The sounds ranged from modern jazz, electronic tribal drumming, spacey ritualistic hymns, funk, an opera sample, a bluesy beat, an esoteric tangled tangent of looping tapes, and a couple of punky guitar twists. In the jazz tradition of Charles Mingus, a loosely structured and highly improvised workshop of difficult and beautiful music is born. The music breathes with textures, variety, constant changes in attitude, and a sense of fun from the musicians performing it.
John Zorn is performing fast paced, restlessly changing music based on a concept developed by Carl Stalling (composer of Warner Bros. cartoons). The concept is "Block Structure." Solid, unrelated blocks of sound. While the original idea is Stalling's (who pragmatically had to keep changing the music to keep up with Bugs and Daffy's manic, frantic adventures) the execution is in the Mingus tradition of composition based on improvisation, where each performer is also a composer.
John Zorn has written of his music ". . the overhanging sonorities, as one section bleeds to the next, help give my pieces a sense of unity; you can almost feel the sections growing out of one another. It is much more organic that way, and so, easier to listen to.
"Of course, composing music for improvising musicians, which has been my main interest as a composer since 1974, can be seen as a paradox. 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."
While this recent performance at the San Francisco club Slim's was comparatively mellow, the first thing people usually notice about Zorn is his tendency towards deafening, abrasive, punkish thrash. As he explains. "I think it's an important thing for a musician to have an overview, something that remains consistent throughout your whole life. You have one basic idea, one basic way of looking at the world, one basic way of putting music together.
"I developed mine early on -- the idea of working with blocks. At first maybe the blocks were like blocks of sound . . . noisy improvisational statements, but eventually it came back to using genre as musical notes and moving these blocks of genre around . . ."
Trey Spruance who performed with Cobra and is best known for his composing/guitar work with Mr. Bungle commented on the piece.
"It's a game and everybody plays with and against each other. Categories of calls (musical choices) can be made by each player, and they have to get the prompters attention, who in this case is Zorn. Then he holds up the card and everybody recognizes what the card is -- that card indicates what that person called, by pointing to his mouth and then holding up a corresponding number. Once you have Zorn's attention and you've made that call he'll grab the card, hold it up, and then you indicate to him which players you'd like to see do that, if it's a call that requires you to specify who's going to play. Once that's understood the music that's been going on gets cut off as soon as he brings the card down; then you embark on a new sound.
"There are six categories of calls that you can make: mouth, nose, eye, ear, head, palm, and those are the hand cues that you use. The mouth cues have four permutations for instance, and the a head cues have three permutations.
"There are different categories of sound instructions that are indicated by the first hand signal that you do -- you point to your eye, which is one category of four calls, your nose, which is a category of three calls or your mouth. There are five categories and then you can hold up one, two, or three, four, five fingers. Each one of those has one type of manipulation of the sound, Like one category has these things called events, where a number of events that will occur can be whatever you want . . .
"There's nothing in Cobra that indicates stylistically what is going to come out -- except for in the complicated part of the piece which is called the "Guerrilla Systems." In which people put on the headbands, and whoever is wearing the headband is in control. In this part of the game there's one call that can be made in that's called "Sensing," which is where whoever makes the initial call has to start playing in a very recognizable musical style. Then his two spotters in the squadron he's signaled out of the group have play in a contrasting style -- a musical style that's recognizable and conflicts with the original style. But that's the only time where the kind of music to be played is specified.
"Some people misinterpret it and think this is a war game piece, and forget about the fact that you're supposed to be making music that's enjoyable to listen to. That luckily didn't happen this time. This is just a way to field a lot of different players with many different ways of playing.
"What I thought was the most interesting thing about the Cobra we did was the Sound Memory cues, which are head cues. When somebody calls Sound Memory -- a certain sound can be happening that's really amazing and you don't want to see it go away -- so you make the call "Sound Memory One" and that tells everybody to write down what they were doing at that moment, and you can bring that back at any point in the piece.
"There are three of those per piece that are available to you, and that is a compositional tool within Cobra. That's something players can use to keep them from hopping from lily pad to lily pad, new sound, new sound -- it's something you can do to bring a little bit of the compositional element back into the piece. There are compositional devices you can use if you're good at making calls."
Yet John Zorn should not be solely known for his innovative work with controlled improvisation. Zorn is an outstanding and prolific composer who has worked in an eclectic number of projects, ranging from hardcore thrash in the group Painkiller to writing near classical variations of pieces by Ennio Morricone (The genius writer of Spaghetti Western soundtracks such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly). He has had two relatively commercial successes with the Jazz-thrash-Movie-theme-lounge-band Naked City , and The Big Gundown : Variations On Themes By Ennio Morricone. Both are brilliant albums and are perfect introductions to Zorn's work.
And for those who like Black Flag as much as they like Mingus, Spy Vs. Spy: The Music Of Ornette Coleman -- is a masterful display of hardcore versions of Coleman's best pieces. John Zorn's alto sax playing, while imitating Coleman's style, squeals with intensity of the young Henry (Black Flag) Rollin's tortured wail.
Yet Zorn has already gone beyond the above mentioned albums. In the past few years Zorn has written four pieces of the Kronos Quartet's modern repertoire. "I hope John Zorn writes another piece for us soon," David Harrington of the Kronos says. "I think he's in a great period right now. One of his great pieces, in my opinion, is Forbidden Fruit. That was his first quartet piece and one of his greats." Forbidden Fruit, written in the edgy discordant style of Schoenberg, features the sensual voice of Ohta Hiromi whispering mysterious words in Japanese as the Kronos Quartet become more and more frantic.
