John Zorn@70: Kvelling Into a New Decade

Earlier this month, the Walker Art Center celebrated the 70th birthday of avant-garde Jewish composer and saxophonist John Zorn with a 12-hour concert cycle of chamber music featuring 20 musical collaborators performing various compositions spanning Zorn’s career. The event, which took place Sept. 9, spanned from noon through midnight beginning with a handful of performances in the Walker galleries followed by three longer concerts in the Walker’s McGuire Theater and was capped off by a midnight organ improvisation just a few blocks away at the Basilica of Saint Mary. 

Zorn, whose birthday was Sept. 2, has released dozens and dozens of albums from various genres spanning klezmer to noise to contemporary classical and jazz. A mainstay of the New York “Downtown” music scene, Zorn is known in many artistic circles for many different reasons. For our Jewish purposes, Zorn is known for his philosophy of Radical Jewish Culture — a call to question, deconstruct and reconstruct the very idea of Jewish music. 

Zorn, only performing in a fraction of his own compositions, was yet to appear as the gallery performances began. These first performances spanned through the Walker’s many galleries with each piece being paired with a particular piece of artwork on exhibit. After the first piece of occult music, “Sigil Magick” was performed by renowned string players, the JACK Quartet, we all listened to a piece composed for Zorn’s chamber group of female singers, the Sapphites. While Zorn’s Jewish identity strikes a chord through much of his music, his spiritual interests are wide-ranging. While the Sapphites had previously recorded Zorn’s Tanakhic album Shir haShirim, at the event they sang “00 0 00,” an occultist’s Ave Maria based off of the thinking of Theosophist Hilma af Klint.

Following this we were treated to the unceasing chaos of “Naked Lunch” for vibes, drums and bass and then some moody guitar duets from his album Midsummer Moons. I tried to get a read on Zorn’s audience realizing it was as least as eclectic as his oeuvre. Attendees ranged from incidental Walker visitors — art-appreciating old-timers and Uptown hipsters — to metalheads, japanophiles and new music connoisseurs. As no seating was laid out in these early informal performances, listeners shuffled from gallery to gallery trying to secure prime spots sitting cross-legged just feet away from the performers. Zorn, still having not arrived, cast an Ozian shadow on the event as anticipation for the wizard-composer behind the curtain’s own appearance to his birthday party grew. Listening to Midsummer Moons, I escaped the claustrophobia of the cramped galleries sitting in the room adjacent just feet away from Ches Smith, a drummer who was slated to perform a duo improvisation with Zorn himself on saxophone in the following performance.

I heard Smith whisper to another attendee that Zorn had almost arrived before disappearing mere minutes later. I took my place early in front of Joan Mitchell’s painting “Posted” where Smith and Zorn would perform. Excitement was clearly stirring as the volume of chatter escalated with attendees joining me by the cold-toned abstract expressionist painting. Understated as ever, Zorn walked out to great applause in his typical garb  — a black graphic tee, black hoodie and camo pants (today’s pair were black and white). As if to give everyone the most casual greeting Zorn knew, he played the saxophone in the typical style he’d become known for as an instrumentalist and performer as, without introduction, he and Smith launched right into a 5-minute improvisation. Squawking, screeching and exploring the limits of his woodwind instrument, Zorn’s quintessential sonic clamor fit Mitchell’s painting of controlled blue-green chaos perfectly.

Greater egotists would revel in the self-indulgence of a 70th birthday party dedicated to one’s own music, but it was clear Zorn was more interested in kvelling on musical collaborators around him. Keeping his introductions short and offering smiles instead of bows, Zorn turned the audience’s attention to the masterful percussion playing of Smith following their improvisation. He also offered an immense hand to Mitchell’s painting as an equal member of the performance (maybe a trio improvisation in reality). As performances continued, Zorn would position himself informally. In an expectedly eccentric move for the composer-auteur, he chose to sit cross-legged amidst his performers like a giddy school boy playing duck, duck, gray duck as he listened to his own sounds which ranged from grating to angelic to confusing — a cello duet based off of the Ouroboros (dragon eating its own tail), a madrigal by the Sapphites based on Italian theater, and a Kantian string sextet.

