Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/13) – Part 1: Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra, Composer Q&A

The John Zorn marathon concert day at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis looked like the sort of lineup that would challenge even the most dedicated concert-goer’s stamina. A composer Q&A at 3PM, a concert at 4PM (Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra), a concert at 7PM (Erik Friedlander solo, Masada String Trio, Bar Kokhba), a concert at 10PM (The Concealed, Nova Express, Aleph Trio), and a solo pipe organ performance at the church across the street at midnight.

After picking up our tickets and wandering around the galleries for a while, we got in line for the Q&A. It turned out to be a very enlightening and funny 45 minutes or so, with the ever-charismatic Zorn taking relatively few questions, preferring to just go on his own tangents. He got more and more animated as he talked, touching on a lot of topics about his community of musicians and how he brings out their best work, the nature of creativity and the writing process, what it takes to put together these marathon concerts, what it means to be 60 years old, how he deals with critics, and more. I am a really big fan of his (both musically and as a person), and I found the talk very interesting and illuminating. One of my friends said afterwards that she could have listened to him talk all day, and I’d agree – we would have stayed and listened for hours if there hadn’t been another event at four o’clock.

After the talk was over, we hurried over to the McGuire theater, where the concerts were taking place. We didn’t have long to wait before it started, and Zorn had decided to start the day with some of his stranger material: Marc Ribot playing selections from the Book of Heads. This is a collection of short pieces that thoroughly explore the possibilities of extended techniques for the guitar. (For those not familiar with the term, ‘extended techniques’ refers to playing an instrument in ways not intended – say, knocking on the side of the guitar, or rubbing balloons against the strings.)

There is not a lot of melody going on, and in my experience when one listens to the studio recording, you’re liable to spend half the album thinking “what is he DOING to that guitar?” It is much more fun to watch since you can see what he’s doing – licking his finger and making squeaky noises on the guitar with it, playing or muting the strings with various objects, stamping on the balloons that were on the floor around his chair… it’s fascinating to see. He was taking it very seriously (with the exception of a couple of reactions to the crowd being surprised by something he did) and looked very studious and reverent, bent over and peering at his notes/sheet music. I imagine it is a pretty challenging sort of music to play.

I unfortunately was unable to film or photograph any of the first set due to being seated next to some sort of venue personnel with a flashlight and walkie-talkie, but here is a Book of Heads piece filmed at the Kessler in Dallas a couple of years ago:

The next piece being performed was Hockey. I’d never seen or heard it and didn’t have much of an idea what to expect, other than knowing that it was one of Zorn’s game pieces. (His game pieces are essentially sets of rules that he has written for musical games, where one or more people direct the music by signalling to each other while playing.) Hockey turned out to be a trio… and a very unusual one! John Zorn played an assortment of duck calls, Erik Friedlander was there with his cello, Kenny Wollesen had a table full of percussionish objects as well as something in his mouth that may have been another duck call. The three of them performed and Zorn conducted. I had pretty much no idea what was going on. It was fun to watch, but the duck calls are pretty abrasive to listen to as a lead instrument (this might be filed under “not all good music has to be pretty,” which he had talked about briefly in his Q&A). I enjoyed seeing it, but will probably not run out to buy the album. Some things are meant to be witnessed live, and Zorn’s game pieces could be at the top of that list.

The final piece of the first concert was also a game piece: Cobra. Every musician present was invited to be a part of this, including several who didn’t appear anywhere else in the concert. The lineup: Zorn was conducting; Kenny Wollesen played vibes; Joey Schad was on keyboards; Marc Ribot and Chris Cunningham had guitars; Ikue Mori used her laptop; John Medeski had both an Hammond organ and a piano to work with; Michelle Kinney and Erik Friedlander played cello; Mark Feldman was on violin; Cyro Baptista and Joey Baron played percussion; and – actually, now that I think of it, I don’t think Greg Cohen played on that piece. I can’t quite remember (bad blogger! bad!) but I think he sat that one out – probably because he played on every other piece in the next two sets. I could be wrong, though – maybe someone will correct me in the comments.

Cobra was also confusing to me, although it was easier to follow than Hockey. I also read about it later on the internet so I have a slightly better idea of how it works. The musicians were set up in a huge semicircle so they could see both each other and John Zorn, who was in the middle with a table full of signs and notebooks. The musicians would signal to Zorn and I think he would decide which ones to acknowledge if more than one signal came in at the same time. He would relay the signals to the rest of the group by means of his signs. The musicians also could signal each other (they were often seen waving and pointing at each other) and each of them had a headband that they could put on as another signal. It was an absolute blast to watch, and the music was noisy and chaotic as the musicians veered between collaborative improvisation and attempting to wrest control of the piece from their bandmates. I found it interesting that half of the musicians seemed to be having a ball, laughing and smiling at each other, and half of them seemed to be taking it incredibly seriously, not letting their attention flag for a moment, hands poised on their instruments, wound up like a snake ready to strike.

