This weekend my friends and I were lucky enough to see two “Essential Cinema” concerts and one screening/discussion with John Zorn at the Anthology Film Archives. Essential Cinema is what Zorn calls his concerts where he has a live band performing scores along with silent short films. I’d seen one of these concerts years ago at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, so I had a pretty good idea of what to expect going in.
The theater at the AFA was fairly small, and the band set up directly beneath the screen, in front of the seats. The front row of seats was roped off, so we sat in the second row (hoping for the best view of the band in a darkened theater, since we are much more live music junkies than we are film junkies). It turned out that the front row was blocked off so that Zorn could sit there and conduct the band (and occasionally play his saxophone) while still being able to see the film as it was playing on the screen. This worked out pretty well for us as we had a great view of the conductor as well as the dimly-lit band.
He asked us at the beginning to turn off and put away our phones and cameras and “pretend it’s 1958″ and enjoy the show. So: I have no pictures or Youtube videos to share with you! I wasn’t about to go against his explicitly stated wishes while sitting two feet away from him.
On the first night, they played scores for five short films. The films we saw did not completely match the program, but I believe it was Joseph Cornell’s “Rose Hobart” as well as “Collage No. 36″; Harry Smith’s “Oz, the Tin Woodman’s Dream”; Wallace Berman’s “Aleph”; and Maya Deren’s “Ritual in Transfigured Time.”
Two of the films (I believe it was the Cornell films) had scores very reminiscent of the Gift or the Dreamers material – the band consisted of Jamie Saft (keys, guitar), Shanir Blumenkranz (bass), Marc Ribot (guitar), Tim Keiper (drums), Cyro Baptista (percussion), Kenny Wollesen (vibes) and Ikue Mori on laptop/electronics. They had a very lush, exotic sound, mostly pretty smooth but with the occasional crescendo of intensity.
One of the films – Harry Smith’s, if my memory serves me correctly – had a soundtrack consisting entirely of Ikue Mori on the laptop, with Zorn sitting next to her (he seemed to be pretty hands-on during that piece, directing or conducting as she played). This piece also had an exotic sound to it, with repeated rhythms, organ music and a variety of percussion sounds in the mix. Not necessarily my favorite music of the night, but it was interesting and went well with the film. For my taste, it’s hard for something produced electronically to compete with a live band.
I’d seen Zorn perform a score for “Aleph” before, with the Aleph Trio at the Walker in Minneapolis earlier this year, and it was a very similar performance here: loud, fast, abrasive saxophone improvisation with similarly-styled drums (and I think there may have also been a bass in the mix). I unfortunately was suffering from a migraine over the weekend and had to actually cover my face during this piece because the high-speed jump cuts in the film were making me nauseous in the same way a strobe light would. I am pretty sure that is not a typical audience reaction, though!
My favorite piece of the evening was the final one, played to (again, if I’m remembering correctly) Maya Deren’s “Ritual in Transfigured Time.” This was more or less the same band from the Cornell films – the ones that sounded a bit like the Gift or the Dreamers – with Erik Friedlander and his cello added to the mix. We all really enjoyed this, it was simply a brilliant piece of music. Lots of arco cello, shimmering cymbals and Cyro Baptista’s exotic percussion mimicking bird calls and jungle sounds.
I wasn’t able to film or record anything due to my proximity to John Zorn and not wanting to be disruptive, but a friend of mine who wishes to remain nameless had some mics running and let me borrow a couple of the live cuts for the blog. Here is the Maya Deren score:
On the second night, there were only three films (but two of them were quite long). First up was Charles Dekeukeleire’s “Combat de Boxe”; then Jean Genet’s “Un Chant D’Amour”; and then “Artifactual: Films from the Wallace Berman Collection” which was about half an hour of various kinds of footage both by and of Wallace Berman.
The room was set up pretty much the same way at the first night, with a couple of extra drum kits in the stage area. It became quickly apparent why they had so many drums – the first piece, to go with “Combat de Boxe,” was a drum trio, conducted by Zorn. The drummers were Kenny Wollesen, Kenny Grohowski, and Tim Keiper. I really loved this piece, it was visceral and powerful and just a lot of fun to listen to (and feel, since we were once again sitting in the second row, directly in front of three drum kits – very impactful!). I think my friends who hadn’t brought earplugs enjoyed it somewhat less than me, but I thought it was an incredibly powerful piece.
The second film, “Un Chant D’Amour,” was probably a bit of a surprise for many folks in the theater as it was gay male erotica and featured full frontal nudity. But far from being tasteless or crass, I actually thought it was beautifully filmed, and it was probably my favorite out of the short films that Zorn picked. The soundtrack was – just like the night before – Ikue Mori on her laptop being conducted/directed by Zorn. The music was somewhat similar to what she’d played the night before, too, actually. It worked well with the film, but again, was not my favorite music of the night.
The final film (“Artifactual”) was the longest one, a full half hour. The music performed with it had more of a progression than the other, shorter pieces they’d played. I am trying to remember exactly who was on stage; I think it was the three drummers from the first piece (Wollesen, Grohowski, Keiper), Cyro Baptista, Marc Ribot, John Zorn, Shanir Blumenkranz, Jamie Saft and Ikue Mori. It started out beautifully, with a really nice groove on the upright bass and percussion, and Zorn blowing his sax in the most melodic manner we’d heard all weekend. Real foot-tapping kind of music. The music moved on to more spacy/dreamy sounds featuring some percussion from Baptista and Mori, and a lot of keyboard from Saft.
At some point they launched into something much heavier and faster, more reminiscent of the “Aleph” soundtrack from the day before, but with the full band, including some sax-and-drums improv, some great loud drum solos, a crazy organ solo from Saft, and a really fun guitar solo from Ribot while Shanir Blumenkranz settled back into the bass groove from the beginning of the piece underneath all the chaos. Great, great stuff. Put it on a CD and I’ll buy it tomorrow! Here is an excerpt from my friend’s recording (this is the first part of the piece, before they launched into the heavier/faster section).
In addition to the live performances, there was a Q&A/discussion panel in the afternoon on Sunday, before the second concert. It attracted a smaller crowd than the live music did, but it was pretty darn interesting for dedicated Zornians. (Zornites? Does our cult have a name yet?) He talked a lot about his process of writing music for films, and a lot of it was pretty surprising to me. He’s apparently elevated efficiency to an art form and only needs to see a few minutes of a film before he has enough inspiration to write the score. He doesn’t worry about timing etc. and just provides a certain amount of material for the filmmaker to use and edit any way they like. And he said he never watches the finished films, either. He told us a lot of stories about his brief forays into Hollywood film scoring and writing music for advertisements, and we were treated to a rare screening of shoe commercials and a rough-cut film with his music in it. Apparently none of them ever saw the light of day; Zorn had a theory that the ad agencies only commissioned his music for commercials when they were trying to scare their clients into accepting their previous music suggestions.
Overall I thought the AFA put on a couple of great days of music and talk for us – I enjoyed both of these concerts much more than the previous Essential Cinema pieces I’d seen. I was kind of expecting them to be a minor part of the week-o-Zorn I’m in the middle of, but they may turn out to be highlights after all.
Stay tuned for more Zorn@60 reviews coming up – I am seeing him every day for the next five days! (Because if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing!)