Since the mid-1970s, composer, performer, and record and concert producer John Zorn has been one of the most illustrious and charismatic figures associated with the avant-garde world of alternative, experimental, fusion-based, and free improvisational expression known as New York’s “downtown” music scene.
Born in New York City, Zorn attended the United Nations International School and then went on to Webster College in St. Louis. There, he came into contact with the Black Artists Group (BAG) and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which exerted profound influences on his subsequent path; and he turned to the saxophone as his principal instrument, becoming an accomplished virtuoso and a leading innovator in terms of its expanded possibilities. After a brief sojourn on the West Coast, he returned to New York and began making a name for himself in the stimulating downtown milieu—an environment in which he flourished naturally and whose devotion to spontaneous, communal participation and collective extemporization encouraged and nurtured his own propensities.
Zorn quickly caused a stir with his array of unorthodox sonic experiments, which at that early stage included blowing duck calls into bowls of water and creating strange howling sounds on a removed saxophone mouthpiece. He began to appropriate freely the sounds from what he has called the “media bombardment” of our age. More conventional musicians might lament the onslaught of industrial noises, commercial cacophonies, and electronic media-induced sounds that permeate our surroundings, but Zorn welcomes them as inspirational influences as well as extramusical parameters in his pieces. Virtually all sounds, whatever their source, have come in principle to be fair game for his musical manipulation and incorporation.
Zorn’s experimental work with rock and jazz, especially in fusions with other genres and styles, has attracted a group of loyalists that has been characterized as a cult following. But in the aggregate his work draws on a much broader variety of his experience, which has included classical forms, hard-core and punk rock, eastern European Jewish band music, non-Western ethnic traditions, and film, cartoon, popular, and improvised music apart from traditional jazz. He credits a selective variety of artistic sources as having fueled his early development: American innovators within the mold of cultivated art music, such as composers Charles Ives, Elliott Carter, John Cage, and Harry Partch; the 20th-century phase of the European tradition as manifested in the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) as well as the work of Stravinsky, Boulez, and Kagel; experimental jazz and rock; and avant-garde theater, film, visual art, and literature. Like “downtown” composers in general, his music defies conventional or academic categories. But perhaps even more than his contemporaries from that world, Zorn has pursued an irreverent and intensely idiosyncratic brand of expression that often dissolves the boundaries between and among previously established styles, while blurring the demarcation between traditionally perceived composition in the Western sense (i.e., organized and then notated musical development) and improvisation. And frequently he has eroded the distinction between recording and live performance. Some of his pieces are in fact best suited to the recording studio as an actual medium, where they can be assembled bit by bit, moment by moment, event by event, and gesture by gesture.
Particularly curious is Zorn’s proudly acknowledged debt to cartoon soundtracks and their composers, whose sonic world, he maintains, is similar to his own: “That comes from all the films and TV shows I absorbed at an early age.” Keyboard magazine once referred to his music as resembling “soundtracks for movies never made.”
A significant leap to commercial success came with Zorn’s release of his 1986 LP album, The Big Gundown, which included arrangements of music by the Italian film composer Ennio Morricone. As in a number of successive pieces, he employed self-contained blocks of sound that alternate abruptly among contrasting styles, timbres, and sound sources. He notated these parameters on index cards to introduce structure into otherwise free collective improvisation. Hence the name “file card pieces,” from the cards that contain his jotted down musical ideas (which he calls “musical moments”), which are then sorted and ordered as suggested instructions to the other performers. This became one of his early trademarks. In his improvisatory “game pieces,” that structure, for example, is provided by using the cards to steer the performers’ interaction, without specifying the precise musical material of the individual parts.
