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Track #2 on Kristallnacht is a twelve-minute white-noise composition called Never Again. In the booklet, there’s a note that says:
CAUTION: NEVER AGAIN contains high frequency extremes at the limits of human hearing & 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.
I don’t know about the nausea part, but this is definitely a song that you should not listen to with headphones.
Here’s a breakdown:
[0:00] very high-pitched squealing and sounds of breaking glass, layered to create a wall of oscillating white noise [3:00] white noise ends, replaced by the sound of footsteps and a bell [3:30] back to high pitched white noise, plus backward voices and an undercurrent of pounding drums [5:00] buzzsaw guitars are added, under the shattering and squealing [6:20] quiets down to voices saying “ree-ree-ree” and what can only be described as Nazi shouts [6:50] sound of Jewish singing coming over the radio, a little bell, ominous bass throbbing [7:25] violin comes in on top of this [8:00] the footsteps and bell return, accompanied by sound of plucked cello and violin strings [8:20] shattering glass begins, this time it sounds like real glass. It builds in layers until around [9:35] it becomes the white noise at the start of the track [10:00] pause for silence and a single note from a bell, then back to squealing white noise and layers of shattering sounds [10:50] drums added, continues until the end [11:40]
The hardcore miniatures are the less-than-a-minute songs by Naked City, on Grand Guignol, Torture Garden, and the self-titled debut.
Zorn: Sometimes I’ll buy a record and on first listening I’ll say, “Well, I just threw seven bucks down the drain.” But then I’ll come back to it a few months later and listen to it again and go, “Well, now wait a minute, there’s got to be something here because three people have told me this is an incredible record. I’ve got to check it out.” So I’ll listen to it again and again.
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That’s how I got into hard core and thrash. I just went into a store and said to some skinhead who was working there, “Pick out five or six of your favorite hard-core records that never left your turntable for three months.” And he picked out five records and I took them home, but I didn’t really get it. All the cuts were like a minute and a half. And I thought, “Well, it all sounds the same to me. There’s nothing going on.” But I went back and back and back. Ultimately, you have to trust somebody, you know. That’s how you get into something.
When Cobra is performed, Zorn, as the prompter (sort of a conductor) stands in front of a table which has rows of cards with different symbols on each. The 10 to 13 players sit in a circle in front of him, flashing hand signals to their mouth, nose, eye, ear, head and palm. The prompter can accept their signals or not.
A segment of the game begins once the prompter brings the card(s) down to the table, giving the players a certain direction to follow, which can be changed mid-segment with different types of tactics. The players chosen for each performance of Cobra are just as important as the rules they must play by. The best versions of Cobra are those where the players really comprehend what’s happening, they are both challenged and have fun and some wonderful music is made in the process. If you a chance to see/hear a version of Cobra performed live, I urge you to do so. It begins to make more sense by watching.
From Browbeat magazine, 1990 (found on the web)….
You had a performance of Cobra this week at the Great American Music Hall, that’s that card/war game . . .
Zorn: Yeah, that’s my game piece. It’s not a war game. A lot of people get upset with that stuff. Apparently, Willie Winant tried to do the piece down in San Diego, or somewhere down south at some school, and some girl student got really upset and tried to blockade the performance. Cause she didn’t like the use of the word “tactics” or “guerilla systems” or “cutthroat.” This military stuff. We gotta get rid of that.
How does that work? Is it difficult to explain?
Zorn: Well, what do we have now? Ten minutes? Really it’s best to (chuckle) just go on to another subject. To put it like into one sentence, it’s kind of a loose system that permits improvisers to interrelate and react to each other in different ways.
And you as conductor control it by….
Zorn: I don’t control it at all. It’s all up to the musicians in the group. They control it. They make all the cues, and they tell me what they want, and then I act like a mirroring device so that everyone can see what the cues are.
Oh…so, you’re not directing who is improvising. You’re saying…
Zorn: No, not all.
You are telling everybody else who someone wants to improvise with?