Zorn and two musicians prepared for a performance of one of Zorn’s “game pieces” which are improvisations with a handful of set rules which unfold freely. The particular piece chosen for that day was thematically appropriate for Minnesota as it was one of Zorn’s earliest albums titled Hockey which included Zorn performing duck and goose (maybe that day it was a gray duck) calls on woodwind reeds. Curated along with a painting by Yoko Ono (a friend of Zorn’s, of course) Zorn along with a percussionist and cello player had fully set up some 10 minutes in advance and sat there chatting informally as dozens of listeners eavesdropped mere feet away. As Zorn and the two others were discussing their imminent gigs, the percussionist Sae Hashimoto mentioned she would be leaving the country the next week for a performance in Norway. Zorn, forgetting the state he was performing in, responded “Norway?!” in an incredulous tease. 

Following the gallery performances, three shows at the Walker’s McGuire Theater were to follow. A transcendent acoustic guitar performance of Zorn’s Nove Cantici Per Francesco D’Assisi and more jazzy occultism through Chaos Magick. The final stage performance would showcase Zorn’s project Masada as Zorn performed on saxophone with his New Masada Quartet. Masada is a canon of 613 Jewish-themed jazz tunes (not exactly klezmer, but not not klezmer either) penned by Zorn himself in homage to the 613 mitzvot. 

The set was a joyous uproar of intense grooviness. Once again, Zorn was kvelling to his utmost with huge red-in-the-face smiles to the other members of his combos between bursts of wailing on his sax. If kvelling and kvetching with your friends were a musical genre, whatever Masada was doing was certainly it. To even further describe the ecstatic informality, at one lull between tunes a jokester in the crowd yelled “keep playing!” to which Zorn flipped the bird with a smile to audience laughter, quipping (I couldn’t tell if he said “suck it” or “f*ck you,” but you get the effect.)

Following the 10 p.m. Masada performance, Zorn’s fans filed out of the Walker before taking a casual stroll in the noisy darkness straddling I-94 towards the Basilica of Saint Mary. Here, Zorn’s final performance — a free improvisation from Zorn’s album series The Hermetic Organ on the Basilica’s majestic Wicks organ first installed in 1949. It was here in the darkness in front of the Basilica that I noticed the common thread between all of Zorn’s followers: they all looked incredibly out of place at a Catholic Church.

A hooded John Zorn plays the organ at the Basilica of St. Mary's on Sept. 9. (Photo By Miri Verona)

A hooded John Zorn plays the organ at the Basilica of St. Mary’s on Sept. 9. (Photo By Miri Verona)

With a black hood covering his head, Zorn sifted through waiting fans to enter the Basilica. His hood at first seemed like the choice of a celebrity trying to avoid rabid fans, but as we would later find out he just wanted to wear it for his performance. The Basilica doors were locked, leading to a schlubby Zorn sitting down leaned against the ornate doors for a dozen minutes before he was let in. Minutes after Zorn was let in, we all walked in to hear Zorn play-testing dissonant chords from an invisible location behind the organ keys — more “Phantom of the Opera” than “Wizard of Oz” this time. 

After another half hour, midnight tolled and Zorn commenced his extended improvisation which heavily utilized the organ’s textural and timbral qualities rather than a discernible melodic or harmonic theme. As the organ rumbled, one had to wonder if it had ever been subject to such demonic-sounding chaos or even whether the Basilica’s walls could withstand Zorn’s intensity. The free midnight concert maybe had the best attendance all day. Listeners walked around the ambulatory from all angles watching Zorn in the sanctuary playing the organ with hoodie on head like some kind of punk monk. 

Not even 12 hours of performance could even begin to unfurl the facets of Zorn and his extensive half-century career, but if one thing was clear it was that Zorn is as alive and passionate as ever. Even if his polarizing, at times cranky interview-dodging attitude doesn’t often show it, he was clearly bursting at the seams with gratitude — kvelling into the next decade.