Archives: John Zorn CD Releases, late 1990's

critiques by DAN WARBURTON, Paris Editor

[Tzadik TZ 7316 7CD]

Let's be blunt: only a real Zornie will go for this lavish 7CD boxset. Even fans of Zorn's more accessible product (Spillane, Big Gundown, Masada, Bar Kokhba) are likely to find these early works pretty forbidding; though designated as "compositions", what we have here is essentially nearly five hours' worth of (structured) free improvisation, and as Zorn notes in the score of "Pool", his concern is "not so much with how things SOUND as with how things WORK." Be that as it may, it has to be said that each of the pieces included here, "Lacrosse", "Pool", "Hockey" and "Archery" defines its own very particular sound-world: Zorn, with his battery of duck and goose calls (the alto sax is less in evidence) sounds like nobody else on the planet, and the contributions of his sparring partners, notably guitarist Eugene Chadbourne-on outstanding form throughout-is equally hard to mistake, except perhaps in "Archery" where things get pretty complex (more later). The brutal cut-ups and dislocations that later become Zorn's polystylistic calling cards are here present throughout, though on the surface of the music: the organic "development-climax-decay" schema so characteristic of much free improvisation these past few years is here conceptually (and hence musically) impossible due to the complex permutations of the "score".
These are, after all, compositions-though, in the absence of much detailed explanation in the otherwise copious accompanying notes, one is forced to conclude the the score as such consists of little more in essence than possible combinations of the performers involved and various ways of proceeding from one to the other, by means of different kinds of cues and events. For example, the notes to "Archery" speak of "CLock concepts", "EV trading events", and "DT duo/trio combinations", as well as a process of transition called "melding" (though the photos of the piece's sketches-seriously hard to read without a magnifying glass-fail to enlighten us further); elsewhere, in an entertaining article, Anthony Coleman mentions "pips", "statues" and other intriguing terms referring to the musical structure, but apart from these cursory mentions, real musicological details are not forthcoming. Worth mentioning though, and also touched upon in Coleman's text, is the extent to which Zorn's compositional technique was influenced by earlier generations of experimental composers, notably Cage, Wolff, Brown, Braxton and-crucially-Kagel. We already learned from the "Radio Hour" CD that Zorn found a copy of Kagel's "Der Schall" at Sam Goody's in 1968 and it "changed his life"; it's not hard to imagine him appreciating the game strategies of "Match" and the (irreverent?) butchery of "Ludwig Van", though given his vociferous championing of other music, from the Beach Boys to Napalm Death, it's perhaps easy to overlook Zorn the composer, inheriting and extending the traditions of American Experimentalism. In this light it seems perhaps more logical to consider the Parachute period works more as the next step on from Christian Wolff's Sixties works rather than the precursors of Naked City. Whether he sees them as such is open to conjecture, however-since his self-imposed media blackout probably stems as much from a desire to "let the music speak for itself" as from a perverse glee in frustrating journalists, it is to the music we must turn for answers.
These works mark the beginning of a period in modern contemporary music where the tendency towards performer specialization (i.e. working with specific musicians in mind) becomes an essential component of the composer's technique. One thinks of Stockhausen's "exploitation" of his extended family in the "Licht" cycle, Heiner Goebbels' work with Fred Frith, Yves Robert, John King, Marie Goyette (to name but a few), and of course the plethora of works commissioned by self-styled "new music specialists" such as Kronos, Arditti, Harry Spaarnay, Frances-Marie Uitti, and so on, works which are almost unimaginable-even unplayable-if attempted by anybody else. What would "Lacrosse" sound like without Chadbourne's virtuoso fireworks? An answer to that question is perhaps to be found in the "Twins" version of "Lacrosse", where Zorn and Chadbourne pair off against saxophonist Bruce Ackley and guitarist Henry Kaiser in a recording made during a brief visit to California in 1977. As Zorn notes, the performance reveals "perhaps the wrong kind of tension", with Ackley and Kaiser struggling valiantly to make sense of the score in the face of experienced opposition from Zorn and Chadbourne. Transcribe this piece note-for-note and you'd probably end up with something you could pass off as a piece by Richard Barrett, but that would be missing the point: no way could any other musician reproduce this technical complexity and still keep the sense of danger that comes from the improvised event (Barrett would be the first to agree, I would imagine, given his fondness for improvisation these past few years).
"Hockey" comes in two versions, electric (Chadbourne on electric guitar, Bob Ostertag on electronics, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards) and acoustic (Zorn, Polly Bradfield on violin, Mark E. Miller on percussion), complete with eleven previously unreleased outtakes, one of which reveals Bradfield and Miller somewhat lost, as Zorn has to remind them that they're already in the coda. The electric trio is breathtaking, with vicious clangs from Horvitz counterpointing the furious assaults of Chadbourne and Ostertag, whereas the acoustic trio performances are hard going, seeming to consist solely of disjointed honks, squeaks and scratches. "Pool", with its quintet line-up (Zorn, Miller, Ostertag, Bradfield and extra percussionist Charlie Noyes) is sparse and pointillistic; the ensemble version of "Lacrosse" sets Bradfield off against LaDonna Smith (violin and banjo) and Chadbourne against Davey Williams (banjo and guitars), with Zorn acting as far-from-impartial sonic referee. Of the four works enclosed, "Archery" is the most substantial, with the twelve-piece band-a veritable Who's Who of NY Downtown-featured on three of the seven discs, one of which consists of previously unavailable rehearsal tapes. Ambitious though it undoubtedly is, "Archery" is a frustrating listening experience, even before Mark Kramer's annoyingly witty self-referential radio snippets start getting in the way; it's hard to pick out the contributions from otherwise highly individual players such as Chadbourne and the late Tom Cora (though George Lewis's excellent trombone playing is unmistakable). There are some wonderful moments (who's the wag on keyboards who quotes "Einstein on the Beach" and "Strawberry Fields Forever"?!), but trying to get through eighty-eight minutes of this without drifting off somewhere else is pretty difficult. The Cage voice in me says that's OK ("if your mind wanders, let it"), though the other voice reminding me that these are exceptional musicians doing exceptional things and that I've got to pay attention tends to win out. Unlike Zorn, I don't know enough about these performances to say whether they work but I am concerned with how they sound. After six or seven listenings through the entire 7CD set, I'm just beginning to figure some of this out. Maybe one day these works will be issued separately (in which case I'd recommend "Lacrosse" and "Hockey" without reservation), but in the meantime, would-be investors in "The Parachute Years" are invited to gird their loins and expect no mercy.