Zorn says of Forbidden Fruit, "Composed of sixty sections in all, four sets of twelve variations each, and twelve themes, all squeezed into ten minutes, this is perhaps my most compact and fast-moving piece to date."
Goblin:I've been trying to understand Zorn's music for a long time. And I've been trying to find repetitions and musical architecture or thematic development. But I can't seem to hear it, I just see block structure like cartoons.
"I just think what you're saying about development, in the sense of Beethoven, I don't think it's there," says Harrington. "At least not to my perception. Interestingly enough, recently we put together the four quartet pieces that he's written for us and there's actually an amazing sense of artistic journey. Within each piece I'm not sure I would call it development in a traditional sense. But you do really sense differing approaches to sound, to life, to bringing aspects into his world. There definitely are patterns and it might take three or four different pieces to have a sense of that.
"I think it's very emotional. There's a lot of structure. Just more so with the quartets than with Cobra. I think the quartets are highly structured. There are elements of improvisation in each of the quartet pieces."
Now Zorn has reached the exalted plateau of being the King of the avant-garde. His influence can most be felt in New York's Knitting Factory, a club that for many years has spearheaded the fearless and innovative composers and performers of the future. While many of these musicians are truly interesting, Zorn has also spawned a batch of green untalented art students with pretensions of the worst kind. A listen to the Knitting Factory sampler CD is a grab bag of New York's finest and a bunch of stuff that sounds like garage punk bands doing Hawkwind and King Crimson covers.
He has also been a major influence on Mr. Bungle (see Bungle article). Although they're reluctant to admit it, there's a huge difference between the cartoony eclectic rock band they used to be and the innovative movie soundtrack style composers they have become. As Danny Heifetz, Mr. Bungle's drummer says, "We had the new album written before we even met John Zorn. Sure there was an impact in the group he had compositionally. Particularly on two people I have in mind, their manners in composition were changed. I can definitely hear some influences. Zorn's own compositional style is not completely his own, he borrows from so many people himself. He was a short cut to getting to all these other composers. I'm not knocking his style, but he not only opened people's ears to his work, but to where he borrows his compositional styles from."
With his influence spreading from New York to Japan (He spends six months of every year in Japan and has left a permanent imprint on the music of the Boredoms -- See Boredoms article) one wonders is Zorn, like Mingus, developing his own school of sound?
Trey Spruance answers: "Zorn can do that because he's such a respectable player that he meets all these great musicians who will take his ideas to an interesting place. If you write music that's dependent on other people's good sense on where the music should go then you damn well better have people who can do it. I don't think it's going to be a music of the future because it's so hard to get in that position, but it is something that will be with us in a certain capacity.
"Other people are trying to do it and incorporate loose elements of noise and things, but for me it's getting really tired and boring. I'm not getting sick of "Cobra," but just jack-off improv music is really starting to bug me. Personally I'm fond of musical compositions and I definitely love Cobra and Zorn's way of composing, but there's a lot of loose improv shit that's going on that's really, really prevalent: "We can't have structure, that's old, blah, blah, blah." It gets so reduced. I want to put some constraints on everybody's freedom because I'm tired of hearing this shit. I'm hoping that people will put emphasis on composition in the future.
"It can only go so far, it's great and exciting in some context but it has to be blowing the doors off what exists at that moment to be interesting. Right now we're in a status quo, everybody's doing it. There's a total boys club happening."
Apart from the boys club John Zorn truly is in a great period, as can be heard in his recent work with his innovative Klezmer/Jazz group Masada -- in which he melds his Jewish roots with his current obsessions. But his shining work so far is his powerful statement about the Holocaust, Kristallnacht. This seven part piece, which features only Jewish musicians is as painful and powerful as Spielberg's Schindler's List. He mixes Klezmer, twelve-tone music and abrasive thrash in a shocking and revealing manner. The most startling movement is "Never Again," which features almost twelve minutes of breaking glass (mixed in with peasents scurrying about), symbolizing that fateful night in 1938 when the Nazis came to destroy the Jews. In the liner notes the composer warns: "Never Again contains high frequency extremes at the limits of human hearing and beyond, which may cause nausea, headaches & ringing in the ears. Prolonged or repeated listening is not advisable as it may result in temporary or permanent ear damage."
Zorn says of Kristallnacht: "Dealing with this subject matter was a very intimidating thing. It was not just something I wanted to do, it was something I felt I had to do. I just thank (The SubGenius God) YHVH I was able to find musicians like these to work with. This piece deals with the Jewish experience before, during and after the Holocaust, taking us right up to today; here in NYC. (We are Garin -- the new settlement.) Much of this piece was generated through the use of GEMATRIA (Jewish numerology), which functions along with pitch matrices derived from moments of Schoenberg's "Moses and Aaron," to unify the varied styles and compositional techniques, the most eclectic I've yet used in a single work." Wow! The Kabbela!
John Zorn, who's only 42, is sonically leading us into the 21th century much like Mingus did before him. And also like Mingus, perhaps Zorn's disturbing and difficult style will become more familiar and easy to understand as time goes on. Keep listening.