beautiful with me and everything. I look at her as kind of a mother figure in terms of how far I’ve come as a result of being around her, as a result of spending copious amounts of time with her, whether it’s rehearsing with her band, or just sitting in her apartment in Chinatown, having dinner. We spent a lot of time together in those days, the early 2000s. This was during and after the time that I was doing that Summer Jazz Workshop. Every year, she would teach there, but then some days I would go back with her to New York and hang out with her. We spent time talking about music and listening to different things. And she would cook dinner. I mean she was just amazing to me. I’ve gotten so much out of those experiences. But then, when it got time for us to go on the road, it was no baby stuff. You really had to be on top of your game. I mean Steven Wilson was in the band. Mark Shim was in the band. Kenny Davis was playing bass in the group. It was that group Quintessence that she had. I’ve done a lot of screw ups as a part of that tour. And I got my ass kicked really hard by being around those guys, not musically, but just on a level of carrying yourself and being in the present all the time, and not getting out of your head.
That stuff I hadn’t learned yet. I always knew I could play and I could do certain things, but it was during that tour that I realized—man, these guys have been doing this for a long time. They’ve been on the road and doing it forever, and they’ve done it with the best of them—really, really great musicians—and here I am trying to sit here and impress them, trying to impress everybody and play some killing drum solos and all of this nonsense. I was in there doing that and I wasn’t carrying myself correctly. I exuded this air of this weird mix of arrogance and feeling not very confident about myself. I would carry myself in this way that was very anti-social; I wouldn’t really socialize with anybody. I’d think about music all the time. I’d think about what I could have done better in my drum solo or something like that. Or I wanted to know how much applause I could get if I did X, Y, and Z. All this stupid nonsense!
Finally, after this tour was done and everything, which I think was in late 2002, I was done; I was fired from that group. And among the reasons was because I was being completely dishonest with the music. And I thank her profusely for that because if I didn’t have that experience very early on, I probably still wouldn’t; I wouldn’t be at the level where I’m at today had I not had that experience happen to me. And the same thing happened when I was with Dave Douglas’s group. All of these experiences I’m talking about are teaching moments. And these are things that I carry with me. These are things that I always continue to think about sometimes whenever I see people younger than me making some of the same mistakes I did.
AM: What happened with Dave Douglas?
TS: With Dave Douglas, we were on this tour in the US. I think we were gone for maybe some three weeks or something like that. I caught the tail end of doing these long tours. So we’re in the third week, and we’re in Chicago, and it was very, very cold outside. We had a day off. And he invited me to lunch one time. This was after a series of concerts that we’d done in Athens, Georgia where, of course, I’m making some of the same mistakes I made before where I’m in there trying to impress everybody in the band. I’m in there trying to impress the audience, and all this stupid stuff I did. So he invites me to lunch, and I’m thinking, “Oh man, he’s looking at me like I’m kind of this special person.” I’m feeling so special now because this guy’s taking me for lunch. So I leave my hotel room. He left the hotel too and everything. I forget where we ate, but I remember it was downtown somewhere in Chicago and it was a super cold afternoon. And so we’re there having lunch, and he says, “So how are you feeling?” “I feel great,” this air of confidence or whatever that’s there. And then he was like, “Well, how do you think you sound in the band?” And I was like, “Well, you know, I think I could be a better drummer, and I think I could do certain things better. I could play this rhythm, or I could make it more hip by doing this.” He was like, “First of all, let me tell you something, I don’t care what you sound like. I care what the band sounds like, and you need to care what the band sounds like also. Because that’s your responsibility. If you’re the drummer, you have to play the drums, but you also have to be aware of what you’re doing in the band. Stop paying attention to what you’re playing and get out of your head, and pay attention to what you’re doing. Pay attention to how everybody else in the band is responding.” He’s basically telling me to pay attention and to get out of my own head and stop being so concerned about what I was doing for myself.
