Zen in the Art of Listening via Tyshawn Sorey

By May 20, 2016 No Comments


I’ve begun re-reading Zen and The Art of Archery. Written between world wars, German philosophy lecturer Eugen Herrigel beautifully recounts his six years spent in Japan learning the art of Japanese Archery as a means to open himself to the true nature of Zen Buddhism; finding meaning in my favourite oxymoron: ‘artless art’. A sucker for books that both reflect and further shed light on the nature of mastery, this short and sweet read remains one of my most treasured guides in the quest for trumpet mastery.

I was prompted to re-discover ZaTAoA after a resonating quote from an interview with NYC/NJ based drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey.

Cue bit of background. I believe I first heard Tyshawn on now what is one of my most loved albums, Steve Lehman’s second Octet record Mise en Abîme. I feel compelled to mention that Steve and Tyshawn, as well as trombonist Ben Gerstein have become three artist that I’ve come to regard with the same admiration and inspiration as some of my Australian heroes.

I really dug Tyshawn’s grooves and touch on that album. In my mind it was one part Steve’s vision of a high intensity, hip-hop/rapper inspired improvised music and another Tyshawn just killing it. I soon heard him again on Steve Coleman’s latest release, Synovial Joints. Also killer. In fact, during a recent visit to LA, Steve mentioned in a workshop that Tyshawn has been the only drummer (possibly even musician) who’s been able to pick up his notoriously intricate music with seeming ease.

So after this initial Tyshawn dabble, and at the recommendation of man-in-the-know Sam Gill, I bought his newly released trio album, Alloy, also on Pi Records. If it wasn’t for a caveat Sam provided before purchase it would of been a bit of shock first listen. Unlike the the former two albums where he navigates through both Steve’s incredibly dense and intricate compositions with steeze and steady groove, Alloy could be a Morton Feldman foray into jazz piano trio (someone Sam and I had been checking out at the time). Tyshawn plays incredibly sparse and with extended tacet periods. His moments- bare a brief slither in the final 30 minute piece- are mostly textural. Nevertheless this album very much resonated with me. It’s a deeply compelling listen that strikes a union between challenging and enchanting- two things I positively LURV in music. Part of it’s challenging charm is the enormous space it creates and how as such it requires the full attention of all your senses. I can’t even listen to this album in my car, it needs so much quiet and attention. But once you give yourself to it’s space it instantly begins to enchant. To quell the curious, I’d say (with reservations) that Alloy could sit with equal comfort in the realm of 21st century art music as much as in the now-obtusely large and undefinable jazz-sphere…although I’m sure Tyshawn would throw down any sort of categorisation you tried to tack on his music (or any music I’d imagine). Eek.




The above assertion leads me neatly to the nucleus of this post. How can I assume he would reject any attempt to box music into predeterminate stylistic groupings that since their establishment have been weighed down and slowly poisoned (to death, many academics believe) by leechful value judgements tact on it’s back? (lol, sorry) Well, after reading through all the Tyshawn interviews I could find online, it became clear that he has become aware of and shed much of the bias, judgement and constraints (i.e genre) we innately lean on in this modern world. To give some foundation to my conjecture above here is an quote highlighting his judgement-free thoughts on both genre and composition:

“In my works, the “academic” musical axioms and the world of genres that defines the music of our time do not mean much to me; I never, ever compose works utilizing theory alone. Nor do I think of style when I am writing music. In other words, I do not compose works specifically for purposes of proving any theoretical arguments, or to invalidate any music that does not utilize “advanced” compositional principles. To put it simply, I like to compose music in the moment – in the way that I imagine and hear it. That is not to say, however, that there is no room for one to analyze my work in theoretical terms. In this sense, my music is no different from any other form of creative improvised music. All of my works employ an expansive range of compositional techniques ranging from twelve-tone theory to so-called “jazz” harmony – and nearly all of my works allow for performers to improvise (sonically expressed life experience shared in a given context) within varying contexts. So “free music” would be the best term for me to describe my work: composed and improvised elements in a composition are unified (this makes up for the “music” part). The “free” in free music would define the flexibility pertaining to contextual dynamics in the music; the music can function anywhere from a “jazz club” setting to a concert hall and can be performed by anyone. In my mind, there is no necessity for the venue, the type of musician, or the context to define how the work should be appreciated anyway.

Some of the music I compose is not necessarily performable only by trained musicians or any certain kinds of musicians. In fact, I have found that composing for such a musician sometimes has a tendency to invite unwanted limitations to the music due to the superimposition of tastes (and ego) on the part of the performer.  That is to say, in these cases, the purpose and intent of the music often becomes misunderstood. My music is not classical, it is not jazz, it is not Western art music, and it is not Eastern art music. The music is not a style, in the way that we speak of what style “is.” However, it is a unification of concepts derived from these musics and their respective philosophies (most notably, Zen) in addition to my life experience – the human experience, both on a practical and metaphysical level.

I very much enjoy and have come to open my mind and spirit to how he considers music (and the beyond). Reading further through interviews, what resonated with me even more- partly due to it being a constant point of inner-contention- was his thoughts on listening. In the same way he has shed the biased bubbles of genre and style, Tyshawn has removed (or at they very least, become conscious of) the bias in his listening experience. When asked out his influences outside of music he conjured up this lil’ nugget of goodness:

“Well, besides art disciplines…Zen Buddhism, literature, and painting has had a very profound affect on my work in many ways as well as the way I listen to music, which is really no way at all – positively speaking.”

Listening by not listening. Doesn’t sound too dissimilar to Herrigel’s search for meaning in his master’s seemingly oxymoronic axiom the artless art. 