Zorn: Right. Like someone will say, well I wanna do this now. So they will tell me and I’ll tell everyone else with these cards. And then at anytime, anybody can…
Aren’t you choosing? Like if several people are saying I want to do this…
Zorn: Well, of course. Like you have seven people with their hands up. I gotta make a choice. Y’know, that’s tough. Sometimes I gotta go with someone that has an idea and make several calls in a row, because they got an idea. And sometimes I stick with just one person for a while. That may seem unfair. Then I’m like enough of this guy and then I’ll take someone that hasn’t made a call in a while or . . . if there are five people with their hands up and there is one person that has never made a call in the piece, then I’ll take that person. And I try to be as diplomatic as I can, but it always ends up being a psychodrama up there on stage. (laughs) That’s what those pieces are about.
A friend saw the show and said that when you switched from one improvisational set, I guess you could call it, to another that it was just flawless. It just jumped from one to the next…
Zorn: That’s very simple. You just give a downbeat, and say at this downbeat a change is gonna happen. Some cards [are] just any kind of change. Some cards are more specific, like everybody drops out except one person. It’s like a very complicated toggle switch. It’s an on and off switch for the all the people in the band. I never talk about what they play, because each person has a very personal style. Y’know, they’ve developed a language on their instrument that nobody else can duplicate, so I wanted to find a way to harness that kind of talent in a compositional arc. What I came up with was this kind of game structure that talks about when people play, and when they don’t play, but doesn’t talk about what they do at all. So everyone gets gassed when they’re doing it. I mean, it really is a psychodrama!
I heard it was really fun to watch.
Zorn: It’s a blast to watch. It’s a lot more interesting live than it is on record. I mean, it really is a theatrical event. It’s a sporting event! Cause you never know what’s gonna happen.
There’s a lot of humor involved.
Zorn: Yeah! Usually the people in the band have a sense of humor.
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. Like Mel Brooks, the zany film director, 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.
Some of Zorn’s compositions, and those by others whose music he released on his Tzadik record label, evolve from the same Yiddish musical tradition on which klezmer is based. Other works bear a looser connection, musically speaking, to the klezmer tradition, having more obvious roots in Sephardic or Middle Eastern music, jazz, and the music of Jewish composers.
Zorn’s name for the musical movement is Radical Jewish Culture. The term itself took on a life of its own by the late nineties, used somewhat promiscuously to describe a generic musical movement beyond John Zorn himself, even though it was the official name of several Zorn-curated festivals in New York and elsewhere, as well as the name he gave to a series of recordings on Tzadik.
To fully appreciate the significance of Zorn’s Jewish work in its proper context, one needs to understand that when John Zorn declared his full-fledged allegiance to Jewish music in the mid nineties, he was at the apex of the avant-garde, a central figure of musical postmodernism. Whatever he touched had instant credibility and hip cachet, at least with those who embraced the idea of Zorn as king of the avant-garde. Thus, his decision to remodel himself as a Jewish composer suggested something about the creative potential of Jewish music.
One result of his newly raised Jewish consciousness was that he began noticing patterns where he had not seen them before.
Zorn: “I’m not sure why it is, but all of a sudden it was like some weird kind of revelation, suddenly realizing that most of the musicians that I’ve been really strongly associated with have been Jewish. It was like, wait a minute, how come all these cats are Jewish? That began to interest me. And I’m not quite sure if I have an answer as to what that’s about.”
orn: “There’s all these people. That just doesn’t happen overnight. They’ve been thinking about this shit for a long time — certainly as long if not longer than I’ve been thinking about it. The cliche word is renaissance. But it’s an exciting time, there’s a lot going on, and a lot of people are considering this. I think it’s because there’s this generation of post-Holocaust Jews who are now feeling well, hey, wait a minute, this is cool, this is hip, let’s keep it going.”
Zorn followed up on that impulse and began inviting his friends to explore their heritage through music as part of Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Cultre series. With the series, Zorn set out to ask the question, “What is Jewish music?”
Zorn: “Each one has a personal answer to the question, but the answer cannot be articulated in words. The answer is in the music. Sometimes it’s mixed with classical, sometimes it’s mixed with jazz, sometimes it’s tinged with a straighter, folk kind of approach, sometimes there’s rock involved.”
In just a few short years, this resulted in a body of work consisting of nearly three dozen CDs (not including Masada’s dozen recordings) by two dozen different artists covering a vast array of styles. [By the end of 2002, there were over 70 Radical Jewish Culture albums released by Tzadik.]
from an interview in April 1994 . . .
