Concert Review: John Zorn: The Hermetic Organ, St. Paul’s Chapel (9/23/2013)

Tonight I went to see John Zorn performing The Hermetic Organ at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University in Manhattan. It’s the first of four concerts this week at Columbia which are part of the Zorn@60 series. The other three are coming up in the next few days, all at the Miller Theatre. On Wednesday Sept 25th: Orchestra; Thursday Sept 26th: Chamber music; and Friday Sept 27th: Game pieces. My friend Craig and I needed to pick up some tickets at the box office today and got to hear a few minutes of the orchestra rehearsing one of his pieces while we waited.

Fun fact: In addition to meaning something that is sealed tight, the word “hermetic” has another meaning: “of or relating to an ancient occult tradition encompassing alchemy, astrology, and theosophy. Esoteric; cryptic.” So now you can stop wondering why John Zorn has a thing for air-tight pipe organs, which doesn’t even make sense as a concept. You’re welcome!

There isn’t a lot of opportunity to take pictures or film at a concert like this – it’s quite dark, they ask you not to take photos, and it’s hard to see much of anything anyway. I did take one not-terribly-good photo before it started, just to give you an idea of the beautiful room where the concert took place. (The big silver poles were microphone stands, so maybe they are recording it for a 60th Birthday Celebration series? One can only hope!) The very center of the photo is where the console is that Zorn performed at.
St Paul Chapel

The Hermetic Organ is really a simple concept: John Zorn, solo, improvising on a pipe organ. But it’s very interesting, for a few reasons. One is that since pipe organs are often very different in size, scope, and capabilities, his performance may vary greatly depending on which pipe organ he plays. And of course, since it’s all improvised, it may be completely different from one day to the next even on the same organ. I’m not a musician or composer myself, but I guess that solo improvisation and composition are closely related for someone like Zorn. He’s compared playing a pipe organ to improvising with an orchestra – you have so many options available to you. And as I was listening to this concert, I really thought I was watching Zorn the composer more than Zorn the improviser. He’d layer things together, then throw in some melodies, experimentally, seeing what worked; occasionally he’d startle us with bursts of noise (and they can get quite loud in that room!). Really an interesting insight into his process.

Since I’d seen a previous organ concert in that room, I knew that there were a very small amount of seats that have what I would consider a good view of the performer. And by “very small amount” I mean you can count them on the fingers of one hand! Pipe organs in churches are not designed so that you can see the performer, they are often hidden completely, or in the back of the room so you are facing away from them when you sit in the pews. I didn’t have high hopes about getting one of those seats, especially because I was only about 15th in line… but I guess the other 14 people didn’t know which seats were the right ones, and I ended up in THE exact seat I wanted. No seat lets you see everything, but I could see some of the stops, some of the keyboard, and most of the foot pedals (and him, of course, playing all of those). I was really excited to be able to watch as well as listen, and I wasn’t disappointed – it was really fun to be able to watch him play with both hands and both feet all at once, in addition to a few little tricks like using sandbags to weight down a bunch of keys (producing a discordant cacophony) while playing a melody on a different part of the keyboard. A couple of times he sat back and put his hands on his head or neck, just letting the sounds he had layered carry things for a moment. He used heavy, ultra-low bass drones in a way that I really liked. (He did something similar when I saw him at the Walker marathon in Minneapolis, although in that case he managed to make parts of the building rattle!) One time an emergency vehicle drove by outside, and we could hear the siren – he pointed a finger up as though conducting it, just another instrument in his toolbag, to mix a metaphor. (I’m not 100% sure if that was a moment of humor that very few of us could see or just a coincidence…)

He performed for about 50 minutes, with four or five different “movements” (I guess they were movements – he paused in between them, but maybe he just needed a breather). Afterwards he received a very strong round of applause, and a standing ovation (I think my friend Matthew and I were the first ones on our feet!). In spite of a good effort by the crowd, he was not interested in performing an encore, so he just came out to take a second bow. I’m sure performing at that level for nearly an hour is taxing enough without coming up with an encore.

If you missed this concert and are regretting it, you’re in luck! He’ll be performing another Hermetic Organ set on the Appleton Organ at the Metropolitan Museum at 8PM this Saturday, September 28th. It looks like a very different organ than I’ve seen him play before, so I’m looking forward to hearing a new take on the genre.

Meta-blog note: I’ve gotten a bit off schedule with my blog due to some internet issues – it took me HOURS to upload the video in the last post of Sylvie Courvoisier and Evan Parker at the Stone, and that was with the BETTER of the two internet connections I’ve had since Friday. I decided to review this one while it’s fresh in my mind and hopefully I will be back soon with a review of the Anthology Film Archives concerts over the weekend, which were both fantastic and interesting shows. But I need to spend a little more time on those to really write them up properly.

Meta-Zorn note: WQXR is broadcasting all Zorn all day today (Sept 24, midnight to midnight NYC time). Even the DJ is John Zorn! He’s spinning his own music and talking about it a bit. (I inquired out of concern whether they actually had him broadcasting for 24 hours straight, because while it seems like a really bad idea, it also sort of sounds like something he might do on the one day this week that he didn’t have at least one concert scheduled. They assured me that it is only about eight hours of prerecorded material looped a couple of times to fill the entire day. So presumably he is not chained to a desk somewhere for our listening pleasure. Whew.) I’ve been listening for three hours with some friends and while writing this blog post, and it’s a great listen if you’re a Zorn fan. Just go to this link and click “Q2 music” at the top to listen:

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