If you saw Tyshawn Sorey at the Earshot Jazz Festival last November, you know this 40-year-old MacArthur “genius grant” winner is one of the most volcanic drummers in contemporary jazz. What you may not know, though, is that Sorey also composes spare, precisely calibrated concert music of a quite different stripe.
On Thursday, Nov. 19, Sorey premieres a new work for cello and orchestra, “For Roscoe Mitchell,” online with a 35-member edition of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Like his Earshot appearance, the new piece is part of what was projected as a four-pronged artist-in-residence stint, but due to COVID-19, the two other parts have not been realized.
That the new piece is dedicated to the great Chicago avant-garde reed player Roscoe Mitchell, whom Sorey considers a mentor, is a good hint as to its flavor. Like Sorey, Mitchell is known for explosive improvisation but also for highly concentrated compositions that guide the listener to an uncanny focus on sound itself.
“With Roscoe, what is not being played is just as important as what is played,” explained Sorey in a telephone interview. “And the music that follows must be as beautiful as the silence itself. This is something I aspire to.”
Sorey also aspires to an ideal in which note values — how long a player expresses each particular sound — is crucially important. To make sure this happens, Sorey has written a score in which the meter changes constantly.
“If I were to just write everything in one time signature,” he said, “the tendency would be for the musician to not play everything at its full value. Everything is measured out, precisely.”
“For Roscoe Mitchell” also shows the influence of composer Morton Feldman, in its fearless use of slow tempos and long string sustains. Over this calm surface floats the cello’s angular figures. But don’t be misled. The piece is in no way a traditional concerto, showcasing pyrotechnical instrumental virtuosity, though Sorey did, in fact, write it with cellist and former Seattle Symphony artist-in-residence Seth Parker Woods specifically in mind.
“I’ve long wanted to do something with him,” said Sorey. “So this was a fortuitous opportunity.”
Sorey and Woods both share the influence of the late George Walker, the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize, who approached his own cello concerto nontraditionally.
“It’s not that I don’t respect the tradition or the genre of concerto writing,” said Sorey, “but I wanted to create a different notion of what that is,” adding with a laugh that he calls his new piece a “noncerto.”
Sorey is well aware of how unusual it is for an African American jazz drummer to be writing this kind of avant-garde concert music but insisted that he does not want to be “handcuffed” by “other peoples’ ideas of Blackness.”
“I’m interested in creating music that is in dialogue with all these different traditions,” he said.
For listeners, Sorey advises putting aside whatever preconceptions they may have about what a concerto “ought” to sound like and “just let the music wash over you.”