John Zorn is officially a genuis.   The 53-year-old composer, improviser, saxophonist, provocateur, and ardent promoter of experimental music through his Tzadik recording label, was one of 25 new MacArthur Fellows named today.  Like his fellow honorees, Zorn will receive $500,000 in “no strings attached” support over the next five years.  Unlike most other awards, MacArthur winners don’t apply but are picked by a secret committee of “experts.”  One day you get phone call that says you don’t have to worry about next month’s rent. 

The award notes that Zorn is a “largely self-taught artist who, since the mid-1970s, has been at the center of what has come to be called “downtown” music, based on his residence and collaborations in lower Manhattan.”

Speaking for the S21 community (always a dangerous thing to do), let me offer a hearty “Nice going, Johnny.”

Speaking of genius, Christina Fong posted some thoughts on that very subject a few days ago.

30 thoughts on “News Flash: Zorn is a Genius”
  1. glenn, get specific. what sorts of everything is going on where you are? i’m not implying that nothing happens where you are; i’m curious about what is actually going on. what’s the news? who are the cool folks doing cool stuff in your neck of the woods? who should we know about? who’s not getting enough attention? do the rock’n’roll folks get along with the experimental classical geeks? what’s the scene like? what excites you about music-making where you are?

  2. I’m with Andrea. Don’t assume that I think NYC or anywhere else is the “center” of anything, man.

    I lived in New Orleans for 5 years before reloacting to NYC and have continued a musical dialogue with that wonderful (and recovering) city via my recording projects. I studied in Columbus, Ohio and met some of the best jazz musicians I’ve ever heard in that city and studied with them.

    I find NYC’s musical histories fascinating – it helps me as an artist to know about what happened here before me. I am someone who has an emotional connection to and appreciation of many cities and cultures. I’m sure many people posting here feel the same way – even those born and reared in New York.

  3. why or how does talking about where you live, when you live in nyc, become thinking you live in the center of the world? there’s ten million people here; a lot happens and a lot has happened. i’m very proud of being from nashua, NH (also the hometown of alvin lucier! yay pour quebecois-americains!), but not a whole hell of a lot is going there musically that excites me. it’s a swell place to live, but not for me. i’m not in nyc because it’s the center of the universe (and really, those of us in the know realize that brooklyn is truly the center of the universe…brooklyn, can you feeeeeel me?), but geez, it sure is nice to have a healthy scene here. when it comes time to move, i can apply all the things i’ve learned here, that i’m not so sure i would have learned elsewhere. i’ve heard great things about berlin, i absolutely adore seattle…who knows what’s next. instead of being passive-aggressive and harping on nyc, why not just share some observations about what’s going on where you live?

  4. I’m out of town, but it is great fun to observe those who believe NYC is the center of the world … a long-time pastime both here in the USA, and abroad. Like a soap opera that never ends … you know, those came out of NYC as well.

  5. Actually, Mary, Jeff and Corey’s input helped turn this conversation into something a little more interesting than “another ‘downtown’ debate.” I enjoyed hearing from musicians (like Mary) who were actually working in NYC during a time when many of the posting musicians (like myself) were not around or in other parts of the country (probably still in school)reading about NYC in alternative music magazines. I really enjoyed this thread – thanks everyone.

  6. Apparently you were not thorough enough in your attempt to stop reading it. Better luck next time.

  7. This got cut off from my comment – it’s what I’m referring to iin my post:

    “To the horror of many veteran Downtowners, Zorn brought Downtown music back toward the modernism, chaos, and complexity from which the minimalists and conceptualists had already escaped once.”

  8. Sometimes I think people must be writing about an alternate reality. I really can’t think of anyone who felt that way, and I know and have worked with most of them – I was there. There are a lot of people who straddled a number of styles who played with John – Bill Laswell, Eugene Chadbourne, Jim Staley, Anthony Coleman, David Weinstein, George Lewis come immediately to mind. One of the best duos I heard was Zorn and Robert Dick, but Robert got sick of playing to audiences of 4 people and no money (this obviously was before John started to do well). Kyle Gann didn’t come to NYC until 1987, and by that time things had really changed, started to splinter, so perhaps from the outside he can see differences, but from the inside at that time, they weren’t that apparent. In retrospect it probably seems that there were more divisions, especially in llght of further development, but I think those differences only became obvious at a later date. Perhaps after John became successful there was resentment or jealousy toward him, but not at the time of downtown’s heyday.

