An irregular of downtown music:
John Zorn and the instability of mutability

If Mozart were alive today, believe me, he’d be incorporating all those instruments [electric guitar, drum set, electric organ, saxophone, turntable] and writing for them. And he would also be listening to all this different music that is around. It’s not an unusual thing for a creative person to be interested in creativity.

John Zorn

Roland Barthes believed that Être d’avant-garde, c’est savoir ce qui est mort; être d’arrière-garde, c’est l’aimer encore. This was true for John Zorn, a figure who is as multifaceted as he is restless and indifferent towards the categorizations of others (Conan Doyle surely would have made him an Irregular of Baker Street) and still is true: he finds himself existing on both ends of the spectrum Barthes mentions. However, Zorn’s journey is not between tradition and transgression but rather occupies multiple different and opposing contexts at once, in which he negotiates for a space for something new. This curious and vibrating ubiquity is perhaps the result of the completely Jewish desire and ability to constantly present oneself beyond any set custom, habit or tradition. Zorn, in fact, is not an irreverent “spoiled child” but an iconoclast at the height of maturity. This ubiquity is also conceivably the most fascinating aspect of the work of a self-taught omnivore who has grown and matured without any rules but his own, one who is used to catching off guard whoever makes the mistake of expecting an element of comforting predictability from him.



By the will of chance, Zorn has lived since childhood in an environment in which common hierarchies have been subverted or confused – not unusual in a multi-ethnic society where one family could celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, have a mezuzah and attend church. It’s no coincidence that Zorn, who is not an observant Jew, often wears tzitzit (ritual fringes), not for religious purposes but “as a spiritual fact,” a way to cling to certainty of one’s intimate identity, but – once again! – outside of customary rules. Zorn was used to listening to different types of music in his family. He was an impatient and inconsistent student, and he knew how to and wanted to build his own language, almost self-taught, through a process that Mário and Oswald de Andrade wouldn’t have found difficult to include in their theories on “cultural cannibalism.” Zorn has built his own rigour and discipline on a voracious and continuous sense of curiosity and the intense act of listening to an endless number of musical materials from all over the world, creating layers upon layers of diverse knowledge. Although they are seemingly unrelated, he manages to put them in a dialogue with each other, unearthing linguistic referents and hidden references, unexpected allusions and coincidences and lost correlations. The resulting linguistic unpredictability might seem chaotic to most, or worse, eclectic, or even worse still, an extreme branch of postmodernism, which adequately represents the discomfort of many who feel deprived of the most comfortable but crystalised customs.



Zorn uses the knowledge of tradition he possesses to perform a “relexicalization” of it, rather than out of a desire to be transgressive for the sake of it. The reasoning he follows in certain works, and which seems clear only to him, has its own logic that he uses to draw a path like the tracks of a roller-coaster that forces the listener to reveal the fragility of their own certainties. You would be wrong, however, to think that listening to his work, in its many facets (as evidenced by a sizeable production of records), is always and no matter what a challenge or a cruel game. In an apparent reconstruction of the tower of Babel in which it is precisely this significant diversity that is the unifying factor, moments of exquisite lyricism and prolonged passages of entrancing melodicism emerge. They are ineffable oases that act as a bond between repeated materials that maintain a fragile balance as they come up again and again. In repeating themselves, albeit with different appearances, they create a line, an associative “thin red line” that provides unity and logic. In fact, the author uses as an example the structuring of pitches in a piece like Edgard Varèse’s Octandre or the use of intervals done by Elliott Carter or the manipulation he made to a large part of the material from Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans Maître in a page like Elegy: Actually I wouldn’t identify phrases, I would extrapolate them to use them as citations. I used the score as Schoenberg would have used a series or twelve-tone system. I used it as a starting point. Sometimes I inverted the sequences of pitches; sometimes I used the viola pitches but gave them to the flute; sometimes I took the rhythm of one instrument and the pitches of another and put them together. (…) I would highlight some areas I liked and would reuse them in a myriad of ways. I have never been interested in taking a whole bar. I would say that it’s the raw ingredients I wish to use: this scale, this set, this type of multiphonic, etc. And it’s all so incredibly organic that it leaves me dumbfounded (quote from Ann McCutchan, The Muse That Sings: Composers Speak About the Creative Process, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999).



