TYSHAWN SOREY - INTERVIEW FROM JAZZNYTT 2012
This interview with composer/drummer/multi-instrumentalist/genius Tyshawn Sorey was conducted at the Molde Int. Jazz Festival in 2011. The interview was done together with artist, writer and musician Rasmus Hungnes, who also wrote out and finished the version that was printed by Norwegian magazine Jazznytt in 2012, which also included a run through that I did of his discography. The version below is more or less the un-edited conversation, which shed light on many details not covered in the printed version.
Leading up to the interview I was in a heavy Tyshawn Sorey phase. I listened to all the records I could find, and re-routed my ticket home from Turkey to go by Molde to hear his three concerts that year; a duo with Misha Mengelberg, a trio with Magnus Broo and Paal Nilssen-Love, and with the John Escreet Trio. “Paal Nilssen love was actually also one of my heroes when I was growing up,” he later told us.
On my way to Molde, I ran into him at the airport in Oslo. He was walking around alone with huge earphones, smiling and sometimes laughing out loud. I guessed he was deep into some minimalist-complex-intellectual-something music. Although starstruck like I can’t remember, I stopped him and introduced myself. He was very friendly and we talked briefly, where I basically told him about all the records with him on that I liked. Three days later, I’m going to an artist talk with him conducted by the Molde Festival. As I walk into the room, to my surprise, he says “Hi Øyvind!” I’m referring to the meeting at the airport in the interview. His answers to what he was listening to, along with the fact that he remembered my very non-American name, not to mention his thoughtful answers in general, tells me that Tyshawn Sorey’s mind works a little bit different than most.
RASMUS: Trans-idiomatism – what does it mean?
TYSHAWN: Trans-idiomaticism is really, in my opinion, a way of being a composer or performer with no opposition to other idioms, or let's say, no opposition to styles. Trans-idiomaticism celebrates a world aesthetic, or perhaps a multi-cultural aesthetic. Now what I mean by this is that there's so many musics that exist on this planet that it's impossible to really incorporate every single possible thing. But I do not necessarily have an opposition to any form of music, whether it be Western, Eastern, Northern or Southern. What I like to do is appreciate all of the music for what it is, rather than saying this is not jazz, or this is not this or that. Music is much bigger than me, so it's like I can't really define, I'm not going to say such and such music – now, you know, I have my opinions on certain kinds of music, I think we all do have our opinions of music, but to me, trans-idiomaticism clearly means that you work within an extensive area of musical idioms without necessarily locking into any one of them.
I don’t see myself as being a so-called jazz musician. If anything I consider myself – if you want to put labels on anything, which I’d advise against, but for the record I do consider myself an avant-garde musician who plays a wide variety of styles, ranging from R&B music, hip-hop music, Klezmer music, Jewish music, you know. Well, it was Jewish music before it became known as Klezmer music, but I also play a lot of Jewish music. I play Balkan music, a lot of other different kinds of musics throughout the world. So for me it’s all the same, I don’t see myself as thinking of one music as superior to another. So that would be what my definition of trans-idiomatism is: No opposition to the performance or appreciation of styles.
RASMUS: Yeah, because that would be limiting. If you were to define yourself as a jazz musician you would limit your vocabulary.
TYSHAWN: Right, yeah, in the same sense that John Zorn defines his music as being avant-garde or experimental, I define my music in the same way. Because his music is also a reflection of his experience, and my music is also that; it’s a reflection of my life experiences. That may sound very vague to a lot of people, but actually it’s a much simpler concept than me saying I’m a jazz musician, because now you’re getting into a thing where you’re defining your work in such
a way that it’s applicable to a certain kind of methodology or a certain kind of mindset. And to me that’s not what my work is about to me.
My work is about exploring multiple methodologies, all at the same time, in a holistic sort of way. So I do consider my work as being avant-garde in that sense, but I also consider my work as being trans-idiomatic, which to me is essentially the same process, it’s the same definition, from what I can see.