Of course, I learned from that meeting. And from watching other greats really do it, I finally got it. Yes, our job as drummers, of course, is to make a lot of things happen in the music and to really move the music forward and do all kinds of wonderful things, but at the same time, we have to make everybody in the band around us sound better. We have to deal with the instrument in a way that is more about giving than it is about trying to push people. You don’t want to be combative behind the drum set. And that was my approach in those days. So that experience with him in Chicago also opened a lot of doors for me. Because now sometimes I see drummers who are the same thing. It’s like, man, why are you concerned about what you’re doing? You need to respond to everything else. This is communication. This is not a thing where you do this and everybody else has to respond to you. That’s not how this works. So I try to bring moments that I’ve experienced in my own life. Just like I’m telling you this story, I tell everybody else this story, too. I think stories are what help people really get deeper inside of themselves, rather than me telling people what to do. I think stories ingrain this sort of information into one’s mind.
AM: Yeah, I love that. I think a lot about the role that storytelling plays in how we learn music or really how we learn anything.
TS: It’s the history of the music.
AM: I’ve been spending a lot of time with Milford Graves and he’s such a great story teller, as you know.
TS: Yeah. Oh yeah.
AM: Storytelling is a really big part of how he teaches.
TS: Well that’s where I get that from, walking into his place I’m not expecting that he’d show me some drum stuff or whatever, but he might do some of that. We done none of that. We’d basically talk for about five, six hours. Him telling me a story. Story after story after story about things that he experienced in his life. I think that’s important. Every elderly teacher I worked with has that quality about them, where they will sit and tell you stories and make you learn that way, instead of telling you what to play or what to do. Michael Carvin, for instance, who is one of the most revered teachers of the drums. We will talk about some drum things, but he knows my playing and he knows that I can do certain things on the instrument. So it wasn’t a thing about me getting together with him for a drum lesson, quote-unquote. It was really a thing that was more about how to develop what I’m already doing and how to make that better. But then he would tell me stories. He would give me nuggets of information or advice on how to be successful, on how to carry yourself, on the language that you use to talk about yourself whenever you’re performing. All of these things that one would overlook easily.
I try to provide things like that, but I’ve had that experience more with elder teachers than younger teachers I think. That’s not to say that the younger teachers aren’t as valuable as some of the advice I’ve gotten from the older ones, but hanging with the older musicians is very important. It’s something that I think needs to happen more, younger musicians hanging out with older musicians. All of the greats are passing; they’re really passing quickly. It’s always best to try to take advantage of the opportunity of getting the wisdom from a lot of these older musicians through stories and also through just being around them and seeing what their life is like. That’s important for me. It’s always been an important thing for me because it’s been there since I was a kid, since I was a teenager, young adult, getting into this music. Much of that was about hanging around with older musicians and hearing their stories. Sometimes I’d even get right away what they’re telling me when I was 16-, 17-, 18-years old. If I heard some of the stuff that some of these teachers would tell me at that age, I probably wouldn’t get that stuff ‘til now basically. So sometimes things take a while to get, but I think it’s still important to get the information and you can always save it for later for when you really need to put that information to use.
AM: Now I wonder, thinking again from hanging out with Milford and some other elders like Tanmoy Bose, there’s a ritual that has the opportunity to open something up. I’m also thinking about this book I read, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. In it, she talks about how the story is the ceremony. That ceremony is what takes you to whatever the next stage of development is, “the telling of the story.” The experience of it. The story can be embodied. I think what you’re talking about, which feels important, is that the story’s not just a form of entertainment, which is the way we are taught to think about it in American culture. This is much deeper than that.
TS: Oh yeah, way deeper than that. You almost want to imagine yourself as part of that story. Sometimes when I would listen to people like Milford tell these stories, I’d try to think of myself as being in that moment, in that period that he’s talking about. It makes me want to imagine myself in that time period and what that must have been like. I try to imagine myself sometimes in these situations whenever I would hear a lot of these historical anecdotes. It makes it more vivid for me, not necessarily in terms of actually living the story, but just in terms of what value that story has and how meaningful it is to my life now.
AM: I actually want to talk about something I’ve been talking about with Milford Graves and with Vijay Iyer and see what your take on it is. It’s not something that Milford explicitly said. Again, it was like more through our interaction that this idea fell out or emerged. He was taking a Dominican rhythm and a Haitian rhythm and talking about playing them simultaneously and how he was thinking about the variations within that. What struck me was that maybe the word improvisation, as we use it as English speakers, isn’t the right word to describe what we do. We use improvisation always in conjunction or in comparison to this idea of composition as a fixed thing.
