Cory Smythe loves the music of the 70s and 80s, from Alvin Lucier to Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail to Prince. In Smythe’s own music, the sounds of these innovators shine through in unexpected and curious ways. An active performer of new, classical, and improvised music, Smythe has played at the Darmstadt Festival, Bang on a Can, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and at clubs and halls across the United States. He’s worked with the International Contemporary Ensemble for over a decade, premiering and performing works by John Zorn, George Lewis, and Iannis Xenakis, to name just a few. In the jazz milieu, Smythe has shared the stage with Peter Evans, Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Anthony Braxton, Tyshawn Sorey, and Nate Wooley.
Cory Smythe will play the first set at The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday, followed by Tyler Gilmore & Pools. In the wake of his celebrated first release, Pluripotent, Smythe will present music form his new record AUTOTROPHS at The Jazz Gallery this week. In anticipation of the show, we spoke about the origins of his hybrid acoustic/electric setup, the process of recording his recent album AUTOTROPHS, and his deep fandom for Prince.
TJG: In the liner notes for AUTOTROPHS, you describe the imaginary premise of “Fats Waller working at IRCAM in the early 80s.” When surrounded by concrete walls and synthesizers of IRCAM, Fats Waller is not the first person that comes to mind. What gave you the concept?
Cory Smythe: I’ve actually never been inside IRCAM, but for me, I connected with the music that I’ve heard from there. It’s opulent. So I wasn’t thinking about concrete, I was thinking about a kind of alternate reality where one sort of musical practice might congeal with another.
TJG: So do you follow composers from IRCAM and their composition processes?
CS: Yeah, I’m into French spectral music from the 80s. I perform a fair amount of that music with ICE. A, few years back, we played Diademes (1986) for solo viola and large ensemble, by Marc-André Dalbavie. Immense forces, extraordinary harmonies, all connected with 80s spectral synthesis. We played it several years ago, around the time when I was putting together ideas for this project. It made an impression.
TJG: On “Blockchain,” I love the use of sustained notes with abrupt, unnatural cutoffs, and the addition of some of the gritty granular string noise. How is the track layered and structured?
CS: There’s an underlying structure that’s the same from performance to performance, but beyond that it’s an improvised piece. I have a pedal setup triggering a freeze effect in Max and Ableton Live, which leads to those textures. The idea was to create something that would sound as if it had been edited and chopped up in software, but it’s actually all live.
TJG: No kidding! Did you make the Max patches?
CS: I wish I could say I did. I mostly pilfer things that other people have built [laughs]. I got into using Max in my live performances because it developed naturally from the music I was playing. My involvement with ICE has put me in contact with a lot of pieces with live electronics in Max or Pd. I wanted to explore some of that on my own.
TJG: So at a certain point, you must have gone from using it at home to introducing it into your live set, yes?
CS: That’s about right. I’m not as big a tech nerd as I’d like to be, but in a way, I’ve been playing with sequencers and synthesizers since I was a kid. I’ve always tried to find ways of integrating technology into live performance. But a sequencer isn’t that interesting; you’re basically playing along with a track. So, working in a more improvisatory and malleable way with electronic elements seemed perfect. Though, the very next track on AUTOTROPHS is basically me playing along with a track [laughs].
TJG: Pairing up with Steve Lehman for a tribute to Alvin Lucier on “Lucy-A” and “Lucy-B” lead to some great sounds. What brought about the collaboration?
CS: That too began as an ICE project of sorts. It was more of a curatorial idea at first, doing a program of Lehman and Lucier. I don’t know exactly what I was thinking when I got excited idea to work with Lehman [laughs]. There are some exciting ways that their work connects: Steve was in school when Alvin Lucier was at Wesleyan teaching there with Anthony Braxton. I found myself wanting to use the sine wave language that Lucier pioneered. I thought that if I were clever enough about it, I could get these pairs of sine waves moving together to be a source of rhythmic and microtonal information. I was hoping to capture the off-kilter rhythmic language that I love in Steve’s music, and the kind of microtonal spectral harmonies that I love. That became “Lucy-B.” Once it became a full-blown collaboration, I began writing music and diving back into Lucier’s portfolio, finding ways to connect it with my collaboration with Steve. The “Lucy-A” piece on the record is based on Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room,” where his re-recorded voice tape loop interacts with the physical space around it until you only hear the resonant room tones. It results in these amazing sonorities. I transcribed those sonorities and made them the basis of this piece.
TJG: So tell me a bit about your relationship with ICE.