ØYVIND: So you said (in the artist talk), if I understood you correctly, that you had to choose the occasions when to use different parts of yourself. But say when you’re playing with Misha Mengelberg like yesterday, could you go into using say some of the R&B thing more explicitly, or do you feel it would be the wrong time?
TYSHAWN: I never know until I get into the music, but generally I try not to think in that matter. You know, say I’m going to explicitly do this kind of rhythm here, or there. Kind of, for me, when I perform with Misha, the concept of idioms is out the window at that point. Or when I’m working in any context the question of idioms is out of the question in terms of what its political definitions are, and that kind of thing. I’m not going to go to a Klezmer gig though, and suddenly start playing some straight beats or something like that. I have to respect the idiom for what it is, and at the same time I have to incorporate a million percent of myself into the music.
Now it doesn’t necessarily mean I will start using my body or using the space or anything like that in any kind of context, because as I said before, the how much, the what, and the when, all of these things apply. And this is all determined through context.
Now in working with Misha, for example, I had no idea I was going to get into using the entire space like I did (laughs). But somehow it felt natural to me to just go there. And working with someone like Misha, who is known for giving players such liberty to explore on that level, it’s a touching thing to be able to work with someone like him on that level. (Note: Mengelberg played for about 20 minutes, then sat silently at the piano for the remaining 40 minutes). And as I’ve said before, the fact that he didn’t play didn’t disturb me at all, because I feel like listening is a part of playing, listening is a huge part of playing, whether you’re making an action or not. So I think that context really defines how I go about responding to different kinds of situations, and how I go about responding, reacting, and initiating certain conceptual things. I think that the context really defines that. Defines the whole idea of how I go about improvising.
Now, if I decided if I’m in a so-called R&B or hip-hop context – you know improvisation is everywhere, whether you think of improvisation as a way of expanding your vocabulary, or expanding upon an established concept or not. If I decide to stick to playing a so-called groove for a long time, that’s an improvisation. Not the action itself, but the thought behind the action. Being able to put a limitation on yourself is an act of improvisation on a certain level. So
everyday life is improvisation, if you want to look at it that way. You never know what will happen in each day. Even though you have a set schedule, you have a set thing that you’re going to do during the day; at 12 o’clock I’m going to do this, at 7 o’clock I’m going to do this, but how do you know what’s going to happen between 12 o’clock and 7 o’clock? You don’t know the exact action. I didn’t know that I was going to be asked the questions I was asked during this masterclass. To me, that’s improvisation just as much as musical improvisation.
So really everyday life comes down to that, it transcends itself. Improvisation transcends itself in real life, and in musical terms, because given that I’m a musician, and a composer and improviser, I’m able to take all of these elements and have them manifest in musical terms as well as life terms. So for me, it’s all the same process.
ØYVIND: So if you're doing a non-idiomatic gig, would you try to avoid idiomatic elements?
TYSHAWN: No, in fact I wouldn’t say non-idiomatic in the way that other people may consider being non-idiomatic, such as Derek Bailey, who has a whole different definition of what that means, but I’d say it’s more on trans-idiomatic grounds. Meaning that my music, and the way that I choose to improvise, comes from several kinds of traditions, be they recent or ancient.
So for me the way that I go about improvising in certain situations may not apply in other situations. And I’m totally fine with that. But for me as a trans-idiomatic musician, it’s important that I have a very strong sense of background in between all of these different traditions. And having a really thorough study in order to be the most complete musician that I could be.
So in such a gig like with Misha, I wouldn’t necessarily start breaking into playing some Latin groove or something like that all of a sudden. But yeah, such a situation is liberating anyway, that I could very well have done that. But I chose not to do that, so my choices are - I don’t want to say they’re limited, because they are not limited, they’re limitless - but as I’ve said before the context really defines how I choose to go about dealing in those situations. So it’s all a matter of taste, which I also try to remove when I perform, because I like to think exactly in the moment at all times and not necessarily intercept my taste to a point where it ruins the music. I wouldn’t do that.
ØYVIND: What would you say are the main building blocks of your language when composing? I'm thinking especially in terms of the highly rhythmic music we heard a lot of examples of, where does that language come from, where do you begin to write something like that?
