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.)