Who is John Zorn?
Who is this john Zorn Guy, Anyway?

Basic Overview // Championing the Obscure

    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 performed.
    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 hundred.
    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 postmodernism."

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.

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