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HCMF 2013: John Zorn day

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF | 1 Comment

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. Read more

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