“Everything changes, nothing changes”: Tyshawn Sorey wrote the string quartet that bears this title in 2018. But the feeling is so tailor-made for the past year that when the JACK quartet announced they would be streaming a performance of the work in December. I forgot for a moment and assumed that it was a premiere made for these turbulent but static times.
I should have known better. Mr. Sorey already had enough on his plate without cooking a new quartet. In the last two months of 2020 alone, two concert-like works were premiered, one for violin and one for cello, as well as a new repetition of “Autoschediasms”, his series of conducted ensemble improvisations with Alarm Will Sound.
That wasn’t all that has happened to him since November. Mills College, where Mr. Sorey works as composer in residence, has streamed his solo piano set. Opera Philadelphia shot a stark black and white version of its “Cycles of My Being” song sequence about black masculinity and racial hatred. JACK did “Everything Changes” for the Library of Congress, along with the violin solo “For Conrad Tao”. Da Camera from Houston put a performance of “Perle Noire” online in 2016, a tribute to Josephine Baker, which Mr. Sorey arranged with soprano Julia Bullock. His last album, “Unfiltered”, was released in early March, days before the lockdown.
He was the composer of the year.
Both of these are coincidental – part of this work was planned a long time ago – and not. Mr Sorey has been on everyone’s lips at least since winning a MacArthur Genius Scholarship in 2017, but the shock to the performing arts since late winter suddenly put him at the center of the music industry’s artistic and social concerns as an artist.
Indefinable, he speaks to almost everyone. He works on the blurred and productive boundary between improvised (“jazz”) and notated (“classical”) music, a composer who is also a performer. Because of his versatility he is valuable for ensembles and institutions – he can play both dark solos and great vocal works. And he’s black at a time when these ensembles and institutions are desperately trying to belatedly address racist representation in their program.
He is so in demand and has had so much success that the trolls came for him and dragged him onto Facebook to exaggerate the bio on his website. (Granted, it’s a bit adjective: “celebrated for its unparalleled virtuosity, effortless mastery”, etc.)
The style for which he has been best known since his 2007 album “That / Not”, his debut as a band leader, owes a lot to the composer Morton Feldman (1926-87): economical, spacious, icy, often quiet, but often threatening, focusing the listener only on the development of the music. Mr. Sorey has called this vision that of an “imaginary landscape in which pretty much nothing exists”.
There is a direct connection between Permutations for Solo Piano, a 43-minute study of calm resonance on this 2007 album, and the first of the two improvised solos in his most recent Mills recital, which was filmed on a piano at his home has been. Even the much shorter second solo, more frenetic and brighter, seems to want to settle down in gloomy shadows at the end.
“Everything Changes, Nothing Changes”, a floating, slightly dissonant 27-minute gauze, is in this sense, as is the new work for violin and orchestra “For Marcos Balter”, which premiered on November 7th by Jennifer Koh and the Detroit became a symphony orchestra. In a program note, Mr. Sorey insists that this is a “non-certo” without the overt virtuosity of a traditional concert, the contrasting tempo or the lively interplay between soloist and ensemble.
“For Marcos Balter” is a steady, steadily slow keel, more of a community of players than a metaphorical give and take between an individual and society. Ms. Koh’s intentionally long tones, such as careful exhalation, have a spectral effect on the marimba. Soft piano chords reinforce soft string chords. At the end, a drum roll is muted so that it almost sounds like a gong. Mrs. Koh’s violin trembles copper-colored over it.
It’s flawless and elegant, but I prefer Mr. Sorey’s new cello and orchestral piece, “For Roscoe Mitchell,” which premiered on November 19th by Seth Parker Woods and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Here there is more tension between discreet, uncomfortable minimalism and an impulse for opulence, fullness – more tension between the receding soloist and his opinion.
The piece is less flawless than “Für Marcos Balter” and more restless. The ensemble backdrop consists of crystal clear, misty sighs, while the solo cello line expands to melancholy arias without words. sometimes the tone is passionate, dark colored nocturne, sometimes an ethereal lullaby. “For Roscoe Mitchell” feels like a composer who challenges himself and expresses himself confidently – testing the balance between introversion and extroversion, privacy and exposure.
But it is not right to make it appear an outlier in this regard; Mr. Sorey’s music was never just field manic silence. In Alarm Will Sound’s inspirationally well-executed virtual performance of “Autoschediasms,” Mr. Sorey video-chatted 17 players in five states quietly at his desk while writing symbols on cards and holding them in front of the camera, an obscure silent language that This resulted in a low hum of sounds differing in texture and then excitingly a spatial, oozy section characterized by sharp bassoon tones.
And he’s not afraid of falling into some kind of neo-romantic mood. “Cycles of My Being” with tenor Lawrence Brownlee and lyrics by poet Terrance Hayes nods to the passionately declarative mid-20th century American art songs of Samuel Barber and Lee Hoiby, as does “Perle Noire” near the end of a sweet sad instrumental anthem from Copland.
“Cycles,” which felt bulging in a voice-and-piano version three years ago, blossomed in Opera Philadelphia’s presentation of the original instrumentation, which adds a few energetic strings and a plaintive clarinet. And after a year of protests, what seemed like stiffness in both lyrics and music in 2018 seems to be more relentless now. (Opera Philadelphia presents another Sorey premiere, “Save the Boys,” with countertenor John Holiday on February 12th.)
“Perle Noire” still seems like Sorey’s best. Josephine Baker’s lively numbers turn into unresolved meditations. There’s both a polite, jazzy swing here and an icy expanse, an exploration of race and identity that is ultimately undecided – a mood of endless disappointment and endless desire. (“My father, how long”, Mrs. Bullock intones again and again towards the end.)
In works like this, the extravagant praise that some have ripped Mr. Sorey for on social media – like this bio or the JACK quartet that praises “the precision of Sorey’s chess mastery” – feels justified. And isn’t it a relief to speak of a 40-year-old composer with the immeasurable enthusiasm we generally reserve for the pillars of the classical canon?