AM: So I called Vijay up immediately after that session on the way home and he sent me an email sharing something similar about his own exploration of the word improvisation not being the right word.
TS: I tend to prefer not to use that word myself. I always used to say spontaneous or formal composition because there are many articles and everything that contest these kinds of semantics. I just read an interesting article by Lukas Foss talking about improvisation versus composition, in which he talks about how improvisation is not composition and how composition is not improvisation because improvisation is done through emotion and muscle memory and composition is a thing that involves the mind more. In other words, you’re sort of privileging one over the other in those instances. Now mind you, he did have an improvisers’ orchestra during the ‘50s into the ‘60s and no doubt it was one of the more influential groups during its period when you’re talking about contemporary music. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily agree with what that article proposes. Nor do I agree with this notion of how improvisation is looked upon as this other; there is no other when it comes to creativity. Either you’re creating or you’re not. You know? Right? So it becomes a semantics issues. I’m still trying to figure it out for myself, but in general, whenever I talk about my own music, I don’t refer to things as improvising versus composing. I don’t ever think about that. I would just look at whatever the musicians are doing as an extension of whatever the composition is, whatever environment the composition is setting up, the same way that Anthony Braxton has viewed his music. And the same way that Roscoe Mitchell has viewed his music. And the same that Muhal Richard Abrams had viewed his music. This kind of thing is a more accurate representation of what’s going on.
Because of the negative connotations that that word can have sometimes, particularly as it relates to music of composers of color, namely black musician-composers, improvisation is looked at as this thing that comes from the soul and from the heart. It doesn’t have a lot of intellectual thought put into it, which is complete nonsense in my opinion, because, in fact, improvisation of all kinds has to involve some part of the mind. Otherwise, you’re just producing something without any sort of purpose and that’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in making something that has some kind of purpose, some kind of craft, and some kind of structure to it. You have to be mindful about these things, even though you’re playing from the soul and from the heart. I don’t see why those two things are mutually exclusive.
AM: Could there also be an issue with saying that composition, using notation and paper, is somehow not involving the soul and not involving your body?
TS: Well, that’s a very Euro-centric view of how this kind of thing works. And, like I said, I don’t agree with it. Sometimes ideas that come from instinct can sometimes work better than ideas that you have developed in your mind that you’ve planned out and that you wrote down and everything. I’ve experienced this for myself where sometimes things that I intuit often end up sounding better than things that I had all these plans for. It’s like what Morton Feldman said, “The composer has plans. Music laughs.” And I’ve been laughed at many a time. At my own desk. In front of 40, 50 musicians when I’m doing Autoschediasms or a conduction type thing.
I’ll tell you a story. Another story. We were at Miller Theatre getting ready for my Composer Portrait concert with the International Contemporary Ensemble and the JACK Quartet. And I had this really grand idea. The JACK Quartet would be doing separate kinds of autoschediasms in tandem with what the ICE Ensemble was doing. I would control one ensemble with one baton in one hand, and the other one with the other hand. Each group would have different signals, but then the way that these different signals would work in each hand would somehow influence each other and everything in this mapped out imaginative thing I had in my mind. This was my plan. So I get there, and I’m wanting to communicate what this language is going to be—what I’m going to do and everything—to everybody. We did maybe 10-15 minutes of playing with just the signals that I was going to give for International Contemporary Ensemble. Just their signals. Everybody was going to do it, just so everybody would be aware of what I was doing. We did that and everything sounded so fantastic and so brilliant. Much better than this plan that I had for this composition. Everything they did was so valuable and made so much sense to the point where I just burst out laughing when we were done. I was like, “You know what, forget these plans. Let’s just do what we just did.” So, yes, that was quote-unquote soulful composition in that all I did was a very simple example of what I was going to do. And it turned out to be some of the most remarkable music I’ve heard. How can you say that that doesn’t involve the mind in some way? Because I decided at that point to create the composition spontaneously using only the language that we’d established together. You’ve got to be mindful when you use that language. You have to be very aware of everything that’s going on within the ensemble, so you’ve got to you use your ears. You have to use your brain to be sure that certain things work and certain things don’t work. And for things that do not work, how do you make them work? So, to me, improvisation is not this other sort of thing, this other sort of quote-unquote relief place. That doesn’t really exist for me in terms of it existing outside of whatever the composition is setting up.
