Violinist/composer Jennifer Curtis and multi-instrumentalist/composer Tyshawn Sorey have been performing as a duo for several years, as an outgrowth of a collaboration that initiated from their work together in the International Contemporary Ensemble. This dynamic release captures their powerfully expressive improvisations over eight contrasting tracks, reflecting their compositional sensibilities in a spontaneous context.
“Invisible Ritual” captures the synergistic collaboration between violinist/composer Jennifer Curtis and multi-instrumentalist/composer Tyshawn Sorey, and is an outgrowth of work they have done within the context of the wide ranging programming of the International Contemporary Ensemble. The eight tracks heard here are all freely improvised, yet categorizing them as free improvisation suggests a soundworld that they do not inhabit exclusively. Both musicians bring their compositional sensibilities to spontaneously generated structures, intuitively guiding their way through material that consistently demonstrates their virtuosity across diverse stylistic territory.
Jennifer Curtis brings a unique vocabulary to her improvised work, informed by a rich background in fiddling and folkloric traditions including Americana music (bluegrass, blues, old time) as well as Eastern European and South American traditions. Her voracious interest in global musical styles is complemented by her lush, lyrical Romantic violin playing and an approach to the language of contemporary music that highlights gesture and character. Sorey’s prodigious artistry extends from his work on drumset and percussion to his piano playing, and draws on his equally diverse vocabularies, from static, textural work in the mode of Feldman, to percolating, off-kilter rhythmic passages, to cascading harmonies driven forward by deft voice leading.
We can hear the fiddling influence in Curtis’ playing most prominently in tracks I, II, IV, and the latter half of VII, as she turns around vernacular motives as if solving a Rubix cube, adjusting their syntax while looking at them from several angles. Sorey’s accompanimental approach to this material is often to create several layers of rhythmic and textural activity, providing a three dimensional frame for Curtis’ gestural deconstruction. III opens with disembodied piano chords, evolving glacially as Curtis adds subtle commentary. Eventually, accumulated subterranean pressure rises to the fore with furious arpeggios in the violin and rumbling chords in the bass. VI is a tender, deeply felt ballad, with Curtis playing melancholic lines and violinistic figuration over a neo-romantic harmonic palette in the piano. Hints of the blues quickly dissolve into pastels and dark hued voicings.
V hears Sorey and Curtis skittering around chromatic outbursts, brief ponticello and pizzicato asides, before leading into heavily wrought violin double stops and swirling piano passages surrounding a central pitch. This piece is perhaps the most schizophrenic of the collection, journeying to several musical destinations within its nearly eleven minute duration, and closing with a trade off of jagged punctuations. VIII finishes the album with an extended ritualistic coda over tolling gongs. Curtis plays a prayerful incantation of melancholy melodic lines, airy trills, whistling harmonics, and pizzicati with glissandi that evoke East Asian plucked instruments. The piece ends with several declamatory gong strikes, as Sorey mediates the speed of their resonant beatings. “Invisible Ritual” lives at the intersection of improvisation and spontaneous composition (if there is in fact a distinction between the two at all), capturing dynamic, poignant performances by two uncategorizable musicians who consistently defy labels.
– D. Lippel
The New York Times described violinist Jennifer Curtis’s second solo concert in Carnegie Hall as “one of the gutsiest and most individual recital programs.” She was celebrated as “an artist of keen intelligence and taste, well worth watching out for.”
Curtis navigates with personality and truth in every piece she performs. Jennifer is a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and founder of the group Tres Americas Ensemble. She has appeared as a soloist with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela and the Knights Chamber Orchestra; performed in Romania in honor of George Enescu; given world premieres at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York; collaborated with composer John Adams at the Library of Congress; and appeared at El Festival de las Artes Esénias in Peru and festivals worldwide.
An educator with a focus on music as humanitarian aid, Jennifer has also collaborated with musical shaman of the Andes, improvised for live radio from the interior of the Amazon jungle, and taught and collaborated with Kurdish refugees in Turkey.