TYSHAWN: Well, my influences especially the last ten fifteen years, we can talk about names if you want. People like Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Charles Mingus, Stockhausen, Anton Webern, Morton Feldman. My compositional vocabulary is so varied that it goes back to all of those influences. The organization Fluxus, John Cage - who was pretty much one of the people who initiated the idea of having that organization exist. People like Earl Brown. Dancers; Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, people like that. Painters, artists; Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock...
RASMUS: What about those painters and artists infuence you as a musician?
TYSHAWN: Well, Marcel Duchamp for instance, the idea of material. Having that being transcendent as art. Duchamp was one of the first people who I checked out in terms of artists, with the famous work called Fountain, where you basically take a picture of the actual… you have an image here, and that’s basically considered art. You’re taking so-called real life and applying it in an artistic fashion.
In respect to its overall positioning, somebody like Duchamp - or people in Fluxus have done the same thing - where they take so-called mundane life elements and everything-things that we do in real life. For example the work by Alison Knowles called The Identical Lunch, where every day you go into this diner and you order the exact same meal. And then you have a conversation with somebody, and that’s a work of art.
For me some of the most so-called inane get transferred and suddenly they become visible. They really hit you. And somebody like Duchamp for example, has done that in his work. And it’s very vital. Pollock – other than the fact that I love the paintings he has done aesthetically, I don’t have as thorough an understanding of his work as I do with the work of Fluxus in particular. So you’re basically taking life and art, the whole thing is not separate anymore. And I feel that this is the case with Duchamp, where life and art are not separate. You know, they're both kind of the same thing. So that’s the thing that drew me into making the music that I make, where something as «meaningless» as sweeping the floor or something like that, and mopping it as I’ve done yesterday in concert with Misha, suddenly that becomes a part of everything that’s going on musically. Action and music both kind of coexist on that level.
There was another action that I did yesterday. Near the end of the concert I all of a sudden started breaking down the drum kit. What was fascinating about that was that people did not move. They were just sitting there, watching the experience of what it’s like, something as mundane as that.
You know, when people see me breaking down a drum kit, automatically the concert is over. But actually it wasn’t over yet. I was doing it in such a way that I wanted to show that this is also equal to all of the musical events that are taking place. This is not separate from that. The musical events that happen where there are sounds and things like that, this is not separate from the actual setting up and breaking down of a drum kit. I feel that all of that is integral to the musical stuff that is happening.
So getting back to the thing about Duchamp, material is actually just as important as the actual making, the actual creation of things that is happening. In a way I wish that the drum kit was broken down before I started the concert. The set up would be part of the concert, and the taking down would also be part of it, because it all has relevance. It was fascinating to see that the audience was able to witness that. That they were able to sit there without… they didn’t know what would happen next. They sat there and were able to absorb that for what that was. Tearing down the kit as part of the performance. I think it came off very successfully.
RASMUS: And the Fluxus movement was into this kind of breaking down the boundaries between art and life. And you also mentioned the Situationist International, they were also doing that in a sense, by appropriating imagery from non-art contexts, in order to kind of subvert systems.
TYSHAWN: Right. I mean a primary work that also has had a great influence on me is Jean Paul Tinguely’s Homage to New York, which was done at the MOMA, where he had a structure that was built, which destroyed itself. I wish I could have experienced this when it happened in 1960. That was one work from the Situationist International that has profoundly influenced my work, and also aesthetically I liked the design, where there’s all of this material, all of this is set up together, and it’s basically made to destroy itself. So the idea of material, for me, came from exploring Duchamp, Fluxus, and the Situationist International. And other collectives that are associated with contemporary art. All of these things have had profound effects on me.
RASMUS: Speaking of the audience yesterday. There seemed to be quite a wide array of reactions going on there. I was taking pictures close to the stage, and I was kind of nervous because every time I took a picture the camera kind of disturbed the music with its clicks. Later on some people started leaving the concert, and I moved to the free seats, into the audience, and the people around me were whispering; “what do think he’s going to do next, ha ha ha.” This middle-aged guy was tapping his feet nervously, moaning, like an impatient kid.
