“I think I have here all that I could possibly want, I have my books and my music and a modest art collection and a visit from a beautiful lady from time to time and what I value most: My privacy!”
The eastern European voice on the answering machine sounded like it came from an old movie but, rather than inviting a message, it delivered one: this is a man who indulges in artistic and sensual pleasures, whose world is self–contained and who does not welcome uninvited intrusions into that world. I left a message anyway and John Zorn phoned back about five minutes later. We had a chat that was at turns revealing, evasive, frustrating, friendly and rushed. My overwhelming impression was of someone who hated being pinned down or restricted in any way—who hated not being in control.
John Zorn has been one of the most important and controversial figures in contemporary music in the late 20th century and looks to maintain that standing in the dawning of the 21st. To someone not familiar with him, his music, and his contributions, it may be hard to grasp his importance.
He’s a cultural sponge with an enormous artistic appetite. An apocryphal story has him listening to music on a walkman modified to play one–and–a–half times normal speed so he can cram more in. His record and book collections are legendary, displacing furniture and even the kitchen in his apartment (“I eat out”). Previously having lived in Japan for a number of years, he’s fluent in Japanese and well–versed in Japanese film and art. He wears the running threads of his own Jewish heritage like a tallis. His ’top ten’ CD, book and film lists on the Tzadik web site reveal a man who swallows genres whole, from the cartoon music of Carl Stallings to Indonesian gamelan to beat poets to film noir.
These influences and cultural references all feed his muse in a body of work staggering—not only in its size—but also in its breadth. Explorations of technique in solo alto saxophone improvisation inspired by Anthony Braxton as the “art of strategy”; reworkings of the hard bop repertoire in the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet with Wayne Horvitz and then, its logical extension, News for Lulu with Bill Frisell and George Lewis; psychedelic country and western with Eugene Chadbourne; funky Hammond B–3 groups with Big John Patton; free improvisation as a participant in Derek Bailey’s Company Week; the list goes on.
He’s tackled experiments in rock music with Locus Solus, dabbled in speed metal and thrash with groups like Painkiller, explored dynamics, tempos and textures with Naked City, avant lounge music with The Gift, fully notated compositions like “Redbird” (influenced by Morton Feldman), “Cat o’ Nine Tails” (a commission for the Kronos Quartet), solo piano pieces like “Carny,” and full orchestral scores like Angelus Novus.
At the same time, he’s shown an unwillingness to let his audience get too close or become too comfortable, subscribing to the “Art is not a mirror, it’s a hammer” philosophy. He has a predilection for disturbing images, sometimes drawing from violent pornography for album graphics—the original cover for Torture Garden prevented the disc from being sold in the United States. One of his Naked City compositions is entitled “Eat Shit Jazz Snob!” sometimes retitled “Eat Shit Naked City Snob!” in performance.
Since the early ’90s, he’s been a leading proponent of the “Radical Jewish Culture” movement which has created contexts for the intersection of contemporary music with Jewish culture in compositions like Kristallnacht and ongoing projects like Masada and Bar Kokhba. Zorn has been the nucleus (the grit that created the pearl?) of the New York “downtown” musical community whose Theater of Musical Optics evolved into clubs and showcases like the Knitting Factory and Tonic.
His game pieces are a category unto themselves (e.g. Pool, Lacrosse, Cobra, Xu Feng etc.)based on ’war games’ in which up to 20 musicians/players dynamically team up in shifting groups of various sizes and improvise with (or against) each other. The ?eaming and improvisation rules are usually controlled by flash cards and gestures of the prompter, often Zorn himself. Perversely, although there are recordings and performances of many of the game pieces, Zorn doesn’t usually reveal the rules and cards which guide the “game,” thus leaving the audience “out of the loop.”
Some of the concepts of the flash cards in the game pieces evolved into his “file card” studio constructions: The Big Gundown (settings of the music of Ennio Morricone), Godard (his tribute to Jean–Luc Godard), and Spillane (derived from the Mickey Spillane pulp fiction of Mike Hammer).
Zorn (at last count) has released 13 CDs of his own soundtrack compositions in the Tzadik Film Works series, and we launched into a discussion of film music:
One of the things that I know about you is your admiration for film composers; one of my first exposures to your music was the Godard Fans record, which was a wonderful thing and ear–opening for me. I know that it was at the time a new experience for you in terms of studio possibilities and you went on to explore that for a while. Is there any of that studio [file card] stuff there in the back of your mind in terms of future projects?
Always!… [T]he studio is a tool and I continue to do studio work that is along those lines. Songs for the Hermetic Theatre, I think, is an example of a record like that. Or IAO that just came out. Conceived and created really to be a CD and nothing else but that. If it can be done live, it would be learned after it was created in the studio.
