The 60th birthday of John Zorn! Who would believe it? I guess 60 is the new 30. On Saturday, the Lincoln Center Festival celebrated with a concert devoted exclusively to all of Zorn’s string quartet music, a total of six works from 1988 to 2011. Zorn is such an enigmatic eclectic musical persona and many-hat-wearer—Avant-garde enfant terrible, jazz-punk provocateur, saxophonist, improviser, unorthodox arranger, japanophile, experimental music impresario, klezmervangelist, record producer, and book series editor. He is also at least as enigmatic as a composer. So it occurred to me that an evening of his string quartets might be just the ticket to put his creative oeuvre—his compositions at least—into perspective, to be perceived in the context of today’s contemporary composition scene. I was right. Over the course of this one evening, I gained a much fuller and presumably more accurate picture of Zorn’s musical thought: exactly what I hoped for.
In this case much credit goes to the skillful and committed performers. The miraculous JACK Quartet was on hand for the first half, while the polished Alchemy Quartet took up the second half, joined by the JACK and Brooklyn Rider Quartets for the concluding Kol Nidre quartet which was performed in triplicate (three to a part).
Taking no prisoners, the concert began with Necronomicon (2003), a carefully choreographed combat among players—and also perhaps between Carter and Xenakis—in five movements. Of all the works, it was the least easy to digest upon first hearing, but was no less compelling for that. I look forward to hearing it again. The JACK Quartet was right in their element playing such a wild but intricate sonic barrage as this.
The Dead Man (1990) is far more tame and accessible. In 13 bite-size movements, perhaps it’s the doppelganger to Kurtag’s 15-movement Officium Breve, composed just a year earlier. Both works honor Webern. One of the highlights of The Dead Man, was when the players whip their bows audibly through the air in a precise back-and-forth antiphonal ensemble rhythm: horse-hair repartee. Sadly the experience of this original maneuver—at once theatrical and sonically arresting—was marred by giggling from the audience. According to the program notes, Zorn imagines The Dead Man (and his Torture Garden) as soundtracks to performed sado-masochistic scenes. Indeed, the swish of a violin bow never sounded so much like a whip.
Cat O-Nine Tails (1988), the only work I was familiar with, was the least enjoyable span of the concert. Though it was never dull. Mostly I marveled at the panache of the JACK Quartet for pulling off its stylistic schizophrenia with such flair. I remember being impressed when I first heard this piece on the Kronos Short Stories CD in the early 1990s. Yet this composition has not aged well. What seemed witty way-back-when just seems gimmicky now—though I trust Zorn that there’s secret coherence below the surface. The surface itself is replete with cartoon cross-cutting between Webernesque pseudo-quotes, crass country fiddling, ravishing Ravelian vignettes, the kitchen sink, and more. (Sit still to avoid dizziness.) Zorn shows impressive precision in evoking such stylistic specificity in such concentrated spans of time: You can name that tune in just three notes? Zorn can evoke that style in just three beats! Charles Ives would have drooled.
Despite the eclecticism between and among the three works on the first half of the program, the energy, polish, and professionalism of the JACK Quartet held it comfortably together—unfazed as they were by all amounts of Zornimation thrown at them.
After the intermission, the Alchemy Quartet’s rendition of Momento Mori (1992) stood out as a revelation: The dark, warm, burnished, intimate atmosphere of this piece haunts me overwhelmingly. It’s the most distinctive and original music I’ve ever heard by Zorn, and some of the best music I’ve heard in any concert this year. I particularly enjoyed the way this piece evolved over its nearly half-hour duration, from harshness to warmth. Near the beginning, doleful pizzicato melodies overlaid with lyrical arco lines suddenly give way to Webernian cascades, fits of blaring glissandos and brutal over-bowing that give Xenakis’s Tetras a run for its money. (At one point I thought I heard a quote from Lutoslawski’s Funeral Music.)
There are many moments of exquisite musical intimacy in Momento Mori. Some are driven by sustained tones or muted sinewy angular lines in the upper strings while the cellist periodically strums and tunes open strings; sometimes the violins tune as well. The effect of these moments is nothing like the solo violin tuning in Dutilleux’s Violin Concerto, which seems gratuitous by comparison. On the contrary, these moments in Zorn’s quartet created a distinct mood, which got me listening in a different, looser way, which somehow enabled the expressivity of the music to soar forth into my consciousness more than it might have if it felt tighter. Though it is fully composed, the somctimes improvisatory feel of Momento Mori radiated a stunning sincerity.
Calmer episodes seemed to accumulate more and more. Beautifully sonorous tertian seventh chords emerged in velvety oscillating waves. At other times, the harsh physically of the sound-making process came to the fore, Lachenmann-like, evidently because of Zorn’s articulations instructing players to bare down on the bow or to snap-pluck the strings (Bartok-pizzicato). Suddenly everything went quiet for high register seagull chirping in the violin interposed with a calm lower register Lydian major 7th chord. Is there some dialectic struggle between restlessness and calm? After a quiet long sustained unaccompanied high pitch played by the first violin, Momento Mori ends by quoting the first chords of Berg’s Lyric Suite, which was also quoted a little more extensively earlier on. By the time it was over, I felt a wave of well-being come over me.
The Alchemist (2011) was perfectly programmed right after Momento Mori. Kindred in spirit, it too flows in an introspective vein. It is the only one of the quartets that is unavailable on a commercial recording; so I felt lucky to hear it. Of all the works, it comes closest to romantic expression, sometimes waning and sometimes surging, several times the quartet rhetorically launched into Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, which Zorn continuously wove into the rest of the musical fabric. Some passages weave in smooth proto-tonal cadences and other characteristic gestures from Renaissance polyphonic works such as motets and masses. Yet it was all of a piece, feeling less fragmented, more cohesive, than any of the previously played quartets.
Ending the concert, Zorn’s Kol Nidre (1996) felt more like an encore (or a consolation prize for those unaccustomed to the amount of dissonance and harsh sound heard in the other quartets). In style, it stood quite apart from the other works. Its traditional tonal language is smooth, secure, and perhaps even a bit soulful—but more along the lines of Arvo Pärt than Arnold Schoenberg or Ernst Bloch. It didn’t seem like a chamber music composition; the decision to perform it as a small string orchestra (a string nonet) was the right one.
On its last note, enthusiastic applause erupted—so well deserved. Joining all twelve players, Zorn took to the stage sporting his signature camouflage combat pants and orange t-shirt. All was in order.