John Zorn in der Elbphilharmonie 2017

»John Zorn always has a very clear vision«

Spotlight on John Zorn and his music: an interview with the Hamburg-based Zorn expert Axel Zielke.

When the programme features John Zorn, pretty much anything is possible: from jazz to metal, from a string quartet to heavy electro sounds. The New York saxophonist and composer is literally unique, and his music cannot be pigeonholed. Moreover, he is not only incredibly versatile, he is also amazingly productive: for years now, he has been releasing almost one album a month, and no two of them are alike.

In an interview, Hamburg Zorn expert Axel Zielke gives insights into the fascinating creative cosmos of this exceptional musician.

Axel Zielke
Axel Zielke © Miriam Holzapfel

A good introduction?

How would you describe John Zorn's music to someone who has never heard of him?

It's impossible to assign John Zorn to a particular style; his music is extremely varied and complex. His oeuvre contains everything: classical music, metal and hardcore, free improvisation, jazz, exotica, rock, atonality, film scores, ambient music and the blues. He has even made a record of Christmas music.

But can the individual albums be allocated to different musical styles?

There are often several totally different styles assembled on one album, or even within a single song. Sometimes the music switches style abruptly and completely unexpectedly, but of course never at the expense of inner coherence. One extreme example is the track »Speedfreaks« from the Naked City record »Torture Garden«. In a kind of jump-cut style the music rushes at breakneck speed through 32 individual musical blocks in less than one minute! Despite the permanent changes, »Speedfreaks« retains a constant pulse that connects all the elements with one another.

»Speedfreaks« – live

What can one listen to as a good introduction to Zorn's music?

There are quite a few good places to start, one very different from the next. I can recommend »Tharsis« by the New Masada Quartet, for instance. Masada is one of Zorn's best-known projects: it originated in the early 90s, and he uses it to explore his Jewish roots. To cite one example: he bases many of the compositions on scales used in Jewish klezmer music. The first Masada songbook was initially played by the Masada Quartet with bass, percussion, trumpet and saxophone. In the course of time, Zorn wrote a second and third songbook and set up Masada formations with very different line-ups.

John Zorn Masada Quartet
John Zorn Masada Quartet © Unbezeichnet

In the New Masada Quartet the trumpet is replaced by a guitar; Kenny Wollesen plays percussion, Julian Lage guitar, Jorge Roeder is on the bass and John Zorn himself plays the saxophone. Thus »Tharsis« also gives us the opportunity to get to know him as a saxophonist.


Another good starting place is »The Divine Comedy« from the first album of the organ trio Simulacrum. The group still exists. Simulacrum with John Medeski (organ), Kenny Grohowski (percussion) and Matt Hollenberg (guitar) is an example of Zorn's projects borrowing from the Heavy Metal, Hardcore and Noise genres. Lasting over twelve minutes, »The Divine Comedy« is a fairly long song featuring substantial variety and a wide variety of parts that range from jazz through rock to brutal Metal.

»The Divine Comedy«

Those who find this too extreme can try their luck with Chaos Magick's »Crossing the Abyss«. The Chaos Magick line-up consists of the Simulacrum Trio plus pianist Brian Marsella. Overall, the album displays a strong Metal influence, but in »Crossing the Abyss« this gives way to a driving kind of funk groove with fiery solos.

»Crossing The Abyss«

An interesting contrast to this can be found in »Easy Time« from the catchy record »Songs for Petra«, which John Zorn wrote for the New York singer Petra Haden. The texts are from the pen of Jesse Harris, who also works with Norah Jones.

»Easy Time«

Scope for the interpreters

How much leeway does Zorn leave the interpreter, and how does he organise this?

There is no general answer to this question: the scope for improvisation varies heavily, depending on the music. Sometimes Zorn writes everything down exactly, but in projects like the game piece »Cobra« he gives the musicians complete freedom. Here, as in a normal game, there is a set of rules containing instructions on the line-up of the players or on the volume. But the musicians themselves decide what they are going to play on the spur of the moment. The timing of the »moves in the game« is likewise up to them.

What role does John Zorn the composer play?

For all the leeway he leaves for improvisation, John Zorn always has a very clear picture of his projects. The scope that he gives his musicians is the result of careful consideration, and is clearly outlined. Thus we sometimes see him acting as a kind of conductor who influences things with signals from outside, and determines when it's a soloist's turn, and when the solo is over.

John Zorn in Hamburg

Zorn is coming to Hamburg with various formations. Which one shouldn't we miss on any account?

You shouldn't miss the gig of the original Masada Quartet from the early 90s! Who knows when this formation will be appearing in Hamburg again, or if there will be another chance at all? Masada is an essential Zorn project, and the quartet's ensemble playing is fantastic. This music is bursting with ideas, and you cannot escape from its energy and intensity.

John Zorn Masada Quartet
John Zorn Masada Quartet © Unbezeichnet

Basically, all events are highly exciting, you can perhaps make the choice dependent on your own taste in music. If you are into human voices, you have to mark Barbara Hannigan's performance in your calendar.

»John Zorn shows, that in music everything is allowed.«

What fascinates you so about John Zorn that you even chose him as the subject of your dissertation?

I first came across Zorn in 1990 when I was 15. In those days there was no such thing as the Internet, so you often had to take a chance in order to discover new music. I read about the LP »Torture Garden« by the band Naked City in a mail order catalogue, where the short text said that the album featured experienced jazz musicians playing grindcore and every other style imaginable in micro-compositions.

This description plus the name of the band and the album were enough to make me order the record. The postman delivered it a few days later, and it changed the way I listen to music, and indeed my life! I already had a broad taste in music at this time, listening to hip hop, jazz, soul, punk and metal. Up to then, I saw these all as separate genres. Naked City tore down lots of my mental barriers, and the record showed me that all genres are of equal value, and that music can do whatever it likes.


Interview: Tom R. Schulz and Julika von Werder (18 February 2022)

English translation: Clive Williams

Reflektor John Zorn :Konzerte im Überblick

Mediatheque : More stories

György Kurtág: Every note in the right place

Late fame through polished and radically reduced music: About the composer György Kurtág.

Tube Talks

A ride on Europe’s longest escalator takes two and a half minutes – more than enough time to ask a few soul-searching questions.

Concert Stream: Les Siècles / François-Xavier Roth

Available from 27.9.: François-Xavier Roth and his orchestra Les Siècles combine Mozart’s Salzburg sounds with Ligeti, whose 100th birthday we mark this year. The star guest is Alexander Melnikov.