by Eli Namay
Tyshawn Sorey and Fay Victor are both relentless and focused improvisers. Last Saturday they collectively cultivated a space of sustained intensity over the period of two hour-long sets. Without a hint of hesitation or apology, there was a deep emotional connection between the two that created a subtle musical environment of playful exchange. This often gave me the impression that the two performers were inhabiting worlds that were separate, though never disparate – as two particles of the same element flying around in a gaseous state.
Disoriented by my physiological responses to his playing, I couldn’t help but find myself primarily being fixated on Tyshawn. I’m very familiar with Tyshawn’s work, and should probably also disclose that his playing and writing – particularly on Steve Lehman’s album Travail, Transformation, and Flow, and his album Oblique-I respectively – have been really important to me over the past several years. Even so, seated about twenty feet away, I was completely taken aback in experiencing his open-ended improvisational flow for the first time live. I was astonished at the wide range of sounds he was able to coax out of his instrument without utilizing any auxiliary percussion. It often took on a lyrical quality, creating an illusion of there being a second vocalist, or even a horn player. Tyshawn’s piano playing was equally dynamic; he displayed a deep understanding of the wide range of vibrational qualities that the instrument possesses – something that most piano players seem to overlook. At times you could see the whole instrument shake. There were many moments I felt certain the piano would collapse beneath the sheer amount of kinetic force.
In a state of constant becoming, as Tyshawn sang on the kit, Fay’s vocal style often tended to be very percussive, but would then shift quickly to more smooth sounds, guttural bursts, or sound sheets of linguistic utterances. I was able to catch up with Fay a bit over email where she discussed the development of her improvisational language, inspiration, and her piece (performed that evening) about the Black Lives Matter movement.
Eli Namay: Would you talk a bit about how you conceptualize and develop your improvisational vocabulary?
Fay Victor: Language develops over time. I’ve been an improviser for about fifteen years performing in myriad musical situations where improvising is at the heart of the performance. It’s given me a lot of time to accumulate language that’s my own. The vocabulary comes from different sources like birds, sirens, running water, large ensemble sounds, horns, breathe, percussion, gurgles and gargles, and more… How this all comes together is the listening. Working with Tyshawn Sorey is working with a listening machine, on top of all his other gifts. In the listening, we both know what to come with. It’s really this.
EN: Who and/or what inspires you on this front?
FV: Everything. The E train when it rolls into the World Trade Center in NYC has a special rhythm that you hear when you’re on the A train. I’ve internalized it. Why? Because it has a groove, and I love that the groove just exists in the world and anyone can find it. I get a lot of inspiration from these finds. Sometimes I’ll imitate with my voice very strange sounds I hear. The voice is an incredible, flexible, and strong instrument capable of almost infinite sounds. Just think of all the languages that exist on this planet, all the sounds humans make to communicate with each other. Part of my work is unleashing all the sounds I can make, internalizing all the sounds that I hear, and then making them available for play.
EN: In your introduction of the piece on BLM you framed it by talking about the amount of crime in Chicago. Could you talk about your decision to frame the piece in this manner?
FV: This concert was rescheduled from January 2016. At that time it was a couple months after the video showing CPD killing Laquan McDonald was released. For many of us outside of Chicago understood how serious crime in Chicago is. I saw a statistic this weekend that said there’s already been 1000 shootings in Chicago this year and it’s only May. Sobering and Heartbreaking.
The piece, entitled BlackLivesMatterToUs, was written in 2015 for the Evolving Festival in New York put on by Arts For Art honoring the Black Lives Matter Movement. Each bandleader was asked to contribute something specific in their set. I wrote these words first as a series of open questions about the phrase itself, and later I get into why I need to ask those questions, then move on to a clarion call to embrace ourselves on our own terms. For these reasons, it felt appropriate to share those words in your city.
EN: Anything else you’d like to say about this piece or BLM in general?
FV: In December 2014 I started a group called the TalkRACE Forum with Cisco Bradley, a history professor at Pratt Institute, which seeks to bring a diverse group of people together to have uncomfortable conversations about race from a personal perspective. It’s been illuminating and satisfying to talk and hear how racism affects us all and how important it is for us to share our fears. It’s made me realize how much we need these kinds of conversations and it’s my way of contributing to the community of people that want to see positive change.
As someone who is actively involved in movement work, as well as the various radical music communities in Chicago, it was very refreshing for me to see Fay bridging this gap in a space often only dedicated to aesthetic exploration, foregoing explicit sociopolitical commentary. To elaborate on Fay’s themes, one of the main things that the city’s black activist groups (BYP100, Black Lives Matter Chicago, Assata’s Daughters, We Charge Genocide, Lifted Voices, etc.) focus on is the intersectionality between the over-policing of neighborhoods, poverty, the funneling of resources away from black and brown communities, police violence, and the epidemic of violent crime that racially and economically marginalized communities’ experience. Neoliberalism has left much of the city decimated where ‘surplus populations’ are handled by the police department. This piece displayed a depth of concern that really solidified the complex emotionality of Fay and Tyshawn’s performance and overall relationship.