Musical time is different than the flow of time in which we swim, and so the distance between John Zorn’s 50th birthday celebration and this month’s 60th is better gauged by concepts like magnitudes or dimensions rather than mere years. By 2003, Zorn was the paragon of the “downtown” musician, crossing genres and combining styles while making music that had both intellectual and popular appeal, at times gentle and lovely or funky and hip, at other times excoriating and savage. Dip into pretty much any moment of the 12 CDs that came out of the series of 50th birthday concerts and you’ll hear a masterful saxophonist, thinker, and bandleader celebrating himself with his friends in an extended party.
This year, Zorn is being celebrated by others in a way that he has earned, especially in the last decade. He’s led ensembles in England and South America, but while Zorn @ 60 is an international festival, the bulk is happening in New York City, in places that, as accomplished as he was the last time around, I don’t imagine he expected would host his work: Lincoln Center, Miller Theatre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s been in the highbrow houses before, though: New York City Opera’s 2011 production of La Machine de l’être wasa signal event that showed to a large audience of predominately classical music listeners and administrators that Zorn is one of the finest contemporary composers working in the tradition of Western art music.
Still, who he is and what he does has been a conundrum for most critics. They seek to understand his work but are thrown off by trying to reconcile what seems to be an almost sadistic épater la bourgeoisie—“Perfume of a Critic’s Burning Flesh” is one of the titles on the Naked City Torture Garden album—with the care and sophistication of compositions like the opera and his string quartet music. There’s a solipsistic quality to most music criticism that’s at the root of the problem, a trend of rock or classical music aficionados writing about what they know for publications that seek writing on those subjects, a feedback loop that produces listeners and writers who not only don’t know about what is going on in the vast endeavor of music but who can’t imagine there is anything other than what they already know. Zorn is a problem for them because he has been one of the most important avant-garde jazz musicians and a leading post-bop saxophonist and a soundtrack composer with 25 recorded volumes to his credit and arguably the finest death/black metal musician on the contemporary scene—and, yeah, he’s a composer, with all the aesthetic, technical, and historical meaning that word implies.
History is the key to Zorn’s musicianship: he lives in it, the history of music and of pop culture in all its deviations. Better, he revels in it, and being sensitive to that fact makes it easy to enjoy the music he produces without confusion or anxiety. He values the history of culture in a non-hierarchical way, so the achievements of Bach and Stravinsky play hand-in-hand with surf music, horror and S&M manga, experimental films, and—increasingly—occult and hermetic thinking. Toss this array of signs, symbols, and ideas at most contemporary artists and you’ll get back a glossy, shallow pastiche with a coy attitude of both superficial provocation and self-professed innocence and lack of meaning: post-modernism. Zorn is commonly heard as a post-modern musician and composer, but thinking beyond the limits of labels makes it simple to see that he is nothing like it. His concentrated music making and jump-cut methods toss out a thicket of notes and musical events, and the sensation can be distracting and overwhelming. The ear searches for fragments of this and that to fit into previous listening experiences: snatches of television shows and movies and comic books and moments captured in the imagination while twirling the analog tuner dial up and down. Zorn is a fluid, skillful composer, getting highly complex musical ideas out clearly to his musicians, producing music that can be dense with activity in a compressed period of time but that is always transparent. He’s also a master of musical styles, the bedrock quality of any good professional musician, but he’s not justsampling and regurgitating culture; rather he’s like Borges’s Pierre Menard, living in contemporary culture and spitting out versions of it that are superior to the originals, be they Mickey Spillane or Carl Stalling.
Or Tex Avery or Jean-Luc Godard or Antonin Artaud or Jean Genet or Kenneth Anger, a handful of creative thinkers whose influence Zorn either has acknowledged outright or made clear by reflecting it in his work. But influence is not the right word; rather these are figures who showed him things of value that he wishes to expound and expand on. That’s not post-modern, that’s life. So is twirling that radio knob, so is channel surfing—or watching a classic Warner Brothers cartoon, where the narrative stays in a realistic context but juxtaposes an impossible movement through time and space; it could be Bugs Bunny instead of Belmondo driving that car up to Paris—and so is hearing the busker in the subway as the train screeches in and then is gone. Post-modernism, in practice, is the artifice of combining the simplistic and the unreal in hopes of making understandable order out of everyday life. Zorn’s work is the capacious experience of everyday life turned into musical art.
Like the great artists, he plays at what he does. Naked City plays with pop culture and music; his great Moonchild band plays with received pop cultural notions of how occult music should sound; his classical music plays with the legacy of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Xenakis. And like the great artists, he is absolutely serious: Naked City plays great music from films and modern composers. Moonchild is a reflection of real personal concerns, and the classical music is not only deeply accomplished but is following a path of uncompromising dissonance and structural complexity that is largely out of favor with the contemporary mood of audiences, programmers, and record companies.
