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John Zorn's Theatre of Musical Optics

John Zorn's Theatre of Musical Optics


Like Einstein's faith in the constant velocity of light, there are two ideas I have been convinced of since my early years as a composer. I began to solidify my thoughts on this subject through performances, held through the USA (mostly at my own loft in NYC) in the early mid-seventies. Through 1975 these performances involved several musicians improvising with/against carefully notated object manipulations, orchestrated with extreme concerns for their sonic as well as visual components, eg. sawing a school book in half/peeling an amplified cabbage/dancing in a suit of springs & tin cans, etc.

Though I did return to this more casual interaction of sound and sight was "Sadism & Revenge" and "Ray Tracing" in 1976. The Edweard Trilogy of 1975 brought about a new realization: that the visual manipulations themselves were the musical focus of the compositions and so I eliminated the instrumental improvisor from the situation completely, leaving me with musical performances that were predominantly silent. With "dissection of 2 sq. feet..." in 1976 I shifted the focus from the performer's manipulations to the objects themselves -- with the musicians acting not unlike puppeteers, very much in the background, or totally unseen. The objects became for me like solid sounds, different shapes, textures, colors, histories, to be ordered in musical fashion.

There then followed a period of experimentation with many different forms and media. "Paradise Lost" in mid-1977 exemplifies this approach: two radically different performances each day for seven days, including a shadow play, large grid pieces, multiple table performances, an homage to Jack Smith, sound tapes, an antique show, etc., etc.... after which I settled into the highly structured orderings of single objects and multiple objects on a small, tightly focused area, characteristic of "the funnel", "San Francisco" and "Fidel".

With "Cafe Wha?", parts of which were performed here Wednesday night, things are again beginning to change.

Briefly on Fidel:

After working for a number of years on the structuring of music without sound, with "experiments in harmony and polyphony" (1978-1979), I began to consider the elimination of the elements of time. Whereas in most of the earlier pieces, where musicality is conveyed in large measure through timing -- for Fidel, it is not at all when some thing is presented as much as how it is pieced together (harmony). Thus each of the 121 objects on the 11x11 grid combine and recombine to form new objects (stage sets) in which the different pieces ordered constantly appear in fresh contexts on different levels.

What is left once we have eliminated both sound and time from a musical performance? "Fidel" and "Cafe Wha?" help point toward an answer.

For further information see:

or contact John Zorn at 61 East Eighth Street pmb 126 New York, NY 10003

Productions of the Theater of Musical Optics

1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1979 1993
This document is maintained by
(Ed Price). Last modified 18 March 1994.