By Dale W. Eisinger
John Zorn is a complicated figure in the history of the American avant-garde. His performances are at times alienating, and on the whole dense. In the '70s, when he moved to New York and began making a name for himself as a saxophonist, composer, and founder of the performance art project Theatre of Musical Optics, he rejected much of the "cool" culture of his time. He flouted conventions of composition, performance, pedagogy, and promotion in order to retain total control over his work, and remains a linchpin of the sort of New York counter culture that is at once exclusionary and influential.
Zorn didn't dislike "scenes," per se, as he ran with very specific types of composers and performers-- Milford Graves, Bill Frisell, Arto Lindsay, Laurie Anderson-- in the Downtown Music movement of the '70s. Zorn was also instrumental in the rise of avant concert spaces in the city with his work at venues like Tonic and the original Knitting Factory. His performances, curation, and administrative work helped to sustain some of those first inklings of New York DIY. Currently, he's artistic director at Alphabet City's The Stone, a performance space he founded in 2005. His label, Tzadik, has released records from Merzbow, Mike Patton, Kayo Dot, and hundreds of other out and left-field artists since '95. Despite his underground ethos, his establishment accreditations are too many to list, and he's credited on more than 400 records as producer or performer.
But attempting to summarize or label the career of the avant-garde composer and multi-instrumentalist contradicts the spirit of his art. Zorn's been reluctant to deal with press over the years, saying we've done him no favors and caused him nothing but troubles. He's gone as far as asking journalists not to review his shows. As I told Zorn before this email interview, it was not our intent to paint him in false light, exploit his likeness, or make any assumptions of his work. I wanted to introduce him to a new set of listeners who may be unfamiliar with his unflinching autonomy and radical aesthetic sense. Zorn possesses a beautiful mind, one capable of elucidating his unique musical language for a younger generation of likeminded artists.
In what is intended to illuminate "the most important musical voices of our time," Zorn will appear at Columbia University's Miller Theater on Friday, December 9th as part of the space's Composer Portrait series. In addition to larger ensemble pieces, there will be four world premieres and one New York premiere of some newer compositions by Zorn, each technically demanding and written with a specific performer in mind: cellist Fred Sherry, violinist Jennifer Koh, pianist Steve Gosling, the Talea Ensemble, and conductor Brad Lubman. Afterwards, Zorn will play late-night organ improvisations at St. Paul's Chapel.
AZ: In the past, you’ve mentioned a link between the performers of your compositions and the issue of trust. How has that trust been established with those premiering the five new works at the Miller Theater?
John: I have moved very slowly in creating a firm foundation on which to build, a community that believes in my work, and now find myself in a very fortunate position. I can take my inspiration and follow it from initial conceptualizing to writing, rehearsing, performing, recording, mixing, mastering, designing the artwork, manufacturing, releasing, and distributing a given project, and every single step of the way involves a tight team of personal friends who have worked together with me for 10, 20, 30 years and sincerely believe. They are personally involved and derive great satisfaction in being involved. This is crucial.
My entire creative process is based on trust and on community. Trust in myself, trust in my community, and their trust in me. The pieces that you will see at the Miller concert were written specifically for the musicians performing. Some of them I have worked with for 20 years, some for only a year-- but we all share a common vision and a mutual respect. I do not want people playing my work if they don't believe in it, and I have spent a lifetime bringing people together. I am constantly pushing the boundaries of what these players can do, and they inspire me to go further in the writing. These are not cats who are phoning it in-- the last thing I want is people on stage who would rather be somewhere else. Trust, love, and honesty go together and that's what music is all about.
Each piece on the program and each ensemble has a long personal story to it-- it's more than I can go into here, but I think what you will hear in the performances will tell the story better than any words can.
AZ: The term "portrait" in relation to the diversity of your performance history implies something incredibly vast. How does the debut of five new compositions paint a significant representation of your work?
John: This concert features new work written largely in the past year, with a focus on my classical concert music. For a more comprehensive representation of my work, you will have to wait until 2013 when I will be presenting a series of retrospectives for my 60th birthday. These will cover a much wider range of my output, and should be more comprehensive.