[Tzadik TZ CD 7028]

What, another Zorn album? Yes, but this one's a "classical" one (makes a change), presenting four of New York's enfant terrible's "compositions". I take it all these pieces are fully notated (though I have my doubts regarding "Carny"), as they are ably played by students of the New England Conservatory, conducted by Stephen Drury, who also plays the aforementioned piece for solo piano. The earliest piece of the set is "Christabel", from 1972, for five flutes and viola, written when Zorn was barely out of short pants and evidently heavily under the influence of 20th century European music. Add a fourth to the opening klangfarben chord and you've got Skryabin's "mystery" chord, while the harmony elsewhere is faintly redolent of post-Turangalîla Messiaen, and the multiple flute lines recall-albeit obliquely-Ligeti or Boulez. All in all, a piece you'd be happy to turn in as a freshman composition assignment.
Next in chronological order (though first on the CD) comes "For Your Eyes Only",a 20-piece ensemble piece from 1988. (Whether this piece has anything to do with the "James Bond Trilogy" on 1983's "Locus Solus" is unclear-I suspect it doesn't.) At this time Zorn was seriously into cartoon music, and it shows: the familiar filing card cut'n'splice technique comes in handy here, though the blasts of circus polka, tango, big band jazz and other miscellaneous bangs and crashes are also interspersed with pilferings ("samples" as we say these days) from the classical repertoire (notably Varèse). Herein lies the problem: whereas "Godard", "Spillane" and especially the magnificent finally-issued "Cynical Hysterie Hour" never cease to thrill with their wacky instrumentation, "For Your Eyes Only" quickly begins to sound just clever, a kind of in-joke for cognoscenti ("how many quotes did you spot?"). Perhaps the performers aren't quite up to the job-I suspect the Ensemble Modern could do the piece more justice-perhaps Zorn isn't as comfortable with a classical instrumental line-up as he is with his downtown buddies, but, whatever the reason, the piece never quite takes off. However, "Carny", dating from 1989, works better precisely because it is a solo piano work-inevitably recalling the famous Tom and Jerry concert pianist cartoon-though the same tendency to load the piece with quotations from Chopin (to name but one-you find the rest) becomes somewhat tiresome after several listenings. Still, it's adventurous and undeniably fun, and probably should be included more often in programs of contemporary piano music.
The most satisfying work on this exquisitely produced and packaged (as ever) disc is the last-and most recent-one, "Angelus Novus", for eight winds (a pair each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons), dedicated to Walter Benjamin. This five-movement piece was written in 1993, the beginning of Zorn's "professionally Jewish" period (starting with the release of the astounding "Kristallnacht" and evolving through the myriad Masada projects to "Bar Kokhba"), and reveals a mastery of instrumentation lacking in "Christabel" and a greater sense of structural maturity than the 80s cartoon pieces. Evidently at ease with winds (check out the breathtaking use of multiphonics in "Aliya"), Zorn writes with virtuoso bravura-it's here more than ever than we're left crying out for the Sinfonietta or the Ensemble InterContemporain-and the quotations (fewer) from classical and traditional Hebrew musics are just right: the piece breathes a quiet melancholy air perfectly in keeping with the ideas Zorn quotes from Benjamin in the liner notes. Now that the old Napalm Death T-shirt is looking a bit tight and "The Big Gundown" sounds as historic as the Morricone music it reinterprets, may we look forward to seeing more of the "mature composer" Zorn? Probably not, as his capacity to surprise and delight (or scandalize) shows no sign of disappearing. Watch out for many more Zorn albums to come.