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Buy John Zorn's 'The String Quartets,' which includes 'Cat O'Nine Tails.'

Buy John Zorn's 'The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone.'

Buy John Zorn and Naked City's 'Grand Guignol.'


Zorn Again: Portrait of the artist as a shorn man.

Never Mind the Bullocks, Here's John Zorn

New Music Works steps into the complex and misunderstood world of experimental-music icon John Zorn, whose mix of jazz, classical, rock and punk never ceases to confound and amaze

By Scott MacClelland

Among contemporary composers of music, John Zorn sticks out like a sore thumb. He plays virtuoso jazz saxophone, continually revives his klezmer roots, suffers critics badly, recycles every musical influence he ever heard and is a control freak with a profound fascination for spontaneity. Obviously, he's a renaissance man. And luckily for him, we happen just now to find ourselves in the midst of a music renaissance.

That's a good thing, of course; new American classical music has since World War II been through lengthy bad times interrupted by only brief moments of glory. Now that's changing--dramatically.

But for all its greening, there is no obvious focal point in a renaissance, no clear gravitational authority that draws everyone into its orbit. That comes later. Like previous rebirths, a verdant process of discovery has energized composers with fresh inspiration and revitalized imagination.

In this particular American renaissance, which followed the rise and fall of narrow minimalism--a necessary clearing of the air--the musical soil appears suddenly fortified by a fresh combination of the cultivated and the vernacular. Never before have these two, the "classical" and the "popular," begun dancing together the way they are now. Nor are they yet totally comfortable with the dance. But once begun, there is no going back. Among the many discoverers who have blazed distinctive trails in this brave new musical world are bluegrass fiddler Mark O'Connor; Michael Daugherty (a frequent guest of the Cabrillo Festival)--whose American Icons pieces about Jackie Onassis, Liberace, Elvis and Superman have found a niche; the klezmer-inspired Paul Schoenfield; and Zorn, who comes from jazz.

While some critics love Zorn's music, and others dismiss it, more often than not they stumble all over themselves trying to fit it into some established category. For their foolishness, Zorn has sometimes charged critics double the box office ticket prices.

By refreshing contrast, local new music authority, Phil Collins, has listened past the media confusion, and through Zorn's protean eclecticism, to the music itself. At last, Collins has decided to turn his New Music Works band loose on it. A bit anxiously, Collins admits that he hopes his audience at the Rio Theatre ignores the media persona that Zorn seems unable to avoid and concentrates instead on the music.

It must be said, however, that Collins' discovery of Zorn was not love at first sight.

"Over the years, I'd heard bits of his music here and there--Kronos' 'Cat o' Nine Tails,' his collaborative tribute album to Morricone's film scores, and others--and I wasn't much impressed. Then about three years ago, I heard the Abel/Steinberg/Winant Trio premiere his Music for Children at a San Francisco Contemporary Music Players concert. It was utterly lucid and direct in its purpose. Zorn's treatment of materials seemed unfettered by contemporary fashions and 'laws.'"

If one wants to discover who and what might have influenced Zorn, a good place to start is with those avant-garde figures of the post-big band era, in particular the bebop masters Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Fold in the virtuoso iconoclasms of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Then add Zorn's early classical training--or, as he puts it, "the realization that every note needs to have a function, and that there always has to be a sense of going somewhere, the feeling that a personal vision is being realized."

If anything, John Zorn demonstrates a greater force of personal intensity and eclecticism than his fellow travelers. His technical perfectionism slams into his improvisational impulse with incendiary impact. His 18-minute Two-Lane Highway of 1987 is nothing less than a concerto for blues guitar genius Albert Collins, a piece that would seem to make no sense in the hands of anyone else. Rightly, it puts the focus on Collins and the "casted" backup band, all but concealing Zorn's extraordinary craftsmanship. This hierarchy is central to Zorn's music, where collaboration is as crucial as originality.

Wild Man of New York

Today, Zorn is fast approaching elder statesmanhood in the music business, having been at it since the mid-1970s (and having released some 60 CDs and LPs). The influences he has assimilated and made coherent are as diverse and energized as New York--the city where he grew up--and include rock, hardcore punk, classical, klezmer, film, cartoon, popular and improvised music. To summarize his bio, Zorn has been a central figure in the downtown New York music scene since his "debut," incorporating a wide range of musicians in various compositional formats, his experimental work with rock and jazz earning him a large cult following. His early classical inspirations include American innovators Ives, Cage, Carter and Partch, the European tradition of Berg, Stravinsky, Boulez and Kagel, experimental rock and jazz as well as avant-garde theater, film, art and literature. While radio stations, as a rule, avoid music of such complexity and range, the ear of the serious listener will be stimulated and rewarded, in equal measures.

That's what the New Music Works program, "All Zorn Out," is set to accomplish. Members of the NMW Ensemble will be joined by guest artists, pianist Stephen Drury, clavichordist Yukiko Takagi and percussionist William Winant--Zorn collaborators all--with violinist Timb Harris, guitarist John Schott, and Chris Brown and David Slusser on electronics.

"My encounters with Zorn's music have been revelatory," says Phil Collins. "His range is from wild man to serenader, both extremes resonating with honesty. His long study and practice of jazz, varied ethnic traditions--largely his own Jewish roots--and the classical canon yield convincing hybrids. I use the word 'revelatory' because Zorn has opened up so many promising routes and directions that make prior classifications and divisions obsolete. Zorn is a veteran improviser, and the recordings I've heard reveal breadth, finesse and all the necessary technique. His admiration of--in particular--Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Miles Davis is plain to see and maturely voiced in his music."

