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Not a classical composer: John Zorn.

Chamber Masada

By Josh Potter

An Evening with John Zorn

Sosnoff Theater, Richard B. Fisher Center, Bard College, Nov. 12


It’s alleged that saxophonist John Zorn once walked offstage after performing at the Marciac Jazz Festival only to be met with Wynton Marsalis’ disapproval. “That’s not jazz,” Marsalis had said, to which Zorn replied, “You’re right!” A legend of New York’s downtown avant-garde jazz scene, Zorn has long embraced his misfit status in the disparate musical worlds with which he finds himself entangled. Jazz orthodoxy is only one of many that he’s spurned along the way, but it’s not so much a contrarian grudge as it is his admittedly short attention span that’s led the prolific composer to meld his love for jazz and contemporary classical music with hardcore, cartoon music and spaghetti western themes. Had Zorn encountered a similarly preservation-minded figure after his showcase of “concert music” Friday night, the scene might have been reprised.

Although primarily known for his caterwauling Klezmer-influenced jazz, Zorn has been composing chamber music in the vein of Charles Ives, Igor Stravinsky and Harry Partch since the early ’70s, growing more committed to the practice in the mid-’90s with his own label, Tzadik, at his disposal. This evening’s performance featured three pieces from the early aughts, a nice sampler of Zorn’s work with solo piano, vocal ensemble and string quartet. He wouldn’t play a note himself all night, but the role of composer didn’t keep Zorn from galloping onstage between pieces to introduce the work in his trademark camouflage cargo pants.

Longtime collaborator Stephen Drury opened the performance with Zorn’s 2005 solo piano piece (fay çe que vouldras), translating to “do as you will.” Alternating, often abruptly, between spare, uncertain tone poems and snarling, tempestuous chord clusters, the piece embodied many of the contradictions Zorn pursues in his music. Mystical clarity is always only a short stumble away from abject chaos and the line between meticulous composition and volatile improvisation is never clear. As far back as the “game pieces” of the ’70s, in which Zorn imposed complex structural constraints on improvising ensembles, he’s enjoyed making the audience guess at which sounds were prescribed, yet the context of chamber music, with its congenital reverence for the score, gave this piece a deliberate severity, regardless of whether Drury was taking personal liberties.

Frammenti del Sappho followed. Inspired by the classical poet, the piece is a motet for five female voices that unfolds in the patient, cyclical manner of American minimalism. Performed by Lisa Bielawa, Abigail Fischer, Kate Mulvihill, Kamala Sankaram and Kirsten Sollek, the piece began as small constellations of ah’s and oh’s, an uncharacteristically subdued approach for Zorn. With time, though, the chords became more complex, and dissonant high intervals pierced through the calm while incoherent whispering provided a bed of white noise. Composed in appearance, the performers increasingly pushed their vocal timbres toward fraught extremes, appearing at times almost histrionic in their pantomime of emotion, before returning to the clear, chiming control of a handbell choir.

It’s not incidental that the final piece, a five-movement string quartet, was titled Necronimicon after the fictional textbook on magic, which first appeared in the work of writer H.P. Lovecraft and has proliferated across the horror and sci-fi genres. The first movement found the quartet bowing and plucking their instruments as if to summon demons, a process that brought visible pleasure to violinists Jennifer Choi and Jesse Mills, violist David Fulmer, and especially cellist Fred Sherry. But if the book-of-spells analogy were meant to be taken literally, the piece didn’t rely on grave melodic statements or incantatory passages so much as swarmy knots of sound, an elemental appeal to occult wisdom. Through moody abstraction and tangled counterpoint, the piece not only proved Zorn’s mastery with the pen, but confirmed the depth of vision behind his perpetual effort to shake his listeners’ expectations.

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