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Larry Blumenfeld traces the collaborative spirit that helped make John Zorn a singular force in contemporary music.

By Larry Blumenfeld.

Iconic New York composer John Zorn celebrates his 60th in Australia

By the time Mike Patton’s trademark screams punctuated the high-voltage tremors of John Zorn’s Electric Masada group at Lincoln Centre’s David H. Koch Theatre in Manhattan, it was past 11pm. A Masada Marathon, drawn from Zorn’s immense body of compositions employing the often-mournful sounding scales characteristic of Jewish music, had lasted more than three hours, with 12 bands delivering an equal number of musical styles and ensemble configurations. Among other things, we’d heard the Bar Kokhba sextet’s singular blend of violin, cello and guitar; surf-rock grooves as conjured by the guitar, vibraphone and electric keyboard of The Dreamers; a devastatingly elegant String Trio; and the Masada Quartet, which includes Zorn on his customary alto saxophone, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, and stands among the most expressive and cohesive small ensembles in modern jazz.

That was 2011, when Zorn, an American composer of restless energy, had just completed his second book of Masada works. He recently finished Book Three, bringing the total of these compositions alone to more than 600, and culminating some 20 years of musical and personal discovery. And the Masada project is just one strand of Zorn’s story.

I recall him more than a decade ago, at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan’s East Village, where he’d spent countless teenage hours watching movies. This was a benefit for the archives, under his curatorship. First came a screening of Flaming Creatures, a visual symphony of exotica and erotica from Jack Smith, one of Zorn’s early mentors, featuring random body parts seen through mouldy washed-out film stock. Afterwards, Zorn conducted a performance of “Cobra,” perhaps the best known of his “game” pieces, for which he held up instruction cards and made gestures to cue the musicians – an all-star crew, including violinist Mark Feldman, percussionist Cyro Baptista, and guitarists Vernon Reid (from Living Colour) and Marc Ribot (a frequent Tom Waits collaborator) – through three distinct “movements”. The result was striking – like a concerto, yet without a score. The musicians seemed uniquely trained for the piece.

In a way, they were. It’s hard to overstate Zorn’s influence as a composer, musician, producer and thinker in the lives and careers of scores of musicians, and for the shape of culture in New York City. For a recent Zorn retrospective on the Walker Art Centre’s website, legendary performance artist/violinist Laurie Anderson addressed his impact on artists seeking liberty, purpose and compassion: “John taught me to improvise,” she wrote. “John is fearless. Dismissive of pompous authority. Able to suffer and share suffering.”

Sometimes, Zorn’s music arrives fully composed. Others, it’s freely improvised. Often it employs one or more strategies that blur such distinctions into irrelevance. It has sounded loud as a tortured scream, urgent as a car crash. It has also been meditative and tender. As a composer, he has widely embraced musical idioms, often suggesting several forms within a single piece, or none at all. His works have been heard at symphony halls and festivals around the world, at art museums and film houses, as well as at The Stone, the tiny East Village club he founded in 2005, where musicians share booking duties and keep door receipts. They have been recorded on roughly one-quarter of the more than 600 releases since 1995 on his independent music label, Tzadik.

60th birthday events

The depth, breadth and volume of Zorn’s output and associations, and the distinctive aesthetic underscoring that activity, have found fresh showcase in connection with his turning 60 in September last year. The first celebration – January 2013, in Glasgow – was a concert by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, including the premiere of his “Suppôts et Supplications”. The last and most ambitious will take place during the Adelaide Festival this week, in a four-night series entitled Zorn in Oz, which includes that piece among its sprawl of offerings.

In New York City alone, more than a dozen 60th-year events spanned four months and much of Manhattan. If these were grand statements, they also made for intimate experiences. There was Zorn last July, during the Lincoln Centre Festival, after an a capella vocal-quintet performance of his piece “The Holy Visions”, sitting down at Alice Tully Hall’s magnificent pipe organ to play “The Hermetic Organ, Office No. 8”, stirring up a glorious din with childlike glee. Two months later, he wept softly on curator Limor Tomer’s shoulder as he and audience members walked from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur – where a trio of guitar, vibraphone and harp had played his “Gnostic Preludes” – to the gallery of Assyrian art, where cellist Erik Friedlander was to perform Masada music as part of a full-day Zorn marathon.

Hours later at the Met, Zorn pointed to the massive canvas behind him, Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (No. 30), and introduced the painter as if he were a band member. This was no joke: his composition titles and album packaging often refer to painters and filmmakers as primary inspirations. Zorn also knew that the bluesy ribbons of near-melody and ecstatic squalls he’d soon play on alto sax shared something beyond whatever is signified by the term “avant-garde” with the wild dance of black, white and tan that Pollock had laid on canvas.

First Australian visit

Seated at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village in late February, Zorn smiled while reflecting on his milestone birthday.

“I’ve learned so much this year about what’s valuable and what’s unnecessary, and about how to stay inspired,” he says. “You know, one answer is aligning myself with positive people, with people who believe in what I’m doing.”

Zorn had just shared lunch with two such people – bassist Cohen and cellist Friedlander. Both have been his collaborators for 25 years, and can be counted within a fiercely loyal constellation of artists drawn from many spheres aligned with what Zorn is doing, which has never been easily defined by musical genres, cultural movements or audience categories.