ØYVIND: It seemed to me that it could go either way; either people were kind of pissed off or bored, or they were in for the journey. I was super nervous for a while; what is going on?? But when I realized that this was going to go on for a while, it was ok. But it took almost 20 minutes without Misha playing for me to settle down and relax.
TYSHAWN: It was like being in a dream to me. Playing with Misha feels like a dream somehow. You’re not necessarily in this performance environment. People are so used to that, where you have the audience, and the musicians playing for the audience. I like to think of myself as having the ability to not only play for the audience, but to engage the audience. The work of people who I have a lot of respect for, they have also had the same kind of problems, with listeners and audience members, where there is no middle ground anywhere: You either hate or love it. So I like to travel on the same path, where you can’t really… I don’t want to be wishy-washy about my decisions, I want to be able to say that either you’re going to like this music or you’ll hate it. I’d rather love it for myself. I’d rather love the music I make and then the audience hate it, than them to love the music and I hate it.
RASMUS: There was a period during the concert which was kind of like a stand-up show, you were throwing sticks around, and people found it funny. Then you did stranger and stranger things, and some people just completely cracked. What do you think about that? Are you ever afraid of not being taken seriously?
TYSHAWN: I never like to take myself seriously. If I take myself seriously, I’m asking for trouble. I like to have fun when I'm playing music. And if having fun means enjoying the sound of sticks being thrown, then that’s what it is. You know, throwing around sticks, I don’t really see it like a show, I see it as being interested in a certain sound, and having a certain accident, like dropping a stick. Dropping a stick by accident and hearing the sound, and seeing what that means to me. It may not mean the same thing to other people.
To them it may seem amusing, but borrowing from what John Cage has said about his music, I would consider laughter preferable to people being depressed by the music. I’d rather people laugh at what I’m doing and having fun experiencing it rather than having people being pissed off by it. This is what I want for myself but of course I can’t control what people think. I’m glad people have gotten a kick out of it, because I don’t really take myself that seriously. I mean, I take myself seriously in terms of respect, but I don’t necessarily try to make it a thing where «YOU HAVE TO TAKE ME SERIOUSLY, watch what I do!” as a serious kind of thing. Because then, where is all the fun, behind making the music, responding to the environment and responding to the music? I mean where is the fun in that? If I take myself so seriously (it would be) as to sterilize the music.
ØYVIND: Is the gesture of throwing a stick as important as the sound? Are they somewhat equal?
TYSHAWN: Yes. They’re very equal.
ØYVIND: Also, you've been talking about using the room as an instrument. How far does that extend? I’m thinking about your studies with Antony Braxton, where performance is sometimes extended to the universe. Are you thinking in that manner?
TYSHAWN: I’m thinking more about response. If a room sounds a certain way, I have to think about how the drums are going to sound in that room. How would a certain kind of tuning work in that room, and how do I go about playing the drum set with that kind of tuning in that room. So the room becomes an integral factor in terms of how I choose to interpret whatever music it is that I’m interpreting. Whether or not it’s improvised is out of the question, because I also have to know that when I’m playing composed music or when I’m playing written music, I also have to be aware of that composition's particulars in addition to how the room sounds, in addition to how the mechanical operations that are associated with the instrument; whether or not the bass drum pedal works, if the drums sound horrible, something like that. How will that affect the music, and how will that affect how I interpret the music. And how will that affect how I improvise and choose to go about that.
The sound of the room itself plays a big role in that, mainly because of the drums' acoustic properties and how they carry out in the room. For example if I want to
explore the low frequencies of a ride cymbal, it’s impossible to do that in a large room. Whereas if you’re in a very small room you’re able to hear it. And so these kinds of things have come into question, in terms of how I use the room as an instrument. So it’s kind of applied in a different matter, than what you are pointing out with what Braxton would, probably.
ØYVIND: Did you study acoustics in a more scientific way, or is this just by experience?
