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29812085John Zorn’s Complete String Quartets
Lincoln Center, July 20, 2013 —

Program and Performers:
Necronomicon — JACK Quartet
The Dead Man — JACK Quartet
Cat O’Nine Tails — JACK Quartet
Mememto Mori — Alchemy Quartet
The Alchemist — Alchemy Quartet
Kol Nidre — JACK Quartet, Alchemy Quartet, and Brooklyn Rider

If like me you spent July of 1990 listening to Naked City on crummy headphones [1], alone on the floor of your room, wondering how anyone could create something at once so flailing mad and anally precise, then like me you may not have predicted finding yourself twenty-four years later purchasing tickets, dressing up, and taking a date to Lincoln Center to watch a performance of string quartets composed by the same John Zorn.

In the end, my incredulity was needless, for the crushing energy, integral complexity, and playfulness of Naked City have not diminished in the quarter of a century he has spent reading mysticism, alchemy, necromancy, and Jewish history. That Zorn has broken the membranes between uptown and downtown, chamber hall and S&M dungeon, tonality and dissonance, is probably just a byproduct of his tastes and pursuits, rather than a goal unto itself. But he’s done it. The compositions, no matter how short, are the products of obsessions, whose subjects are both exalted and mutilated, but never trotted out. While the specific trope-mutilation of Naked City may not be supportable in a chamber setting, the tropes themselves—we would refer to them as ‘themes’ here in polite company—still behave like road spikes for switches in tempo and overall Modernist instinct. Not only can you not get settled before something changes, you can’t even calculate the time between the changes. Then again, Zorn is also adept at weaving silences like mirror shards into a fabric of post-Second Viennese School heraldry. But for how exaggerated it sometimes comes off, the compositions are methodical and consuming.


Cat O’Nine Tails (1998), The John Zorn Quartet, Tzadik Label (1999)

In a piece like Cat O’Nine Tails, during which Warner Bros, Henry Mancini, klezmer breaks, and bits of—what is that, Vivaldi?—are woven into a linear-but-non-montage structure, violence and humor are coaxed into drinking from the same dungeon urinal. In the culture of BDSM, the cat o’nine tails is a flogging device with nine knotted tassels. Emblematic in its way of the sexual sublimation in so much of Zorn’s work, this piece has become a kind of standard, having been performed by string ensembles across the globe. If its chattering code remains abstruse to the uninitiated, then it is all the more remarkable for its having achieved popularity. If Tex Avery had composed incidental music for a cartoon version of De Sade’s 120 Days, this piece might suit Day 93. Or maybe Day 112.

The Alchemst and Necronomicon are two of Zorn’s quartets that feel most to me like long journeys through night and day, forest and town. Unlike Cat O’Nine Tails, where elements of hommage are in evidence, these have the spatial dimensions of scenes, and moments in history. In fact, According to Zorn, The Alchemist is a ‘trip through an alchemist’s laboratory.’ By this I take him to mean less Mickey Mouse and more Paracelsus. Michal Sedziwój performing  alchemical transmutation in the crucibles of Sigismund III. Basilius Valentinus purifying liquids in his Black Forest Benedictine laboratory. Fulcanelli  absconding by night over cobbled roads into Spain during Liberation of Paris. Abdul Alhazred pondering the Mysteries alone in the Roba El Khaliyeh. John Dee and Edward Kelley painting elaborate circles on cemetery floors in the deep English countryside. The scenes are woven with the mysteries that bind history and literature, their ways tortuously Modern yet fully achieving a Manichean balance and—if you will—alchemical rectification of its elements. Unlike the literary Necronomicon, even the study of which is allegedly hazardous and has led many men to premature ends, the metaphor of alchemy here becomes not only subject but structure.


The Dead Man (1990) 13 Specimen For String Quartet, The John Zorn Quartet, Tzadik Label (1999)

But there are even deeper levels and gnostic formations to the music that knowledge can literally unfold within your ears. Memento Mori is written seemingly in the uncrackable code of inner experience—or maybe I’m just too dense to see it. Zorn himself likens the structure to Louis Zukovsky’s A, and Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic, a film Zorn has screened at his Essential Cinema concerts. If these two works have anything in common generally, it might be a symbolic alchemy, in Zubovsky’s case a Kaballistic (and Poundian) transformation of language, and in Smith’s case the transmogrification of symbolic forms. Whether and how this works in the structure of Memento Mori I can’t yet say, but such Hermetic puzzles are part of what makes listening to Zorn so enjoyable.

Kol Nidre (1996), The John Zorn Quartet, Tzadik Label (1999)

The Dead Man, named for Bataille’s novel (or your might say outline for a novel) of ringing despair and self-deprecation, is a more direct matter. A piece in13 miniatures—you might say 13 diableries—it feels both intimate and unsettled. Zorn claims he envisioned these pieces as soundtracks to a series of very short S&M films. Typically chaotic, it prances, smiles, commands, becomes cold, turns back on itself, and rages. It is a colorful piece, and one which invokes two rarely used qualities in classical music–that of humor (how rare it is that non-novelty instrumental music is, in and of itself, funny) and the visual: members of the quartet take turns ‘whipping’ the air with their bows. As with all the string quartets, an immense amount can happen in six seconds, and it is much to the credit of the three quartets that such distinctive works as The Dead Man and Kol Nidre could be played in the same evening. The latter piece, which closed the concert, is a meditation (not a variation) on the Aramaic-language declaration recited in the Yom Kippur evening service. A simpler, finer lattice of drones and variations, this piece is a Passion of cleansing and atonement in the spirit of Yom Kippur. Not accidentally chosen as the end stop for an evening of mental and sensory overload, and not purposefully driven toward some kind of closed end; but there to let the lightness and weight of the works pass through you.

Kol Nidre


[1] along with other techno-primitive epics of that and the previous year, such as Sink, Last Home, and Symphonies of Sickness.

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