CS: I’ve been a part of the ensemble for, I don’t know, twelve years now? It’s introduced me to a lot of music and musicians, and has been a huge part of my musical growth over the last decade. I’m lucky to be a part of it: I happened to fill in for someone on a gig in Chicago a few months before I moved from Indiana to New York. I was making that move with no real connections in the city, and it was fortuitous that I got hooked up with them when I did. I didn’t know at the time that it would become such a big part of my work here, but it was a happy coincidence for me.
TJG: You recorded the latest album at Oktaven Audio, NY: How was the session structured, to best capture your live performance and electronic manipulations?
CS: Basically, for the most part, I played the piano live. Then, the tape portions were piped through the headphones.
TJG: And how meticulous are you about getting a certain vibe, when it comes to the combination of the acoustic and electric sounds?
CS: I worked a lot to try to revise the sound of the electronics in a number of cases. The session itself was just one day, and Ryan Streber, the engineer, was just amazing at his work. In terms of capturing the live sound of the instrument, he can take all the credit.
TJG: In the Oktaven Audio mission statement, the studio writes about the importance of Brahms’ “Octaven und Quinten” book, where he documented the forbidden parallel intervals he heard in the music of the great masters. Are there any artists who you admire for defying convention?
CS: Interesting, I didn’t know that. Part of what Brahms must have been getting at is that he was comforted by the fact that these people were breaking the rules, doing the thing you’re explicitly told not to do. May people I admire are almost certainly breaking some kind of rule. I’m not that caught up in music that I would consider to be overtly anti-rules, but I’m not sure what the difference is between rule breaking and exploration of new possibilities. Anthony Braxton, whose early piano Composition #1 I’ll be performing in my set, has always been a convention-breaking artist I admire. His music transcends nearly every conceivable boundary, around genre and practice, composition and improvisation, musical notation, performance, conducting, dancing, ensemble formation, and so on. And with respect to this project, another artist that I admire is Steve Lehman. I’m struggling as to whether I want to say that Steve’s music “breaks the rules.” I’m not sure if he’d think of it that way. But he’s interested in conventions that exist in various musical practices, and in finding meaningful ways to connect those conventions across disciplines. And, of course, when I think of an artist for whom I have an abiding admiration, the first person to mind is always Prince.
TJG: Nice. Tell me about Prince.
CS: Man. Where do I start. A total innovator, in the 80s especially, his music has this kind of amazing way of cutting along the possibilities and shaping something totally unique.
TJG: Has his recent death brought you into his music in a new way?
CS: Yes and no. I don’t think my Prince habits have changed since he died. It’s coming up on a year now since he passed away. I was grateful for Questlove: He had a dance party at The Brooklyn Bowl that same night, which was cathartic, and a deep dive into some of the lesser-heard Prince tracks that you wouldn’t normally get to, heard on a huge sound system.
TJG: You were there?
CS: I was there, yeah. As a nerd about Prince’s music, it was huge. Questlove is unparalleled in terms of his Prince fandom and what he knows about his music. I wanted to be a part of a kind of public mourning, but I didn’t want that to just be people swaying to Purple Rain. It was nice to have a curated, heartfelt, informed evening where we could be in Questlove’s space, his encompassing love for Prince.
TJG: In the old days, it was common for composers to draw inspiration from jazz. Steve Reich and Terry Riley listened to Coltrane, Ligeti was influenced by Monk and Bill Evans. But you’re composing and bringing your music to venues like The Vanguard and Newport Jazz. Do you have models you look to for your cross-modal, cross-genre career?
CS: Well, I’m fortunate to play with Tyshawn Sorey. In terms of having a career that truly crosses a lot of boundaries, he’s certainly a deeper example than I am. I don’t really think of it, or try not to think of it, as me being a “contemporary classical musician crossing over into a jazz venue.” For me, I think my music makes some kind of sense at a venue like The Jazz Gallery. I don’t know, maybe it is a kind of crossover thing, but that’s not the impetus for me. When it comes to the issue of genre, it’s so fraught. The categories, the language associated with those categories, it’s basically disputed by all of the artists that I admire. That is where I’m trying to come from.
Pianist Cory Smythe celebrates the release of AUTOROPHS at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017. Mr. Smythe will play one set at 7:30 P.M. Mr. Smythe’s performance will be followed by a set at 9:30 P.M. by Tyler Gilmore and Pools, featuring Gilmore on live electronics, Zach Nestel-Patt on bass, and Kenji Herbert on guitar. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.