Lincoln Center Festival: A Longtime Explorer Turns 60

United StatesUnited States Zorn @ 60: The Holy Visions: Soloists, John Zorn (composer and organist), Alice Tully Hall, New York City. 18.7.2013 (DS)

Lincoln Center Festival 2013
John Zorn at the Alice Tully Hall organ (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Composer and Organist – John Zorn

Soprano – Lisa Bielawa
Mezzo-soprano – Abigail Fischer
Soprano – Mellissa Hughes
Soprano – Jane Sheldon
Contralto – Kristen Sollek

John Zorn: Shir Ha-Shirim (2007); The Holy Visions (2012); The Hermetic Organ, Office No. 8 (2013)

It used to be that if you wanted to hear some of the latest John Zorn creations, you’d make your way down to the far reaches of New York’s Lower East Side and pile into the hot (temperature-wise and atmosphere-wise), standing-room-only cave that was the club called Tonic. You went there because you were passionate about the possibilities of jazz, postmodern music, laptops, and cross-cultural improvisation.

But now, a good ten-to-fifteen years later, you can go hear Zorn (for his 60th birthday) in the expansive comfort of an air-conditioned seat at Alice Tully Hall, marketed under the Lincoln Center Festival banner. The thing is, it’s still pretty much the same audience. Now, the musicians who want to perform Zorn’s work have expanded beyond his inner circle of peers (which happen to include Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, conspicuously present in the audience). But Zorn, in his signature military slacks and comfortably loose t-shirt, still jumps on stage to take part as if this venue were just a slightly bigger Tonic—with bigger instruments, of course. He left his sax at home, and manned the organ in a solo improvisational finale, even turning to give the piped machine a much-deserved “bow” at the end.

For the most part, the stage was graced by five singers, dressed in white gowns of a vestal virgin nature, who performed the two spiritually inspired a cappella works, The Holy Visions and Shir Ha-Shirim. While both pieces highlighted Zorn’s relatively recent foray into exploring medieval chant, Shir Ha-Shirim succeeded where Visions fell short. With its ease of continuity as one sound style bled into another, Shir Ha-Shirim journeyed beside the listener in an engaging and rapturous manner. Siren-like calls worked around occasional hoots or slide-whistle swoons. Zorn’s conjured mimicking effects of Byzantine chant linked smoothly with the occasional nod to one of his klezmer-touched Masada motifs. With no words for the ululating ladies to follow, the fully-composed score actually seemed to be improvised, old-school Tonic-style, allowing for a feeling of intuition and momentary exploration to emanate forth.

The Holy Visions, on the other hand, is an 11-strophe work inspired by the mysticism of Hildegard von Bingen and sung with a Latin libretto written by Zorn (presumably in English and translated by someone else, into what reads as crystal-clear “advanced placement” Latin). Imagery of miracles, souls, maidens, blood, and flowers scattered themselves throughout what grew into a slightly pedantic performance. However, the surprise ending did bring a unique punch: a sudden emotional gasp held in glazed awe by the five singers. Since the piece is meant to be performed in a church, perhaps the singers felt the misplacement of their location—or Zorn just tried something that didn’t work.

Either way, I realized, it didn’t matter. Because Zorn’s role has always been of someone pushing for something new, no matter what—he will keep composing, keep improvising. Some ideas will work and others will not. But his richness is in consistency of creation and the never-ending openness to possibility, sometimes combining mysterious beauty and humor. Did you know that an organ can be made to sound like an overworked basement furnace?

Daniele Sahr