John Zorn. I was thinking John Cage before I went to the Walker Art Center tonight to hear the first set of John Zorn’s “The Hermetic Organ”. So, since I had heard plenty of Phillip Glass’s minimal, almost meditative compositions, I was ready for just that. Then again, it couldn’t be John Cage since, well, he died in 1992. This was actually the first time I had heard John Zorn’s music. Better late than never, I guess!
The stage was set with a lot of instruments, most of them string instruments like a cello, violin and a stand up bass. To the left we could expect, maybe, to hear Zorn play the piano or the organ. A drum set occupied the back of the stage and a full set of congas to the right, accompanied by a huge drum on its side and a gigantic gong.
A young, 30s-ish dude entered the stage in a black t-shirt with some Chinese characters arranged vertically up the back and green fluorescent camouflaged cargo pants. He waved the cellist, Erik Friedlander, onstage for the first solo performance. The solo cello music reminded me a bit of Kronos Quartet at first, but they took on a very interesting Middle Eastern, sort of gypsy Klezmer sound.
The next set brought the bass player, Greg Cohen, cellist Erik Friedlander, violinist Mark Feldman, and the dude in the camouflage pants back to the stage. The dude in the camouflage pants simply sat on the floor with his back to the audience, alerting the musicians to begin playing. Okay, so now I realized that the dude was really John Zorn who is celebrating his 60th birthday with this amazing composition and fabulous ensemble of master musicians. Later on, percussionists Cyro Baptista and Kenny Wollesen and electric guitarist Marc Ribot entered the stage.
I’ll have to say that I was on the edge of my seat the entire set. I was expecting a musical contemporary of Phillip Glass, but found that John Zorn’s piece was part improvisational jazz, influenced by Klezmer music and taking full advantage of the many sounds of traditional Middle Eastern music. There were a lot of complicated half notes; thankfully no major keys. As the set evolved, It really sounded like a musical score for a Coen Brothers film, Lone Star or a classic spaghetti western. It turns out that Zorn has a twenty year history of musical scores for mostly art house films. I could certainly envision a Zorn musical score for the next season of Breaking Bad.
Too bad we didn’t have tickets for the set at 10pm when the organ and piano will be played and several other musicians will add to the mix. But we will catch the final set at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, across the street from the Walker Art Center. To top off his birthday celebration, John Zorn will be performing a free midnight solo organ concert at the church.
John Zorn became established in New York City in the mid-1970s and has composed and performed with a wide range of musicians working in diverse musical areas. He has an amazing way of borrowing musical influences from many cultures and transforming it his into his own unique mix. He spent this teenage years listening to classical music, film music, and, “listening to The Doors and playing bass in a surf band.” He taught himself about orchestration, transcribing scores and using them in his own compositions, a procedure he calls “plagiarizing, stealing, quoting, or whatever you can call it”, of collage and transposition into his own world, that he has been using throughout his career.