How do you solve a problem like John Zorn? How do you reconcile the disparate works of a composer equally at home in the worlds of (among others) free jazz, avant garde experimentalism, choral, noise rock, easy listening and hardcore, and whose music moves freely, even wilfully, between these worlds at whim? That, i imagine, is the question that many have found themselves asking when confronted (and it often is a confrontation) with Zorn’s music. But, surely, the question ought to be: why are not more composers interested in drawing on such a multiplicity of styles and manners in their work? why are so many content to be so safely consistent? It’s easy, and i say this both as a composer and as a listener—hell, and simply as a human being—to be daunted and intimated by the work of John Zorn. It’s not just the variety that’s impressive, it’s the fecundity: Zorn spills out new works out a rate that’s difficult to keep up with. Personally, i always have suspicions with composers who produce at this kind of rate; “Milhaud syndrome” we could call it, and it isn’t hard to find contemporary examples, where the emphasis in their work is entirely tilted towards activity rather than achievement.
On the one hand, i don’t believe at all that Zorn is someone in whom that syndrome manifests itself; i’m familiar with a lot of his work, and some of it—particularly Femina, Rimbaud, Cerberus and the string quartets Memento Mori and The Dead Man—ranks among my favourite examples of chamber music. On the other hand, there were numerous occasions throughout the entire day devoted to him yesterday at HCMF (in celebration of his 60th birthday) when i found myself once again being challenged at making sense of the apparent incongruities, volte-faces, non sequiturs, leftfield asides and possibly even red herrings that continually rear up. Not so with The Book of Heads, a compendium of 35 etudes for solo guitar, which are so wonderfully unconventional that a regularly strummed chord would have seemed like the most ludicrous gesture imaginable. James Moore—congenial and light-hearted, entirely the right kind of personality to take on these pieces—performed 26 of them, his collection of guitars expanded by an assortment of small balloons, nail files, bowls, a rug, some bottles and a doll, plus a cluster of pedals and devices. All of which was brought to bear on Zorn’s material—comprising minimal specifications, both written and graphic instructions—which is simultaneously highly specific while also allowing the performer a considerable amount of latitude. All relatively short, they nonetheless encapsulate Zorn’s multifaceted soundworld: madcap gestures, allusions, evocations and quotations, fastidious detail, moments of intense introspection, all taking place within a highly collaborative framework.
The piece that began the afternoon concert, Steppenwolf for solo clarinet, shed more light on the nature of Zorn’s music. Zorn is first and foremost a performer, and there are times in his work when the material is more interesting from the perspective of being played than being heard. Steppenwolf is just such a piece, little more than a fairly humdrum study in arpeggiation. This focus on the performer, or more specifically on one performer, recurred in a different way through several of the following pieces. The sense of a hauptstimme seems to be of importance to Zorn; in Occam’s Razor, a work for cello and piano that seamlessly integrates wild hand-smashing into bursts of lyricism, and ensemble works The Tempest and Baudelaire, one was always aware that, at any given moment, one voice predominated; it may be the fastest-moving hauptstimme in all music, passed from instrument to instrument at great speed, but not so fast that it couldn’t be grasped. Walpurgisnacht, a work for string trio inspired by the witchfest held on the eve of May Day, was an embarrassment of riches in this respect, the players clearly revelling in music that is obviously immense fun to play. Baudelaire (a counterpart to Zorn’s 2012 Rimbaud) was conspicuous by its intense complexity; only repeated listenings could even begin to peel apart and make sense of its extremely elaborate material. The Tempest, however, was more direct, romping through a cavalcade of allusive episodes, taking in jazz trios, abstruse duos (with shifting relationships) and a faux-Tudor morsel of pastiche; flautist Claire Chase made a strong impression here, ideally suited to music of such drama.
At the start i spoke of the challenge of reconciliation in John Zorn’s music; this concert—and The Tempest in particular—demonstrated that what unites it all, the common ground in every Zorn composition, is that he is never ever precious with material. It’s stuff to be played with, moulded, mucked about with and discarded when necessary without any fuss. Furthermore, that stuff can be made from nothing or fashioned from memories, offcuts and/or re-creations of extant materials, and treated in exactly the same way, juxtaposed according both to Zorn’s innate impulses and the inherent suggestions of those materials themselves. Such an utterly non-prissy attitude is disarming but very refreshing—and, to return to an earlier point, intimidating. When the Arditti Quartet performed the highly variegated piece The Alchemist in the evening concert, the work’s sheer imaginative range was so overwhelming that it was tempting to dismiss it as a hodgepodge, a kind of scrapbook of elements, but that’s more a consequence of overload than discernment; it’s so very much more than that. Pandora’s Box, receiving its UK première, is not so different. With the addition of a soprano (performed here by the incomparable Sarah Maria Sun, surely one of the most thrilling of all singers involved in contemporary music), the intensity of the singer’s delivery was sometimes all that stopped the work’s crazed conflictions from entirely derailing itself. That and its astute dramatic sense, pulling us in and pushing us away such that we become riveted to the unfolding narrative, its corresponding music lulling us with utter beauty and then ripping it away.
For me, the most perfect marriage of drama, imagination, complexity and directness came in the late evening concert, devoted to three of Zorn’s recent works for female voices. Performed not by an existing choir but a group of individual singers—i desperately want to call them ‘The Zornettes’—who have come together specifically to bring these pieces to life, their facility with such difficult choral writing at times seemed hard to believe. The three works presented—the European première of Madrigals (completed earlier this year), the UK première of Earthspirit and the Holy Visions cycle—share certain mannerisms. Most prominent is a delightfully playful form of broken arpeggios that sound like a cross between the Swingle Singers and 80s UK vocal group The Flying Pickets, notes fired back and forth between the singers, demanding perfection both in terms of intonation and rhythm. Often, Zorn allows this material—which might be dismissed as being of secondary importance, music for accompaniment—to play out for some time, perhaps simply because it’s such fun. But when Zorn lets rip, the singers, as one, erupted in sublime orgasmic coruscations, filling the air with such white-hot intensity that it practically burned the ears with molten shimmer. Holy Visions is a trifle more formal, charting a carefully structured journey through a sequence of Latin verses in homage to Hildegard of Bingen, but even in this somewhat ritualised context, the lightness and sense of carefree abandon heard earlier persisted as an omnipresent undertone, occasionally spilling onto the surface and causing the text to splash out as whispers, speech and assorted gasps and exhalations. i stopped writing about most choral music on 5:4 a long time ago simply because it has become so completely stale in this country. If what we heard in our cathedrals and churches up and down the land sounded even remotely like this, then i might never write about anything else.
The day ended with a new part to the Hermetic Organ project, Zorn himself manning the console of the St Paul’s Hall instrument. Dressed in a hoody, his appearance from behind resembled that of a mad monk, not so much playing the organ as riding it, frantically altering combinations, chord clusters and rates of tremulant, turning deep wind stops into hydraulic battering rams that threatened to tear the hall down to its foundations while a chorus of flutes and tiny bells chirruped its demise. It was an astonishing end to a truly mind-boggling day.