For the past several years I have become more and more interested in presenting a fuller range of my work in concert. Beginning with several bands on one stage, and moving towards the Masada Marathon, which featured no less that 12 bands in a single night. The music ranged from classical to jazz, to rock, to world music, and was held together by the common language of the Masada compositions.
My next plan is to organize "shuffle" concerts, which would also present a dozen bands on stage, but the range of the musical material would be even wider-- kind of like the compilations we all used to make, or the listening experience of the iPod shuffle. Of course this would be quite a challenge to both the listener, who would need a very open mind, and the promoter, who would need a very large budget. You may see the first of these in 2013.
AZ: You've penned thousands of tunes, scores, songs, compositions, and sound experiments. As Art Director at The Stone, you've brought countless ensembles to the stage. How are the roles of composer and curator related?
John: My choices as artistic director at The Stone is not to curate per se, but to choose the curators, and I approach the job with the same compositional head that I use in everything I do, from my writing to my improvising and even my cooking! Imagination, curiosity and openness. What I look for in the various curators is the ability to galvanize a scene, and present not only one's own work to the public but the work of an entire community.
AZ: What do The Stone and previous performance spaces you’ve worked with, such as Tonic and The Knitting Factory have in common? What from the former venues plays into your direction at The Stone? What are you trying to avoid?
John: Experiences at other venues have largely shown me what not to do. The Stone is a unique space and is different from Tonic, the Knitting Factory, and most of the other venues we have played at as there is no bar, and therefore no commercial concerns AT ALL. This is not a club. It is an artist-run performance space that gives 100% of the door money to the artist and because of this does not depend on ticket or drink sales to stay afloat. Our expenses are paid largely by the monthly benefit concerts, so there is NO pressure to pack the house with an audience that drinks, and what night you perform has nothing to do with your power to draw a crowd or what kind of music you might play.
Curators do the booking independently, without my input, and make their decisions without outside influences. Nobody sends demos, nor pressures them for a gig. Who performs is totally left up to the curator who remains anonymous until the schedule is complete and up on line. What the individual artists do at their concerts is totally up to them and is not finessed or influenced by commercial concerns of how many people may come to see it.
AZ: Of all the types of sounds you’ve generated in your ensembles, one common thread has been improvisation. Why does spontaneous free expression play such a prominent role in your music?
John: Your term "spontaneous free expression" is a bit misleading. We could break each word down one by one: spontaneous-- free-- expression and have a long philosophical dialogue, but I would prefer to leave that in the hands of academics who seem to be embracing improvisation as some new kind of pedagogy-- if embracing is the right word. But it is true that improvisation has played a large role in much of my work. My very first musical experiences as an 8-year-old were improvisational and it has continued to engage me ever since. There is a special energy, a feeling to something when it happens for the first time (or for the only time)-- a feeling of freshness and surprise, an edge that feels quite different from completely notated music. It's not better or worse, but it does feel different. I like to use both, and have moved back and forth finding connections and new ways of combining them, capturing, instigating, inspiring, incorporating those moments into larger compositional contexts for the past 40 years.
At Miller you will hear it in the brass trio Cerberus, which is one of my file card pieces, and was created in the studio with three very special instrumentalists-- Peter Evans, Dave Taylor and Marcus Rojas--, all of whom I have known for 10, 20, 30 years. Here it takes the form of various shapes, textures informed by very personal extended techniques which are essentially un-notatable. To harness these sounds into a compositional context we work carefully in the studio honing and finessing them through verbal instruction to create the moment of music needed. Once it feels right, it is then recorded and put in place to fit the overall arc of the composition. These kind of sounds are easier described and captured using an oral tradition rather than simple notation (often I use a shorthand to give the direction of the sound to myself and then work with the player in-depth to get it where it needs to be). This of course leads us back to the issue of trust. This is not something you can do with just anyone-- you need to know the player, what their capabilities are, their techniques, what their own music is about and be able to communicate successfully with them to get what you are looking for. This is why the term "spontaneous free expression" is misleading. I use the techniques of improvisation, and then guide, hone, and refine it to sculpt the needed musical shape. It is then placed into the compositional arc, and often surrounded by moments written in more exact traditional notation. So there's a bit of spontaneity, and a bit of freedom, and a kind of improvisation involved.
