Concert Review: ZoRN@MoMA (4/24/2013)

New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) played host to a mini-marathon of John Zorn projects in another Zorn@60 event in honor of Mr. Zorn’s 60th birthday (which is in September, but being celebrated with epic concerts all year long).

The concept behind this concert was a beautiful one: each set would be performed in a gallery with ‘matching’ art, with music and artists selected by John Zorn based on where his inspirations for each composition came from. My only complaint was that I wish we’d had a little more time between each set to look at the art, but there was only ten or fifteen minutes between each set, and there were a lot of people in attendance, so we generally scooted between rooms pretty quickly. (Mind you, other people probably didn’t have to power-walk to the Port Authority to catch a bus to Boston afterwards – maybe everyone else went back and spent some more time with the art later.)

The first set was billed as the Gnostic Preludes, which is an album released in early 2012 with performers Carol Emanuel (harp), Kenny Wollesen (vibes) and Bill Frisell (guitar). This performance was a little different, and was a duet between Wollesen and Emanuel with no guitarist.

I have heard the studio recordings of the Gnostic Preludes, but it was a very special experience to see it performed live in that beautiful setting. Some instruments feel very different in a live setting, and to me this set was a great example of that. The sound was so rich and gorgeous. I especially enjoyed watching Kenny Wollesen, he is such a unique performer and he was very animated and interesting to see. I was able to sneak a video of the second piece:

The next set was “Apophthegms for Two Violins,” performed by Chris Otto and Dave Fulmer (both on violin); I believe these were pieces from Zorn’s recent ‘Lemma’ album. (All three of you who get the mathematical reference are chuckling right now, I’m sure.) These pieces were extremely subtle, using a lot of extended techniques and making a lot of unconventional sounds. Things like bowing the wooden edge of the violin instead of the strings. Some of it was very difficult to hear in the noisy museum full of people, unfortunately. No photos or video from this set, because Mr. Zorn decided to sit next to me – he is on record as not liking cameras, and I did not want to antagonize him. This performance was in a gallery featuring Paul Klee paintings.

The next piece was “Untitled” for solo cello, inspired by Joseph Cornell; it was performed in the Surrealism gallery by Erik Friedlander. Once again I was unable to snag any video, but I did get a photo of Mr. Friedlander and Mr. Zorn looking at something across the room (maybe one of the surrealist pieces of art caught their eye).


Mr. Friedlander performed this challenging piece beautifully. There were some unconventional techniques here as well, but not quite to the extent of the previous violin duet. The piece was very dynamic – sudden changes in volume and style, surprising turns and twists. At times it almost had a cinematic feel – pizzicato pluckings that might accompany someone tiptoeing around a corner, melodies that seemed to be foreshadowing some dramatic event. I enjoyed this piece very much.

The fourth set of the afternoon featured Mr. Zorn himself on the saxophone and Milford Graves on drums, in the Abstract Expressionism gallery, which seemed very fitting for the wholly improvised duet. The large Jackson Pollock drip painting to their right seemed an especially good match. This may have been my favorite of all the improvised sets I’ve seen John Zorn play. They both played with subtlety, control, and power – but without quite reaching the over-the-top wildness and volume that they might have displayed in another venue. I stuck my camera on the floor and recorded the whole thing – it’s a weird angle but it sounds good.

The final set was a tape piece – well, they called it that, but I’m not sure if actual tape was used or if he put it together digitally. It seems sort of hard to believe anyone is still using tape in 2013, but who knows? There wasn’t much to look at since it was pre-recorded, but generally everyone stared at the odd-looking Bose speaker in the corner, which the music was emanating from:


(P.S. Major bonus points for wearing those amazing shoes with that sharp suit!)

This tape piece, entitled “Beuysblock,” was a in a gallery featuring some works by Joseph Beuys. The music was something that many people would probably not like, but I found it to be the most interesting piece of the day. (And it was quite un-performable, hence being a tape piece.) There were a few music elements (I mainly remember piano and strings) but most of it was made up of noise elements: water flowing, a hammer smashing something, glass breaking, an electric drill, a pencil writing on paper. If you appreciate noise music at all, it was a fascinating listen. I really loved it.

I was pleased to see so many people in attendance at this event, even on a Wednesday afternoon when most people are at work. I wasn’t sure how many people were there especially for the concert and how many were just tourists or art enthusiasts who blundered into it by happy accident, but I did recognize quite a few musicians and music industry folks, who I am sure were there on purpose. At any rate, the crowds all seemed really happy to be there and personally speaking, I was honored to be in attendance at what felt like a historic event. (We were told, for example, that this was the first time that MoMA had ever allowed live music to be performed in the galleries.) (Ed.: I’ve been told in the comments that it was not the first time – I must have misheard something. Sorry!)

I’m already checking my calendar for the next Zorn@60 event I can get to – I feel so lucky to be able to attend so many of these brilliant shows!

(If you haven’t seen them already, you can read my reviews of a previous Zorn@60 event here, here, and here.)

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7 Responses to Concert Review: ZoRN@MoMA (4/24/2013)

  1. It sounds like it was a memorable event. But I must tell you that it was not the first time that MoMA allowed live music to be performed in the galleries. In 2005 I was one of the performers in Relay NYC!, an event organized by flutist Jane Rigler and which included a fantastic group of musicians: Joan La Barbara, Pauline Oliveros, Jane Rigler, Wade Matthews, Jack Wright, Robert Dick, Ikue Mori, John Bisset, Niko Veliotis, Miya Masaoka, Burkhard Beins, and Rachael Elliott. On 2 days, Nov. 19 and 20, we played in shifting trios in diferent galleries throughout the building (rotating from one station to another, hence the name Relay—

  2. Sarah V. says:

    That sounds like a great event, Ricardo! I apologize for the error – I may have misheard the speaker, it was a crowded room and they were not using a microphone.

  3. Franky says:

    Victoriaville, May 19th, I will be there!

  4. carol says:

    thanks for video taping us and for the zorn duet video.
    i was trying to describe that amazing duet to my sweetheart here in CA but couldn’t and then i found it on you tube
    so a million and one thanks
    i guess i will see you in september at the Met
    Frisell i believe will be there
    he was in residence at SF jazz i believe …..but then so was kenny,,
    you know he is usually booked way in advance,,,
    when we record it is about finding a day when frisell is free!
    i’m wondering if you may have taped any more of our set..
    either the music or on video…
    i would love to see/hear if you have
    thanks again.

    • Sarah V. says:

      Thanks for your comment, Carol! I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get you into the video more, I was in the second row and there was a tall person between us :-) I am very much hoping to make it to the Met in September, I live in Boston so it is a bit of a trek to get to New York; but I have been planning for years to see as many of Zorn’s 60th birthday events as I can. After seeing this event in MoMA I am very excited about the one at the Met.

      I will see if I can dig up any more recordings from that set and get in touch with what I find!

  5. carol says:

    do you by any chance know who did the other painting on the wall when Zorn was doing the duet?
    the recognize the drip painting but not the other

    • Sarah V. says:

      Looked through my photos and was able to find one with the label on the wall semi-legible… That is also Jackson Pollock, a 1953 painting called “Easter and the Totem.”

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