John Zorn (1953)
Dead Man (1990)
John Zorn (New York) is ongetwijfeld een van de belangrijkste componisten van deze eeuw. Zijn carrière zou gemakkelijk voer kunnen zijn voor een batterij socio- en psychologen. In de jazz-wereld wordt hij gerespecteerd om zijn grondige kennis van de bebop en zijn perfecte altsaxofoontechniek. Met zijn groep Naked City verkende hij de grenzen van de jazz door die te mengen met rock en punk, en onlangs kwam hij naar Europa om met onder meer Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris funk voorbij de pijngrens te spelen. Maar net zo goed leidt hij zijn groepen Masade en Bar Khkba strak door respectievelijk klezmermuziek of oosters geïnspireerde kamermuziek. Ook is hij veelvuldig actief als componist van filmmuziek. Zelf vergelijkt hij zijn manier van werken vaak met het maken van tekenfilms. Inderdaad, net als cartoons zijn Zorn’s stukken meestal humoristisch, vernuftig, vaak op eenvoudige motiefjes gebaseerd, maar met een flitsende pointe.
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Dead Man( 1990) is gebaseerd op het verhalende gedicht La Mort van Georges Bataille(1897-1962). Hij was een belangrijke literaire figuur in de jaren veertig en vijftig. In feite is Dead Man een suite van miniaturen die handelt over geluiden.Om zijn experimenten overzichtelijk te houden beperkte Zorn zich tot korte deeltjes of ''specimen" die hij elk een titel meegaf. Bij het bestuderen van de handgeschreven partituur biedt dit enig houvast. Wat verstaat Zorn onder een Fantasy? Duidelijk meer ""crunch" en ""scratch" effecten dan bij de andere stukken, bij de wilde potloodkriebels in de voorlaatste maat staat zelfs''go crazy!''. In de Fanfarewisselen experimentele klanken zich af met lange open en envoudige noten waarbij je je inderdaad en blaaskapel kunt voorstellen. In de Sonates zet Zorn grote curven tegen elkaar van ''very fast prctice notes''. De Prelude is zoals je ook zou verwachten geconcipieerd als een vrije vormmet een paar inleidende maten aan het begin en een improvisatie in het midden en de Nocturne is vooral fluisterzacht en geheimzinnig.

"I don't think of myself as a jazz or rock artist. I think of myself as someone who's using all of these different elements to create something else. But if I had to pick one line where I came from, it would be more classical than anything else.” John Zorn

John Zorn has been lucky to be allowed by critics and audience alike to inhabit so many musical realms. Perhaps it’s because he’s never stood still for long enough to be securely pigeonholed, perhaps because anything he does, regardless of genre, always bears an unmistakable Zorn stamp, or perhaps because he has always pursued clear conceptual and thematic directions, whether playing with a rock band, a post-bop trio or composing for a classical chamber ensemble.

Zorn has engaged with several compositional methods during his career, from free improvisation to the oxymoronic “structured free improvisation”, to Cage-ian chance events and musical games, where groups of musicians interact following parlour game rules. However, the pieces in this programme are fully notated and conventionally scored, albeit with the occasional illustration, expletive, or unusual application of the instrument.

Releasing this music under the banner The Composer Series may be an ironic reflection on the fact that it has dots on the page, and defines the context it should be seen in. As he puts it: “Composing Cat o' Nine Tails was a breakthrough for me in terms of being able to relate to classical players on their own terms. To take advantage of classical musicians at their best, you give them written material, because that's what they do best.”

These pieces represent two common themes that Zorn has explored frequently in his work: in The Dead Man a fascination with representations of pain, sadomasochism and other sexual taboos; and in Cat O’ Nine Tails a post-modern schizophrenic attitude to structure, with constant radical swings in mood and feel.

Sadomasochism is a field Zorn has explored in all his projects, in terms of cover art, titles and themes. He’s often been accused of simple shock tactics, but he is apparently a personal enthusiast, and to give him his due, it’s not a field that has been regularly tackled in music. The Dead Man is broken down into 13 sections of roughly one minute, almost representing each small act of cruelty in a protracted S & M session, each one punctuated by a pause for breath for both hurter and hurtee. The instruments of the quartet are stretched beyond their usual bounds to emit human squeals, snaps, the sounds of groaning leather and wood, short periods of frenetic activity, occasional sighs and fleeting moments of sweetness. Zorn is allowing us some idea of what it might feel like to take part, on either side, and why some people might think it worth doing.

Zorn is a long time aficionado of cartoon music, specifically the soundtracks by Warner Bros. composer Carl Stalling. He has experimented for a long time with breaking down the narrative structure of music, composing music in short sections then using file cards to shuffle and reorder them. When he discovered cartoon music it offered a new avenue:

“This music is episodic — it doesn't develop the way normal music develops. See to me, cartoon music is important because it follows a visual narrative. It's following the images on the screen. Now separate it from those images and you still have music. Valid, well-made music. But it does not follow any traditional development that I know of. It's following a visual narrative — all of a sudden this, all of a sudden that.”

As we listen to Cat O’ Nine Tails we can choose to imagine scenes from our favourite childhood cartoons: Bugs Bunny waltzing with Elmer Fudd, Elmer suddenly turning round to blast him with a shotgun, a resulting high speed chase sequence and a perilous cliff dive. Or we can try to clear our minds and find our own images. We could also look for a narrative to link the disparate elements, but in actual fact, the only narrative is one we choose to create ourselves. Likely as not Zorn never put one there. So if a cartoon does play out as you listen to the music, it’s your own creation, a present from Zorn. Enjoy it.

© Toby Brundin

John Zorn - biography
Born in New York City in 1953, John Zorn played a variety of instruments before studying saxophone and composition at Webster College in St. Louis in the early 70s. However, he dropped out after discovering the avant garde jazz of composers like Anthony Braxton, moved to lower Manhattan, and plugged into what’s become known as the “downtown scene”.

Intially working with all sorts of groups, and specialising in, among other things, the creative use of duck and bird calls, over time he has consolidated a group of players around him who still largely represent the nucleus of the New York jazz avant garde. He considers the musicians who perform his works to be important collaborators in the creative process and his pieces take into account their distinctive personalities.

Readily admitting he has a short attention span, Zorn constructs his music to reflect a fascination with the fast-paced flow of information. Add to this his willingness to take from virtually any sound source, musical or otherwise, and you begin to get an understanding of his role inside and outside virtually every current musical idiom. To many he is the perfect post-modernist, reflecting our fast-changing TV culture better than anyone else.

Highly prolific, he averages six CD releases a year representing the breadth of his interests, from traditional Jewish music to bebop to chamber music to noise experiments. Forming his own label (Tzadik) has allowed him the freedom to release what he wants when he wants. At the same time he has largely abandoned the press so listeners are left to guess his next move.