Pianist Cory Smythe has worked closely with pioneering artists in new, improvisatory, and classical music, including saxophonist-composer Ingrid Laubrock, violinist Hilary Hahn, and multidisciplinary composers from Anthony Braxton to Zosha Di Castri. His own music “dissolves the lines between composition and improvisation with rigor” (Chicago Reader), and his first record was praised by Jason Moran as “hands down one of the best solo recordings I’ve ever heard.” Cory is connected to our friend producer/auteur David Breskin.
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
Accelerate Every Voice. It's sort of an experiment, situating microtonal piano improvisations within an otherwise all vocal band -- vocal bass, vocal percussion, other vocals emulating instrumental and electronic sounds. At this point, I've heard it so many times, whatever pride I may once have taken in it has been totally exhausted! But even now I still find the vocal performances really astonishing.
What's the best place for those new to your work to become familiar with what you do?
You can check out all of my projects as a leader, soloist, and in my collaborative trio with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and bassist Stephan Crump at corysmythe.com/music. I'm on a handful of Tyshawn Sorey records (Tyshawn is also an Audeze artist!), including Alloy and Verisimilitude, a couple of records featuring the music of the composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir (In the Light of Air and Aequa), and my work with violinist Hilary Hahn appears on the records In 27 Pieces and Retrospective.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on?
Maybe increasingly somewhere near the helm? I spent many years in a more purely collaborative role, helping to realize the unique visions of numerous 21st century composers as a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, or on the road with Tyshawn Sorey's trio, or really in all kinds of settings -- chamber music, improvised music, undefinable music, music intended to challenge the very act of defining. That's all still a huge part of what I do, but I'm grateful to find myself leading more and more of my own projects these days as well.
How did you get started in music?
When I was a kid, my dad played the piano -- just for fun and to unwind, and mostly pop songs he'd taught himself to play by ear. According to my mom, one day when I was still quite young, she heard one of these songs coming from the living room and was startled to find that I was the one playing. I have no memory of this allegedly fateful moment at all... But I do have lots of memories of the piano lessons I started shortly thereafter -- and of many childhood moments spent running to the piano to play a song I'd just heard on TV, or composing/improvising something based on that song, or on my mood that day, or on some new kind of sonority I'd just discovered. I sort of grew up sitting at the piano.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
Oh man... I'm sure I owe so many people apologies, especially from my college days when I was much more awkward about resolving differences in rehearsals and much more absurdly convinced in the merits of my preferred approach to a phrase, a tempo, whatever. If I could do it all over again, I'd be a much more curious and accommodating member of those Brahms piano trios -- sorry, everyone!
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
I actually do make use of a fair amount of gear. I often draw upon software when I'm writing music -- Spear and Ableton Live, for analyzing and working out ideas, Sibelius for turning them into legible notation. For several years I've been trying to find ways to expand what I do at the piano by feeding electronic augmentations -- like a second keyboard playing detuned piano samples -- into transducer speakers placed inside the instrument. For this I've been using an iRig micro-keyboard and a (now sadly obsolete) BassEgg transducer speaker. I've just added a second keyboard to this setup -- the Roli Seaboard Block -- that I use to control sounds that grow out of and alter the trajectory of the piano's sustaining tones.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire to get where you are in their own careers?
I think I've taken kind of a long, meandering path to wherever this is (!), and I'm not totally sure I'd recommend that to others. On the other hand, what an extraordinary gift it is to spend years, in work and play, in all the areas of music-making that interest and delight you, and to be granted ways of sustaining these practices while they slowly progress and cohere. It's a privilege -- in the sense that it's not something to which everyone has equal access. And if I could make a difference, it'd have less to do with imparting wisdom to other aspiring artists and more to do with ensuring that they have the same gift of space, time, and support that I've enjoyed.
How long have you been working with headphones, and what inspired you to start including them in your workflow?
I've been working with headphones since getting my first Casio keyboard as a kid. In some ways they serve the same basic function for me now as they did back then -- namely, making it possible to experiment without worrying about what anyone else -- my parents when I was young, my downstairs neighbors now -- might be hearing. These days, I'm almost always working in headphones when I'm at the computer -- whether that's composing, designing electronic sounds for use at the piano, editing a recording project and readying tracks for mixing. In our far-from-soundproof NYC apartment, I can't imagine life without them.
Have been using LCD-Xs and they've made such a huge difference. One of my projects involves designing a sound that mimics the sustaining tone of a struck note on the piano -- such that I can sneak the electronic sound in as the acoustic sound decays without anyone noticing. Pulling this off requires listening extra critically to the evolving frequency content of the piano's sustain as well as to that of the synth sound I've created. The LCD-Xs have been total game-changers in helping me understand how these sounds work. On top of that, there are all the astonished moments I've spent re-listening to favorite records -- hearing things I've never heard before and gaining a fresh appreciation for all the subtleties that bring these albums to life. Revelatory...