But what exactly do you mean Tyshawn? In the same interview he provides some background on his listening habits then extrapolates on this concept of listening by not listening:

“All I would listen to back then was more traditional sounding stuff from WBGO or WKCR only to later discover that I became somewhat of a “jazz purist”.  It became apparent to me that I was listening to music in one “way”; that it was time for me to eliminate the idea of taste, likes, and dislikes and take from whatever I listened to and let it be a part of my musical makeup.  I believe that every listener of music listens in their own way, and I did not want to listen in ANY WAY…but to JUST listen – no feelings that “something sucks” or “something is catchy”, etc.  then, my tastes would not let me fully experience what was happening in the moment.  To listen to something without “listening”.

Woah. Reading Tyshawn speak of this way of listening gave me a epiphanic moment where I became aware of my own ego-laden listening habits. Let me tell you, like releasing tension from parts of your body that have for years functioned as such unknowingly, removing bias from our listening- with nearly all of us scarred at the ears from our judgemental teenage years- is no easy task. I have always considered myself an open listener, willing to give time to a healthy cross-section of the musical spectrum from the release-riddled (i.e. pop/rock/mainstream) to the tension-bursting (i.e. new music/noise). But Tyshawn’s assertion that ‘I believe that every listener of music listens in their own way’  awoke me to the realisation that over the past few months I’d been listening with a shadow of bias: that is, in my case, I’d been listening with the intent of collecting compositional devices. While doing so can be a healthy compositional exercise, it germed and eventually infested my listening experience. It affected both what I listened, but more importantly how I listened. I would aurally gloss over certain sections of a song or album due to my perception that they held no compositionally informative value.

This is all best explained through an anecdote. I’m part of this new collective called Microfiche. We recently recorded an album late ’15 (currently being mastered). It features a collection of compositions from most of the eight members, ranging in length from one minute to 21 minutes. I think the music is quite exceptional. We were actually formerly a performing class under the tutelage of Simon Barker and Phil Slater, meeting every week for two hours. To my ears the year spent playing and learning together are reflected in the music, shining with a thick coating of cohesion and rapport. Aesthetically, it could be said to sit in the same sphere as Tyshawn’s, that is to say, music that demands focus with it’s copious moments of space, pointillism and and non-structural forms. I gave the unmastered tracks a whirl the other week and instantly began enjoying it’s fruit; feeling it’s crisp newness and that engaging rapport; letting it speak to me about itself and about me, the listener. In that moment I realised I had momentarily lifted this curtain of listening bias and was giving this music -music of the full attention it desired and deserved. I thought back to all the music I had faux-listened to over the past few weeks and considered how many moments of magic, how many peoples stories and experiences, how many opportunities to fleeting reach the beyond had I forfeited due to this partisan haze. Eek.

After that moment I decided to set up some listening guidelines. Firstly, I only listen when I can commit my full attention. No listening in the background. In the car I’ll play some field recordings that Ben Gerstein showed me (check my ‘friends’ page for a blog link to the field recording site). When listening, I’m actively not making value judgements. Lastly, I listen to material multiple times. I think if you were to listen to the Microfiche album once its potentially couldn’t entirely be gauged. It’s all about listening less but listening more. Listening but not listening. The artless art.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying my new listening habit. It’s strengthened my focus and attention, two things the greater cross-section of music deserves. I should preface all this by adding that establishing such strict listening guidelines is not in everyone’s best interest. There is place for music to sit in the background or not be the primary focus. Reflecting personally though, allowing the music greater focus aligns with how I have come to think about music in a broader sense but also bring out greater nuance and fruits in the ‘fringe’ music I’ve been listening to these past years, which often dismiss established tools of cohesion and unity. Not to forget the intent of the composer/creators, who have in many cases funnelled their life force into their creation, providing your full attention not only honours their time and energy but gives us the opportunity to extract a meaningful experience from it.

It’s intriguing, I’ve already spoken extensively about listening on this site. I guess it continues to play on my mind because it’s one visceral element of the musical experience- also possibly the most essential (does music exist if nobody hears it/do you have to ‘play’ to make music/what is music) -that is undergoing dramatic changes as our brains and behaviour are being rewired due to the technological and societal progression of the late C20th/early C21st.

As a friend said to me the other day: The days of trying to playing like a computer are past. Computers can now play faster, higher, lower, slower, and all more accurately than we ever can. It’s still impressive but it’s different. What computers can’t do (for the moment) is offer a transcendental experience through music. I’m in the business of that…

It’s an interesting thought…maybe computers can actually offer a transcendental experience? What they beyond doubt can’t yet offer is a product that speaks first hand of the human experience: that essential, ephemeral element that binds us all; gives us purpose. Until it ceases to do so, music will continue to exist. The real question is, how will we be listening to it?

My main interest in the end is communication. I’m interested in taking the listener through an experience that is personal and meaningful on every level. I like to give the listener some kind of cleansing experience.
-Tyshawn Sorey (



Here are some great Tyshawn videos. I believe he has a new double disc touted for release on Pi Records in early June, featuring a string section. Looking forward to it!

Part 1 of 5 of an extended indeterminate piece Tyshawn wrote called For Kathy Changes. Features the beyond this world Ben Gerstein.

Fieldwork (Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman and Tyshawn) Live from one of my favourite venues in NYC, Zorn’s The Stone. One of my favourite ensembles. All three contribute compositions to this band.

An Arte Concert production. Tyshawn in duet with living legend and one of the pioneers of improvised music, Roscoe Mitchell. Tyshawn plays some Bone in this one and features some interview inserts from both perfomers.

Cover photo credit: Michael Parque