For the NMW Zorn program, Collins says, "I wanted very much to encompass both Zorn's scored chamber music as well as at least a taste of his improvisatory side." The thirty-minute Duras, for two violins, two percussion, piano and Hammond organ, has links to Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. "I heard a rehearsal and performance of it in San Francisco and found it absolutely breathtaking," Collins recalls.

Pianist Stephen Drury is part of the emsemble that will perform Zorn's work.

Guest conductor Drury will serve as "prompter" in Duras, a role slightly akin to conductor, but more time-keeper and "Foley guy." As Collins characterizes the piece, "It shows an assimilation of avant-garde perspectives including the early Italian Futurist radio plays--Radio Sintesi--and John Cage's later CPR to classical expression. One of the unique and delicious qualities of Duras, and certain other chamber works of Zorn's, is his knowing incorporation of 'musique concrete' elements into the chamber medium. It is not in the slightest novelty, but indigenously woven into the fabric and thought of the music."

It should be noted here for the uninitiated that musical CPR is no different from the medical technique. Musique concrete is the use of actual recorded day-to-day sounds and noises, or sometimes their equivalent musical imitations.

The announced program order starts with William Winant's solo performance of Gris Gris, a massive percussion piece.

"[It's] a seething drummy work with jungle intensity, visceral metric modulations and unbelievable difficulty," says Collins.

Then comes Shibboleth, which uses "the quietest instrument on the Western front, the clavichord." Collins and company plan to mic the whispering instrument "ferociously" in order to make it audible in the large room.

Assuming this plan doesn't contradict Zorn's intentions, the work otherwise remains chamber music, with violin, viola, cello and percussion. And, by the way, Collins confirms that "the board and I spent free moments last fall collecting dry leaves, upon which the percussionist is to walk while playing."

Collins and company have focused much of their attention on Zorn's unusual improv compositions. "Zorn's 'game pieces' are maybe his most notorious creations," he says, "improv pieces with mysterious, idiosyncratic rules and various flexible parameters. Cobra is the most famous; we're doing Rugby for five players. We're using Zorn specialists for most of the program, because familiarity with Zorn's operations are important, especially in the 'game pieces.'"

Indeed, Zorn has long championed exactly the kind of innovation New Music Works has shown in putting together this tribute program.

"Composing music for improvising musicians, which has been my main interest as a composer since 1974, can be seen as a paradox," says Zorn. "The key to harnessing the talents of these players, to taking full advantage of their potential, is putting them in inspiring contexts that spark them to even greater heights. Even in my early music I was hearing structure and form more than content."

Cartoon Networking

At the 1996 Cabrillo Festival, which emphasized film music, Marin Alsop included several cartoons, demonstrating that the accompanying music was not only startlingly well-composed but often arranged for full orchestra. Alsop's point was that today's American renaissance composers were in fact preceded decades ago by composers who at that time were taken entirely for granted and not at all seriously. Now virtually forgotten, Scott Bradley (whose dazzling score at Cabrillo accompanied the Tom and Jerry cartoon Quiet Please) was out of time, and certainly not glamorized like Michael Daugherty, who today is furiously fulfilling lucrative commissions that Bradley, by his example, helped make possible.

Whether the music of Daugherty and his fellow "pioneers" will stand the test of time remains to be seen. (There are some--like Chris Rouse and Aaron Jay Kernis--who have leap-frogged into a deeply serious and mature classical style that pays little heed to the vernacular but that has nevertheless demonstrated memorable powers of communication using the old forms and practices.) Nevertheless, their work is the engine of vitality needed to drive toward a new synthesis, and, thanks in no small measure to a new audience enthusiasm--as demonstrated vividly by the Cabrillo Festival--they are pursuing it with similar zeal.

Meanwhile, Zorn continues to find new and different ways to synthesize external influences into his uniquely clear and expressive works. He serves different constituencies, some of which will go merrily along oblivious of the others. Some critics have grouped his music into three categories: hardcore/rock/punk, jazz and classical. Naked City was the group that gained a following for the first. The Masada Quartet (consisting of Zorn, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron) accounts for the klezmer/jazz. The Kronos Quartet appears to be among the highest profile advocates of his classical chamber music. Even so, elements of all three appear in each of the others. Debussy, Ives and Messiaen are echoed in the Naked City CD Grand Guignol. One will also find all three in Zorn's film music.

"I've got an incredibly short attention span," says Zorn. "In some sense it is true that my music is ideal for people who are impatient, because it is jam-packed with information that is changing very fast. But it also takes patience, because if you get to something you don't like, you have to wait 10 seconds or so until it turns into something else. Pacing is essential. If you move too fast, people tend to stop hearing the individual moments as complete in themselves and more as elements of a 'cloud effect.'"

And yet, says Zorn, the world continues to accelerate. "Look at the kids growing up with computer and video games which are 10 times faster than the pinball machines we used to play," he says. "There's an essential something that young musicians have, something you can lose touch with as you get older. And we've got to keep up with it. I'll probably die trying."

All Zorn Out, an evening of music by John Zorn, will be performed Sunday, Feb. 16, at 7pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Performers will include Stephen Drury, piano; Yukiko Takagi, clavichord; William Winant, percussion, with members of the NMW Ensemble. Tickets are available at Streetlight Records or call 831.687.0770 for more information.

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From the February 5-11, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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