There was a time when John Zorn was a kind of pop star of avant-garde music. These were the bleak years towards the end of the 20th century, when jazz was busy shadow-boxing over the one way to foster the tradition, and there was little going on as far as new compositions were concerned. The saxophonist with the wire-framed glasses and the camouflage pants didn’t care about the genre’s table manners, and simply did what he wanted. High-brow and low-brow, light music and serious, old and new, composed or improvised – music from all over the world, European, American or Asian – sometimes worked out down to the smallest detail, and sometimes leaving things up to chance: boundaries were irrelevant.
»John Zorn juggles with his different roles – no other artist has had such a strong influence on the last 40 years of music history covering so many styles.«
Reflektor John Zorn
From 17 to 20 March 2022, John Zorn will design the Elbphilharmonie programme with around thirty musician friends – from string quartets to all-star bands.
A New York prototype
Born in New York in 1953, Zorn acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, taking his inspiration from comics, the cinema, art, literature and science, and very much from the noisy and colourful everyday life of an archetypal New Yorker. One time he made his horn scream and then smothered it with his knee; another time he sat down at a table with his »duck calls«, a selection of whistles used by huntsmen, and played solo concertos on them. On yet another occasion, he came up with improvised musical party games where he was in charge of the game and used his directions to introduce the principle of improvisation to large ensembles. He wrote velvety pop songs, then one band project later he made the ideal world of schmaltz collapse in the stylistic collages of his all-star band Naked City; he triggered the emergence of a »radical new Jewish culture«, which likewise knew no restrictions where style was concerned. John Zorn juggles with his different roles – no other artist has had such a strong influence on the last 40 years of music history covering so many styles.
»At the outset, Zorn made his mark first and foremost as an improviser on various instruments, but his focus has long since shifted towards the solitary activity of composing.«
Over the course of time, the emphasis in Zorn’s work underwent marked change: at the outset, he made his mark first and foremost as an improviser on various instruments, but his focus has long since shifted towards the solitary activity of composing. Though this reorientation has by no means reduced the range of his work: a fully-notated piece for classical string quartet today can be followed tomorrow by a grim hardcore storm in feedback black, and the day after that a collage in garish colours that works through dozen of stylistic positions in the space of 30 seconds. Rock, jazz, country – anything is possible.
Zorn is aware that music of such stylistic diversity runs the risk of being misunderstood as a superficial exercise: in an attempt to rebut such criticism, he says that »every piece has its own inner logic, with the beginning containing the DNA for the rest of the piece. Every note has a meaning and is where it is for a good reason«. Zorn’s aim is to question musical conventions at a fundamental level and to put them out of action if he sees fit, and his standards are high. »That comes with a knowledge of history. You have to do your homework, you have to know if something already happened before or not.«
His most important ingredient: intuition
John Zorn places the utmost demands on himself and his compositions, on the musicians he works with, on the production conditions – and last but not least on his audience and music critics alike. To live up to these demands, extreme concentration is required. »I write intuitively, straight on to the paper,« he explains. »I don’t make any plans, and when the composition is going really well, then I’m not even present. Those are magic moments for me, moments when I come into contact with the creative energy that has surrounded us for thousands of years now. Then the music just writes itself.«
»He has been living in the same apartment for 40 years now, writing at the same table in the same room, which he keeps completely dark except for a small desk lamp.«
In order to bring about these moments, as intuitively and wholeheartedly as possible, in order to evolve his ideas free of interference and to avoid getting lost in the boundless freedom of available material, Zorn sets great store by an environment where there is nothing to distract him. »Sometimes it’s my family, sometimes it’s something to eat, or love, or the media, sometimes it’s simply daylight – there are so many sources of distraction in the world, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.« Distractions: panem et circenses, stick-&-carrot, light and love, Zorn sees these as techniques aimed at controlling people and preventing them from »concentrating on what they could contribute to help make the world a better place«. He has been living in the same apartment for 40 years now, writing at the same table in the same room, which he keeps completely dark except for a small desk lamp.
Zorn’s field is music »in its most abstract state«, instrumental and thus »absolutely pure«. He declares with emphasis that he has dedicated his life to instrumental music. Words, on the other hand, he sees as an obstacle to the free flow of his intuition that have the ability to lower composing to the level of painting by numbers. »My problem with language,« he says, »is that it often degrades what it sets out to describe. I became a composer because words are not enough for me. Words don’t explain anything, and they often make everything more complicated.« This is a significant contrast in his opinion to music and the extreme feelings it can trigger: cathartic, mind-altering cleansing processes. Thus composing becomes a journey into the unknown, a journey where mysterious things can happen. In this way, Zorn’s working method can be viewed as a dialectic relationship between pairs of opposites: intuition and analysis, chance and planning, relevance to the present and history.
Composing as a chemical reaction
The special flow experiences that occur as if by chance like sudden logical solutions – these are what Zorn is aiming at during the composition process. But it’s not easy to follow the images that Zorn uses to describe this process. One of them is alchemy: »You can call it a metaphor; after all, I’m not trying to turn lead into gold. But still, this is real for me. It’s like a kind of chemical reaction. You combine two elements, and they produce a third one.« However, Zorn is also interested in transformations of the soul. In using the power of meditation to arrive at a state of purity that attracts the angels and with them the melodies and creative energy to arrange them into music. »I can summon the angels,« he explains, »when I need them.«
Music as a form of human communication
What counts for him in the end are the people that he communicates with via his music. One sentence John Zorn often repeats is: »Music is about people.« Aloof as he may sometimes seem, it is for people that he writes music. People fill the gaps in a composition, they give the music its actual sound. »One of the great things about life as a composer,« Zorn says, »is that in the creative process you are dealing with people, unlike many visual artists or writers.«
For Zorn this has far-reaching consequences. On the one hand, the audience itself can be a dangerous distraction, but on the other this sentence shows the transformation of the fleeting medium of music into a fixed star which organises its communication with others by composing for them, playing with them and listening to them. Music is the core from which Zorn creates respect, lasting cooperation and friendship. He has been working together with some musicians like the trumpeter Dave Douglas, guitarists Marc Ribot and Bill Frisell, percussionist Joey Baron or Drew Gress and Trevor Dunn, both of them bass players, for decades now. Others, such as the guitarists Mary Halvorson, Julian Lage and Gyan Riley, only became part of the Zorn cosmos later on, but the respect and recognition that they show him is his greatest reward. In rings around this core emerges a community of kindred souls. »We exist in a small parallel universe, and I try to produce music that reflects this situation back to the other world and possibly motivates one or two people to think about life.«
»I have a community here, we get together and share things, we work with one another. I listen to young musicians who are doing terrific work; they inspire me, we get to be friends, and I write something for them to play. That’s how music history works.«
With his compositions and his curating work, with the Manhattan music club The Stone and his record label Tzadik, Zorn has also created places where music is very much alive, even when he is not present in person. »I just try to stay in touch with all these things. I try to do what’s right. To help my friends where I can. To give others the opportunity to develop. To make contact with the community around me, and to stay away from distractions and negative people. – And the result is a place where creativity rules.«
He sees himself in the best company here: »The centre of Bach’s community was his church. This was where the musicians were that he wrote for, this was where people came to hear what he had written. I see no great difference to what I am doing today. I have a community here, with lots of musicians who come to the city because it’s an exciting place. We get together and share things, we work with one another. I listen to young musicians who are doing terrific work; they inspire me, we get to be friends, and I write something for them to play. That’s how music history works.«
Text: Stefan Hentz, last updated: 2 Feb 2022