The new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound has released a new album, For George Lewis/Autoschediasms. It features recordings of two compositions by Tyshawn Sorey. For George Lewis has never been recorded before; Autoschediasms has been around in various forms for a few years. The first version I heard had been performed by Crash Ensemble at the MusicNOW festival in Cincinnati, Ohio. I asked Sorey about it when I interviewed him for DownBeat in 2018, and he described it as less of a piece of music than a language for conducted improvisation — “this lexicon of new information for them to follow me with…visual and verbal cues, textual cues”.
The press materials for the album go into a little more detail, explaining that
Sorey conducts Alarm Will Sound with visual gestures, textual directives, and autonomous prompts relayed via the hands, baton (or several batons), and white board. Some cues are technique-specific, or they can also be relational: for example, directing musicians to play a sound based on their distance from other players, or prompting musicians to execute a given order of events. No matter the gesture, all players are given some degree of freedom in how they realize Sorey’s directions, and are required to tap into their own musical instincts. The form of the composition is almost never predetermined, although Sorey is quick to point out that “there is nothing random or ‘free’” when he’s conducting an ensemble. He goes on to say: “I always think compositionally. Much of what I do is craft even when I spontaneously create something, no matter who I am doing it with…. At no point can one performer take this process of making music for granted.”
It’s hard to identify a Tyshawn Sorey composition instantly as coming from his pen, the way you might be able to do with a piece by Roscoe Mitchell or Anthony Braxton or John Zorn, or Philip Glass or Elliott Carter or Morton Feldman. A major reason for that, I think, is that Sorey is from a generation that grew up listening to and idolizing all these composers and more (and collaborating with many of them), and has absorbed and synthesized their ideas while developing concepts of his own. He hears and sees things in ways that older players and writers simply wouldn’t.
That’s something people don’t think about often enough: that people younger than oneself think differently, because their thinking is in response to different stimuli — they have sources of information available to them that their predecessors did not have. This can be good, and it can be bad, and some things linger from generation to generation even when we wish they wouldn’t, but while part of it is the rediscovery of things everyone has to learn on their own, a much larger part is building on what their predecessors have done.
Once something has been done, it’s part of the lexicon. Screaming “free jazz” saxophone no longer has any power to shock or even startle, because it’s been part of the lexicon for 60 years. Similarly, no one should be surprised when a composer incorporates hip-hop into their music, because hip-hop has been around for almost 50 years, and has been a dominant cultural force for 40. There was nothing like Roscoe Mitchell‘s piece for eight percussionists, “The Maze,” before he wrote and recorded it. But now there is, and Sorey wrote a paper on it. So the language first explored in “The Maze” is now part of the lexicon, available to anyone who wants to pick it up and work with it.
One thing Sorey’s compositions often possess is length. His 2018 work Pillars, performed by a septet and released as a 3CD set (a 2LP version was considered a separate work), was a triptych running nearly four hours in total. His 2020 digital release Unfiltered was also three tracks; the shortest was a half hour, the longest 55 minutes. His 2016 album The Inner Spectrum of Variables, a single work divided into eight parts (six movements, a “Reverie” and a “Reprise”), ran just under two hours. Thus, it’s no surprise that For George Lewis, the first disc of this set, is 53 minutes long.
The piece is built around long drones and waves of sound, single notes or chords struck and held, whether on flutes, strings, or organs. The pace is extremely patient; the music has a kind of placidity, like a sleeping whale. Its vertical range is relatively narrow. There are some very low notes, particularly from the piano, but fewer very high ones, and the harmonies are stacked tightly. At times the higher tones seem to bend and warp in the air, like feedback, and when the reeds and strings are on almost the same frequency it can be fascinating to hear them separate toward the end of a phrase, like a string unraveling into separate threads. In its final third, the piece develops, gradually and then suddenly, into something much more romantic; the piano begins playing a four-note figure and the strings surge upward as the horns and flutes offer a lush theme that feels almost pastoral, like one is watching a glorious sunrise over a vast expanse of grass.
For George Lewis has qualities in common with many long, relatively static pieces (examples might include Miles Davis‘s “He Loved Him Madly,” latter-day Morton Feldman compositions, or the 52-minute version of John Cage‘s “Seven” performed by Apartment House on the recent Number Pieces box set). It’s very beautiful, but the average listener’s attention span only runs about ten minutes, and that’s for music with more dramatic events that one can use as milemarkers. When dealing with a piece of great length that offers minimal variation, it’s much easier to just kind of live in it while it’s happening, and For George Lewis is a very nice place to spend an hour.
The two versions of Autoschediasms were recorded in May 2019 and October 2020, respectively. The first was a concert performance in St. Louis; the second was a streaming event, with players located in Philadelphia, PA; New York, NY; Little Falls, NJ; Appleton, WI; and Columbia, MO, all connected via webcam.
The concert performance begins by laying out two contradictory patterns. The piano, reeds and bass are in constant motion, emitting flurries of notes in an almost free jazz/Euro improv style, with plenty of clank, tinkle, clatter and squawk. But behind them, at regularly paced intervals, a brass section rises and crests like a wave, with some Ellingtonian plunger-muted trumpets and trombones emitting vocal cries. That all lasts for about seven minutes. Then there’s a brief passage of solo piano, and the piece gets loud and clangy for a moment, but then it settles down. The bulk of it features repetitive passages where the musicians play the exact same thing four or five times, break that up with some chamber music-ish string work, then pick another phrase they like and chew on it for a while. It doesn’t develop so much as proceed through a series of stages that create a more or less unified mood.
The streaming version is darker and more ominous. It begins with overlapping string drones reminiscent of Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, with growling brass and reeds joining them and occasionally some whistling and metallic sounds that seem almost imitative of steam engines, the way composers at the turn of the last century would pay thrilled tribute to then-new technologies. More and more elements are added, and around six minutes in, the music begins to shift from drones to staccato flurries of sound and odd thumps and rattles. Once it’s fully in this mode, a looping sort of structure develops, with slight shifts and even what could be labeled solos, though they’re really more like short outbursts from within the overall group sound.
These two (three) pieces are each very different from each other, and as I said above, it’s hard to pinpoint a Tyshawn Sorey composition in the way one can identify something as being the work of Morton Feldman or Philip Glass or Duke Ellington. (About twelve and a half minutes into the second Autoschediasms, there’s some really nice growling trumpet, by the way.) But that’s part of what makes his music so compelling. It’s hard to know what you’re going to get, so you just have to sit down with an open mind and open ears and listen for an hour or so. I’ve been listening for over a decade (the first album of his I heard was 2009’s Koan) and to date, I’ve never come away from any of his work feeling like my time had been wasted.