Many post-modern artists ignore or deliberately disregard the rules and rely on labels, on categories that one is then forced to check in order to figure out what realm a work should be included in: pastiche, intertextuality, inter-referentiality, fragmentation, parody, pastiche, lack of depth, fragmentation, fragmentation of the subject, and so on. Following a superficial analysis, Zorn’s work would seem to reject common norms between author and listener, replacing it with an infinite plurality of languages. More significantly, it would seem to have no stylistic or individual style too strong that it can’t be subverted, homage and appropriated or lowered by others. There is thus only an impersonal language made up of a thousand appearances and citation games that would make it impossible to distinguish between original and copy. In fact, the New York-born composer and instrumentalist drew a strict set of norms, rules and codes from his voracity for knowledge that could hold up the practical structure of his thought: far from inclining toward the irrational and cynical taste of the game of appropriation, his work (from the melodic “re-Middle-Easternization” of Yiddish musical tradition to an interest in mysticism and magic, from the lyricism of a recent Lied production to the evocation of post-bop and post-Colemanian jazz improvisation, from thrash-jazz to expressive noise, from homages to the Jewish protagonists of twentieth-century popular music culture to the post-Cagean fantasy, from the cruel and “bataillesque” Japanese eroticism to an interest in the most extreme languages of today’s improvisational and popular experimentation to the curious “conservatism” of academic works inspired by the teaching of Wuorinen, Boulez, Stravinsky, Carter, Xenakis, Schoenberg and Berg) fully reflects the restlessness he has towards the artist’s increasingly impossible ability to contain the totality of the ecumene in one work. He therefore compartmentalises it, devoting linguistic specificity to each examined aspect (shared with a small number of performers chosen by common feeling and by the fact that they make music together. What might appear trivial in the hands of some, becomes innovative in those of others). This specificity comes from his ability to combine a wealth of traditions and languages. Few contemporary artists know how to express so fully and diversely the desire for a balanced and integrated diversity that is expressed by the thousand-year-old Jewish diasporic experience.



Barbara Hannigan is another performer to whom Zorn has dedicated the particularity of some pieces that the artist literally “experienced” alongside the author. So much so that it may be difficult to “separate” her from them, and it will be even more difficult for other performers to erase certain memories from their mind. Jumalattaret, for example, dates back to 2012, but it was a meeting between Zorn and Hannigan that brought it to life musically. The text was inspired by the epic Finnish poem, Kalevala, composed by Elias Lönnrot in the mid-nineteenth century based on poems and folk songs from Finland (mostly in Karelian, a dialect closely related to Finnish). Lönnrot reconstructed the historical memory of the Finnish people through the songs of their traditional poetry, bringing together their early cosmogony and heroic/mythological cycle in one work. In the case of Jumalattaret the text is, in fact, a pre-text, a praetextum, something ornamental and insubstantial, because the nine sections, preceded by an invocation and followed by a postlude, that Zorn chooses, each dedicated to a female deity of the Sami people, are not sung but rather murmured in what takes the form of an ecstatic ritual expressed by the wordless vocalisation that is difficult to achieve. Although the opening invocation seems to presage an effusive melodic lyricism, it soon vanishes to make way for furious, shamanic vocal acrobatics made even more difficult by an off-sync piano part that does not stress notes at the beginning of each bar with the singing part. This “anti-accompaniment” continues throughout the piece, sprinkling it with intricate, angular polyrhythmic figurations. The piece is imbued with a hypnotic and symbolic secular sacredness, a tribute to an indomitable feminine energy which also shines through in the physicality and gestures the performer is driven to. Jumalattaret asks the voice to chirp, sigh, murmur, laugh as if possessed, make daring  jumps in range, bring out natural harmonics like in overtone singing, cope with rhythmic sequences of extreme complexity, make herself a percussive instrument (the singer is even expected to play percussion and clap her hands), handle extensive lines in one breath (at the beginning there is a phrase in which five bars of quavers are followed by a sustained note for an entire bar) and a deadly cadenza in which the intonation takes risks at every step. Nevertheless, the variety that the composer manages to achieve from a multiplicity of techniques from different languages (jazz, folk, the most extreme form of rock) is fluid and enchanting, in its directness of poignant beauty, in the sudden arcane melodies that alternate with exaltation that is sometimes chthonic, others Dionysian.



It is fitting that a pianist of such considerable technical and expressive gifts as Stephen Gosling should be allowed to exhibit not only his skills but also the unquestionable affinity for Zorn’s aesthetic (who studied piano and organ before he was a saxophonist), though the program does not balance this with a moment’s pause. The five short pieces collected under the title Encomia (“Speculum,” “Penumbra,” “Stretta”, “Occupation,” “Arborescence”) are short in duration but demand no small effort of virtuosity from the performer in meticulously exploring every possible external and internal phonic resource of the instrument. Once again, bursts of tense energy alternate with lunar flashes and moments of intimate, collected timbral and melodic beauty.



For Barbara Hannigan, the composer also recently (2021) wrote (2021) a work of delicate transparency yet animated by a tangible inner tension: Split the Lark, a collection of seemingly and deceptively fragile songs, is based on poems by Emily Dickinson and fragments of loose notes and annotations found after her death. Zorn is a composer who is very attentive to the timbral dimensions and contextual expressive power of “mood.” He captures with precision the visionary restlessness that lurks in gentle but significantly irregular writing, steeped in metaphysical elements and immersed in the concepts of American Transcendentalism, often punctuated by the rhythm of breathing: the voice transforms into sound what the text inspires in the author. Few words are spoken in these hummable lieder, which seem to proceed on thin ice and hold secrets that could burst violently at any moment. Despite the ineffable delicacy of the structure, there is not a single moment in which that dark sense of nocturnal alertness and imbalance could manifest. This is characteristic of Zorn’s work, which finds in Dickinson’s verses an admirable raison d’être: the desire to always brave the wilderness and not lose focus or awareness of impermanence, the need to not stop or settle and the uncontrollable urge to go “beyond” the momentary and prosaic illusion of fulfilment.

Gianni Morelenbaum Gualberto