TYSHAWN: This is just by experience. Although Stockhausen was probably the first to have a degree in acoustical science, and he talks much about sounds and how rooms function. Hermann Helmholtz also touches on this greatly in the book On The Sensation Of Tone, where he talks about the sounds of rooms, and tones, and how that kind of thing can function in different kinds of environments.
ØYVIND: Are you still studying with Braxton?
TYSHAWN: I'm not. I just finished my Masters degree at Wesleyan University where I've studied with Braxton, but I'm playing as part of his festival in New York, and I'm a member of Tricentric Foundation/Orchestra. So Braxton and I definitely continue to discuss these things even though we're not in an educational relationship any more.
ØYVIND: Did you have to put your career in New York on hold to study?
TYSHAWN: Initially the plan was to go on a sabbatical for two years, but I've accepted a position as a Doctor of Musical Arts candidate at Colombia University, where I'll be studying with George Lewis. I did not have ample opportunity to present my own work. I felt like I was being limited by being a so-called drummer, without having any of my work as a composer being taken seriously.
I’ve seen it too much in history, at least in the tradition of music where I come from, where a lot of drummers are overlooked as composers. And so for me I was interested in upsetting that tradition. Because I got tired of dealing with it and I felt that I was going down that same road where a lot of other drummers have gone, where - without fault of their own, it’s just how history has turned out to be - a lot of these drummers do not get to present their work on the level that they should be presented. In the same way that pianists and saxophonists and people like that have the opportunity to present their work, and they’re able to play all kinds of concerts on all sorts of venues, and yet these drummers are limited to only working with certain band members and band leaders and different things like that, and they only do that.
So my approach to that was to either continue in that way and not be taken seriously as a composer, or being viewed as a composer; I don’t want to say “seriously” because that sounds egotistical, but for people to consider my work as a composer as being on the same level as my work as a drummer. I felt that wasn’t happening at the time.
So in March and April of 2009 I took a sabbatical and said I was not going to do a lot of
extensive touring and this kind of thing. There are challenges that go with being on the road. Traveling, it’s incredibly difficult, it’s everything. So I said I’m not going to be doing a lot of traveling unless it’s with my own projects or things that I’m interested in doing. Things that I’m a big part of. I also left several different groups in New York. I felt that it is interesting to be playing different kinds of music, and I believe in different kinds of music, but I also believe in my own thing, enough to want to be able to do my own music, enough to want to be able to present my work in a correct way. So in September 2009, when I started my sabbatical, it became impractical for me to do that.
Because now I left all of these situations and now I’m not accepting certain kinds of gigs, because the travel time from Connecticut to New York is quite difficult. I mean, it’s like 2,5-3 hours each way, and so it wouldn’t be worth it for me to go all the way to New York for an hour of performance. But then even that became impractical, and
so I had to adjust my sabbatical and say, “Ok, I’m not going to put my entire career on hold, I’ll do certain gigs, and I’ll ask for a certain amount of money, because on this point – I wouldn’t want to say that I was being disrespected, but I don’t think I was getting the correct amount of money that I deserved for the contributions that I was making to people’s music. And so I would ask for a certain amount of money, and if they agreed to pay it, I would make the gig. But there were less gigs, you know. I didn’t take a whole lot of gigs because I wanted to concentrate on my own work and my own studies, and at the same time maintain a professional career.
I think it has gotten better as a result of my sabbatical, because now I’m actually doing a lot of projects that I really want to do, and I am a big part of those projects. I don’t do sideman gigs for the sake of doing sideman gigs because I’ve had a career where I’ve done that, and now I think I’ve moved past that, as this age anyway. And the last couple of years that has become established, that certain acts I do I am a big part of. And I mostly do collaborative based projects, rather than stuff as a sideman, because I... I mean, I like doing work as a sideman but at the same time I don’t only want to be thought of as doing that. I mean, just a sideman that happens to have whatever number of records. You know time is short on this planet, as we all know, and I don’t
want to leave this planet with nothing to show for in terms of my own work, and I want that work to be received at least on the same level as some of the collaborators I’ve worked as a sideman for, or who I’ve collaborated with on a larger scale.
