“Take King Crimson, The Bad Plus, and Mr. Bungle, tie them all together and set them on fire, and you’ll wind up with something like John Zorn.” —The Wire
Catch three sides of John Zorn, one of the most prolific and influential composer/musician/producers in the country on Friday, February 17, in the Walker Art Center’s Cinema and William and Nadine McGuire Theater. This special Zorn-a-thon begins with Zorn and Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither in conversation about his career and music at 6 pm (Cinema). Next, at 7 pm, Zorn offers his most recent and ambitious Masada unit, Electric Masada, in its only U.S. appearance this year—a free-flow blend of the raw power of Naked City, the improvisational madness of Cobra, and the fused funk of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew era. This downtown New York City supergroup (with Marc Ribot, Jamie Saft, Ikue Mori, Trevor Dunn, Cyro Baptista, Joey Baron, and Kenny Wollesen) may be the most exciting band he has ever created. The evening concludes at 9:30 pm with Music for Films, featuring members of Electric Masada and experimental American films from the Walker’s Edmond R. Ruben Film and Video Study Collection chosen and scored by Zorn, including Maya Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time, Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, Kenneth Anger’s Eaux d’Artifice, as well as Harry Smith’s Film #16–Oz: The Tin Woodsman’s Dream and Marie Menken’s GO GO GO from Anthology Film Archives.
It is possible to call John Zorn a “jazz” musician, but that would be much too limiting a description. While jazz feeling is present in a good deal of his work, and the idea of improvisation is vitally important to him, Zorn doesn’t operate within any idiom’s framework, drawing from just about any musical, cultural, or noise source that a fellow who grew up in the TV and LP eras could experience. This eclecticism gone haywire can result in such wildly jump-cutting works as Spillane, whose plethora of diverse and incompatible styles makes for a listening experience akin to constantly punching the station buttons on a car radio.
Zorn believes that the age of the composer as an “autonomous musical mind” had come to an end in the late 20th century; hence the collaborative nature of much of his work, both with active musicians and music and styles of the past. Many of Zorn’s works are tributes to certain musical touchstones of his—such as Ennio Morricone, Sonny Clark, and Ornette Coleman—all filtered through his unpredictable hall of mirrors. While it would be foolhardy to single out a handful of dominant influences, Zorn’s music seems very close in spirit to that of Warner Bros. cartoon composer Carl Stalling, both in its transformation of found material and manic, antic moods.
Zorn began playing the piano as a child before taking up the guitar and flute at age 10. By age 14, he had discovered contemporary classical music and began composing; his college years in St. Louis brought about his introduction to avant-garde jazz, particularly that of Anthony Braxton. He dropped out of college, settled in lower Manhattan, and began working with free improvisers, rock bands, and tape, sometimes working duck and birdcalls into his arsenal. After putting out releases on tiny domestic and poorly distributed import labels, Zorn signed with Elektra-Nonesuch in the mid-1980s, which increased his visibility considerably. Along the way, he has formed tribute bands to play the music of Coleman, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, and others; featured musicians as diverse as Big John Patton, Tim Berne, Bill Frisell, and the Kronos Quartet; and assembled a group called Masada that merges Coleman with Jewish music. His Coleman tribute album Spy vs. Spy (Nonesuch) makes exciting, thrashing, yet concise hashes of 17 Ornette tunes with a quintet. Cartoon S&M was released in 2000, followed, in 2001, by Songs from the Hermetic Theatre. In 1995, Zorn founded the music label Tzadik, dedicated to the release of avant garde and experimental music by contemporary composers and musicians. Zorn’s most recent personal release on the label is Filmworks XVII, which includes the score for a new documentary about elusive film maverick Marie Menken (GO, GO, GO). In 2005, he founded The Stone, a performance space in New York’s East Village that features a rotating cast of guest curator-musicians, whose proceeds go directly to the performing artist.
ZORN X 3: AN EVENING OF CONVERSATION, PERFORMANCE, AND FILM WITH A MUSIC LEGEND
John Zorn in Conversation
Cinema, 6 pm
(Free, advance reservations available only with ticket purchase)
William and Nadine McGuire Theater, 7 pm
John Zorn’s Music for Films
William and Nadine McGuire Theater, 9:30 pm
Tickets to Zorn x3 are $40 ($35 Walker members) for all events and $25 ($20 Walker members) for single events and are available by contacting the Walker Art Center box office at 612.375.7600 or walkerart.org/tickets.