I know some of the Ennio Morricone stuff was eventually performed live, but it seemed more like a studio construction than anything else.
Yeah, very much so. And it’s a pain in the ass to do it live.
Have you ever thought of doing anything with the music of Bernard Hermann?
Ah, that music is sacred. It can’t be touched. That’s the way it is.
I would have thought that Ennio Morricone’s music was sacred in a way.
Mmm… There are a lot more possibilities with what you can do with his music. Hermann’s music really has to stay the way it is. The orchestration is crucial and if you think about it, it’s very simple motivic music with very simple harmonic motion and it doesn’t lend itself to interpretation, to wide interpretation. It was really music that was not pop music in that sense. Morricone wrote a lot of very big pop songs. He worked as arranger for [Italian pop music] … so, that really opens up the interpretati?n possibilities of his music, whereas Hermann’s is tied to the film in a very deep way… has integrity in a very deep way and doesn’t lend itself to interpretation by a rock group … it’s gotta be what it is. Some things are just like that. It’s not any better or worse than what Morricone did. It’s just different. So I don’t think I will be doing anything of Hermann’s. You know, we did a version of “Taxi Driver” in Naked City … there is an example of him doing a pop song. So, you can’t take the theme from North by Northwest and give it to guitar, bass, and drums and expect that it’s really gonna have the same impact…
Although, something from Psycho might…
Yes and no. I’ve heard people try to do it and I just think it’s unsuccessful. It’s not because the musicians aren’t being creative. It’s because the music itself inherently needs to be exactly what it is.
Now, you’re also an admirer of Maya Deren
Very much so. Yeah.–
Have you ever thought of scoring some of her work?
Well, not yet, but I did some music for two Ken Anger films last Halloween. That was very successful and Ken was there, was really excited and there was talk about synching my scores to a couple of his films. And I did it recently for Harry Smith, Early Abstraction and the Oz film and I did a whole program of Harry Smith work a couple of months ago. That was also really, really successful. I take these things a step at a time. If it’s appropriate, I’ll do it—if I’m asked. Seichi Ito’s scores to Maya Deren’s films are wonderful and I don’t know whether I wanna replace anything like that, but maybe if there’s footage found or if there’s film that doesn’t have any sound synched to it at all, I might consider doing something like that.
That brings to mind something like Un Chien Andalou or L’age D’or.
Right. Silent films to me need piano accompaniment.
You think so? Hmmm…
Yes, that’s my personal opinion. I don’t like rock bands doing such and such, orchestras doing such and such. I think it’s about one person at the keyboard interacting with the images on the screen. When you score something immediately, it becomes a mood type thing. It’s very hard to really follow the action the same way that a pianist can. Or it just becomes so stiff because you’re tying it exactly to the action in one specific way that… I don’t know. No, I think silent films… piano.”
The way you describe it, it sounds like another vehicle for improvisation.
Maybe it’s better not to let the pianist actually see the film before they sit down and accompany it?
Well, you know, once or twice to get an idea… [laughter]
So you don’t get too surprised and drop your hands right off the keyboard.
Perhaps his most surprising project is his latter day role at the helm of Tzadik Records. When I chatted with Zorn back in the mid ’90s, I’d mentioned that as a record store owner and a fan, I’d always had trouble getting his numerous Japanese releases and enquired whether he was interested at all in pursuing any record distribution. He expressed no interest at that point but then two years later his label Tzadik started releasing material, now with over 200 releases to date.
–“Well, see? I can’t say what?I’m gonna be doing with anything at any time. Sometimes I think I’ll never play the horn again and turn around and create Masada… You never know what’s gonna happen. Tzadik came about as a result of wanting to keep stuff in print, wanting to help the community that nurtured me, wanting to do something with the pile of money I got from doing, more or less, you know, kinda Hollywood film shit, which I do not continue to do, but give me a pile of money, what am I gonna do with it? Here’s a thing to do with ?t. Best thing I ever did was to start that label. That was really a good thing to do… We’re lucky with the distribution [Koch]. It’s a lot of work and sometimes I wonder how much longer I can keep it up, but I think it’s one of the more important things that I’m doing. I hope to keep it going.”
In a way, Zorn is a contemporary version of John Cage, identifying the boundaries for people then crossing them and extending the music and how people hear and think about music in different ways. One of the things ?bout Cage’s musical philosophy was that sometimes stuff worked or didn’t work, but it always made you think, it always made you question your assumptions and learn something new.