Newark-born multi-instrumentalist and composer Tyshawn Sorey (b. 1980) is celebrated for his incomparable virtuosity, effortless mastery and memorization of highly complex scores, and an extraordinary ability to blend composition and improvisation in his work. He has performed nationally and internationally with his own ensembles, as well as artists such as John Zorn, Vijay Iyer, Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Wadada Leo Smith, Marilyn Crispell, George Lewis, Claire Chase, Steve Coleman, Steve Lehman, Robyn Schulkowsky, Evan Parker, Anthony Braxton, and Myra Melford, among many others.
The New York Times has praised Sorey for his instrumental facility and aplomb, “he plays not only with gale-force physicality, but also a sense of scale and equipoise”; The Wall Street Journal notes Sorey is, “a composer of radical and seemingly boundless ideas.” The New Yorker recently noted that Sorey is “among the most formidable denizens of the in-between zone…An extraordinary talent who can see across the entire musical landscape.”
Sorey has received support for his creative projects from The Jerome Foundation, The Shifting Foundation, Van Lier Fellowship, and was recently named a 2017 MacArthur fellow. The Spektral Quartet, Ojai Music Festival, and International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) have commissioned his works, which exemplify a penchant for a thorough exploration of the intersection between improvisation and composition. Sorey also collaborates regularly with ICE as a percussionist and resident composer. Future commissions include a residency at the Berlin Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall’s 125 Commissions Project in partnership with Opera Philadelphia supporting a new work for tenor Lawrence Brownlee addressing themes associated with Black Lives Matter.
As a leader, Sorey has released seven critically acclaimed recordings that feature his work as a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and conceptualist. His latest, Pillars (Firehouse 12 Records, 2018), has been praised by Rolling Stone as “an immersive soundworld… sprawling, mysterious… thrilling” and has been named as one of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction 2018 albums of the year.
In 2012, he was selected as one of nine composers for the Other Minds Festival, where he exchanged ideas with such like-minded peers as Ikue Mori, Ken Ueno, and Harold Budd. In 2013, Jazz Danmark invited him to serve as the Danish International Visiting Artist. He was a 2015 recipient of the Doris Duke Impact Award. Sorey has taught and lectured on composition and improvisation at Columbia University, The New School, The Banff Centre, Wesleyan University, International Realtime Music Symposium, Hochschule für Musik Köln, Berklee College of Music, Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and The Danish Rhythmic Conservatory. His work has been premiered at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, Ojai Music Festival, The Kitchen, Walt Disney Hall, Roulette, Issue Project Room, and the Stone, among many other established venues and festivals.
As of Fall 2017 he has held the role of Assistant Professor of Composition and Creative Music at Wesleyan University, where he received his Masters degree in Composition in 2011.
Devotees of the experimental scene know that Tyshawn Sorey thinks big. He won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2017 and premiered a new song cycle with Opera Philadelphia the following year, and he has continued to revise and refine a dramatic tribute to Josephine Baker. While fans wait for some of those ambitious projects to be recorded, the composer and multi-instrumentalist has recently turned to the intimacy of duo sets.
It would be a mistake to think of these as minor offerings. Last fall brought an inspired concert recording with veteran pianist Marilyn Crispell. Now there’s another gem under that same heading. Invisible Ritual pairs Sorey off with the violinist and composer Jennifer Curtis, a player from the International Contemporary Ensemble, an elite new-classical crew. Once again, this set documents fully improvised performances. But there’s nothing tossed off about it.
Curtis’ range as a soloist is a revelation. She proves a nimble listener and co-leader as she works with Sorey to create a 76-minute program rich with narrative drama. There are no track titles (other than Roman numerals). But instrumental music as expressive as this doesn’t need any additional poetry.
