John Zorn: original, exhilarating, mould-breaking
John Zorn’s music stands apart as coming from a mind obsessed with music’s power to communicate, which was evident in a recent series of concerts, writes MARTIN ADAMS
SHORTLY BEFORE his death in 1924, the 70-year-old Irish-born musician Charles Villiers Stanford said this: “Music, of all the arts, is . . . the most intangible . . . because it appeals to the ear . . . and exists for itself and in itself.” Stanford, the consummate educator, added that technique serves purposes essentially aesthetic and imaginative.
Stanford’s certainties came to mind repeatedly as I attended several concerts this week that seemed variously to prove or challenge the universality of his historically rooted precepts. Comments by one of the main figures of the week, the American composer John Zorn (born in 1953), suggest that the challenge posed by his music is rooted essentially in aesthetics and imagination. In an oft-quoted statement about his eclecticism, he declared that his various styles “are organically connected to one another . . . People are so obsessed with the surface that they can’t see the connections. But they are there.” So perhaps the challenge lies primarily in perceiving what it is in Zorn’s music that “exists for itself and in itself.”
Is it possible to understand and interpret his work in a way comparable, or perhaps analogous, to the understanding and interpretation required by Bach’s Art of Fugue, written to demonstrate the technical and aesthetic possibilities of one four-bar phrase? By the end of the week I was convinced that it was, even though the techniques, the aesthetics, and the boundaries of plausible imagination and interpretation seem so different.
Deep interpretation was not an evident strength of the concert given by Camerata Ireland, directed by Barry Douglas, at the National Concert Hall on Tuesday. The orchestral playing was lively but rather generalised, as if the ebullient energy driving the sweep of the long phrase was more important than detail. An exception was the lucidity heard in the slow movements of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in F K459 and Symphony in G minor K550.
The most convincing interpretation came during the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor, which Canadian soloist Lara St John played with quiet, rhetorical flair. One did not have to agree with her shaping to be held by the spell of such subtly charismatic playing and by the slight edginess that was its dominant characteristic, even in this concerto’s famously serene moments.
In a way completely different from John Zorn, Karl Jenkins raises issues of style, perception and meaning. Saturday night at the NCH saw the Irish premiere of his latest choral work, The Peacemakers, with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, the RTÉ Choir and soloists. The texts are by historic and living peacemakers; and the music typifies the reasons for Jenkins’s phenomenal popularity. It communicates via a resolutely tonal harmonic and melodic language, and via the composer’s knack of coming up with appealing ideas that capture the flavour of the text.
It is direct partly because it is non-developmental, structured in strophic or sectionally organised movements. But despite a seemingly conservative style, everything belongs firmly in our own time. Meaning necessarily resides in the words; but it is intensified by musical dress that generates associations; and much of Jenkins’s contemporaneity rests on the sometimes exotic eclecticism of those associations.