ØYVIND: Do you feel you're getting there? Are you getting more respect as a composer?
TYSHAWN: Yeah, I think that's happening now, because I’ve established the rules in terms of how I want my work to be accepted. Also my studies at Wesleyan has led me to be able to articulate my work more clearly than I’ve ever had. Before that I didn’t give that many lectures or master classes or workshops on composition, everything would be so much about drumming.
And I got tired of coming to Europe and being asked “how do you play drums on so and so’s music,” or “what’s your approach to so and so’s music.” I wasn’t talking about my own work. And meanwhile I have a catalogue of work that extend as far back as ten years ago, when I started composing music. No one asked me a thing about my own music, and I was getting pretty tired of that. So what my studies at Wesleyan has done is to help me establish my thoughts on music and be able to put them in a clear kind of fashion. In fact I wrote a thesis on my work. You’re allowed to write about your own work and explain it, and I feel that my work is the most clear that it has ever been. In terms of what I’m looking for to define my own approach to music and composition. I see that happening more and more now than I did two years ago.
In 2009, it started to become clear to me what I was doing, but I was nowhere near having the ability to articulate it the way I am now. It’s so much clearer, definitely. And thus I feel that my work has become more and more accepted as the years went by, and here we are in 2011, when I’m being asked to give master classes on my work, talking about my music. I’m really grateful for those opportunities, because I’m also able to learn from you guys, I’m learning from audience members and I’m learning from people who are asking me these questions. It’s helping me really understand further what I’m doing, and it’s also helping them understand. We’re exchanging
information. That's really what it comes down to. Information. Exchange between two people. I don’t consider myself superior to anyone else, for sure, that’s not really the situation here, but we’re learning from each other. That’s really what it comes down to.
RASMUS: Do you think your work has become better by studying, or is it just the articulation, or the way you speak about your work?
TYSHAWN: OK, because of the articulation and because of the growing clarity behind my work, I think that the work in itself has gotten better. The compositions have gotten better, the conceptual ideas behind the work has become clearer, and I’m starting to expand more on that and everything. I’m always growing. I like to think, as a result of my study. But the study at Wesleyan that I’ve done has greatly contributed to that. And it’s starting to become even more controversial, on some levels. There was one composition where it’s sort of, I guess you could call it Fluxus, by its very nature, where we are 12 musicians, where each of us has to hold one single note for however long the piece goes. And the musical side to it is when I as a conductor give numbers 1 through 12 to each musician, they are assigned a certain pitch. And they basically
play that pitch for that long, and I basically instruct them when to increase the volume and when to bring it down. And that is as simple as that. But then what was complex about that was having the ability to basically explain what it is. To talk about what whatever beyond the conceptual thing is, beyond the simplicity of it, what exactly does it mean for me to write a piece like that.
And then there’s other compositions with more elaborate, complex structuring, when I would really have to explain in full detail what’s going on in the composition. And I think as a result of that, I am able to create other compositions that use a similar concept, and at the same time add other concepts from other compositions that I’ve written. So I think, as a result, my compositional work as well as my improvisational work has grown in a huge level as a result of those studies.
RASMUS: What would you say that composition means? The one with twelve musicians.
TYSHAWN: Well, it’s similar to what Feldman has talked about. With carpets or rugs. If you look at them really closely with a magnifying glass or something, you’re not going to see the same shade of color throughout the rug. There’s going to be imperfections everywhere in the rug. Even a rug like this (points to floor), you see all of the imperfections. You don’t get the same shape with each of these things on this rug. So that to me was what I became interested in, this idea of so-called perfection and imperfection. Morton Feldman is probably my biggest musical influence at this stage.
And so looking at that, it’s basically the same thing applied in musical terms, but I’m not necessarily trying to re-appropriate exactly what Feldman is talking about. And so the composition where you’re holding the one note, this performance of it that I have
right now is about 20 minutes of just one note being held. It’s just seeing one color, but you’re seeing many different shades of the same color that is happening.
ØYVIND: Is it the same note with all the players?
