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Bringing "Death" to Life

Posted on: February 17, 2021

Though his latest work (and our fourth Digital Short) is titled Death, composer Tyshawn Sorey would rather focus on hope. We had the chance to chat with him about this new piece, his creative process, and what the work of the highly influential Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar means to him. Get all the details below.

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Can you tell us a bit about yourself? When did you start composing music?

I compose music both spontaneously and “formally,” for a lack of a better term. I began seriously writing various kinds of extended notated music rather late in life: at around 18-19 years of age, and it has stuck with me ever since.  

What was it about Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "death" that spoke to you?

I was familiar with Paul Laurence Dunbar's writing during my first years in elementary school, but only in recent years I have been revisiting his work, and I can relate to it nowadays given the current social climate in America as it relates to Black Americans.  To put it simply, "Death" spoke to me as it is one of many pensive themes that, while universally linked to the COVID 19 pandemic, it is something that Blacks in America know all too well especially during this time, when one observes, for example, the increased frequency of unfortunate murders of unarmed Blacks and the injustices we have been experiencing over the course of the past century until now. This is of course only one of several social ills that we continue to deal with on a daily basis. 

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How did Dunbar's work inform your musical choices?  

In the same way that Dunbar's work reflects his life experiences, so too does my music reflect mine - well, those of Black Americans in general. The themes that I tend to explore in my music are very serious in nature, and it is critical to me that the music supports the text in the most direct way possible. Without getting concerned about the technical details in the music, the question that has most informed my choices has been: what does "Death" sound like to me while I'm reading the poem? How can I directly communicate this feeling to the listener through sound? 

What are you hoping audiences take away from the piece?  

I want more people to become familiar with and recognize Dunbar's lesser known works. "Death" is one such poem, and it comes from his seminal collection of poems, Lyrics of Love and Laughter, which I can't recommend enough for reading and perusal. This setting of "Death" may be viewed as an extension of the vocal music I've done over the past five years, beginning with Perle Noirethen Cycles of My Being, and more recently, Save the BoysI hope that this setting of Death would encourage and inspire the listener to become more aware of Dunbar's literary brilliance - that is, how much his work has truly brought about Black empowerment in this country and how it continues to inspire future generations of writers. 

Death premieres Friday, February 19th at 11:00 a.m. PST. You can tune in to this new Digital Short by clicking here