I would DEFINITELY recommend watching a Cobra performance if you ever get a chance to see it. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen, very exciting and chaotic and fun. If I get a chance to see it again I will spend a couple of hours trying to memorize the information that is online and see if I can follow along with the game. That would make it even better, I think.

While I didn’t get any photos or videos, we did find a crumpled piece of paper on the floor containing John Zorn’s indecipherable Cobra notes. I think they are the initials of the musicians who were signalling to him – probably using it to remember who had signalled him in what order.


This concert was far too long and interesting to write in one blog post, so I will end this here and write up a second part, with videos. (Click here for part two of this series.)

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9 Responses to Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/13) – Part 1: Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra, Composer Q&A

  1. rodrigo says:

    great review, as always, I wish I could’ve been there! could you comment a little bit more about the q&a session? I also find very interesting to hear Zorn talking, at least what I have seen in interviews and documentaries. thank you!

    • Sarah V. says:

      OK, more comments about the Q&A session…

      Bither asked him about turning 60 and Zorn said that he loves it and has been telling people he’s 60 for years. He said he doesn’t have any doubts any more because he’s past all that now – he knows what he wants to do and does it. He talked about having a long history with the musicians he plays with and how important that is, and how he knows now who he can/can’t trust.

      He talked a bit about the pipe organ, and told us how he had first played it (a little bit) when he was about 8 years old and into monster movies – emulating Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera… but hadn’t really taken it up at the time because his parents wouldn’t buy him one 😉 He would go to the church down the street and watch the organist play.

      Bither asked about his devotion and dedication to creating a community, and this launched JZ into a whole “music is love and music is people” thing. He said he writes his music for people (i.e., musicians), and he needs those people to enable his compositions to really come alive. And that’s why he’s cultivated a tight community of amazing players to bring his work to life. He talked about how music has a purity that other art doesn’t have. (And later laughed and said “you’re going to hear the music tonight and you’re not gonna believe I’m talking like this about PURITY…” – the next thing on the itinerary was Book of Heads and Hockey with a half dozen duck calls!)

      Bither asked him about how he developed such a talent for bringing the best out of his musicians. JZ talked about being a bandleader – how you have to sometimes crack the whip but on the flip side make them really happy, so that the thing they want most in the world is to be playing your music and playing in your band. You have to show them appreciation. He said he wants to see how far he can push them. Paraphrasing: “I write something that’s practically impossible to play, but I know he can do it… and he goes out and he shreds it. So I go home and write something even harder! Let’s see how hard we can push these guys!” And he said his players trust him to know how to get them playing their best, and they’ll let him push them harder because of that, and they’ll work harder when he tells them they can do something even if they think they can’t.

      He talked about how he always gets painted into the box of “cynicism” and “irony” no matter how many times he tells people he’s not. Talked about how critics and reviewers are all full of shit and he doesn’t pay attention to them any more – but when he was younger a bad review would really depress him. He talked about how you have to avoid negative people and negative energy and just focus on doing good work and knowing it’s good without needing other people to tell you that.

      He talked about how he writes and how he works – basically all he wants to do in life is to work (“that’s why I’m on the planet – that’s what I do best”). And he has been working at the same desk in the same room for years and years – surrounded by all of the art he’s collected in the form of books, CDs, LPs, DVDs, tapes, etc. (“I live in a library”) He approaches it with a certain ritual and reverence – washes his hands every time he sits down at the desk. He likes being surrounded by all those thousands of creative works in his little home library, because of the atmosphere and creative energy he feels.

      Now just imagine that with a lot of f-bombs and a New York accent and you’ve pretty much got the Q&A… 😉

      • rodrigo says:

        wow thanks so much!!! I hope ee can hang out at some concert on the future, I should buy you a drink for all the info you share on this blog!! Aren’t you planning to come to the Masadathon in San Sebastian in July? :)

        • Sarah V. says:

          Unfortunately I think I can’t make it to any of the European Zornathons. I will be trying to get to as many events as I can in NYC, though. Debating right now about going to the one at MoMA on April 24…

  2. Mike says:

    Sarah, great write up. At the time I had thought that everyone was involved during Cobra, but now that you mention Greg not being there I am having a hard time visualizing him on stage. I think you might be right. In my mind I can see, L to R, Kenny (Vibes), Chris (Guitar), Medeski (Organ & Piano), Michelle (Cello), Joey (Drums), Cyro (Percussion), Ribot (Guitar), Ikue (Electronics), Erik (Cello), Joey (Keyboard), Mark (Violin), but I cannot recall Greg being there.

  3. Roddus says:

    A most enjoyable read and thanks for your insights into john’s Game Pieces. I use to have The Parachute Years Box set of all those early game pieces like Archery, Hockey, Lacrosse, but I could never understand why someone would listen to this stuff or record it for that matter, but i always wondered what it would be like to experience one live, which is what they are really for. Not much chance of John ever playing in my part of the world so thanks for helping me understand it a bit more.

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