Zorn: “Klezmer music is fantastic, it is one of the great popular traditions which has influenced several generations of musicians. Where Jewish music has come to, what direction Hebraism is taking, what being a Jew means today — these are issues that are important to me, that I am most concerned about.
“Being on stage I feel I have a responsibility and a duty, to act as the bearer of a message which says I am what I come from. I went through twelve difficult years and no one had the faintest idea I was Jewish, so up until now being a Jew made no difference to my career. We will see what happens later on. I think what I am doing is an excellent way of showing where I belong, of displaying a cultural identity.”
In May 1997, Tzadik released a tribute album called Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach. It is part of the Radical Jewish Culture series. Inside, Zorn wrote this essay.
Burt Bacharach is one of the great geniuses of American popular music — and he’s a Jew. This should come as no surprise since many of America’s greatest songwriters have been Jewish — Irving Berlin, Kurt Weill, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Leiber & Stoller, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Richard Hell, Beck.
The Jews are a tribe who continue to believe that if they devote themselves to a place they love and contribute to the society selflessly that they will be embraced and accepted into it. In many cases this has proved to be a fatal error, yet there they go again, stubbornly believing in their own ability and vision.
It is arguable that the history of the Jews in this century has produced one of the most richly rewarding periods of culture in Jewish history. Yet, this fact is somehow kept neatly hidden. WHAT? Compare Philip Roth to Sholem Aleichem? Kafka to Moses de leon? Walty Benjamin to Rashi? Wittegenstein to Spinoza? Steve Reich to Felix Mendelssohn? Allen Ginsberg to Yehuda Helevi? Einstein to Nostradamus? Lenny Bruce to Hillel?
Burt Bacharach is such a name. A traiblazer. A questioner. An unbridled genius. More than a great tunesmith he’s a conduction, a pianist and a singer, a bold arranger with an original vision and sharp ear for detail, a brilliant producer and a sensitive collabrator.
Bacharach’s songs explode the expectations of what a popular song is supposed to be. Advanced harmonies and chord changes with unexpected turnarounds and modulations, unusual changing time signatures and rhythmic twists, often in uneven numbers of bars. But he makes it all sound so natural you can’t get it out of your head of stop whistling it. Maddeningly complex, sometimes deceptively simple, these are more than just great pop songs: these are deep explorations of the materials of music and should be studied and treasured with as much care and dilligence we accord any great works of art.
The approaches in this collection are as varied as the contributors who participated. Some will delight you, some will confuse you, some may even annoy you — but the intention in all cases has been to pay tribute to one of the world’s greatest songwriters. I hope this set can in some small way repay Burt for the inspiration he has provided for generations of musicians in their battle to be creative and keep producing in the face of what often seems like insurmountable odds. Thank you, Burt. Thank you for not changing your name. We will always love you.
In September of 2003, a celebration of John Zorn’s music took place at the club Tonic. The article below is from the New York Press (vol 16, issue 25). The first Zornfest took place ten years earlier.
Celebrating the 50th birthday of an unrelenting force of nonconformity, Tonic will present a massive 30-day tribute to John Zorn in September. Concerts dedicated to Zorn’s vast output of jazz compositions, classical concert works, film music, noise, free improv, game pieces, cartoon music, songs and Radical Jewish Music will mark every evening at Tonic throughout the month, filling the Labor Day calm between the end-of-summer festivals and the beginning of regular seasons. It makes sense that Zorn’s music would fall between the cracks of seasons, as he has always been a self-proclaimed outsider “looking out” instead of in.
The Tonic celebration is both a retrospective of some of his most significant and powerful musical inventions as well as a sneak peak at what’s in his brain now, including world premieres of two new concert works, Sortilege (Sept. 21) and Necronomicon (Sept. 28). Considering pretty much his entire life has been devoted to the three muses (music, literature, film) it’s not surprising that at age 50 (an age when a lot of classical composers and jazzers are just getting their due respect) he continues to produce a mind-boggling amount of work. To help the interested navigate their way through the abundant vegetation of his oeuvre, the celebration drops works into several different categories, each embracing a different limb.
