Who is John Zorn?
Who is this john Zorn Guy, Anyway?
Basic Overview // Championing
The most basic answer to the
question "who is John Zorn?" would be that John Zorn is a composer and
saxaphone player who lives and performs primarily in New York City. It
is hard to categorize his music, simply because he deals with so many genres, occasionally
blurring the distinctions between them. He has composed for jazz ensembles,
symphony orchestras, rock bands, and films. The only constant in his music
is a restless desire to move forward, to experiment with sound, in all
of its various manifestations.
It is a pretty momentous task to try and summarize Zorn's career and the evolution of his work, so what follows is my half assed attempt at summary. There are certain themes one notices in Zorn's work,
though they are by no means applicable to everything he does. Much of his
music is very aggressive and abrasive, a kind of sonic "stylized violence."
It is placed confrontationally with the listener, daring him
to walk away or sit and listen.
Zorn has often said that blocks are a major theoretical concept for him. His earlier works reflect this, with pieces characterized by quick and abrupt shifts between the blocks. Zorn emphasized the seams in these pieces, and made the most of these radical shifts. By the 1980's, this block concept had come to encompass recognizable genres as well.
He has also explored the relationship
between performer and composer, most often writing pieces with specific performers in mind. Not only was Zorn combining the traditions of jazz, rock and classical into compositions, he was absorbing and combining the methods by which these musics were produced. While Zorn has written string quartets, he has also been a part of collaborative
In the seventies, Zorn was mostly working out composition
problems with regard to new
music. Most of his music from this time is highly theoretical, resulting
in what most would dismiss as pure noise, just a lot of warped instruments
being banged around. A lot of it was tied to performance art, making the visual
aspects of the piece just as important as the musical aspects. One example is a
piece where he sawed a telephone book in half. One of his major creations from
this time period was the Game Piece, or a musical game, where the object is not
to win, but to move the music in a certain direction. Game Pieces are played
exactly like sports, with a set of rules, but no predetermined sounds or
outcomes. There are just as many variations in a Game Piece as in a game of
baseball. The sound is determined by the improvising musicians as the piece is
The eighties saw Zorn expanding the game pieces,
but much of his really interesting work was done in the studio. Compositions
like "The Big Gundown", "Spillane" and his first scoring for films came
from this period. His music was beginning to become more post modern (however
you choose to define that), integrating and juxtaposing many different genres
of music, working with these "blocks of sound" to create his pieces.
In the late eighties this block writing style came
to fruition with Naked City, a five person
rock band that began to acquire a punk following. They broke up in 1993,
to be followed by Zorn's next big project, Masada, an exploration of Jewish
cultural identity through a series of compositions that number over two
I have been listening to Zorn for about three years
now, and his music has profoundly affected my life. In his dual vision
of music as both a pluralistic embracing of the information age and as
a singular means of personal expression I find many parallels to my own
life and the life of my generation which has grown up seeking to maintain
a sense of individuality amid the flood of information that surrounds us.
His music is both all embracing and discriminating, and his love and knowledge
for ALL kinds of good music, from Led Zeppelin to Debussy to Charlie Parker
has opened my ears and my mind to many different modes of thought and of
sound. He has shown me that you don't have to be a specialist in this world,
you can like things that seem to be antithetical. Zorn pursues theoretical
avant-garde and traditional songwriting with the same flair, and never
loses his singular musical voice.
But even aside from that, his music is REALLY good.
I remember when I first saw him perform live with Masada in September of
1997. The energy, grace and purely emotive expression of that band and
of Zorn's playing knocked me off of my feet. After the concert I couldn't
sit still, I was bubbling over. This web site is intended to be a resource
for people who are interested in learning more about John Zorn, and I hope
that through it other people will be introduced to the wide range of wonderful
music he has created.
Addition, May 25, 2000
After rereading my original "Who Is This John Zorn Guy?" essay, I realized
I was leaving a lot out, but a complete survey of every aspect of Zorn's
work would end up being very lengthy and time consuming. Anyway, I've decided
to include this as a supplement to that essay, in order to expand on some
of the themes in Zorn's work. I plan to maybe later add essays on other
themes in Zorn's work, but that's another one of those "if I get around
to it" projects.
Championing the Obscure
Since 1995, Zorn has been the executive producer of Tzadik, a record
label he founded whose raison d' etre was to give avant-garde and experimental
music a forum. In his JazzTimes interview with Bil Milkowski, Zorn talked
a lot about his desire to simply give a lot of artists a chance, to expose
the world's ears to something actually new. So much of Zorn's work has
been about championing types of music, from his resurection of hard bop
composers from artistic obscurity on News For Lulu to his Ennio Morricone
tribute album, that this should come as no surprise to anyone who has been
following Zorn's work.
This label celebrates the unconventional, and in a world where so much
of the music and information we get is from certain large corporate interests
that for various reasons need to package and categorize music into certain
acceptable and definable genres, and exclude everything that doesn't fit
those genres, it is very refreshing to have a domestic label stuff that
isn't categorized. Zorn himself chaffed at the way Nonesuch packaged him,
he once said that they were trying to turn him into "the poster boy for
Zorn's label many times releases unconventional albums by certain well
known artists, albums that tend to break popular conceptions of what that
artist sounds like. Who else would have released an album of solo compositions
by the Soul Coughing sampler Mark De Gli Antoni, and allowed still him
to explore his artistic vision so different from that of Soul Coughing?
For that matter, who else would release a compilation of compositions
by the late Jerry Hunt, an avant-garde American wacko who no one has ever
heard of? And where else can you find domestic US releases of obscure (by
US standards) Japanese hardcore and noise? I don't even like a lot of the
stuff on Tzadik, but Zorn is definitely getting it out there. I once checked
out Zuba Zuvi from my school library.It's part of Tzadik's "New Japan"
series, and features Ruins drummer Yoshida Tatsuya; good start. My reaction
to the album was one big why? The album is simply three guys who aren't
particularly good singers (passable) doing a full album of a capella compositions
whose quality ranges from "oh that's... interesting" to downright silly.
The composition "Europe" has four sections, each based on a European country.
Take any stereotypes you have about Germany: martial, angular language,
etc., then write a vocal piece around it. Not everyday does one get to
hear a recording of three grown Japanese men do grunting an capella vocal
piece in German in imitation of German accents.
But this is why I love Tzadik. Zorn puts out some music that I detest,
but, whether I like it or hate it, I've heard it, and I can learn something
from it. Besides, how often do you get music that truly challenges the
way you think about music? A lot of Zorn's composing challenges the way
you conceive of music, but like anything, it eventually becomes familiar
and accessible to your ears. I thought Torture Garden was ridiculous at
first, but now I sometimes use it as background music. "Radical" and "challenging"
are constantly shifting terms; once we get used to something, it ceases
to challenge us. Zuba Zuvi was bad, but it had some interesting ideas in
it, and it forced me to broaden my definition of music. For those of us
who like to explore music's fringe, we have to make sure we're not becoming
complacent in our avant-gardeness. Thank god there are artists who continually
seek to challenge their audience with new definitions of what music and
art can be. And thank god Zorn is here to give them domestic distribution.
City // Masada