TYSHAWN: It’s all twelve notes in the chromatic scale that are being used in the piece, which is why there are 12 players, or 24 players in some cases. And the reason for that is basically that I see the playing of all notes as one color. Its many different shades of that one color, its different permutations of those twelve notes, numbers 1 to 12. I mean there’s so many different permutations that you could come up with. You could have numbers 3, 7 and 9 play together, or you could have only one of them play, very loud on top of the rest of the 11 pitches. So to me it’s basically an exploration of this single colour, in a manyfold number of ways.
RASMUS: You could do it in an infinite number of variations?
TYSHAWN: Theres a finite number. I haven’t come up with the exact number, but you could see it as infinite for sure, just in terms of what the piece can do. You could apply rhythm to it, you could apply anything to it, so it’s definitely an infinite amount of possibilities that you could do with that.
ØYVIND: Are you thinking traditional sense of harmony in any sense, while combining these tones?
ØYVIND: It’s instinctive, in a way?
TYSHAWN: It’s more of that. It’s more the exploration of the relationship of sound. And the relationship that each number of sounds involves. What five sounds would sound like as opposed to three. But which of these five sounds would I like to happen, that I don’t like to think about. I’m not going to say “I want to hear this chord so I’ll assign this.” I don’t like to do that.
ØYVIND: I’m trying to break the ice on these very intense, complex rhythmic compositions. How do you go about composing something like that?
TYSHAWN: Like what?
RASMUS: Like the 49 beat cycle (Tyshawn had earlier described a beat he plays on an album by Steve Coleman. The track is called Beba).
ØYVIND: Yeah, that kind of thing.
TYSHAWN: The same approach might not work for anyone. My approach to it was that when I started getting into odd beats and meters, I didn’t really think of them as odd to begin with. Because when you think like that, it becomes a thing about abnormal versus normal. And I don’t really see the difference between those two things. I mean, if anything is a so-called odd meter, it would be 4/4. Because everything is uniform, it’s got this kind of square thing to it, whereas these other meters have a certain shape to them. And so just like 4/4 is a shape, so is ¾, so is 5/4, so is
7/8, so is 29/15, so is whatever. You know, for me each meter has its own kind of shape.
And so when I first did away with this whole thing about this versus that, and had everything count for what it was… I have listened to a lot of compositions that are in odd meters, and naturally I guess somehow I was just able to play them. I was able to play something in 5/4 without even thinking about counting, or anything like that, but rather hearing everything as a whole and trying to integrate that into my playing. And so I don’t think of 5/4 as three plus two or anything like that. I don’t like to get into that way of counting, because when I start counting it gets into the way of what exactly I’m trying to play.
RASMUS: It's more about feel.
TYSHAWN: Yes, exactly. But to some this may not work, and so the alternative way of dealing with this is learning how to count those meters, and really sticking to counting them. And then kind of liberate yourself from doing that. You’re kind of learning it, then unlearning it. The more you start to play those meters… That's essentially what I wanted to do, when I started to learn the whole concept of playing a 5/4 tune and that kind of thing. It also came from playing a lot of music in mixed meters and combining them together.
The other thing I was doing in my early twenties and my late teens, was whenever I would approach a composition, Michelle Rosewoman, who’s a great pianist and composer and an influence on my work, she would write some compositions which had mixed meters in them. There would be one measure of 4, one measure of 3, one measure of 5 in there. And I’d say how do I interpret that, how many beats does that amount to? That comes down to 12 beats, which is not an odd meter, but I started to combine all of those things and really come up with my own
way of saying; well, then this could be 10 beats and this could be 2 beats, and I’d find all of these different ways of grouping it. Essentially, I like to think of my playing as kind of meterless. I don’t think in 5 or in 7 when I’m playing. I don’t like to think that way. I like to think more about the musical phrase as a whole.
And working with Steve Coleman was a perfect fit for me for that reason. I didn’t necessarily see his work as being one signature on top of another on top of another, but rather I was interested in the relationship between these different timespans that were happening between part one, part four, or part two and part three, or part three and part one. All the different relationships between these things. The same thing happened beforehand when I was working at how to play so-called odd meters. What is the relationship to what the pianist is doing with the bass player. Or what’s the relationship with the melody that’s going on top of the bass. And how does that sound?
