The yearly list of MacArthur Genius fellows was released this past week, and one of the University’s own, Assistant Music Professor Tyshawn Sorey M.A. ’11, made the cut.
In addition to being a multi-instrumentalist, improviser, composer, ensemble leader, and conductor, Sorey is teaching a music seminar on creative improvised music since 1959 and leading the real-time autoschediasm class at the University this semester.
As a winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, Sorey will be receiving a five-year grant of $625,000. The grant is considered an investment in the potential of creative individuals, according to the MacArthur Foundation website.
“MacArthur’s grantmaking aims to address complex societal challenges in a strategic way…” the MacArthur Foundation website reads. “The fellowship is designed to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their creative activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements… the Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions.”
Sorey found out he was receiving this honor about a month ago. He recounted sitting in his office in shock for about an hour afterward.
“I was extremely shocked,” Sorey said. “[The foundation] just calls you, and they tell you that you’ve been chosen to be this year’s MacArthur fellow. At first, I thought it was a joke. They called me, and I was like, ‘Who is this? Who is this calling? Is somebody prank calling me?’ Everybody was laughing because they usually get that reaction from people when they call.”
Sorey is grateful for the grant money. It will provide him with the opportunity to keep exploring and expanding upon his musical work with a new level of flexibility. When asked what kind of work this would be, Sorey responded by describing his unique artistic style.
“I don’t like to put myself in categories,” Sorey said. “So I’d like to just do whatever it is I want, to really sort of explore that seriously, and to keep hopefully getting better at obliterating the lines between genre, composition, and improvisation; that kind of thing, and to just keep developing my voice.”
This musical mission came to Sorey about 11 years ago, during a period of his life where he was writing a great amount of music that sounded, as he put it, like “this advanced version of jazz or free jazz.”
“I guess I got to a point where I was playing in so many groups as a drummer and things like that, but there were parts of my playing that I wished I was able to explore but that I never had the chance to explore [because] I was playing in these other groups,” Sorey said. “So finally I got up the idea to just come up with my own group and be able to explore different things associated with drums and percussion, and things like that.”
Specifically, Sorey was able to play with ideas that he believes he would not have thought of had he been in a situation where he was always playing rhythmically busy music.
“This gave me a chance to really explore space and really explore the drum-set and percussion as sound instruments rather than simply rhythmic things,” Sorey said. “So I had to develop my own context to do that. Then naturally, I started to gravitate towards another context where I was able to do that.”
Being granted this fellowship is an honor that Sorey credits to the help of many different people. He spoke a lot about the influence his relationship with former University music professor Anthony Braxton. Sorey initially encountered Braxton while doing his M.A. at the University and is now in Braxton’s chair.
“I thank him for paving the way for people like me to forge a career where I can define my own music, define it in my own way, and create my own path out of so many different alternative musics and things like that,” Sorey said. “As much as I love hip-hop, as much as I love R&B, and as much as I love popular music, to me it was never really the only medium.”
Braxton appreciated this sentiment and took Sorey under his wing in a manner that helped Sorey find his own voice.
“He encouraged me to keep going on that path and not let myself be categorized,” Sorey said. “He encouraged me to not let my music fall into any kind of social or musical category, to just continue forging my own path and define my music in the most personal way that I can. The goal was simply to create personal expressions of my experiences through whatever so-called style or medium, because for me it is about what I express at that moment in any given composition or improvisation.”
Although Sorey does not have a specific long-term goal in terms of what to do with the recent grant, he has many ideas for what he would like to bring to the local music scene, both at the University level and the state-wide level.
“I’d hopefully like to continue my relationship with Wesleyan because this institution is well known for having forward thinking people, students, and faculty,” Sorey said. “So I’d like to be a part of something like this, and hopefully expand the community by bringing people in who otherwise might not come here and something like that.”
Another wish of Sorey’s is to expand the community of musicians in Connecticut.
“New Haven has a great scene for music, so I hope to contribute a lot to that, and to continue doing projects that feature New Haven colleagues and also people in Connecticut generally, and at Wesleyan,” Sorey said. “I also want to have more faculty-student collaboration… That’s a short-term goal of mine, ’cause I’m starting to get into a situation now where I’m playing with my students now because I think that could be inspiring for people.”
For the most part, Sorey wants to engage students with the current obliteration of genres going on within contemporary music.
“I’m not the only person who’s out there doing this,” Sorey said. “This stuff has been done for a very long time… I want more students to get involved in that and really kind of encourage them to be themselves because while textbooks and all that stuff might be good for certain things, I think it’s good to hear refreshing thoughts from people who might not think on the same level as people who write these books… I want to continue to expand that.”
Camille De Beus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.