One special satisfaction for me concerning this issue’s cover story, “Time Stretcher”—on percussionist and composer Tyshawn Sorey, a MacArthur Fellow and Presidential Assistant Professor of Music at Penn since 2020—lies in the match of author and subject. Writer Nate Chinen C’97 was an early stalwart of Kelly Writers House (his first appearance in the Gazette was an essay on a poetry-magnet project there) and has written some memorable pieces for us since, including an early profile of John Stephens C’99 as he was on the cusp of wide fame under a different last name [“Making a Legend,” Jan|Feb 2005].
More to the point, over the last couple of decades Nate has written widely and perceptively on music for magazines and websites, as a jazz critic for the New York Times, and in his book Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century [“Arts,” Jan|Feb 2018]. His work is both precise and poetic, and though his own tastes seem to range far from the more traditional musical precincts where I’m at home, he always persuades me I should expand my listening horizons (at least while I’m reading him!).
Nate first alerted me to Sorey’s presence when Sorey joined Penn’s faculty, calling the appointment “huge news for avant-garde music” with “fantastic implications for the music department at Penn.” It was the early days of the pandemic, and we never got together on a story at the time. But in the intervening years, that assessment has been amply justified.
In addition to detailing Sorey’s growing impact as a teacher and mentor to Penn students at all levels, from the opening passage, about a recent premiere at Girard College, the article includes some wonderful descriptions of Sorey’s compositions and his own performances as a drummer (captured in the photos accompanying the article) with a dizzying array of collaborators, many of whom Nate spoke with. There are many insightful comments from them in the piece, but the most telling for me came from Sorey himself—who seems exceptionally reluctant to put labels on the music he makes—about searching for an artistic space where “anything that happens is allowed.”
Another quote that struck me—this one in “The PZ Project,” by senior editor Trey Popp (who, incidentally, edited Nate’s story)—was from the Kislak Center’s Lynne Farrington: “What are the books that stay with people? They tend to be books they read as children.”
Taking off from recent exhibits of the work of the illustrator and writer Ashley Bryan, the story delves more broadly into Penn Libraries’ holdings in children’s literature (shelved mostly under PZ) and the reasons for making space for “kid lit” in an academic library, along the way sketching in the history of efforts—halting at best until relatively recently—to broaden the representation and perspectives on offer in the genre, and the ongoing backlash to those developments.
And I am still thinking of the phrase “an emanation of the great Franklin!”—which appears in Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69’s latest historical piece for us, “American Science’s Promoter-in-Chief,” whose subject is Alexander Dallas Bache (Ben’s great-grandson). For some years Bache taught natural philosophy and chemistry at Penn, before taking a leading role in fighting against “quackery” and raising the standing of American science through participation in professional associations and as director of the US Coast Survey from 1843 until his death in 1867. Bache was also a close friend of Confederate president Jefferson Davis—in earlier days, a key supporter of the Survey in the US Congress. Thus, the discussion of “The Field Cry of Penn” that starts the article.
—John Prendergast C’80