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.


An eclecticism more extreme but more profound was on display in the three concerts of John Zorn’s music presented on Thursday and Friday at Dundalk by the ever-enterprising and adventurous Louth Contemporary Music Society. Thursday’s concert was by the Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista and his group Banquet of the Spirits; and as the pre-concert interview with the composer explained, it consisted of an interpretation of materials from Zorn’s Masada Songbook collection.

It says everything about Zorn as composer, performer, musician and thinker, as well as about his Masada materials, that so many top-level musicians from so many styles of music-making want to work with him on a project that has just reached its 18th volume of recordings. (Banquet of Spirit’s contribution is volume 17.) On this occasion, the stage was filled with the most cross-cultural, motley collection of instruments I have ever seen. The four players, plus a guest saxophonist in two pieces, played with astonishing precision, in a style that I can only describe as jazz-like, and with the kind of spontaneity that relies on consummate discipline and preparation. Exhilarating stuff.

Friday saw the LCMS add to its remarkable record of presenting newly commissioned works from major figures. The first of two Zorn commissions was a subtly coloured instrumental piece, Missa sine voces, persuasively played by the five players of the EQ Ensemble, conducted by Gavin Maloney. The second, The Holy Visions, was one of three vocal pieces, including a collection by Hildegard von Bingen, superbly sung by five female voices from the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart.

The Holy Visions has a subtitle, “a mystery play in 11 strophes, concerning the life, work and philosophy of Hildegard von Bingen”. The words are by the composer, and read as if phrases from discrete texts had been disassembled then brought together to create sequences of vivid images. A bit like the music really. Everything seemed an equal compositional parameter – pitch, rhythm, harmony, the timbres of words and speech, texture, the astonishing range of references to various styles and works. I was constantly struck that this music has depths far beyond those I could grasp on even several hearings.

John Zorn’s improvisation later that evening on the magnificent Willis organ at St Patrick’s Cathedral was quirky and triumphant. Just two of the many unconventionalities were sand-bags on pedals to produce acoustic beating from 32-foot pipes and clusters played on unusual stop-combinations. It was about sound, pure and simple.

But not so simple, for like everything in these LCMS evenings, there was a sense that this music had been sifted through a remarkable and mould-breaking creative imagination – a mind concerned at the deepest possible level with music’s power to communicate, and with what music can be “for itself and in itself”.

Michael Dervan is on leave

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