The short opening movement introduces an amalgam of attributes that the pair will explore in greater depth over the duration of the album. Free-improv twangs of violin and skittering cymbals set the stage for airy textures, but before long, kick-drum blasts and strummed strings tease the influence of propulsive folk forms. Country blues and vintage rock have their place in this mix, as do the calm and the not-quite-silence of select Art Ensemble of Chicago deep cuts.
The following movements make good on these promises. Sorey tends to produces sounds all over his kit, playing even the edges (or sides) of every piece of equipment in his arsenal. And Curtis can match him texture for texture, tossing off clean-tone, song-like sounds, as well as quivering glissandi, and moving between jaunty pizzicato plucking and bowing close to the bridge — the latter effect producing thin, piping harmonics. After she plays a fragment of melody, the delicate extended techniques from her violin that follow sometimes suggest wisps of some phantom turntablist’s remix.
At two points during the set, Sorey switches to piano (a side of his multi-instrumentalism that hasn’t been all that prominent on recordings). During the third track, he shows the same feel for nuance and delicacy than can be heard in his subtler percussion work. On the fifth track, he becomes a speed demon with a light touch. Adopting an edgier tone while matching Sorey’s quickness of thought, Curtis provides a winning element of contrast. Beautiful balladry takes center stage during the sixth movement. Feel free to skip directly to this part if you’re eager to hear how a free-improv session might channel conventional loveliness. But those who have been keeping up with Sorey’s recent work won’t be surprised. After that pinnacle of songful gorgeousness, the duo ventures back toward passages of tumult; the recording ends with an extended exploration of sparser, quieter energies.
This album may not announce itself as capital-I Important; it lacks some of the superficial, external signs of ambition that can help audiences understand how serious a work intends to be. There is no operatic libretto here; nor is there much of a promotional engine in place. (The album is released by the International Contemporary Ensemble’s own TUNDRA label.) But the quality of interplay to be found here is always news, whenever and however it makes itself heard.
- Seth Colter Walls, 1.29.20, Pitchfork
Here’s what I call a perfect musical match. Invisible Ritual brings together violinist/composer Jen Curtis, a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, whose technique is awe-inspiring, with multi-instrumentalist/composer Tyshawn Sorey, heralded as one of the leading jazz innovators of our times. Funneling their advanced musical practices into eight spontaneously composed movements, these open-minded artists subvert standards and provide new genre-defying perspectives by employing a sublime symposium of timbres and sound combinations in their music. “I” exudes a tremendous avant-folk spell. Curtis strums, bows and plucks with edginess and power while Sorey responds with precision and brio. His unpredictable accompaniment, filled with true grit, allows him to whether make the drums pounding irregularly, rocking with some more form, or simply react with instinctive yet logical ideas.
The motivic-filled “II” alternates forward-moving thrust with calmer Eastern-flavored inspirations; it ends with peaceful flute-like tones and understated percussion. In turn, “IV” stresses strong rhythmic accentuations and turns loose motifs that can be simultaneously lustrous and rasping in tone. A powerful combination of mosaics drawn from classical, avant-garde jazz, rock and folk is on display, while synchronization, integration and reaction play key roles. In this particular movement, we have Sorey’s powerful drumming exploding with a superior sense of groove, occasionally adorned with inventive stunts for a grandiose effect. This piece marks a peak in the duo’s effortless communication. Sorey is also extremely talented on the piano, and several pieces demonstrate his deep understanding of harmony, usually designed with quirky combinations of chord extensions. Take the examples of “III”, patiently sculpted with dreamy harmonic ambiguity and ghostly fiddling technique in the form of insistent hurried plucks and long multiphonic bows; “V”, whose balletic movements bring both circular and free-flowing activity to the table; and “VI”, a contemplative, lyrical offering where the piano breathes and the violin soothes. The record ends with a violin composite of veiled glissandos, bending plucks, and shrilling bowed notes in consonance with a panoply of percussive sounds, from gongs to chimes to vibes.