Improvisation is also present in the piano piece for Steven Gosling, Illuminations. Here the piano part is completely notated, and although the accompaniment of bass and drums is not, there is a long tradition of what bass and drums do in the context of a piano trio, and my intention is to tap into this traditional model. I am looking for the language of free jazz here, and we will go over a lot in rehearsals to guide their improvisations to the right place, find climaxes, pauses, stop-times, etc., so the music they make will connect up with the written piano part successfully. Context is critical and often determines what is needed in the improvisation-- this is not a situation where you do whatever you want.
AZ: In the past, free speech issues have interrupted publication of some of your recordings. You’ve also made a point of avoiding corporate influence. These two problems have risen to public significance in this era of global dissent. As you witness the rise of mentalities similar to yours-- for instance, the Occupy movement-- where do you see music’s importance? What more can music accomplish when its boundaries are so aligned with our culture at large?
John: The Occupy movement is exciting and a sign that people are ready to make sacrifices to have their voices heard. Music continues to bring people together, and still has the power to make the world a better place. This is why for the past 40 years the powers that be have spent much time, energy, and expense trying to strip it of its integrity, to sap its ability to inspire, guide, and lead, trying to reduce it to the background. In many ways good music has gone underground.
There is good news and there is bad news-- the bad news is that we are in the dark ages-- the good news is that the dark ages has always been good for the arts. My decisions to step away and insulate, to do things on my own terms, creating my own support system, were done out of necessity. It was the only way I could get what I needed to do DONE. But it was very much the right decision and may prove a model for others with similar aims.
AZ: You’ve witnessed four decades of New York musicians cycle through the city. How does the notion of "cool" inhibit free expression? What has the hipster done to music, in your opinion?
John: Some artists thrive on such terms-- I do not. Words will never stop me from doing what I believe in. I create what I am compelled to create, and do not concern myself with "cool" or "uncool." Over my four decades in the public eye I have confused and alienated my audience more times than I can remember. Confusing them is not my intention, my intention is create compelling music-- but not everyone can follow me from place to place. I have learned to accept that.
Any definition or label can be an enemy to free expression if the artist buys into it. Popular opinion is manipulated opinion, and as such is an enemy to the kind of freedom you are talking about. If an artist is concerned about what others want them to be doing it can mean total artistic stagnation. My interest has always been in artists that are not influenced by popular opinion. With artists who do what they believe in, what they are compelled to do.
This is why we rebel against labels-- jazz, classical, minimalism, free improvisation, etc.. These commodifiers may make it easier to market work as product, but artists do not think in terms of product, nor in terms of labels. We want to be understood, we want our work to be understood-- on its own terms. These kind of labels are reductionist in the extreme and are the enemy of true understanding.
AZ: You've received countless high honors for your work. What goals remain for you?
John: I feel very lucky and fortunate to have received a measure of recognition in my lifetime-- this is something quite rare-- but I do not equate honors with goals. The "honors" you speak of can be helpful in terms of an interface with the outside world but they are not artistic goals in any way whatsoever. They do not drive me and do not motivate me. My motivation is the WORK itself, this is what I live for, this is why I am here. I never think of any benefits that might derive from my work-- fees, awards, acclaim, love or the like-- nor do I concern myself with who may or may not enjoy it. Of course it is very gratifying to have one's work appreciated by the musicians one works with, as they are often part of the working process-- the community (as is the audience albeit to a lesser degree.) For me it has always been about the working process as much as the work itself. I am not an artist cursed by the Dorothy Parker syndrome of "I hate writing but love having written." I love the DOING, and this is one of the reasons I get so much done.
Creation for me is a daily process, and it flows between composing, performing, recording, mastering, organizing, discussing, advising, curating, researching very freely and naturally. I am at a point now where I exist in the "creative zone"-- that magical place where there is a perfect balance between ability and challenge-- a merging of action and awareness such that there is direct and immediate feedback-- mistakes are often immediately recognized. By blocking distractions such as the press (negativity is the enemy of creativity) I am able to focus and concentrate on a limited, defined field of activity (the parameters of a give piece) and exert a high degree of personal control over the work. My "goals" are the work itself, and the act of creation is so rewarding in itself, it facilitates an almost effortlessness of action. It just flows.