Zorn denies it: “I try to challenge myself and keep myself interested in doing music… but I don’t know how close I am to how John Cage works. I guess a musician doesn’t think in terms of boundaries, you try to make music. And you experience a lot of different things in your life and they all go into the music at some point.”
Well for example, one of the things about jazz, per se, is that, in terms of improvisation, it’s caught in a rut in terms of soloing on changes or soloing within the head–solo–solo–solo–head framework. Communities of improvisers like Derek Bailey and Company and Time Flies in Vancouver go to the other extreme insisting on ’pure’ improvisation with a ’no tunes’ philosophy. And you’ve gone beyond that in a lot of ways, by taking new structures for improvisation, looking at game pieces and…
Yeah, but at the same time the basic Masada book is a book of tunes that function in the head–blow–head format. So, there is a challenge that I set for myself as a composer and as a performer: Can you do something in that format that’s exciting? You know, sometimes, you’re right, you try and take something and explode it. Sometimes you take something and explore it. So, ultimately, it’s just about music–making.
Do you think of Masada as something that you’re going to be doing for a long time? Because it seems as though Naked City ran its course, in a way…
I can’t say, how long, how short I’ll be doing anything. [Naked City] served its purpose. That was the end of it. The thing is, to get together and play that music was very difficult and very challenging and [took] a lot of rehearsal time. Masada is not like that. We can get up and we can play without rehearsing the music. It’s hard to say no when someone says, “Hey, we’d love for you to play”; it’s fun to play and all we have to do is get up there and play. In that sense, it’s probably something that I will continue in the future.
Masada’s previous visits to Vancouver have been with the ensemble now subtitled “acoustic” Masada. In fact, their first visit in 1994 pre–dated the release of any recordings of the group and prompted a comparison to Ornette Coleman’s early acoustic quartet, a comparison that Zorn refutes:
“A lot of it is chordal, a lot of it is modal, a lot of it is totally open, a lot of it has nothing to do with harmolodics… That’s the music I happen to play with Dave Douglas, Joey Baron and Greg Cohen, you know, the surface of what’s happening is a pianoless quartet and people immediately go to Ornette. I’ve been influenced by Ornette; my personal playing has been influenced by what he does, but, you know, it’s gone to a lot of different places. So when you interpret the written melodies, you can interpret them in many many different ways. That particular quartet because it doesn’t have a piano in it, people immediately gravitate towards, you know, Ornette. And I like Ornette’s music very much, but if you look at the co-positions and what we do with them, I would say 90% of it is nothing that’s anything remotely like what Ornette would ever have done or would ever do. A lot of it is very, very different from his approach.”
Although the Masada project is most widely associated with the acoustic quartet, Masada actually refers to a song cycle project (i.e. a “book” of compositions) which has been performed by a number of different ensembles. From the chamber ensembles of Bar Kokhba and The Circle Maker to Acoustic Masada to Electric Masada, the current Santana–like jam band with Zorn, Marc Ribot, John Medeski, Jamie Saft, Trevor Dunn, Kenny Wollesen and Cyro Baptista, these groups all draw from the same book whose core 200 or so compositions (!) were composed by Zorn over the course of four years starting in 1993.
As to whether he uses Hebrew folk songs or other source material for inspiration: “I do everything… [T]hese are not traditional melodies. These are all original melodies.”
As to whether the Masada book is still expanding: “Yeah, there’s still tunes here and there. I wrote a couple of film soundtracks in [the spring] and I think we got about five or six Masada–type tunes out of that and they kind of went into the book, but it’s not something I spend a lot of time on. It’s a compositional project that pretty much ended after the first four years of doing it. Now a couple of tunes pop out once in a while, but it’s not something I work on consciously.
“The thing about this band is: Other bands I’ve had, I’ve been very much in control; I had an idea of what I was looking for and I was on everybody’s case to try and get it. With this band, I wanna see what happens, what these musicians do with this music. I don’t have an agenda—’it’s gotta go this way, it’s gotta go that way.’—more ’let’s see what we can do.’ And I respect and trust all these musicians and I’m still at the helm, but I’m very open to where they may wanna take [it]… The heads are all there, we learn it and we take it somewhere. I try to guide them, but in?this particular case I think I’m gonna be letting them loose in a lot of ways. We’ll see. Could be pretty wild.”
Having heard a recording of the one live show that this band has done at Tonic in New York, I agree that it could be pretty wild. But I have trouble believing that John Zorn won’t be fully in control. •
John Zorn’s Electric Masada plays at the Vogue Theatre on November 8 at 8 pm. Tickets are available at Black Swan, Highlife, Scratch or Zulu Records or through Ticketmaster.
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