Zorn’s other significant recordings from the 1980s include Archery, a set of electronically colored improvisations; Ganryu Islands, duets between Zorn on reeds and the Japanese shamisen player Michihiro Sato; and Spillane, the title track of which is informed by the B-movie music from the popular Mickey Spillane detective films of the 1950s. During the 1980s Zorn was cited by no less a classically oriented critic than John Rockwell in The New York Times as the single most interesting, important, and influential composer to arise from Manhattan’s downtown avant-garde since Steve Reich and Philip Glass. “What they [Reich and Glass] were to the 1970s,” wrote Rockwell, “he [Zorn] is to the 1980s.” Zorn continued to compose and record prolifically, and to celebrate his fortieth birthday, in 1993, he played a monthlong series of concerts—each with distinct music—at the Knitting Factory, which by then had become the focal point of downtown music.
Although a Jew by birth, Zorn had not previously been involved with either religious or secular Jewish culture, but in the early 1990s he began exploring Jewish roots in his music—in the context of his own ever-evolving aesthetics. His first composition to address Jewish subject matter was Kristallnacht (1992), a Holocaust-related work inspired by the memory of the orchestrated pogrom throughout the Third Reich on November 9–10, 1938, which, following five years of increasing persecution, became the prelude to Germany’s eventual attempt to annihilate European Jewry altogether. A pastiche of songs and disparate sound elements that has been dubbed a “brutal sound portrait of the Holocaust”—ranging from references to traditional Jewish folk melos to chaotic, discordant, violent, screeching, and even ear-shattering noises—the recording contained a provocative warning on its jacket concerning its high-frequency extremes at the limits of human hearing and beyond: “Prolonged or repeated listening is not advisable, as it may result in temporary or permanent ear damage.”
Also in the 1990s, Zorn, together with Marc Ribot, formulated a new initiative called Radical Jewish Culture, whose stated purpose it is to extract, expose, and illuminate elements that he perceives to be Jewish components of American culture. Not all those subjective perceptions of what may constitute Jewish components, however, are necessarily shared either by mainstream (including reasonably liberal) Jewish cultural or social critics or by Judaically informed artists.
Still, actual Jewish themes have inspired some of Zorn’s most admirable works, some of which integrate aspects of authentic Jewish melos from a variety of sources. Improvisational chamber pieces, such as Bar Kokhba and Issachar, contain echoes of prewar eastern European Jewish life and explore comparisons between jazz and instrumental Jewish folk music. His celebrated ensemble, Masada (one of his several bands), is named after the plateau fortress above the Dead Sea in Israel, where a fanatical group of zealots staged a last holdout against Rome and—according to a legend that has been subjected in recent years to historical reexamination—committed collective suicide (which, at least in the case of the children, must be admitted as homicide) rather than surrender. He has written more than 100 “Masada tunes” for the group. Another ensemble, Bar Kokhba—a sextet named after the Jewish rebel leader who organized an ill-fated revolt against Roman authority in 132 C.E.—was formed in 1996 and continues to flourish.
Zorn’s compositional approach has been described as “kaleidoscopic” because of the way many of his pieces present rapidly changing flashes of unrelated and fleeting sound elements, gestures, and series of musical moments—all in a quick-paced flow of sonic information. The music, which can appear to leap from idea to idea and from idiom to idiom in distilled abstractions, without much in the way of development, can have a hyperkinetic air about it. By the dawn of the new millennium, when his reputation as the “bad boy” of the avant-garde was firmly established, his works had already appeared on more than sixty recordings.
Not all of Zorn’s works are completely improvisatory. His notated compositions have been commissioned and performed by such “uptown” ensembles and artists as the New York Philharmonic, the Kronos Quartet, the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, the WDR Symphonie-orchester Koln (Cologne), and the Bayerischer Staatsoper. His own record label, Tzadik (a Hebrew word signifying a righteous spiritual leader, more often than not in Hassidic contexts), on which his music appears, has also included works of such academically rooted outsiders to the downtown aesthetics as Charles Wuorinen.
How seriously some of Zorn’s rhetoric should be taken, how coarse a grain of kosher salt should be added, or to what degree his purpose is tied to its shock value, is not always apparent. Yet for all the challenges to his theorizing about Jewish music or identity, there is no mistaking his musical talent. “He can with equal justice be called a ‘serious’ musician,” wrote Rockwell, “as serious and as important as anyone in his generation.”