Probing with finesse and depth, the duo shows off an invulnerable musical affinity that makes me want to hear more. Invisible Ritual offers beautiful, incantatory moments and a great deal of outstanding playing.
-Felipe Freitas, 1.22.20, JazzTrail
This is a thoroughly riveting set of improvised music that at times seems composed due to the uncanny interplay between master musicians Curtis and Sorey.
-Kevin Coultas, 1.25.20, In On the Corner
Violinist Jennifer Curtis and composer, multi-instrumentalist, and 2017 MacArthur Fellow Tyshawn Sorey have collaborated before through work with the International Contemporary Ensemble. Invisible Ritual brings their fruitful creative partnership into the world of recording for a set of eight tracks of that explore multiple pairings of style and genre. Traces of frenetic fiddling traditions blend with a swishing drumset beating in off-kilter rhythm on “I;” a piano subsumed in darkness pounces as a violin tremolos in pianissimo on “III;” piano and violin play in an impressionistic, melodic duet on “VI.” While the instruments often exist in their own sonic boxes, they move together in a quirky sort of sync, exploring a wide variety of atmospheres and styles through free improvisation. Invisible Ritual is an energetic, virtuosic conglomeration of styles, ideas, and sounds.
-Vanessa Ague, 2.3.20, The Road to Sound
— Vanessa Ague, 2.03.2020
Jennifer Curtis brings her violin to create duets with Tyshawn Sorey on either piano or percussion on these eight improvisations. With Sorey on percussion, he paradiddles to oblivion to Curtis’ bow on “II” and gives some rockish thunder on the driving “”IV” as the two scramble like cockroaches on the scratchy “VII”. Sorey’s piano is stark on “III” and fragile during Curtis’ picks and bows on “VI” as they scurry about on the trudging “ V”. Harrowing conversations.
— George W. Harris, 3.19.2020
Here’s a one-word review of Jennifer Curtis and Tyshawn Sorey’s collaborative album Invisible Ritual: finally. Alternatively, epic. Try for three, and genius loves company almost works. Words always fail to capture the character of music, but here, more words equal deeper failure. Brevity beckons. The best possible two-word review may be the album’s title: it draws listeners inescapably into unseen acts of magic.
The record comprises the eight-track title piece, which Sorey and Curtis improvised while recording. Their planning process consisted entirely of their history of collaboration plus deep conversations on the way to the session. The problem finding words for what they achieved together is that description is a clumsy tool made of slippery language. How can imprecise words nail down vaporous traces of mood, muscle memory, and thought? Invisible Ritual invites wordless murmurs of appreciation, perhaps soft expletives of amazement.
Sorey and Curtis walked into record producer Randy Ezratty’s living room in 2018 with substantial reputations in place. Curtis, a composer and master in many styles, plays violin for the International Contemporary Ensemble, whose Tundra imprint released this record. Sorey, a pianist, percussionist, and MacArthur Fellow, has composed in a staggering variety of contexts and collaborated with seemingly everyone. Yet Invisible Ritual finds defining aspects of both musicians’ approaches in absorptive consonance with each other.
Ryan Streber of Oktaven Audio catches every splash, thump, and strum at the start of I. For this, listeners owe him gratitude. Sorey and Curtis never overwhelm one another, and their softest sounds remain ever audible. Picture a painting of a drummer by Basquiat, right next to a Rockwell illustration of a country fiddler. Imagine that you found their gallery in a dream, and that a shaft of sunlight abruptly woke you. The dream remains lodged in your mind, albeit distorted: that’s I.
Convergences seem too perfect to have emerged spontaneously in II., but from this duo, flights and figments feel like culminations. Curtis’s harmonics open high above Sorey’s toms, but together they flow toward airiness–her on strings, him on scraped cymbals. Gongs and an erhu-like violin tone suggest memories of Chinese music. A tart piano chord jolts III. into existence; after answering with mournful double stops, Curtis steps aside for a while. New Focus Recordings label head Dan Lippel suggests inspiration from Feldman here, but the climax and conclusion offer unique appeal. After Curtis returns with furious arpeggios, Sorey walks up the keyboard in spacey perfect fourths; both end up adrift.
