The Sound of Being 

This month, Opera Philadelphia presents Lawrence Brownlee in the world premiere of composer Tyshawn Sorey's new song cycle, Cycles of my Being, which seeks to explore the realities of life as a black man in America.
By Adam Wasserman 

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Tyshawn Sorey

THE MUSIC OF multi-instrumentalist/composer Tyshawn Sorey might seem designed to subvert expectations at every turn were it not so clearly the most personal of sustained expressions. Born in 1980 in Newark, New Jersey, Sorey’s compositions can veer from the quaint ripplings  of a Satie miniature to the poise of a Stravinsky scherzo to the contemplative rigor of a Toru Takemitsu soundtrack seemingly performed by the Mingus Big Band. A percussionist, pianist and trombonist, Sorey creates an improvisatory admixture of avant garde, jazz, minimalism, neo-Classical and musical performance-art. And yet every reference point seems incapable of describing the uncanny ability of Sorey’s music to thrust both its performers and audiences into the present moment, into the very act of listening as an artistic endeavor.

On Tuesday, Opera Philadelphia will present tenor and Lawrence Brownlee in the world premiere of Sorey’s Cycles of my Being, a new song cycle with texts by the prestigious poet Terrance Hayes. After its premiere in Philadelphia, the work—which explores the realities of life as a black man in America—will travel to Chicago for a performance at the DuSable Museum of African American History as part of Lyric Opera of Chicago's Lyric Unlimited initiative; in April, Brownlee will perform Cycles at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall as part of that venue's 125 Commissions Project. 

Sorey spoke with OPERA NEWS in early February, just a few months after being named as the recipient of a 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant

OPERA NEWS: Tell us about the artistic inception of Cycles of My Being. The combination of your music, Terrance Hayes’s poetry and Lawrence Brownlee’s voice seems almost too good of a combination to be true. 

TYSHAWN SOREY: We all first met sometime last June or July. Larry, Terrance, and myself all came together and had a nice meeting in New York and talked about music. Larry sang a little bit, and then I showed him some examples of my work. Terrance shared some examples of his poetry. We were all showing each other what we could do, and then finally talking about some ideas we had about the piece we could create together—what we were trying to express, the three of us collectively. When I started working on it, I would say it was probably mid-November, finally, after I had received all of the lyrics from Terrance. Before then there were a lot of ideas floating around for maybe four or five months. 

ON: Your music walks a very fine line between the compositional and improvisational. How did you reconcile your process with the need to compose for performers who rely on a score as a starting point? 

TS: Well, what’s great about Larry is his openness. He’s kind of legendary for his receptivity to dealing with new information. This song cycle has no improvisation in it, per se. But I like to have all of the players perform the material in such a way that everybody’s not going to just sit there, and look at their own part, and not understand how what they’re playing relates to everything else that’s going on in the music. If everyone’s just up there reading parts, then it’s very easy to lose one’s place during the performance and never find their way back again. I had requested that all the performers read from the same score—including Larry—so that, during the course of a performance, or even a rehearsal, if Larry chooses to take any kind of liberty with the music, everybody else can follow along and see what’s going on.

I actually make it a point to not have have any two performances sound the same, even though every aspect of the music may be composed. There are elements of the piece that are indeterminate—that don’t necessarily touch the structure of the composition. I really want the artists to make the music theirs, and not necessarily have it be a thing where there are only the notes on the page. The moment is such a central aspect of what we do as performers. Even if we try to interpret a piece of the music the same way, it’s never going to come out the same way, ever. I want that quality to be present in every single performance of the work. Larry is totally open to that idea—where no two performances would ever sound the same, and we’ll have the freedom to take as many liberties as we want with the music. 

ON: How did you tailor your composition to Lawrence Brownlee’s voice? 

TY: After we met, I started to do some research into his work. Shortly after winning the MacArthur Genius Grant, I was performing with [jazz pianist and composer] Jason Moran in October. He told me that he had collaborated with Larry on a performance of “There’s a Man Going ‘Round Taking Names.” I went to check out their performance—I wanted to see what that was like. Just watching those two interact together—it was just amazing. I was able to see that Larry was able to collaborate with just about anyone. Knowing his brilliance as an opera singer, knowing he has sung on many of the great stages of the world—I knew that this would be a perfect collaboration. I did some more research, and kept listening to him singing. At the same time, I didn’t want to give him any music that was, quote-unquote, “easy to perform." I wanted to do something that could inspire him, and all of the rest of the players. I like challenge. And challenge is something that is central to this work—even in terms of the thematic aspects of the material that we’re focusing on. I wanted that to be reflected in the music in a variety of ways. I didn’t want to necessarily put myself in the position where I would only give Larry some super-easy music that he could sing in his sleep. I really wanted there to be some kind of … not a struggle, but a challenge for the musicians and for Larry, and for myself, for that matter, in writing. 

ON: Terrance Hayes’s poetry is as allusive and complex as anything being written today.  It’s also as virtuosic as any musical composition by Rossini. How did you find yourself responding to his words?  

TS: What was great about Terrance was that he was also very open to any type of interpretation that Lawrence or I would make of text that he would send us. There were several times, even, when Lawrence would write a text, and send it to me and Terrance to look at, and then Terrance would offer suggestions on how to express an idea a little bit differently, which would fit more in line with what Terrance’s poetry was. 

