Machine Project presented an improvisational music class throughout January that was based on experimental “game” by visionary jazz innovator (and antagonizer), John Zorn. Cobra, as Zorn named it in 1984, is a complex systems of cards, hand symbols, and, yes, hats that signal various actions to be performed by a musical group. No musical experience necessary (which was good for this West Coast Sound correspondent, whose only lessons in bass playing came from sitting in front of a 1990's boombox) and a wide swath of abilities and instruments showed up. From upright basses, trumpets, and bassoons to tambourines, accordions, and ukuleles, each class created a different dynamic as musicians brought various instruments through the door. How would the trombone interact with melodica? What kind of duet involves a bass guitar and a jaw harp? What happens when two accordions attack? In Cobra, chaos and beauty could coexist.
The first sessions featured pianist Rory Cowal, who taught guided improvisation through unconventional techniques. He instructed musicians to play along to a sentence he read from a book, and selected two musicians to musically complement and antagonize each other. Then musician and composition doctoral candidate, Isaac Schankler, led the Cobra sessions, first teaching a simplified version of Cobra, then acting as prompter.
Schankler stood at the front of the room with a table of various cards. He held up a “Pool” card, and without any communication, instruments began to chime in. An accordion oom-pahed, while a vocalist whistled or gurgled, then a saxophone's skronk would raise up the volume, and suddenly drop away as Schankler signaled for a cello solo. The cellist plays a slow melody for twenty seconds, then Schankler motions for one loud note from all instruments. The piece is over.
Later Schankler introduced the notion of guerrilla tactics, where musicians in the group could overthrow him, and become the prompter.
The rules of music weren't broken down, they were redefined, and reordered into a new system where impulse and risk taking were rewarded. But Cobra isn't just about music, it's a way to address questions about identity, group dynamic, and even government.
Do you play along or create something new? Do you stay safe or take a chance? Does your instrument define you? How do you get your voice heard? Who drowns you out?
Cobra's rules are complex; John Zorn encourages accidents, misinterpretations, and mutations, but the lessons are simple:
-Know when to start
-Learn when to stop
-Don't be afraid to follow
-Don't be afraid to lead
-When a system is failing, tear it down and start again.
Try Cobra on for size.