Playing Games With John Zorn
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Amajor player in New York’s downtown music scene, John Zorn is a man of many musical interests. He runs a record company (Tzadik), leads a band (Masada), plays the saxophone, and — most importantly — creates experimental music. Last week he was one of 25 to win a $500,000 “genius award” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. And Sunday night in the Paul B. Lewis Theater of the Guggenheim Museum, he led an ensemble of 13 instrumentalists in an evening of his “Cobra” music, part of the museum’s “Works and Process” series, cosponsored by Columbia University’s Miller Theater. The evening was called “In re Jackson” and was presented in connection with the museum’s exhibit “No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper.”
To say that Mr. Zorn led the ensemble doesn’t actually mean he conducted it, since Cobra is essentially a system for structuring improvised music. Rather, the function of the prompter (as he is called rather than “conductor”) is to communicate instructions to the musicians by displaying cue cards or pointing to a musician when it is his or her turn to play; to some extent, the prompter also controls degrees of loudness and softness.
As an indication that Cobra is a force to reckon with, the evening’s pianist was the distinguished composer Charles Wuorinen. In addition to piano, the ensemble consisted of two trombones, electric organ, two electric guitars, violin, cello, bass, and three percussionists.
Cobra is one of Mr. Zorn’s “musical games,” and it’s quite apparent that fun is a key element. Generally, new cue cards succeeded old ones quickly, often at intervals of less then 10 seconds. The music is thus in constant flux and no particular material is allowed to overstay its welcome. Cobra’s structuring principles virtually insulate the audience from boredom.
Moreover, Mr. Zorn’s work is characterized by the same kind of anything-goes exhilaration that characterizes jazz improvisations, but with the crucial distinction that no pre-existing music underlies what the musicians conceive. In a brief interview with Miller Theater executive director, George Steel, midway through the concert, Mr. Zorn explained some of the cue cards. One instructs the group performing at a given time to remain the same and the music to change; another specifies the reverse — new players play the same music (or, presumably, something close). At a reception after the concert, Mr. Zorn said the word Cobra was chosen because it has a variety of associations, including the name of a war game involving strategizing.
Mr. Zorn has compared his musical world to a prism. “It doesn’t matter if it’s jazz, blues, or classical,” he says, “they’re all the same.” So when everybody plays together, does it sound like an orchestra tuning up? Not really, perhaps because the musicians find ways of following each others’ leads.Though at times chaotic, the brilliant clash of resulting sounds seem to bring the music close to the aesthetic realm of Pollock, whose paintings possess a similar boldness in projecting apparent disorder. One striking device found the musicians playing rapid single notes that seemed to ricochet from one instrument to another.
For the most part, the players avoided anything overtly melodic, and there seemed to be an unwritten rule against quoting other music, which Mr. Wuorinen broke when he played a few bars from the opening of “Tristan und Isolde.” (During the interview, Mr. Zorn turned to Mr. Wuorinen and asked him where that came from, to which Mr. Wuorinen replied, “Wagner.”)
The concert included five Cobra pieces, each lasting a little under 10 minutes. Instead of an all-Cobra program, a varied evening casting light on other facets of Mr. Zorn’s prismatic world might have been desirable, for well before the last piece ended, a certain resemblance set in, and the music became the exact opposite of what it should be: somewhat predictable.