Final Zorn program takes an improvisational ride with bravura precision

Sat Sep 28, 2013 at 1:14 pm
The final "Zorn@60" MIller Theater program took place Friday night.

The final “Zorn@60” MIller Theater program took place Friday night.

It started with a squawk.

John Zorn sat on stage with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Erik Friedlander, blew into a game call, and so began Hockey, from 1978, one of his “game” pieces and arguably his earliest mature work.

This squawk launched the last of three concerts at Columbia University’s Miller Theater that celebrated Zorn’s 60th birthday (part of a months-long, city-wide “Zorn@60” series). The same sound twenty-five years ago planted the roots that led to these great events. More broadly, the game pieces laid the foundation of Zorn’s musical aesthetic and compositional values that are so refined and powerful: discontinuity, turn-on-a-dime thinking, virtuosic execution.

Hockey was played twice on Friday, in what the composer calls “wet” and “dry” versions, the differences having to do with sustained sonorities or lack thereof. He led and played the dry version with the trio of pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, percussionist William Winant, and Ikue Mori used electronic processing  in the wet one. The results recalled what Earle Brown said about his own music: that it should sound different each time it’s played but always be recognizable. The wet version built a mass of complex sound, the dry one delineated parcels of time through precise attacks and aggressive articulation.

That the same work can continue multiple possibilities is the essence of the game pieces, a body of work that includes titles like Rugby, Lacrosse, Fencing as well as Xu Feng, Hwang Chin-ee and the great, important Cobra. The scores are sets of rules for creating ensemble improvisations, and success requires the discipline to follow the rules.

Playing them the way Zorn intends also means quick thinking, and being self-effacing and cooperative. He made the point from the stage, while discussing the works in between sets, that he has been adamant that they only be performed under his supervision. He sees them, correctly, as part of the classical tradition and disparaged the idea of the ego-driven soloist in this context.

That means that the pieces are rarely played and have mostly been experienced via recordings. Rugby and Fencing were performed without Zorn “prompting” (sort of like conducting, more on that to come) and by musicians too young to have even been playing music when Hockey premiered.

The former piece was rendered by members of the Talea Ensemble, the latter by three-fourths of the Dither electric guitar quartet. Zorn gave much deserved praise to these musicians and expressed his excitement that conservatories are putting out players who can do everything and want to make “weird sounds.” They can also improvise, and while I’m not sure how much responsibility the conservatories have for that, it’s a marvelous change in classical instrumentalism, which for inexplicable reasons forgot the value of improvisation for about a century.

Dither’s performance was rousing, the musicians pushing licks, phrases, chords and electric mayhem against each other. Rugby was lively and illuminating. There is a prompter who brings musicians in and out and indicates sections, but, as in Xu Feng and Cobra, the musicians also send information back to the prompter, and to each other, making suggestions and offering ideas with signals and with what they play. In Rugby that means passing the ball around, so to speak, working together and in opposition. The playing was propulsive and imaginative, with the febrile excitement that comes with witnessing music being created in the moment.

With all the communication, there is also a deep connection to the origins of music as a social activity. It may well have been the first human language and that when primitive man first made music, that was the moment he became modern man. Music was the means by which strangers who shared no language could get together in trust and comity, and thus came civilization. To see musicians and prompter working together with a common set of rules to create sophisticated structures was moving.

It was also joyful, especially for the musicians. Six drummers played Xu Feng and they could not contain their glee. There were astonishing moments in this piece, like three of them finding the exact same spontaneous tempo simultaneously, then three others deliberately playing in different tempos.

There was real pleasure and exuberance in Cobra, which Zorn prompted (he also played alto in the Lacrosse quartet, with Winant, George Lewis on trombone and Mike Patton adding vocal sounds and textures), and it was a fascinating, brilliant performance. Cobra has been recorded three times, and the original recording is one of the touchstones of the movement it helped propogate, the global community of musicians who come out of many genres and cultures but come together on the field of improvisation.

The recordings emphasize Zorn’s quick-cut aesthetic, but he’s a different musician now. At Miller, Cobra was built on sections of extended duration that Zorn let breathe and expand, often despite the musicians clearly wanting to head in different directions. He had something else in mind.

What that turned out to be was a large-scale view of the piece’s structure, connecting the three movements in a quasi-symphonic way, keeping the material to a relatively small variety and returning to recognizable events. Inside the chamber-orchestra sized ensemble, the cellists Friedlander and Okkyung Lee and bassist Trevor Dunn discovered a sustained, lyrical, minor key melody, and Zorn brought it back twice more after its initial appearance. It grew more plangently beautiful each time and became, through discovery and shaping, the music that this performance was all about. It’s rare to hear any music, especially structured improvisation, that is both so spontaneous and monumental, but then again, this was a rare concert.

“Zorn@60” continues with a day of music throughout the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Saturday, September 28 (free with museum admission).

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