John Zorn: What's in a Name? by Art Lange

John Zorn: What's in a Name?

by Art Lange
Copyright © 1997 Art Lange

A few years back, some academics and a few hip critics created quite a buzz by pasting the term "Postmodernist" on anything which tried to make something new out of something old, not realizing that has always been the state of Art. (Wasn't it Stravinsky who said, "Good composers borrow. Great composers steal."?) In the jazz world, where people take old versus new seriously (don't invite Wynton Marsalis and David Murray to the same party), the lines are more clearly drawn, and few musicians sit around discussing, for example, the theories of the German philosopher Adorno, who said, "Tradition is not imitation, regression, or straightforward continuation, but the ability to gain insight into challenges which remain unresolved...."

It was way back in the 1950s when New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett described jazz as "the sound of surprise." So what surprises us today? Well, there's the music of John Zorn, one musician who has accepted Adorno's challenge, and whose career exemplifies an in-all-directions search for the sound of surprise. Forget Postmodernism--Zorn's music can be just plain weird. He represents many of us--Baby Boomers and Generation X'ers alike--born after the Second World War, insatiably curious and hungry for new experiences, with the almost unlimited resources of art, music, literature, pop culture, and technology at our disposal. What do we do with it?

If you're John Zorn, you try to create music that's never existed before, inspired by everything, fed by an irrepressibly eclectic imagination, and appropriating with pan-global, cross-cultural, genre-busting glee whatever raw material or iconic ready-mades (cf.: Marcel Duchamp) strike your fancy. As a teenager Zorn began exploring rock, jazz, and classical music, giving equal time to Frank Zappa, Anthony Braxton, and John Cage; conceptually, much of his music derives from some fantastic blend of their Lumpy Gravy, For Alto, and the Concert for Piano and Orchestra respectively, energized by the nose-thumbing anti-establishment mischief of 20th century radical art movements like Futurism, Dada, and Fluxus. Emerging in the early '80s from the downtown New York music scene--a community of displaced avant-garde rock, jazz, and classical music heretics that was as likely to be found listening to punk-rock at CBGBs as a Stockhausen concert at MoMA--Zorn became infamous as an alto saxophonist who might be found scorching the air with free jazz licks or blowing duck calls into tubs of water. A huge fan of cartoon music, especially Carl Stallings' and Raymond Scott's quick-witted Looney Tunes soundtracks, and the Spaghetti Western film scores of Ennio Morricone, he soon used their theories of exaggeration, fragmentation, and head-on collision of style to shock and entertain jazz fans on pleasingly perverse albums like The Big Gundown and Spillane (both on Nonesuch--ostensibly a classical music label). At the same time, Zorn was willfully dismantling and reconstructing jazz's beloved post-bop tradition with albums like the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet's Voodoo (Soul Note) and New for Lulu (hat Art).

Dissatisfied with the commercial pressure he received from major labels, Zorn started his own record company, Tzadik, to document his own cutting-edge experiments along with those of his friends. The most revealing of these may be First Recordings 1973 (Tzadik TZ 7304), the home movies of a budding mad scientist of sound. They show Zorn to have been an amazingly sophisticated and rather bizarre 19-year-old, creating marvelous electronic effects on a dime-store budget, overdubbing noisy, unselfconscious blurts of free-form expression, and already experimenting with the high-speed slams of unrelated sounds for which he's now known.

By the time he composed Cobra in 1984, he had matured into a more "serious" composer seeking ways to structure his ideas about improvisation without limiting their capacity for surprise. Influenced by classical composers like Mauricio Kagel and Earle Brown, Cobra is devised like a game, with rules and options for the players to follow. Flashing signs and signals that allow them to improvise and interact with each other spontaneously, musicians play the game and create the form and details of the music at the same time. Its visual humor, hyperactive energy, and stylistic freedom make it a favorite among players and audiences alike. Though there's an excellent introduction to the work on hat Art, two new recordings show how unpredictable it can be. Live At The Knitting Factory (Knitting Factory KFW 124) consists of fourteen sections of the work from fourteen different performances (ranging from all-vocalist to all-electronic ensembles, and others of jazz and chamber music instrumentation and ability). Though there's plenty of tonal variety on display, this scatter-shot anthology lacks the feel of a single ensemble struggling for security within an environment in permanent flux--where relationships go awry, reorganize, and eventually discover their own coherent identity. An ear-opening version recorded with Japanese musicians, Tokyo Operations '94 (Avant 049), offers an unfamiliar sound world with its own distorted points of reference, contrasting traditional instruments like shamisen and shakuhachi with electric slash and crash noisemongers, graffiti artists wielding guitars and samplers instead of spray paint cans. Like much of Zorn's best work it relocates us from our own aesthetic perspective into a moveable feast of possibilities--that awkward, uncomfortable, exhilarating, ambiguous area between the sublime and the ridiculous.

