Waving a Wand: The Magic of John Zorn’s Quartets

United StatesUnited States Lincoln Center Festival, Zorn@60: JACK Quartet, Alchemy Quartet, Brooklyn Rider. Alice Tully Hall, New York City. 20.7.2013 (DS)

John Zorn: Necronomicon (2003);
The Dead Man (1990);
Cat O’Nine Tails (1988)
Memento Mori (1992);
The Alchemist, a true and faithful chronicling of the esoteric spiritual conferences and concomitant hermetic actions conducted by Her Majesty’s Alchemist Dr. John Dee and one Edward Kelley invoking the Nine Hierarchies of Angelic Orders to visible appearance, circa 1587 (2011);
Kol Nidre (1996)

John Zorn, now 60, has written six quartets throughout his career as an avant-garde composer. These dense layers of rich sonic material can come across as a schizophrenic challenge for many listeners used to grabbing onto a lyrical or oft-repeated memorable theme. But such compositions are an avenue of freedom for those who typically observe—with fervor—the ever-growing, ever-multiplying details of accelerated history, saturated society, exploded art, and violated emotion.

Cat O’Nine Tails, for instance, pounds and whimpers or laughs and cries. It snatches familiar quotations and pours them through a satirical funnel—like snippets from realms as diverse as Paganini and Tex Avery (though both can be filed under “popular culture” in their respective eras). We move along as if in a carnival of mirrors—hearing shards of classical music cross the highway of film scores, with every fatal crash thrown in. Zorn is a genius in deploying silence and tempo, using these to light a path along the way as the black cat slithers along a world of musical possibility. A lot can happen in nine lives encapsulated within twelve minutes.

The musicians who performed the quartets as part of Zorn@60 (part of the Lincoln Center Festival) included the JACK Quartet, Alchemy Quartet and Brooklyn Rider (who only made a brief appearance in the final heart-wrenching eight-minute chamber piece Kol Nidre, for twelve players). The JACK Quartet makes new music their daily breakfast, lunch and dinner. They embraced the power of these schizophrenic sound patchings and blew the roof off. The members of Alchemy Quartet, on the other hand, tried too hard to make the pieces fit together cleanly. Notably, though, their violist, David Fulmer, is also a composer. He encouraged (on occasion) the other three musicians to go past a streamlined Brahmsian interpretation into the dark passages of a “let-sound-be-sound-and-expression-be-messy” underground. Brooklyn Rider seemed thrilled to take part with Russian vibrato, accompanied by huge smiles.

Be it for listener or musician, it all came together in a powerful two-hour performance that demonstrated the way Zorn harnesses the world of magic to meet the world of art in something we know, simply, as life. In a 1998 interview, he said, “To make something out of nothing. That’s magic.” Beating their bows against the air like leather whips in The Dead Man (a 13-movement quartet inspired by surrealist Georges Bataille and the darker side of sexual intimacy known to us as S&M), JACK sliced up the nothingness of ether into pieces of airy sound pie. It’s from the crumbs we catch that we glean all that can be seen, heard, felt and desired.

Daniele Sahr