    Okay, I just found the program for Croquet, which was performed in March 1981. This should give you an idea of the breadth, not only of the range of musical styles of those that John worked with, but the way artists from different fields worked together then.

    John Zorn—sax, Bill Laswell—elec. bass, Greg Kramer—synth, Wayne Horvitz—keyboards, Cindy Iverson—bassoon, Eugene Chadbourne—guitar and dobro, Mark Kramer—tapes, David Moss—percussion, Robert Dick—flutes, Fred Frith—guitars, Coby Batty—voice, Polly Bradenfield—violin, George Lewis—trombone, Bill Horvitz—elec. guitar, Bob Ostertag—synth, Tom Cora—cello. Also involved in the concert in non-musical performing capacities: Henry Hills, Sally Silver, Bruce Andrews, Anthony Coleman, Michael Lytle, Ela Troyano, Mark Smith, David Michaels, Mike McCabe, John Matturri, Andy Levy, Randy Hudson, David Giovannitti, Joe Cohen, Jim Davis, Mary Jane Leach, Abigail Child, Suzanne Pillsbury, Louis Belotenia, Dr. Bizarre, John Corra.

    The one problem musicians I knew had when working with John was that he had rules for each piece and some, esp. the free improvisors, didn’t like that. I don’t know any who got angry, they just didn’t play with him again.

  9. This was not at all Zorn’s type of music: his models in the classical world were Kagel, Stockhausen, and Carter

    Here’s where Kyle’s uptown-downtown dichotomy breaks down. Zorn is the very model of a self-taught musically omnivorous maverick in the Ives-Nancarrow-Zappa tradition. While he may have been interested in Carter for his rhythmic density and complex metric modulations, he — like the “totalist” or “metametric” composers Gann writes about — was only interested in that shit if it was on a grid, played against an audible, regular pulse.

    It’s all about the beat — the high modernists were allergic to it. The minimalists and postminimalists and postmodernists (like Zorn) were not.

    It seems to me totally uncontroversial to say that Zorn was at the center of the 1980’s Downtown scene — as a composer, an improviser, a discoverer of new talent, a promoter, a spokesperson, a curator, a bomb-thrower, and a deliberately provocative outsized personality.

    My reaction on hearing that he’d gotten the MacArthur was, “Wait, you mean he didn’t get one already?”

  10. Bill Frisell described his first encounter with Zorn’s music as akin to meeting the anti-Christ. He was refering to a set of one of Zorn’s game pieces and how it used improvisation in a way he hadn’t encountered before. I imagine Zorn’s music had a similar effect on other musicians – and for many other reasons. When we hear something that seems to run counter to everything we’ve known up to that point, often our first reaction is…well, it should be excitement. But often we become reactive and angry.

    One problem I have with Kyle’s above assessment of the Downtown scene is that he neglects to include many musicians who participated in the ensembles of the composers he does name – and I’m thinking specifically of those in rock and jazz ensembles. These rock and jazz musicians were around and participating in a scene with a lot of cross pollination – Zorn didn’t pull them out of a hat suddenly in order to freak out “the minimalists…” etc. Robert Fripp was playing with Blondie, members of Sonic Youth and the Swans were in Branca’s ensembles, and Laurie Anderson used all KINDS of freaky musicians in even her early pre-United States work. I wonder then if his argument that Zorn was perceived as a composer who was somehow turning back the clock (“from which the minimalists and conceptualists had already escaped”) is then sort of creating a drama that didn’t really exist.

    And where does a piece like Duras or Redbird fit in this version of Downtown history? Granted, these pieces were composed after the time period that Gann was talking about…but Zorn was listening to and creating music that (from my perspective) seemed inclusive, confrontational, but not necessarily reactive. This included works besides the game pieces, the Big Gundown, Torture Garden, etc. Did the composers Gann names REALLY feel this way? I guess some of them must have.