The violin melody that opens IV. and serves as a reference point throughout is also an earworm; consider yourself warned. Scraps of familiar styles drift by, prompting questions rather than recognition–which Romantic violin concerto has that tune? Which rock drummer played fills like this? It ends with a playful ellipsis that Sorey, back on piano for V., answers with a different kind of playfulness. His blips conjure images of a hacked player piano reproducing bits of Ahmad Jamal solos. Curtis coughs, reminding us that this is happening live in someone’s living room–but also scales the heights of virtuosity.
With Curtis on a melancholy tune and Sorey harmonizing and embellishing, VI. sounds more like jazz than other tracks. Angst steals in and shatters the balladry, however. VII. seems like a logical conclusion at first, with its recall of I. and its mounting energy. Sorey’s late cymbal scrape, followed ten seconds of silence later by a bass drum thump, feels conclusive. Yet the ritual of the title can end in neither sorrow nor lightheartedness. VIII. pairs ruminations from Curtis with the chiming bells, bowls, gongs, and cymbal crowns of Sorey’s percussion setup. The duo remains tight to the end, Curtis catching pitches from Sorey’s tuned gongs and working the notes into melodies.
"Invisible Ritual'’s flickers of the familiar feel necessary and grounded, fun but not emptily so. It rewards immediate repeat listening, but its scale means that doing so would make an afternoon of it. I recommend that. Once, having loaded the album onto my phone for a long run, I arrived at the edge of a park. Unknown to me before that day, blanketed in fog and deserted but for geese, it invited a pause. On one edge, a steep hill made it look as though the world abruptly ended there. To the left, ramshackle old houses huddled; to the right, anonymously sleek new condominiums had just gone up. III. made for the perfect soundtrack: slightly surreal, somehow dark yet luminous, a clouded summation of our zeitgeist. Invite Sorey and Curtis into your space and see how they change the lighting.
— Nick Stevens, 3.31.2020
Consider for example, Invisible Ritual (Tundra Records TUN 014 newfocusrecordings.com) that joins Americans Jennifer Curtis (violin) and Tyshawn Sorey, who plays percussion and piano. Curtis’ background includes playing old-timey music and membership in the contemporary chamber group ICE. Sorey composes for ensembles such as ICE as well as gigging as a jazz drummer with the likes of Myra Melford. The pair stretch boundaries only slightly during expected chamber music violin-piano configurations here. But while there’s a near rococo feel when the pianist sticks to prudent and deliberate patterning and the fiddler sweetens textures to the quasi-baroque, other sequences such as Invisible Ritual III and Invisible Ritual V are invested with dynamic animation. A heavier touch encompassing key clip and clinks from the piano adds swing intimations further propelled by impetuous violin glissandi and, especially on the second tune, triple-stopping variations and col legno taps. Contrast is more markedly defined when percussion is involved. Starting with a folksy exposition, gong-like reverberations and arco string strokes add to the reflective mood. The same sort of savvy is brought to faster numbers. Kinetic steeplechases are propelled by chunky drum rumbles and cymbal echoes from Sorey as Curtis, jumping from strained squeaks to pizzicato plucks on the fiddle, references the heads as they create new distinctive melodies. There’s even a point on Invisible Ritual VIII where the blend threatens to create a Balkan-style dance rhythm. Versatility and cooperation is most obvious on Invisible Ritual IV, where Sorey’s beat stretching and riffs complement Curtis’ dynamic moves back and forth from spiccato to arco, often during the same line. As he slaps cymbal and snares, he heads into hoedown territory and then turns to tough tremolo sweeps to face down the ferocious clip-chop percussion challenge.
— Ken Waxman, 9.01.2020