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Capturing the Ephemeral Beauty of Improvisation

John Rogers/Bobby Glazer
Tyshawn Sorey and Marilyn Crispell

Musical performance is the most ephemeral of the arts. As Eric Dolphy once said, “After it’s over, it’s gone in the air. You can never capture it again.” Some modern composition radically dramatizes the way that time causes sound to vanish except, of course, in our memory, where it often leads a ghostly after-life. Morton Feldman wrote fragile, repetitive compositions that go on for several hours in a state of slow, self-conscious disintegration. John Cage wrote a short and entirely silent composition, 4’33”, whose sounds are already “gone in the air,” aside from the ambient noise produced in the room. (Or heckling, which its 1952 premiere at Woodstock, New York, provoked.) As Roland Barthes observed, music of this sort doesn’t so much speak as rustle. In an essay called “The Rustle of Language,” Barthes defined this activity as rendering “audible the very evaporation of sound; the blurred, the tenuous, the fluctuating are perceived as signs of a sonic erasure.”

Rustling isn’t a musical genre or style but rather a sensibility, a heightened sensitivity to the relations between music, audibility, and time. Among the masters of the blurred, the tenuous, and the fluctuating was the jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Monk, whose unusual combinations of chords generated sensations of reverberation and erasure long before the emergence of the classical school known as “spectral music,” a method that eschews motifs and melodic cells in favor of the gestural, timbral, and physical properties of individual notes—the “natural growth of sonority,” in the words of the late spectralist composer Gérard Grisey. In fact, rustling has become one of the defining features of the various styles of music that fall under the rubric of free jazz and improvisation. After all, to create “in the moment,” as free improvisers do, is to embrace the ephemerality of creation.  

The drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey has a lovely phrase to describe the practice of improvisation: “the adornment of time.” It’s the title of his gorgeous new album with the pianist Marilyn Crispell, recorded live in the fall of 2018 during Sorey’s residency at The Kitchen, a performance space in Chelsea. The music begins in near silence, punctuated at first by what sounds like knocking, or maybe hammering. It’s followed by thudding noises, strokes of a piano’s strings, a drum roll so subtle it might be an aural illusion, a crash of cymbals, the tapping of a glockenspiel, the pattering of piano keys. These rustling effects are spare yet powerfully suggestive of an impending action; the tintinnabulation is scattered yet also orderly and patient. It’s as if Sorey and Crispell, careful not to raise their voices, were greeting each other at a musical construction site before throwing themselves into their work together. Over the next hour—there’s only one track—the collaboration’s architecture comes into radiant focus, gradually acquiring such physical power that you feel a kind of shock, and even sorrow, when it ends.

To listen to The Adornment of Time is to be struck by the peculiar beauty of improvised music, which is the beauty of the unrepeatable. Its sounds and its gestures, its revelations and its accidents, are expressions of the time they adorned and whose imprint they will forever bear. The music here is entirely improvised—Sorey and Crispell never even discussed what they planned to play—yet the results are grippingly cohesive. The performance unfolds in sections (seven, by my count) that explore contrasting relationships of density and sparseness, calm and intensity, slowness and velocity. After the opening invocation, in which it’s not always clear which sounds are generated by the piano and which by the drums, Sorey and Crispell establish their very distinct instrumental voices. But the overwhelming impression their playing leaves is of togetherness and intimacy, of an all-consuming, sometimes restless, occasionally combative, and ultimately haunting conversation between two musicians who had a great deal to say to each other that evening.

And, as I discovered when I spoke to both Sorey and Crispell a few weeks ago, it was about the longest conversation they have ever had, on or off stage. They met for the first time in 2005 at a concert in Austria, and later shared a car on the way to another festival. Crispell, a shy person, didn’t talk much, but Sorey appreciated this “since I’m also a very quiet person.” When they first played a duet at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, a few years ago, they experienced a similar dynamic. “I love the way she takes her time playing, the way she decides to wait on things,” Sorey told me. “I also like to take my time even if it means not playing at all for a few minutes. So we were able to achieve an unusual level of intimacy on stage.”         

This intimacy is also the product of aesthetic affinity. Not that the music of one sounds like the other’s. Crispell, who is seventy-two, often aspires to the kind of rapture and transcendence that reflects her roots in the ecstatic jazz of the Sixties; she’s one of our most expressive pianists (without ever lapsing into sentimentality). Sorey, who is thirty-nine, seems to move in the opposite direction: he revels in somber tonalities, drones, and repetition, and speaks about his music in a cerebral language that reflects his Columbia training. Yet their paths converge in their appreciation for the dramatic potential of silence, and in their commitment to the poetics of space and texture. Both, moreover, are equally steeped in avant-garde jazz and classical music. 

