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Out of the Mystic

John Zorn’s music is hard to locate, conceptually and sometimes physically. He’s many artists; so which exactly do you seek? Trying to write something unstupid to preview Zorn’s ghost visit this weekend, I grabbed a bunch of his music and put ear to it for an aesthetic refresher. Umm. Uneasiness. Uncertainty. Despair. When art includes everything, how do you condense it? I tried microcosm for inspiration. Zorn’s IAO (2002), crewed by Bill Laswell, Mike Patton, Jennifer Charles and a bunch more, had pulled at me on first exposure — not just the sounds but the symbolistic graphics and the insert hype: “a hypnotic seven-movement suite of Alchemy, Mysticism, Metaphysics and Magic both black and white,” inspired by Aleister Crowley and Kenneth Anger. Hard to beat the Beast. So I stuck the CD in my computer through Windows Media Player, using the visual feature designed to entertain baked college slackers. In the player’s “Ambience” visualization, IAO’s steely drones, stereophonic itches and tribal beats generated square-wave patterns and internal tensions onscreen that I’d never seen before. But noticing that Media Player also offered an “Alchemy” option, ho-ho, I had to try that — and it produced geometric star twists and dualistic flash bulbs and space-debris trails that perfectly complemented the music’s slow evolution. Half an hour went somewhere, I dunno. It was like the I Ching; I felt that a subliminal force had led me to this experience. And I realized that Zorn often operates this way. He’s not the kind of destination musician who hits you over the head, jerks you around, tries to make you come. He works to get you out of your usual patterns, yes. But more important, he focuses on universal organizational principles and makes music that reflects them, building an environment where you and he can both hang in the same transcendent structure. He can act like a tuner. Tuning you into . . . not God exactly, nothing that personal, given his interest in the abstractions of Kabbalah. But something big. Not only do few people want to find their way to Zorn, but he himself doesn’t seem to care much whether they do. These variables are reflected in the material world. Told at Amoeba Music that Zorn discs lodge in the Experimental section, you go there and get confused — you’re looking at the racks, but no Zorn. No, how appropriate, he’s under the racks. When you finally spy his tabs, though, you discover some 50 discs in stock. Too obscure to display, too important to omit. Zorn is getting displayed here in a typically indirect light. CalArts music communicator Wadada Leo Smith, some of whose work has been released on Zorn’s Tzadik label, has helped bring Zorn out to the university, where the New York reedman has overseen rehearsals of his own compositions; the results will be showcased at the Disney Hall’s REDCAT facility. Though Zorn has not appeared in Los Angeles in some two decades, he won’t take advantage of the occasion to perform, or even to conduct. Certainly he’s not doing any pre-event interviews. He’ll just take a bow, one expects, and we will at least be able to verify his corporeal existence. And we can listen. There’s a lot worth listening to, regardless of what you may have heard about him (probably without actually hearing him) 15 or 20 years ago. Sure, he’s been known to get in your cultural face and dare you to complain about his breath: He has punked up the music of Ornette Coleman, nettled unprepared live audiences, and championed abrasive noise wherever he’s found it, notably in the most extreme of modern Japanese earache auteurs. A related quality: He enjoys throwing dissimilar material together, including sounds and speech not normally considered musical. That last is nothing new; musique concrète has been around for well over half a century. People still bolt when they get a whiff, of course, and there’s some justification for the flight reflex, since most of the cut-ups, mutations and conceptualizations we hear come not from John Cage but from pop musicians who mostly aren’t very good at them — from the Yoko-influenced brain farts of John Lennon to the très freaky intros and between-song onanisms of this generation’s rock and rap artists. That’s why the “skip” button was invented. Zorn, on the other hand, knows what he’s doing. When he juxtaposes café music, bird chirps, motorcycle engines, voices, gunfire, harps and a million other things on Godard (1985), there’s a unity that’s rhythmic as well as compositional and thematic — “Every moment has a reason for being there,” as he says in the notes. For his “game pieces,” such as the flexible, dynamic Cobra (first interpreted in 1984), which has become something of a worldwide example/exercise in modern music making, he painstakingly invents a set of rules and exploits the personalities of individual musicians. (That seems to be pretty much what he’s doing here.) He pays attention in the studio, making records that are always clear and hot, not to mention wildly different. His extensive soundtrack work reveals a man who really knows how to nail a mood. And not merely a theorist or an intellectual, Zorn can draw from deep roots of humanity and emotion, as he does with the folk foreboding and harsh ravages of Kristallnacht (1993). Zorn obviously gets a lot of steam from “radical Jewish culture.” He highlights it on his label, Tzadik, which could take as its motto the title of a 1999 Marc Ribot release: Yo! I Killed Your God. He’s also spearheaded the re-conceptualization of klezmer music with Masada, an improvising group that features trumpeter Dave Douglas, the most critically stroked jazz artist of the last 10 years. Yes, the musicians know Zorn and want to be around him. A list of his allies — such as Tim Berne, Derek Bailey, Ben Goldberg, Zeena Parkins, Borah Bergman, Erik Friedlander, Marty Ehrlich, Merzbow — includes the best of the groundbreakers. Say it now: Observers who thought he was just the evanescent postmodern trendboy that he appeared to be with his rock-bridging Naked City band in the early ’90s have been proved dead wrong. If he doesn’t get the attention Douglas receives . . . Well, maybe the Jewish obsession marginalizes him some. But mainly he just seems to feel that if you want something original and ingenious, you’ll find your way to him. You’ll tune in. He’s in the air. John Zorn’s works, performed by the CalArts New Century Players, are featured in two programs this weekend at REDCAT, Second & Hope streets, downtown. On Friday, February 4, at 8:30 p.m., three string quartets are presented: Zorn’s Necronomicon, as well as pieces by Yusef Lateef (who, past the age of 80, continues to expand his horizons) and George Crumb. On Saturday, February 5, at 8:30 p.m., the entire bill is devoted to Zorn’s music. Visit www.redcat.org.


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