    Gann knows these composers, he worked with them, and he was around then – and I’m speaking as someone from the outside looking in. And I haven’t read his book – so I realize I’m looking at something taken out of context.

    Don’t mean to be a sourpuss. It’s just that I really do love much of Zorn’s music – he’s one of the few composers I can point to as having an impact on my early and current work.

  11. Hide my aggression? That’s impossible! 😉 I am not aggressive! 😉 And my posting style isn’t inherently aggressive. I’m fearless and completely confident in what I say no matter how idiotic and clueless. That’s the diff. 😉

    Kyle is just plain wrong. By seeking to define downtown and himself as the definer of downtowniness (and that as principally anti-uptown), he shows how little he really understood about the scene. It was chaos. It was joy and anarchy. It was also Braxton. Jazz. Rock/Jazz/Classical crossovers. It wasn’t just minimalist or static stuff or conceptual stuff. Where’s Branca? Right he wasn’t downtown either. Heh… 😉

  12. My aesthetic leanings are also pretty much anti-Zorn, but he was and is there and there in a big way. He’s part of the dialectic. Downtown was the combined total of a lot of sympathetic and opposing things, not just one person’s fantasy of what they would like it to be. And why do so many folks leave the rock scene, the Television-Talking Heads-Voidoids-Ramones side of it out of the equation? It had a huge impact on a lot of serious composers and artists.

  13. does your use of emoticons aim to hide your aggression, jeff?

    i quote the always insightful kyle gann. though he and i do not always agree, his thoughts on zorn are almost identical to mine.

    Before Zorn, the Downtown scene could pretty well be characterized by the large roster of composers who comprised the New Music New York festival of 1979: Rhys Chatham, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Charlemagne Palestine, Charles Amirkhanian, Alvin Lucier, Annea Lockwood, Tony Conrad, Phill Niblock, Richard Teitelbaum, and many others. It was a scene characterized by conceptualism and minimalism, music of intense focus on sound, made by people who were outcasts from the classical music world.

    This was not at all Zorn’s type of music: his models in the classical world were Kagel, Stockhausen, and Carter, he was antiminimalist, he thought John Cage was overrated. He put together a scene of performers mostly from jazz backgrounds, and created an alternative to the minimalist Downtown scene, one couched in postmodern style mixing and maximalist chaos. It wasn’t that Downtown had never had free improv before – Oliveros, Terry Riley, and Richard Teitelbaum had been experimenting with it, though with emphasis more on sound than virtuosity, more on meditation than chaos. To the horror of many veteran Downtowners, Zorn brought Downtown music back toward the modernism, chaos, and complexity from which the minimalists and conceptualists had already escaped once.

  14. How about violinst Regina Carter receiving a grant too…… also I heard on an NPR interview yesterday that she plans to use the money to persue a degree in music therapy?

  15. I think from a purely musical perspective that Corey’s right – and since the whole idea of “downtown” is kind of “everyone doin’ their thing” no one person can really be the “center” of it. But as an advocate (for what he likes) – then yeah, I’d put him at or near the center of goings-on-below-14th-St. – at least from the jazz side of things.

    The perception of Zorn is going to be different for people who didn’t live in NYC at the time – by “time” I’m talking circa mid-to-late 80s or so. For those “inside” he may have been just another guy – a prolific one, a mover/shaker, one who made good and got a major-label deal – but still one among many from a musical standpoint. Was he any more influential to “the sound of downtown” than, just to pick a random example, Arto Lindsay? Probably not. But from Kalamazoo’s perspective, he was very much the figurehead / public face for the whole scene – and, more importantly, a gateway / window to the artists he worked with, for people who normally wouldn’t have looked to Jazz (let alone it’s avant-garde) as a place to spend their entertainment dollars.

    Like, I’m sure Bill Frisell would have been successful had he not been a member of Naked City – he certainly had his share of street cred going into it. But how many Metal Guitar Dudes would have given him a second look in 1988? Being in the first (only?) jazz band to get mentioned in Kerrang! has it’s perks.