So when Terrance would send me the texts, he would basically tell me to just do whatever I wanted to do with them. He didn’t instruct me to put X, Y, and Z lyrics in this movement, or in that movement. So I chose how I used the text myself, and I even mixed the text from thirteen or fourteen poems. There were points where I took poetry from one piece and mixed it with poetry from another piece, and put them within the same piece of music or within the same movement. That again sort of contributes to the improvisatory way that I’ve sort of conceived of Cycles of my Being. I would have conversations with Lawrence where we would talk about the arc of the piece and the arc that we wanted to achieve in the composition. It was mostly through these discussions, and through Terrance’s poetry, that I was inspired to compose the song cycle in the way that I did.


ON: Tell us about the musical language of the piece. 

TS: I like having various types of music exist within the same work. I don’t like to compose using one musical language in particular. I had a formal scheme for the piece, just in terms of how I wanted to explore the music. Not only did I want to delve into tonal areas, but also a lot more advanced tonal areas, a lot of pan-tonal areas. There’s some modal music, dodecaphonicism—there’s all of these different elements that are present. It’s kind of an extension of my own listening experience as a kid. Every piece of music that I compose is essentially an extension of that experience. I’ll listen to all kinds of different music, and will never settle on one piece. Some people tend to link that with dissociation, but I don’t think it’s dissociative at all. I just think that the selections are individualized—my own experiences are coming through.

ON: What sounds or timbres did you find yourself employing

TY: Often the names of the poems were what would inspire the music to follow. For example, the third movement is entitled “Whirlwind. It’s only for piano and voice. It’s also part of the ensemble breakdown that happens during the full-ensemble edition of Cycles of My Being. But this is a dodecaphonic work. There are time signatures all over the place. There are very complicated rhythms happening all over the place. This stuff is very depictive of what the music talks about. 

The same for “Number Four: Hate.” We have these very tense sorts of chords happening. It’s a meditative movement, but at the same time there’s this unrest that’s happening in the music. We have a similar situation where there’s almost a time signature in every measure, and there’s a lot of these sort of similar textures that are in “Whirlwind.” There’s a ton of that going on—a very confused, unsettled energy that exists in both of those movements. 

Whereas, in the two middle movements, “Number Two: Hope, Part One,” and “Number Five: Hope, Part Two”—these are centered on a couple of pieces that Terrance called “Hope.” But they are both within the same key. “Hope: Part One” is a very fast type of movement, and it features only two string instruments along with Larry. Then “Hope: Part Two” features only clarinet and piano with Larry. So it’s split up in terms of the ensemble breakdown. The music can go all kinds of places. The first movement brings us to the song cycle—it’s a welcoming sort of moment in the cycle, but also there’s an energy behind it, in terms of what’s happening tonally and harmonically within the music, that complicates things a little bit. 

Number Six begins with more of a responsorial theme, like in a church service. That’s how that movement begins. There are all kinds of things that reference elements in African-American culture, but also my own experiences—what I’ve listened to, and what I’m inspired by. There’s a lot of experimentation with harmony. There may be one part that evokes a church choir, there’s something that evokes this very fast, 12/8 modal-type music. There’s another thing that sounds a little bit Brahms-ian, in terms of its design, but also borrows a bit from jazz-inflected harmonic progressions. 

ON: You previously wrote a song cycle on Josephine Baker. What made you want to work with the form again? There’s a certain emotional and semi-dramatic arc inherent to the form. 

TS: Essentially, I like composing long pieces. So that was the first reason why I wanted to really take a cycle on. But the overall thing that I wanted to convey was the struggles that we continue to face as African-Americans—a lot of the prejudices and perils that are out here today and exist for us. Not only did I want to look at these harsh themes—of course, there’s some of this present in the music—but I also wanted to include that there is hope for us in terms of arriving at a better place, where we’re able to be accepted, where our voice will be able to be heard.

The way that the piece begins is based on that, and the way the piece ends is also based on this idea of hope, and rising to a place where, maybe it won’t be a utopia, but it will be much better than where things are right now. These are sort of the bookends. Inside of that, within the cycle would be elements addressing how we’re dealing with concepts of hate, how we’re dealing with concepts of prejudice. 

Larry and I had discussed that arc. We realized that we can’t just talk about hate and all of the struggle and everything else without leaving any kind of tinge of hope in there. I agreed with that. My Josephine Baker song cycle for instance—the piece just ends on on very, very dark note, a very harsh place. I wanted to do something that would counter that in Cycles of My Being.  

ON: Can you talk about what it was like to find out that you had been the recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award? I would imagine that, in some ways, it’s life-changing, and in other ways, it probably doesn’t change your your creative or artistic process much at all.

TS: It’s a little bit of both. I’m still processing it—even four months after receiving the news. When I found out about it, I had this really blank stare on my face, and just sat in my office speechless for a while. 

I don’t really worry too much about identity or anything like that. There are people out there who will recognize what you do for what it is, and they’ll see that there’s something of value there. So to get recognized, for me, is enough. Hopefully my work will continue to touch people, and continue to move people and inspire me to do better. I think what that what the award signified for me is the need to do more work—to keep moving forward, taking bigger steps, and taking on larger responsibilities for the things that I put out in my work. spacer 

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