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Bertha's Lair (2016) for contrabass flute and drums

density 2036: part iv


Tyshawn Sorey


Bertha's Lair (2016) for contrabass flute and drums

density 2036: part iv

A colorful instrument of myriad possibilities and beauty, the flute is an instrument that has been central to much of the work that I produced during recent years. It has been a tremendous honor for me to have collaborated with some of the most brilliantly virtuosic practitioners on that instrument, from Margaret Lancaster, Alice Teyssier, and Malik Mezzadri to Laura Cocks, Nicole Mitchell, and Claire Chase – all individuals who continue to stretch beyond the limits of that instrument in their own, personal way. I am indebted to all of these masters for their inspiration and courage to further my writing for the flute.

Tyshawn Sorey: Bertha's Lair (2016)

Tyshawn Sorey: Bertha's Lair (2016)

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Which brings us to Bertha’s Lair, an explosive tour-de-force written exclusively for Chase and myself (on drum set or unpitched percussion) that further exemplifies my penchant in exploring the improvisation-composition continuum, as evidenced in my Trio for Harold Budd (2012) and Ornations (2014). One of the rarer members of the woodwind family, the instrument lovingly known as Bertha (after whom this work is named) is anything but simply a contrabass flute; ostensibly there exists a seemingly vast amount of readily available sonic possibilities to explore. However, I also found it necessary to create a work for this instrument that is full of high, raucous energy – to write music that is counterintuitive to using certain “effects” that are more customary for the instrument (that is, to avoid as much as possible the use of long, quiet, mysterious sounds, whistle tones, etc.) – and focus more on shape, line, color, texture, ritual and most of all, the physicality of live performance on this particular instrument. This avoidance principle is strictly adhered to until the very last system of the composition.

This work is dedicated to the late Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016), who was the first to compose a piece for Bertha to be performed by Chase, and who named the instrument at first hearing.

—Tyshawn Sorey

This is an improvisation-based work. For more information about Tyshawn Sorey’s scores and projects, contact


Newark-born composer and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey (b. 1980) is celebrated for his incomparable virtuosity, effortless mastery and memorization of highly complex scores, and 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 Lehman, Jason Moran, 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,” and 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 composed works for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the International Contemporary Ensemble, soprano Julia Bullock, PRISM Quartet, JACK Quartet, TAK Ensemble, the McGill-McHale Trio, bass-baritone Davóne Tines, Alarm Will Sound, the Louisville Orchestra, and tenor Lawrence Brownlee with Opera Philadelphia in partnership with Carnegie Hall, as well as for countless collaborative performers. Sorey has received support for his creative projects from The Jerome Foundation, The Shifting Foundation, and Van Lier Fellowship, and was named a 2017 MacArthur fellow and a 2018 United States Artists Fellow. 

Sorey has taught and lectured on composition and improvisation at Columbia University, The New England Conservatory, the Banff Centre, University of Michigan, International Realtime Music Symposium, Harvard University, Hochschule für Musik Köln, Berklee College of Music, University of Chicago, and the Danish Rhythmic Conservatory. Sorey joined the composition faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in the Fall of 2020.

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