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John Zorn: Composer Portraits

A high-energy, thrilling evening of immersion in the complex, demanding and wired music of one of America's most prolific composers.

John Zorn

John Zorn

Jean Ballard Terepka

Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic

In the first concert of the 2016-2017 Composer Portraits season at Columbia University School of the Arts’ Miller Theatre, current music of American composer John Zorn (b. 1953), including five premieres, was presented and enthusiastically received. More accurately: Zorn’s music-making – his understanding of individual composing and collegial collaborating as interconnected projects – was exuberantly celebrated.

Over the course of the evening, seven pieces of music by Zorn, the oldest of which was composed only three years ago, were played by some 25 musicians in various combinations – the Talea Ensemble, the American Brass Quintet, JACK Quartet, individuals – organized into chamber music groups of three to five musicians, with one soloist. Zorn has long histories with some of these musicians; in the program notes, for instance, he described the American Brass Quintet as “some of the sweetest cats on the planet.” In his compositions, Zorn writes equally for individual musicians, for particular instruments in particular combinations, and for the willingness of all involved to stretch technical virtuosity into exhilarating creativity.

Because all the works on the program were so recent, they were all similar in high-energy, high-voltage sensibility: they were all entrances into one man’s artistic vision of the world around him at this one time of his life. But the virtual simultaneity of production of all these pieces didn’t make for homogeneity of sound. Energy, extremes, edge, enervation and ephemerality – all long-time Zorn preoccupations – were familiarly present, but new subjects for each of the premieres (as well as for Il n’y a plus de firmament (2014) and Cagliostro (2016)) provided Zorn with new material.

The program opened with Freud, a work composed for Christopher Otto/violin, Jay Campbell/cello and Michael Nicolas/cello, “three of the most trusted players in my inner circle, true warrior poets.” The intense ten-minute work resulted from Zorn’s immersion in the writings of Sigmund Freud. The work is an examination not just of “dreams, memory and the subconscious” but of the psyche’s migrations between, around, into and out of these states; it’s a piece about internal movements and the inability to stay still. It’s about the attempt to find a fixed location in the midst of geographies that can’t settle and have no fixed borders. The three players, pushing themselves and their instruments from high-density frenzy to lyricism, represented not three voices or three beings, but constantly changing facets of self, separating and then coming back together.

Diableries, as its name suggests, was a piece about devils’ dares. Suggested by the Book of Revelation’s Beast 616, the work is a tour de force of cello wildness with bass and drum in rough embrace. The music is exceptionally visual: it’s like Sufi dervishes gone into hard-tripping frenzy, and then suddenly stopped. The audience applause was giddy.

Blue Strategem was, according to Zorn, inspired by Agnes Martin’s “mystical approach” to paint and painting, color, shape and line. The complex, demanding writing for brass quintet moves from one series of shades, echoes, overlaps, plays and replays to another similar round of iterations and reiterations, like extended communication attempts: “Yes, but … No, wait … What?” The instruments engage in constant calling, as though across time and space, always slightly off kilter. The sound is so densely knotty that it takes on its own alluring semblance of harmony, and the brass instruments become unexpectedly organic.

John Zorn (Photo credit: Scott Irvine)

John Zorn (Photo credit: Scott Irvine)

Candlemas Eve – “quirky, spooky and expressive,” in Zorn’s own description – was, in some senses, the most accessible work of the evening, the vibraphone providing familiar allusions of Celtic moodiness or Shakespeare’s mischievous, sensuous fairies translated from the Globe to our twenty-first century world via Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle and Mme. Nijinska. Written for flutes and vibraphone, the music explores gender, power, magic, dance and ritual; it is alternately sweet, seductive, unnerving and gorgeous.

Candlemas Eve‘s cinematic feel provided a smooth transition to the evening’s last piece, Obscure Objects of Desire, Zorn’s tribute to Luis Bunuel and to Bunuel’s “surreal world of sexual and religious perversity.” Pianist Stephen Gosling and the JACK Quartet turned this music’s intensity into lushness, its gnarly nuances into sensuous, sinewy twists. As a Bunuel homage, the piece successfully evoked unsettling otherness and eroticism, retaining Zorn’s intense preoccupations with experiences at the ragged edges of things, but dropped off Bunuel’s European accent, replacing it with his own robustly American all-purpose declarative tone.

The musicians Zorn works with can do just about anything: they are wildly skilled players who revel in risks. The brass players and string players, flute players, pianist, vibraphonists and percussionist all stretched themselves and their instruments to their full limits: musical sound extended from gut-deep bass rumbles to ear-killingly high screech-screams, and rhythms from multilayered staccato barrages to caressingly extended, long breath single notes. Zorn’s energy is unremitting; his music-making is unstoppable. Collaboration and inspiration are each other’s oxygen; consistent integrity of purpose and invigoratingly catholic artistic curiosity ensure that the urgency of Zorn’s music is both sincere and without cliché.

At the end of the evening, Zorn came on stage; in a dark t-shirt and improbably perky orange camouflage pants, he was half congenially patriarchal and half gleefully subversive dark-magic priest.  All the musicians came on stage, too, lining up for scraggly bows, greeting each other, beaming, sneaking in the occasional embrace, and then joining in with the audience’s raucous applause.

For Zorn, whose musical output is apparently close to continuous, this was a wonderful evening of successful sharing; for the audience, it was an exhilarating evening of receiving. And for the Miller Theatre, it was a marvelous beginning to the 2016-2017 Composer Portrait Season.

John Zorn: Composer Portraits (October 20, 2016)

Miller Theatre at Columbia University School of the Arts

2960 Broadway at 116th Street, in Manhattan

For information: call 212-854-7799 or visit http://www.millertheatre.com

Running time: one hour and 15 minutes without an intermission

Jean Ballard Terepka
About Jean Ballard Terepka (87 Articles)
Jean Ballard Terepka, a native and life-long New Yorker, has been writing about choral and classical music for fifteen years. In addition to her continuing career as an independent educational consultant, Terepka also works as an archivist and historian with specialties in American cultural, intellectual and religious history. Most recently she has lectured on the history of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of New York and on the African-American experience within the Episcopal Church at conferences of the New York State Historical Association and the National Association of Episcopal Historians and Archivists. Terepka is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.

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