  16. sorry, should have been more clear. of course, john is a part of the development of downtown music. what i take issue with is the implication that his music is the epitome of downtown music, or that he was the VERY CENTER of the downtown scene, but that’s me reading too much into things. as a figure (performer, composer, improvisator (!!) ), he was clearly engaged and he continues to be as supportive of his fellow artists as anyone else i know.

  17. Guess it’s my day to be contrarian. I remember the days of downtown music when John was in the middle of everything and everybody played everybody else’s music. I was in one of his pieces (Croquet) in 1980 or 81. So, at least for this “downtowner,” John is one of us.

  18. I do not agree with Corey – but I think the issue here might be different definitions of “downtown” music. My definition verses your definition verses Kyle Gann’s definition. Who’s definition is right? I think that is up for debate and would like to say only that much.

  19. Hmm… I’m a bit torn. While part of me would rather the whole 12.5 mil just been split between Eggan and Griffith, and while I’m disappointed that yet again I did not get one after all the tireless work I’ve done for the advancement of Snarkiness, if you’re going to send money an artist’s way Zorn’s not such a bad choice. He’s the model for DIY success in the avant-garde. And for all the issues people have taken with his attitude over the years (apparantley rejection letters from Tzadik are none-to-tactful…) I really can’t think of another artist who’s used their own good fortune, clout, and name recognition to the benefit of other artists more than he has. While I doubt he needs the money – he seems to be doing just fine, financially – he’s probably the one who will use it to the benefit of the community the most.

    But an aside, from me to JZ personally: buddy, I love ya. But take a little bit of that money – not much, a few hundred bucks – and work on that wardrobe. The last three times I’ve seen you – four, actually, if you count once when I passed you on the street – you were wearing the exact same outfit. You know the one – the oversized orange t-shirt (probably the same one you’re wearing in the photo above) with the camo pants. The outfit you’re wearing in practically every photograph taken of you in the last ten years. Not that you need to worry about impressin’ the ladies or anything – success trumps clothes, of course – but it’s looking less quirky and more “guy who works in a Thermos factory and drives an ’87 Chevy” by the day. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course – I have good friends who work in Thermos factories. But as the Grand Arbiter of All Things Downtown you can do better. Come on, you’re what – 53? – time for a mid-life crisis. I’m not saying run out and buy a Prada suit or anything – maybe switch to jeans for awhile.


    And kudos to fellow fellow Regina Carter, too – who, go figure, worked with the other Seth Gordon back in the mid-nineties (okay, she was just ham n’ egging some string arrangements, but whatever…) Her winning triggered me to throw on Mark Helias’ Loopin’ The Cool, which I hadn’t listened to in years, and remember how awesome it is – with much credit going to her for it’s awesomeness.

  20. But, hey, I have always enjoyed his string quartets. His “Cat O’Nine Tails” is so wacky and a great soundtrack for the cartoon of the mind.

  21. I am very happy for John Zorn. His work has been a continued source of inspiration for me – both his work as a composer and as a label head of Tzadik. Early on (before I ended up in the conservatory), his use of electric guitar made a huge impact on me (The Big Gundown iin particular) – in addition to his unique arranging skils in so many different musical contexts.

    He has supported the work of women throughout his career (his Oracles series on Tzadik for instance) and in addition has brought much needed exposure to many so-called “marginal” or “outsider” artists. He also deals with darkness, violence and sexuality in a manner I find refreshing.

  22. If not part of the musical world which has evolved to be what we are identified with due to our recoridng work, I’ve always enjoyed and respected Zorn’s work. Hey John … are you interested in using some of that money to write an extended multi-track work for Christina Fong? Let us know … we’ll record and release the project on our label … you would be satisfied with the result, I am 100% certain about this!

  23. (I should point out in the interests of balance that, potentially sexist cartoon decorations aside, I harbor no disrespect whatever towards Zorn’s work in media and contexts for which he is better known… including those to which the Macarthur citation devotes most of its space.)

  24. Yes, well, just don’t listen to the BBC 3’s “Hear and Now” broadcast from last Saturday night, which includes a new Zorn piece (for regular buttoned-down instruments and voices) called “Evocation of the Neophyte” that was really, truly horrible.

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