Zorn opens the celebration on saxophone, engaging in two sets of improvisation with his good friends Ikue Mori, the first lady of drum machines, and Mike Patton, former lead singer of Faith No More. Four other improv concerts are scattered throughout the month featuring the likes of Susie Ibarra, Wadada Leo Smith, Milford Graves and Derek Bailey
On his actual birthday, Sept. 2, the festival presents two of Zorn’s compositions dedicated to French artists: Duras, inspired by writer Marguerite Duras (and flavored with Olivier Messiaen’s mystical language) and Duchamp, a noise trio dedicated to the conceptual artist and proponent of both Dada and the Surrealist movement. Other concert works worth noting in this festival are his complete string quartets (Sept. 7) and Kristallnacht (Sept. 23).
Day three introduces one of Zorn’s most beloved works, Cobra, a work for large ensemble improvisation, structured and manipulated by a set of “rules,” which are basically instructions written out on cards that the prompter (Zorn) introduces as the piece unfolds. The chaotic results are the ultimate in post-modern glee, jumping gracefully between styles and resembling (in sound, though not in structure) John Cage’s Imaginary Landscapes No. 4 for 12 radios and 24 performers: The music jumps abruptly between different genres of popular music, jazz, and classical with interstitial noise and, of course, the added element of surprise. Other works that are part of Zorn’s “game pieces” lineage such as Lacrosse, Xu Feng and Locus Solus will be presented throughout the month.
Another major influence on Zorn’s art has been his connection to his Jewish heritage, which formed the impetus for the Masada project, during which Zorn mined ancient Hebrew melodies, jazz, rock and klezmer to create an instrumental songbook containing more than 200 pieces in about four years. For several of these events (the first is on Sept. 4), songs have been arranged for the String Trio.
The retrospective wouldn’t be complete without some wild performances by Zorn’s band Painkiller and a couple of nights dedicated to his film music. Having written for shorts, experimental films, narratives and pornos, Zorn’s film output is expectedly eclectic, often stunningly beautiful and other times just plain rockin’.
In 2004, Tzadik released a series of albums from the 2003 Zornfest. They are called the 50th Birthday series. These CDs have two things in common — they are all live and they all have bad cover art.
| Masada String Trio Live
50th Birthday 1
|Released February 2004|
| Milford Graves and John Zorn
50th Birthday 2
|Released March 2004|
| Locus Solus live
50th Birthday 3
|Released April 2004|
| Electric Masada live
50th Birthday 4
|Released May 2004|
On September 17th, 2003, during the Zornfest at Tonic, six musicians performed the Xu Feng game piece. Zorn acted as prompter. This description comes from the Squid’s Ear web site.
Xu Feng is indeed fast paced, using a card system to direct the action, although with plenty of interaction between the musicians. The color- coded cards signify three major conditions.
Condition 1 deals with downbeats and qualifiers (pool; runner; substitute; etc. and rhythm: arythmic; loud; quiet; etc). Condition 2 sets up “trio battle positions” (war) such as spy or renegade soloist or challenge duo. Condition 3 (Concerto) involves soloists, duos and “base.” Hats and headbands are used in the guerrilla systems, and hand gestures between players and prompters also control the flow of the improvisation.
If this seems confusing, it is, as the players referred to rule sheets frequently during the set, and at times laughed at their own (or each others’) befuddlements.
Zorn has never formally published the rules to the game, preferring an oral tradition of explaining how the game works to the players, and the mystery of the interactions between and amongst the prompter and the musicians is part of the show.
Ultimately if the game lives up to its intentions of making interesting music, the listener need not know how the piece is developed. But as part of a group of listeners trying to make sense of the action, we know differently, and many in the audience were craning their neck to try to figure out just how it was all being done.
Most of Zorn’s stuff is loud and complex, jumping from one idea to another. And he likes to experiment with sound, sometimes using an entire album to play with a strange musical idea that doesn’t quite work out.
But every once in a while, he puts out a CD that everyone will enjoy. These albums have no noisy tracks and no quick jump-cuts. The songs are beautiful and creative (and sometimes a little dull). In other words, these are the Zorn CDs my Mom likes.
And you will, too.
Secret Lives Bar Kokhba The Circle Maker The Gift Filmworks X Masada Guitars Hiding and Seeking