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Tyshawn Sorey wins 2024 Pulitzer Prize in music for 'Adagio (For Wadada Leo Smith)'

Pulitzer-winning composer Tyshawn Sorey.
John Rogers
Courtesy of the artist
Pulitzer-winning composer Tyshawn Sorey.

Last year, the resolutely nonconformist composer, educator and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music — a rare honor in itself, and a confirmation of the esteem with which his work is held. But that doesn't mean he had any expectations for this year's award.

"I'm still sitting here shocked beyond belief," he told NPR Music on Monday afternoon, about an hour after his composition Adagio (For Wadada Leo Smith) was announced as the Pulitzer winner for 2024. "I had no idea that this was even being considered."

Sorey, 43, is a feverishly prolific creative force who maintains overlapping profiles in the realms of both improvisational music ("jazz," though he doesn't use the term) and classical new music. In that sense, he carries on a tradition best exemplified by musicians like Wadada Leo Smith, a visionary trumpeter and composer whose album Ten Freedom Summers was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2013. Smith, like Sorey's academic mentor George Lewis, is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which has always prioritized original music made on its own terms, separate from concerns about genre or commercial appeal.

Sorey's Monochromatic Light (Afterlife), which received the previous Pulitzer nod, is a hauntingly immersive chamber work inspired in part by the Rothko Chapel (which co-commissioned it) and the composer Morton Feldman (who wrote a piece for the chapel's dedication in 1971). Adagio (For Wadada Leo Smith) — commissioned by the Lucerne Festival and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — is a work of much shorter duration, just 20 minutes, and while it moves at a glacial pace, it holds its subject in steady focus.

"Wadada tends to avoid the word 'ballad' when referring to something at a slow tempo," Sorey says. "He instead calls it 'Adagio.' So I chose the title for that reason, but also because of the way that Wadada phrases and plays such beautiful, melodic figures — things that take time to develop. I wanted to honor his expressive timing, his pacing. And I always talk about allowing things to happen. Wadada really is classic with that impulse."

The score for Adagio (For Wadada Leo Smith) has a tempo marking that specifies a quarter note at "36, exactly." The piece features an alto saxophone soloist, with a woodwind cohort of two flutes (alto and bass); two English horns, or cor anglais; two bassoons; and two clarinets (a B-flat, and a bass clarinet that "must extend down to a low concert B-flat"). There are also two trumpets, two bass trombones, a timpanist and a 21-piece string ensemble. The contrabassists are instructed to use five strings, rather than the standard four: "If the player is using a four string bass with a low C extension, the C string must be tuned down to a low concert B natural (down one half-step)."

The emphasis on low-end fundamentals suggests a genuflection to Smith, as does the calmly expansive range of dynamic markings, from triple piano (ppp) to triple forte (fff). Organized in three movements but unfolding in a single continuous flow, Sorey's piece has the deep sonorities and accretive power that has characterized much of his writing. It reflects the floaty influence of Feldman as well as the patient irresolution of living heroes like Lewis and Smith.

The Pulitzer based its award on the American premiere of Adagio (For Wadada Leo Smith) at Atlanta Symphony Hall last year. Its world premiere took place at the Lucerne Festival in 2022. Finnish music journalist Jari Kallio called the piece "a revelation" in his review for the blog Adventures in Music. "Out of the line-up, a sounding realm of shadows emerges, to a stunning effect," Kallio wrote. "Instead of cascades of fast note configurations, Sorey's writing for the solo sax establishes whole another brand of virtuosity, one wrought of long lines, where each note is given its singular identity; a procedure akin to the playing of the concerto's dedicatee as well as the tintinnabulations of Arvo Pärt."

Along with Sorey, this year's Pulitzer finalists for music were Mary Kouyoumdjian, for her multimedia work Paper Pianos, and Felipe Lara, for his Double Concerto for esperanza spalding, Claire Chase, and large orchestra.

"I'm humbled by the whole experience, and it's great to be up there with my colleagues also, Felipe Lara and Claire Chase," Sorey said, mentioning two artists with whom he has collaborated and performed. "To have the panel support my work in this way is just a beautiful feeling. It's something that I'll never forget."

Copyright 2024 WRTI Your Classical and Jazz Source

[Copyright 2024 WRTI Your Classical and Jazz Source]