Lauded by his peers (Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman) as well as critics (Steve Smith), TCO member Cory Smythe is an accomplished pianist, an inventive improviser and composer, a sought-after chamber musician and a pioneering performer of contemporary classical music. Smythe’s debut recording, (“Pluripotent”) released on March 14, 2011, is a concise flow of newly composed and improvised music for solo piano, with occasional voice and electronics (also supplied by Smythe). Its originality, poetry, and virtuosity have earned it underground, online recognition among forward-looking jazz and classical musicians in New York City and beyond.
When did you start playing?
My parents say I started playing Beatles songs by ear when I was two… but isn’t that exactly the sort of thing parents can’t be trusted to report accurately?
How did improvisation become part of your musical experience?
I think composing (like, pop tunes, not string quartets), playing radio hits and movie themes by ear, ‘soloing’ over chord progressions — all these things were a big part of my piano playing when I was a kid, and probably all remain at the heart of my improvising today in one way or another.
Which composers/musicians most influence your work?
Lately, a few of the people I find myself thinking about the most are Fats Waller, Gerard Grisey, Andrew Manze, and Neil Young.
What current projects/ensembles are you involved in?
My main group is the International Contemporary Ensemble, but I’m fortunate to play a part in some other new music groups, including the Firebird Ensemble in Boston, Present Music in Milwaukee, and the New York Miniaturist Ensemble. Fellow Braxton experiencer, Chris DiMeglio and I recently started an experimental electronic pop duo called Twice Kitten. I do a fair amount of canonic classical chamber music and (less frequently) solo recitals. But for the next few weeks, I’m mostly at home fiddling around with my computer in the hopes of fleshing out a new collection of pieces for piano and electronics.
I just released my first album, “Pluripotent”, available online (for free… or any price you wish) at corysmythe.bandcamp.com.
What are you currently listening to?
Literally, right this second, Scriabin’s Prometheus
Peter Evans, “Ghosts”
AGF, “Westernization Completed”
Benoit Delbecq, “Circles and Calligrams”
Some improvisations on progressively disassembled piano by Gust Burns (http://www.rasbliutto.net/artists/gustburns.html)
…and the new Paul Simon.
How has working with Anthony Braxton shaped your musical experience?
I think it’s tempting when you work with someone legendary to become a bit ridiculous with awe. And I hate being ridiculous! But Braxton makes it so difficult…
There’s something ineffable going on with that guy. I don’t know how he does it – realizing one inspired idea after another, seemingly unfettered by doubt, by practical concerns, by the laws of physics… But when I’m in the same room with him, I feel like I might be able to do it, too.
What impact has the Trillium-Tri-Centric Orchestra had on your concept of the orchestra as an entity?
If I understand correctly, the Tri-Centric group is only just beginning to explore all of Braxton’s ideas about the orchestra (and this is after having recorded an entire opera). I’m sure I’ll have a different answer a year from now, but at present I’m still just really enjoying the musicians, themselves — all amazing people from a wide variety of backgrounds. The new music groups I’m in would never play Braxton’s music the way Braxton’s group does, and I find the difference really exciting.
What’s your favorite food?
Currently can’t get enough coconut water!
(Ed. note: I was curious about the meaning behind “Pluripotent,” so I just had to ask…)
Pluripotent is (for me) a (dimly understood) term from biology referring to a kind of stem cell that can become any other type of cell in the adult body. I wanted the music on “Pluripotent” to seem like that sort of charged raw material, or for its forays into song and abstraction to seem rooted in the same mutating collection of ideas. And I guess at another level I wanted the album to suggest vague, almost magical thinking about biology, about single cells becoming complex organisms.
Visit Cory on the web: http://www.corysmythe.com