Those were the things I was thinking about mostly when I was playing stuff in so-called odd meters. It was more about relationships than time signatures in themselves. Time signatures are only one way of looking at things.
So what it really comes down to is, you have to find your own approach as to how to investigate those things. One approach is not more valid than another, but at the same time it’s vital that we're in an age now, musically, especially in the younger generation, where all of these different concepts apply in one composition. You have mixed meters, you have so-called odd meters, you have a lot of Balkan music and things like that that uses a lot of odd meters and that kind of thing. And so it’s more about exploration and self exploration, and being able to realize that on the level that you are best. And that’s really what it comes down to for me.
ØYVIND: You mentioned South Indian music. Did you go into that thoroughly? Did you learn tabla and that kind of thing?
TYSHAWN: No, its more on a listening level, and appreciating it and finding some way of trying to incorporate that into my rhythmic language without necessarily copying exactly what they’re doing. That's what it was more about to me. Just appreciating it as a listener.
RASMUS: You said that you don’t think anything is new. Could you elaborate on that?
TYSHAWN: In the history of music, people talk about doing something new, when in fact, how do we know if its new or not? I mean, in order to know whether or not it’s new, you have to go all the way back, beyond the ancients, in order to determine that. I’m not necessarily saying that everything has been done, but I am saying that there's not necessarily such a thing as new, because how do I know? I don’t know that. We don’t have any documentation really from pre-Greek civilization, there's no documentation of music that existed in that period. So I don’t like how the media and certain books over simplify things by saying something is new just because somebody has a weird approach to music, or somebody makes a weird sound. I mean, it was
already there. Just because you just learned it, or just because you are initiating something, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s new. If it’s coming from your instrument, it was already there to begin with. If you play a saxophone squeak or something by accident, and people say it’s a new sound, to me it was already there. It could happen by accident, it was there before you did it.
It’s just that because you didn’t experience it you would consider it to be a new sound.
If you go all the way back to the ancients or beyond that and you’re able to find some kind of documentation that a sound like that didn’t exist until the 20th century, you could in a sense say that it is somewhat new. But the concept of new to me does not really exist, because in fact a lot of what is so-called new is actually an amalgamation of all of these different influences that can be dated from the ancients, or that can be dated from only the 20th century, or that can be dated from five centuries earlier, and all of these things coming together. You can say that - I don’t want to say new - but you can say that it's trans-configurated.
RASMUS: That's a nice word.
TYSHAWN: Yeah, because what you’re really doing is you’re taking from history, and what you do is a manifestation of all of these histories put together, and it comes out in this unique kind of way. But actually, if you really look at it, every individual is unique. And all that is left is basically expressing that through your work. Or whatever. But I wouldn’t say that everyone is new. That’s not the same thing. What is unique is the individual, for one, and what is unique about what that individual does is what they experience. And what they're able to express in sound through their experience. That to me is what being unique is about. But there’s nothing new about taking music and expressing music as a form of life experience. There’s nothing new about that. It’s been done since the beginning of humankind.
RASMUS: Unique is a much more interesting term.
TYSHAWN: Yeah, I have my moments.
ØYVIND: What were you listening to in that bookstore at the airport?
TYSHAWN: I was listening to — what was I listening to? I'm listening to so much music, that I can’t remember... Oh, it was this recording that I have called Environments. There were a few records which were issued by A&M Records, I think, which are basically field recordings, the environment. Birds, rain, just everyday sounds. That was one of the things I was listening to that day. I was also listening to the work of Lewis Black, a great comedian from New York. I love his work a lot, so you might have seen me listening to that or... I mean, there's a whole lot of things
that I've been listening to that day. But I do recall on the airport specifically listening to this environment recording, some sea, I forgot the name of it... And it's interesting, I don't have noise cancelling headphone so it's not a thing where that was the only thing I heard. I heard the sound of what was going on at the airport in addition, and what the relationship to what that was.