A jazz drummer of formidable control, power, and inventiveness, Sorey first made a name for himself in groups led by Vijay Iyer and Steve Coleman, and now leads a superb improvising trio with the pianist Cory Smythe and the bassist Chris Tordini. He is also one of the most exciting composers in the concert hall, writing for orchestras, string quartets, and singers; one of his recent works was Perle Noire, an oratorio about Josephine Baker, written for the soprano Julia Bullock, with a libretto by Claudia Rankine. No music is foreign to him: his influences run from Darmstadt to hip-hop, from funk to Feldman, from Boulez to Bill Dixon. More than any musician of his generation, he has dissolved what is left of the boundary between composition and improvisation.

Crispell, who started out as a classical musician, was for many years the pianist in a quartet led by one of Sorey’s composition instructors, the brilliant multi-reedist Anthony Braxton (whose position Sorey now holds at Wesleyan). Crispell has also distinguished herself both as a leader, recording a series of beautiful trio sessions for ECM, and as a soloist of rare lyricism and force, even as she has notched up collaborations with everyone from Joseph Jarman to Joe Lovano. Her playing interweaves two often opposed styles of free jazz piano: the ferociously percussive energy approach of Cecil Taylor, whom she revered, and the oblique introspection of Paul Bley. An exceptional melodist, she’s able to discover songs in the heat of performance, and has a luminous touch. “Marilyn doesn’t play at the piano,” Sorey said. “She pulls sounds out of the piano.” 

In much of his work as a composer, Sorey has sought to create a feeling of stillness. His recent four-hour electro-acoustic piece Pillars is an immersion in the blur of drones, as slow yet engrossing as a good work of video art can be. The principle animating works like Pillars seems to be: forget the clock, sit still, and incremental changes will acquire an exhilarating charge. The Adornment of Time is a far more eventful work, including passages of warm minimalism, stretches of clamorous dissonance, harpsichord-like plucking of the piano strings, and startling explosions of percussion. The pleasure of the two musicians in each other’s company is palpable; each seems inspired by the other’s presence to try new ideas, to push the music further.

The Adornment of Time also features a great deal of energetic free jazz drumming, something Sorey seldom does these days, partly because he’s understandably weary of being defined merely as a drummer (though most drummers would be grateful to achieve his mastery). “In some people’s imaginations,” he told the critic Lara Pellegrinelli, “I’m always playing in some smoky nightclub.” I wish you could hear drumming like this in a nightclub these days: halfway into the album there’s an electrifying call-and-response between piano and drums that recalls the way Cecil Taylor used to joust with his drummers. 

As Crispell fires off cascades of notes, Sorey follows her every step of the way, sometimes echoing her, sometimes throwing down a gauntlet—but always with an eye to the music’s direction. His drumming is compositional, as if for a larger ensemble: even in the moments when he’s so quiet that all you can hear is the slightest rumble beneath Crispell’s piano, you sense that he’s conducting. Crispell told me that as soon as she saw his kit, a four-piece drum set with crotales, glockenspiel, and a large concert bass drum, “I immediately had this strong orchestral feeling.” 

But Sorey is not the only orchestrator on The Adornment of Time. Crispell, too, contributes to the music’s architecture, with her repeated use of short, hypnotic motifs, and her sensual use of rubato, which together conjure a kind of time outside time and give the piece its powerfully dreamlike ambiance. Crispell told me that when she heard the album it struck her as “like being on the sea or in space, with events emerging and disappearing, random but seemingly inevitable after the fact.” It often has a floating feeling, especially the pools of sound that Crispell creates with single sustained notes, underlined by the crisp clarity of Sorey’s drums. But in the final twelve or so minutes, The Adornment of Time takes a dark and rather ominous turn, as a piano motif in the upper register—soft yet full of disquiet—rises out of silence, then slowly gives way to a torrent of notes in the lower register that merges with the drums and finally disappears beneath a volley of high-hat cymbals, which brutally shatters the nocturnal reverie into which Crispell has lulled us. 

When I told Sorey that the piece’s circular, obsessive structure reminded me of Elliot Carter’s piano piece Night Fantasies, he said, “I know that piece very intimately, and when I was thinking of a title, the word ‘fantasies’ was in it, partly because Marilyn deals with registers and intervals in a way that reminds me of Carter.”

It’s no wonder that The Adornment of Time evokes the wanderings of the mind at night, asleep perhaps, but not quite at rest: at Sorey’s request, the concert was performed in a room that was pitch-black, except for very soft red lights that illuminated their instruments. When Crispell walked onstage, “it was like night in there, very dark and dream-like,” she emailed me. “I felt unmoored but decided to let go of any expectations as to what could or should happen, and to just trust the space.” Sorey said that when he first listened to the recording, he was reminded of those red lights: “The music has the austerity, but also the playfulness, of red.” 

To my ears, though, it suggests a more mysterious quality that the film director Ingmar Bergman attached to the color red: the ability to evoke the interior of the soul. The Adornment of Time finds two artists probing deep inside themselves to create, in Sorey’s words, “a synthesis that belongs to neither of us alone.”  


The Adornment of Time, by Tyshawn Sorey and Marilyn Crispell (live at The Kitchen, New York City, 2018), is available from Pi Recordings.