Zorn's music is often fueled by such instantaneous genre-jumping, like a short attention span soothed by the power and unpredictability afforded by the remote control. Even his more conceptual compositions construct episodes of intrigue and poetic imagery from this attitude. Elegy (Tzadik TZ 7302) is vivid and seductive, mysterious and evocative, blending chamber music textures and atonal whispers of melody, aggressive drums, furtive creaks and sinister shadows. It's a mesmerizing play without words, or chapters in a plotless novel. While it might be desirable to impose on Elegy a metaphoric subtext of Aids, ethnic enmity, technology out of control, or any of the countless other 20th century plagues, the effect is stronger, the pain more universal, the evil more ominous, if it remains nameless. Zorn, wisely, explains nothing. Kristallnacht (Tzadik TZ 7301), on the other hand, has a specific program to relate--an intense, expressionistic depiction of Germany's Crystal Night, so called from the image of glittering, shattered glass in the street where Nazis broke Jewish store windows, marking the beginning of the Holocaust. In this tone poem echoes of Jewish folk and classical music vie for attention against tapes of storm-trooper violence and rage, symbolic of humanity's painful struggle against fascism.

Redbird (Tzadik TZ 7008) is a remarkable piece of music. It is dedicated to Agnes Martin, and named after one of her paintings in which ultra-thin reddish-pink parallel straight lines horizontally cover a white canvas. Looked at from a distance the lines are invisible and the canvas appears empty but for a subtle hazy glow which seems to pulsate. To actually see the lines you must stand so close as to be nearly inside the painting; then the lines seem delicate and monochromatic until, peering almost microscopically, one begins to notice how the pigment (it could be paint or chalk) is not continuous, but is interrupted and must climb over or around minute bumps and imperfections in the fabric of the canvas. (In this way the painting is reminiscent of those scores by John Cage where he found marks and imperfections on the paper and used them to determine the notes to be played.) Somewhat reminiscent of the music of Morton Feldman, Zorn's Redbird creates an illusionary point of respite by offering a slow, tranquil sequence of chords (voiced in varying combinations of harp, viola, cello, and vibraphone) which shimmer and quietly vibrate, expand, and disappear like concentric circles in a pool of water. This, like Martin's canvas viewed from a distance, is the deceptively calm surface of the work; meanwhile, vague, distorted, almost inaudible percussion and string sounds gradually emerge between the chords, like slight discrepancies in an otherwise consistent flow of delicate color--nagging irregularities that prevent the illusion of perfection, but provide us with the potential to recognize reality in the cracks and crevices of experience.

During this time Zorn never neglected the jazzier side of his personality, he merely merged it together with a few of his other interests. His quintet Naked City was a repertory band of distorted pop covers and faux-jazz arrangements which eventually exploded into shards of hardcore punk aggression. A longtime devotion to the free jazz of Ornette Coleman (which at one point resulted in the noisy hardcore homage Spy Vs. Spy), combined with an enlightening exploration of his own Jewish heritage, found voice in the quartet Masada. On the recently issued Vav/Six (DIW 900), Zorn's alto sax and Dave Douglas' trumpet follow the loosely intertwined relationship developed by Ornette and longtime collaborator Don Cherry, played out in long, lyrical, melismatic lines derived from the minor-key modes, leaping intervals, and tart harmonies of klezmer music. Bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron provide a fluid, flexible pulse despite the uneven meters and twisting phrases, and the music "swings" in an infectious, sometimes urgent, sometimes mournful way.

Zorn's most recent release is a two-CD set, Bar Kokhba (Tzadik TZ 7108-2), in which he reorchestrates twenty-five of the tunes originally written for Masada. For example, the alternately rich harmonies or prickly textures of a string trio (violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, bassist Greg Cohen) enhance "Tannaim" and "Rokhev;" David Krakauer's clarinet sings "Mahshav" and "Paran" with achingly soulful nuances; Anthony Coleman's solo piano caresses "Yechida" with Satie-like introspection and heartbreaking simplicity; while "Mahlah" and "Maskil" are drenched in the Duane Eddy-style reverb of Mark Ribot's guitar. No longer buoyed by a rhythm section, the bittersweet melodies are now bathed in lovely colors and warmer tones, paradoxically making them more expansive and more intimate at the same time, highlighting the conflicting moods of melancholy and joy that is so deeply Jewish.

Unheralded as he is because no one knows quite how to categorize him, Zorn nevertheless shows us is that music that provides us with a view of the unknown has the ability to heighten our perception of the here and now--something Beethoven or Charlie Parker can no longer do, because of our familiarity with their art and the emotional and cultural distance between their respective worlds and ours. Zorn's music, in all its exciting and/or annoying variety, conveys attitudes and feelings that are acutely contemporary, and can't be experienced in any other way. Robert Motherwell once said of the painter Mark Rothko that "...if Rothko had not existed, we would not even know of certain emotional possibilities in modern art." The same is true of Zorn's music, which, to borrow Duke Ellington's phrase, is "beyond category" and proves that if nothing else, he's got plenty of chutzpah.


(This article previously appeared in the Jan/Feb 1997 issue of Fi Magazine. Copyright © 1997 by Art Lange, All Rights Reserved.)


C o m m e n t s

John Zorn 1 of 1
David Gitin January 26, 99

That was a fair overview of Zorn's work. Some discussion of his qualities as an alto player, how it serves his composition or is emblematic of his imagination, would be useful. Perhaps Art can enlarge this into an essay?

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