AM: You mentioned mindfulness a couple of times. In some other interviews and articles I’ve read, some people have been labeling your music, especially some of your new works, as being Zen-like. I remember from my Banff experience in 2013 you played a piece for us. We sat and listened for about 20 minutes. I don’t remember the name of it, but I remember it had these beautiful tones that would come in and the use of space and silence was really incredible. It felt very different than the density of your playing that sometimes occurs in Vijay’s trio, which is the context I had heard you in previously. For me, it felt like seeing another side of your music and who you are, which was really beautiful. You told the story about being unmindful in your youth and now you’ve made this switch into something more mindful. That’s something you’re thinking about and doing. It’s clearly in your writing. Is Zen practice part of it in any way?
TS: It was. I’m terrible at it now. I hardly have time to practice, but when I do have time to practice, I do pay attention to these things. I see every moment that I sit behind a drum set or behind a piano as a moment of practicing “Zen” but in a different kind of sense. Every moment, before I even go to the instrument, before a concert even, I’m already in the music. I’m already inside of what is about to happen. Sometimes my demeanor backstage can sometimes show that, because generally I don’t like to socialize too much, or talk too much before I go on stage because I’m trying to make everybody sound good. I have a job to do. I’m here to make everybody sound good. I also want to sound good myself. I want to make sure that in every moment everything that I play hopefully contributes in a positive and deep way to whatever is going on in the music. So I’m not going to sit here and distract myself from thinking that this is what I need to do. So before a gig, I mean getting there, getting to the gig, I’m already preparing for the gig. I’m already there on stage when I’m in my car on the way to the gig. I get ready well in advance, so that way I can be 100 percent tuned into everything that’s going on. Because as Milford Graves once pointed out, when you’re mindful and when you’re 100 percent in tune with everything—not just in tune with what’s going to happen in the music, what the form is, and where do you come in, and that kind of thing. That stuff is minor. But when you’re in tune with the room, when you’re in tune with the people in that room, when you’re in tune with the musicians, I’m talking about mentally, spiritually, emotionally, whatever, when you’re that much in tune—you can make the best possible music you can make at that moment.
When you’re not in tune with these things, when you’re thinking about how long this concert is going to be, even something like that, when that enters your mind, you’re not in it. You’re not in it at all. So I try to always be 100 percent in the moment whenever I’m making music with a lot of people. Sometimes it could mean getting there. I remember Vijay, it’s funny. We were at the Vanguard one week. This was when I was living in Brooklyn. I get there to the gig at the Vanguard and everything. And I’d be there like around eight o’clock or so. Normally the thought would be—you get out of the car, you walk into the venue, walk downstairs, hang out for a minute, say hi to everybody. But no, what would I do after my drums have been set up and everything? I’d get there about 7:45, 8:00 you know, just to make sure I’m there on time. But also I’d sit in my car until 8:29 and I’d meditate. I would either listen to music or I would listen to no music sometimes. I would just sit there and just kind of get in the space of what I’m about to do. People would look at me. Why is he sitting there? What is he doing? I’m on the gig right now. I’m already here. Where are you? What are you expecting, you know? So that would happen. You know I would sit, and when 8:29 would strike, I would then get out of my car and head downstairs. Vijay would be like, “Yeah, I was wondering where you were. What happened?” or “Are you okay?” “Oh yeah, I’m fine.” “You ready?” “Sure.” That kind of thing. And we’d go on stage and we would produce some really good music, I think. Sometimes it takes me not socializing and not really being around a bunch of people and not having too many distractions getting into my head or whatever before I get up there and play because that’s when I do my best work I feel. It’s when I’m not inundated with so much stuff before I go up on the stage. I don’t want to be thinking at all about what just happened. I want to already be there before I get there. That’s how I see it.
AM: I love that.
AM: So my last question. Can we talk a little bit about Pillars I, II, and III?
AM: I just started listening to it. It feels like a work that I’m going to revisit. There’s a lot going on and I’m not going to get it all the first time through.