The clarity, suppleness, and complexity of his notational language has improved dramatically in the past ten years, a testament to his efforts. The other major development has been the growing importance of things like the Kabbalah and the theology of Aleister Crowley, which Zorn has been exploring in classical compositions and through Moonchild. How his beliefs come across depends on your own, but on purely musical terms the stuff works. The music on IAO: Music in Sacred Light is contemporary chamber music for a post-rock band. There are important structural elements that seem to express numbers that are fundamental to Crowley’s thinking. These may be conscious or subliminal decisions by Zorn, but I can’t hear them—I’m not listening as an initiate, I’m listening to the flow of the music and the album as a whole, and what I hear is beguiling, with a controlled surface that hints at an almost violent intensity underneath. If that is occult music, so be it. The personal concepts and experience that lead to such composition and abstract expression prove themselves, in sound, to be ideal servants of Zorn’s thinking. The energy has moved from a ricocheting fusillade of impulses to something more like a knife, carving its way unerringly to the core of something.
The vocal music heard for his The Holy Visions concert in July at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, is similar. The texts—the “Song of Songs” for Shir Ha-Shirim and Zorn’s own for The Holy Visions—have a specific meaning that is of course unavoidable. How you feel about the music depends, again, on where your own beliefs lie, but the music writing is fine. Coming out of quick-hitting, quick-cutting experimental pieces leaves the composer with a welcome ear for clarity and brevity. His pieces tend to flow—the ones that don’t work, like Redbird, try for a stillness that seems antithetical to his musical values—and he uses repetition for maintaining forward motion, rather than as a structural process. The Complete String Quartets concert that rounded out the Lincoln Center appearance drove this home. I admire this music. The format is the most challenging one a composer faces, and the hard work has made Zorn confident. The early Cat o’ Nine Tails is sort of a concordance of his aesthetic, and Momento Mori is an unusual, allusive, and captivating long-form piece. The more recent Necronomicon and The Alchemist are excellent works, full of brilliance, energy, expression. Something interesting is always happening and even as the activity grows frenetic the textures are always clear. JACK Quartet and the Alchemy Quartet played the music as well as can be imagined.
The programs for September promise a comprehensive survey for a musician who has produced or been part of something like 400 recordings. And as befits an artist who has truly grown from a niche to take his place as one of the leading creative musicians across all areas of music, the emphasis is on his compositional thinking, the exploring and laying out of concepts that are all pieces of his unique aesthetic: There’s a great opportunity to him hear play with his greatest bands at the Masada Marathon at the Skirball Center on September 15; his taste in film and his soundtracks can be heard and seen at Anthology Film Archives from September 12 through 30; and on September 29, there’s a double bill of the Song Project and Moonchild at Le Poisson Rouge.
But the depth and breadth of Zorn will really be displayed at Miller Theatre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At Miller, Zorn is the subject of what amounts to four of their Composer Portraits. On September 23, he will be presenting his new project, The Hermetic Organ, at St. Paul’s Chapel on the Columbia University campus. His previous organ concert there was released on CD earlier this year, and it is a remarkably beautiful, quietly involving work. He is not really a keyboard player, but like a creative musician with an electric guitar he knows how to get great sounds out of the instrument. The CD layers chords and textures and has a stately, ritualistic pace. At Alice Tully Hall, Zorn dug into the instrument, spending as much time adjusting the registers as he did pressing the keys, building up massive blocks of sound and then suddenly releasing them, leaving the chords to fall in pitch and drift away. I never knew such a thing could be done on the instrument.
The following Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, September 25 through 27, Miller will be presenting a series of important Zorn compositions for 80-plus-piece orchestra and chamber ensembles as well as the game pieces, like Cobra and Archery, the works that first put him on the map as a musician trying to get out of the ordinary and find his way to the extraordinary. And it is the culmination of Zorn @ 60 that promises the extraordinary. It seems he’s a longtime lover of the Metropolitan Museum, going there weekly, probably more familiar with the objects and history in the building than most of the curators. On Saturday, September 28, the entire museum will essentially be given over to Zorn. Starting with a new brass fanfare at 10 a.m., his music will fill the building, the Temple of Dendur will be bookended by The Gnostic Preludes and Moonchild, The Holy Visions will be sung in the Medieval Sculpture Hall, and Zorn will perform The Hermetic Organ in the Arms and Armor wing.
Beyond the fabulous music, this will perhaps be an important coming together of hermetic thinking and symbolically important objects. You can stroll into the museum’s bookshop and see the table marked “Signs and Symbols,” with books covering sacred architecture and secret images in art through the ages. The Met, with its vast and comprehensive collections, must be full of images, objects, fetishes that one culture or another sees as holding esoteric knowledge, perhaps even as keys to a greater, or darker, dimension. The vibrations of sound, the right phrase or chord or sequence of words, are all thought of as capable of magic, of unlocking hidden doors of perception. You don’t have to believe in the things Zorn does to be intrigued by the possibilities: A devotee of the occult, in a building full of signifiers of beliefs of all kinds, beyond and before monotheism, sits down at the organ, ready to produce rich and massive torrents of sound, like the figures in movies that inspired him when he was a kid. The vibrations will, one way or another, make their way to every part of the museum, to rooms and cabinets and boxes locked away, out of view in the dark recesses closed off from the public. What ancient wisdom, what ancient curses might stir and awaken?
George Grella is a composer and a writer. He’s played at Carnegie Hall and CBGB, contributes to domestic and international publications, and wrote the book Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. He is the Rail’s music editor.