Zorn called the Adelaide Festival’s “Zorn in Oz” series, “the biggest blowout I could imagine”. It is also his first visit to Australia. He has invited Cohen and Friedlander, and Patton, Ribot and some three-dozen other musicians, to deliver nearly 13 hours of music, ranging in scale from solo and duet performances to the 80-piece Adelaide Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Fulmer. The series includes a Masada Marathon, a Classical Marathon featuring the world premiere of his “Zeitgehöft for Violin and Cello”, and a triple bill of “Cobra”, music for films from some of Zorn’s heroes, and a powerhouse trio with  bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Dave Lombardo, formerly of thrash metal band Slayer. Finally, [email protected] features seven performances ranging wildly in personnel and mood, from the delicate beauty of “Holy Visions” to the thrashing intensity of the Moonchild band.   

Inspirations and influence

If this musical swirl has a centre of gravity, it is probably best found within the third-floor East Village walkup apartment Zorn has called home since 1977. “It has a whole history of creative work and energy that no other place has,” Zorn says. “I go in there, and I’m immediately tapped into doing work. That’s all I do there, that’s all I want to do, and nothing can stop me from doing it.”

That’s where I first interviewed him, in 1997, for a jazz-magazine cover story. The space was cramped yet serene and tightly organised: a wall of LPs, another of DVDs, and shelf upon shelf of books, including one wall of titles relating to Judaica and another on visual arts. A blackboard hung with cryptic notes regarding a work-in-progress about mysticism and ritual. An episode of the TV show Columbo flickered in a corner, the mute button having rendered Peter Falk just a series of outsized gestures.

Private as his lifestyle is, Zorn’s artistry is directed outward. It’s communal. “Composing is more than just imagining music,” he told me. “It’s knowing how to communicate it to musicians. I’m interested in speaking to musicians in their own languages, on their own terms, and in bringing out the best in what they do.”

His wealth of reference materials notwithstanding, Zorn’s approach is austere. “I like to work with the materials that I have at hand,” he says. “That’s something I learned from the New York avant-garde. I learned that from Jack Smith, who made art out of garbage, who made theatre performances out of air. To make something out of nothing.”

When I asked him for an interview in 1997, it was a tough sell. He said that, often, his words had been used to hurt him. When I demanded to discuss motivations, like his focus on Jewish identity, he told me that he was no sociologist or theologian and that, again, his words would come back to haunt him. I thought he was being defensive. Weeks after my magazine story, his words indeed circled back in disturbing ways, cherrypicked within a New York Times story that belittled his focus on Jewish themes without considering the music in any serious manner. This was neither the first nor last time he’s been subjected to the peculiar scrutiny reserved for artists unwilling to conform and who unapologetically speak their minds.

“Even today, at 60, I’m viewed with suspicion,” he says at the Japanese restaurant. “Like there’s some trick.” He mentioned a journalist’s recent questions implying that challenging music requires a life filled with challenges. “I’ve reached the point where I have no doubts. Just because you don’t have doubts doesn’t mean you’re not self-critical and sensitive, and working on the highest level.”

Even within the media hoopla surrounding his 60th year, one narrative echoed through much of this coverage: Downtown badboy, sax in hand, grows up to enjoy uptown high-culture spotlight. It’s a lazy caricature, and factually incorrect. Zorn long ago distinguished himself as a composer in symphony halls; his citywide celebration leaned on personal associations with curators and music directors that date back to the 1980s. If anything, the musical environment, with a loosened sense of genres, has come around to his ideas.

These he draws from many sources. While still in high school, he spent countless hours at director Richard Foreman’s downtown Manhattan Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, where, he says, he gained “a sense of community that did not challenge the need to go your own way”. (The two collaborated on a production in 2009.) More recently, he’s immersed himself in biographies of the iconic American military hero General George S. Patton. For Zorn, who is bringing no tour manager to Australia, and who manages everything from the musical scores to soundcheck schedules, the revelation of growing older has been learning “the importance of being a good leader, which is a dying art”.

His own art is often a marriage of practical matters and lofty ambitions, a blend of the mundane and the mystical. “Zeitgehöft for Violin and Cello” was inspired, he says, by a visit to the dentist; its title makes reference to the philosophy of time and imaginative wordplay in the poetry of Paul Celan.

His massive Masada project began as simply “an attempt to write new tunes that I could play”. Yet it was also his “personal answer to what new Jewish music is”.  At that 2011 Masada Marathon, I felt a genuine sense of ritual enacted. When Zorn sat onstage directing (conducting isn’t quite the right word), his hand movements fleetingly reminded me of my grandmother kindling Sabbath candles on Friday evenings. It dawned on me that each half of the concert presented six bands playing three pieces each: That’s 18, a number that, in Jewish tradition, carries life-affirming mystical properties.

Zorn addressed his audience: “So what are these tunes? A book of 316 pieces that musicians have made beautiful. They take six lines of melody and turn it into magic.” He was simplifying the technical aspect. I’m told the sheet music gets complex. And the magic – no parlour trick, the real thing – was his.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 8, 2014 as "The power and the glory". Subscribe here.

Larry Blumenfeld
writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal, and online for Blouin Artinfo.

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