AM: But going back to something we talked about earlier. You were talking about your teaching and to me it felt like you’re creating this environment where the students had their potential fall out and grow. When I say, “fall out” I mean something Claire Chase and I were talking about where cultural progress emerges, or falls out, from the feedback loops of the larger cultural environment. So as I was listening to Pillars I, I heard what I would maybe call the primary sound world of the instruments being played, and it sounded like what might be called sustained sounds. There was a lot of activity happening in the overtone series. I don’t know if I would call that a secondary sound world, but I remember hearing these moments where it seemed like there’s this other sound emerging. So is that intentional? Is that something you’re thinking about? It feels like there’s a connection there between the way you’re writing and the way you’re teaching.
TS: It’s certainly connected, but it’s something that I didn’t necessarily imagine. Some of the music on Pillars is thoroughly notated and some of it isn’t. There are points in there in which I’m hearing certain things, and I want them to come out. So, for example, I would tell the four bass players what to play in order to draw out certain overtones. Mark Helias is great with that. He was on the session, and I’m glad I had him there because some of the other bass players didn’t really know how to achieve certain bass harmonics. There were a few of them that were really tricky to get. But right away, Mark, because he has so much classical background and he really knows the instrument, would just be able to explain to the other bass players how to get certain harmonics out of the instrument, which was fascinating. It was great to have him in the session. Some of it had to do with having known Mark for almost 15 years, but also knowing that he understands the instrument on a really deep level. Part of it is a by-product, so having him be a part of recording was a conscious decision, because I knew that he’d be able to do that with no problem. But in terms of what actually came out of it, occasionally I would make some remarks about what to do and occasionally I would just kind of leave it alone.
I also spent a great deal of time mixing that record. I met Nick Lloyd, the engineer and owner of Firehouse 12, and I spent almost a whole day just mixing half of a CD. Sometimes we’d mix one CD for multiple days until we got everything right. It took me being in the mixing and mastering room for quite some time and sitting there with him and saying, “Well, this sound is not quite that pronounced. Let’s make that a little more pronounced.” So a lot of it is post-production as well because I like to take my time and I have a very specific sound whenever I’m producing my own projects and whenever I’m listening to mixes. Live, of course, is sort of intuitive. But when I’m in production mode, this has to be specifically the way I want it to sound in order to communicate what I’m trying to communicate emotionally or otherwise.
AM: What is the meaning of the title?
TS: Well, first of all, I thought when people will hear that recording they’re going to assume it’s just the musicians playing free with some composed things in it. But that’s not what this is. All of it is structure. Each one of the three pillars is kind of a play on the three pillars of Zen. Each pillar has its own structure, but each structure does not have a particular narrative; there’s no one linear narrative that you can follow in each of the three of those. When you put the three of them together, there still is no narrative. But there’s a lot of order. There’s a lot of direction. And there’s a lot of things concerning stuff that is notated and not notated, and there’s also the structural element of getting the listener into the room with us. Because that’s how the session started. The recording sessions were like that, too, where we would only play the written components of the music. Before we even recorded anything we would rehearse a lot of the notated sections of the music which were very difficult. I mentioned some of the bass stuff that was happening. Some of that stuff is very difficult to play in tune and to hear every single frequency. I think we spent maybe two hours on one piece.
The reason I decided to do it that way, and then do open improvisations later, was to get the musicians into the music and the sound world that I’d like to achieve on that record. So it would be what Bill Dixon would call “getting the musicians in the room.” I always think of that. I see notation as this way of being—rather than some other thing or rather than just some inanimate object, just some sheet of paper. Notation is how you take the horn out of the case. Notation is sitting in the car for 30 minutes before playing a gig. You know what I mean? That to me is what notation can be. Notation is simply getting the musicians to do what you want them do and having the music sound the way you want it to sound. And if I want my music to sound like something that is mindful and something that is enduring, and hopefully something that can be memorable and really resonate with people, then I’ll need to take the steps necessary to do that. Besides the physical notation, the sheet of paper or whatever, there’s also the psychological notation. That should also be there—where you can deal with the music on a real level. Whether it’s notated on paper or not. You’re still in the room and you’re still in the music. You’re still in the activity of that sound or of that sound world; you’re still immersed in it. That’s what Zen is. You immerse yourself in it to the point where that’s the room you’re in. That’s life.