Concert Review: John Zorn’s Game Pieces (9/27/2013)

(See previous post for explanation of why there are no photos or videos in this blog article. Welcome to Wordville, population: 1871. If you find any photos or videos from this show, feel free to link to them in the blog comments!)

Friday night was our third night in a row at the Miller Theatre, and out of the three nights, it was the music I was most excited about: John Zorn’s Game Pieces. I was sadly in a lousy mood going into it, partly because of the e-mail I’d received from them and partly because I wasn’t looking forward to spending another 3-4 hours in such a hot and stuffy room (it had been so bad the night before, people were falling asleep left and right, and my friends had to miss pieces of music to go out and get fresh air). I felt bad for the musicians – you know if it’s hot and stuffy in the audience section, it’s ten times worse on stage since they’re higher up and constantly under all those hot lights.

It is really a shame that there are no videos available of most of these pieces, because some of them I feel are almost pointless to listen to without being able to see them. It is so much easier to understand what’s happening when you can see the musicians and the prompter/conductor/director. It’s also lots and lots of fun to watch these pieces! On this particular night we got an incredible array of pieces, the likes of which has not been seen probably since his last birthday celebration 10 years ago. We saw Hockey (two versions), Rugby, Xu Feng, Lacrosse, Fencing, Hwang Chin-ee, and Cobra. I’d only seen two of the pieces before and I don’t own any of the albums (I am a big Zorn fan but I “only” have about 80 of his albums – I buy a lot more concert tickets than I do CDs).

The first Hockey, which I believe was “Dry” Hockey, consisted of Zorn on game calls, Erik Friedlander on cello, and Kenny Wollesen on percussion. It was pretty similar to the Hockey I saw in Minneapolis earlier this year, although on second watching I started to feel like I was beginning to get an ever-so-slight idea of how it worked. It looks pretty intense to participate in, and it is definitely intense to listen to, with a lot of sudden loud noises and rather abrasive game calls. It’s fun to watch but it’s something you only want to hear in small doses. (Zorn mentioned afterwards that they used to be able to keep that up for 50 minutes in one performance, which makes me kind of glad I wasn’t around back then!)

Next up was Rugby, which was played by the Talea Ensemble (Barry Crawford, flute; Stephen Gosling, piano; Chris Gross, cello; Alex Lipowski, percussion; Yuki Numata Resnick, violin; and the prompter was Rane Moore). This one was more obviously a game piece to the casual observer, since the prompter appeared to be conducting the band with signs and signals. It was also a lot easier to listen to, without the amplified game calls of the previous piece (which at times were reminiscent of an air horn). I quite liked this one, and some of the people I talked to afterwards named it as one of their favorites.

After Rugby we got “Wet” Hockey, with Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, Ikue Mori on laptop electronics, and William Winant on percussion. I liked this one a lot more than the first Hockey, especially Sylvie Courvoisier’s performance on piano (you may have noticed I’m a big fan of hers!). It was similarly chaotic to the first piece, and I basically had no idea what was going on, but it made a lovely noise and I guess that’s all you need sometimes.

Xu Feng was the capstone of the first part of the show (there were three parts with two intermissions). I had been looking forward to this ever since I saw it on the program. It was being performed by six percussionists (if memory serves me, they were Ches Smith, Joey Baron, Kenny Wollesen, Brian Chase, William Winant and Tim Keiper) and prompted by Zorn himself. It was incredible! Maybe my favorite piece of the night. Really exciting and fun to watch and listen to, and of course being in the front row (with appropriate earplugs) for a massive percussion piece like that is pretty much a full-body experience. I was close enough to be able to read some of the signs Zorn was holding up so I was able to get a better idea of what was going on. Like the Cobra game piece I’d seen in April, he was using signs to signal what the performers should do, and the performers were able to signal to him as well. Unlike Cobra, there were also modifiers that could be added to each sign, so you could tell people to, e.g., imitate the person next to them (sign) and play really loud (modifier). I wish so hard that I could have made a video of this piece since it was so incredible and so much fun to SEE as well as hear.

After the intermission we had another piece that I found a bit difficult – Lacrosse. With Zorn on saxophone, George Lewis on trombone, Mike Patton on vocals and electronics, and William Winant on percussion, it was a fairly abrasive mix of sounds. It was also one of the pieces where I felt I had no idea what was going on or how the “game” worked. It was the only time that Zorn played his saxophone during his run at the Miller, so for some people it was probably a key part of the performance. (Some people are really fixated on his sax, I tend to see him more as a composer than a player so it’s not as important to me.)

Fencing was up next, and this was a three-guitar piece performed by the Dither Quartet (minus one). (Performers: Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore.) I was a bit surprised that this turned out to be a real “love it or hate it” piece among my friends – many said it was the weakest of the night, but a couple thought it was a highlight. I was in the former camp – it wasn’t bad by any means, but there was a certain lack of contrast with the three electric guitars, and it seemed like only one of them was playing most of the interesting parts. Zorn seemed very excited about their performance, so it’s entirely possible I was missing some important aspect of the piece.

The last piece before the second intermission was Hwang Chin-ee, which hadn’t seemed incredibly promising on the program (“Korean narrator and two drum sets”) but turned out to be a real highlight of the night for me. The two drummers, Joey Baron and Kenny Wollesen, had their drum kits set up center stage and facing each other. I didn’t quite figure out the rules, but they were clearly both signalling each other and imitating each other (e.g. one would raise a hand in the air and drum one-handed, so the other would do the same). It was clear that both of them were having a really good time performing the piece, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them. Okkyung Lee, the narrator, seemed to be there mainly to add color and flavor to the music – I couldn’t tell if she was bound within the same rules of the game being played. (One interesting tidbit from Zorn’s introduction – he said that he used to have someone read Korean gossip columns because he didn’t have a good source of interesting Korean texts. Later on, as in this piece, he used texts from Korean poetry. Sort of makes one wonder where the idea of using Korean texts came from in the first place.)

We had one final intermission before the grand finale: Cobra. There were twelve musicians on stage in a horseshoe configuration (I’m having a hard time coming up with the list from memory – wish I had pics! – but I believe it was Joey Baron, drums; Marc Ribot, guitar; Mike Patton, voice; John Medeski, keyboards; Kenny Wollesen, drums; Okkyung Lee, cello; Erik Friedlander, cello; Sylvie Courvoisier, piano; George Lewis, trombone; William Winant, percussion; Cyro Baptista, percussion; Ikue Mori, electronics; Trevor Dunn, bass). Front and center, facing the musicians, was John Zorn, prompter, with his table full of signs, directing the action. This was a lot of fun, maybe not musically quite as interesting as some of the others, but I think I had a big grin on my face the entire time. Many of the musicians were repeatedly signalling Zorn only to be passed over for someone else (there are only so many suggestions he can take if five people want to do something simultaneously) and it was fun to try and follow along with both the prompts and the signalling musicians to see how much I could figure out. The final Cobra was very different from the others I’d heard, featuring the cellists and upright bassist playing some beautiful slow melodies together. A great example of how Cobra can sound like just about anything and not just turn-on-a-dime jump-cut chaos.

Cobra is the one game piece that I have some vague idea about how it works, thanks to having seen it twice along with information on the internet (if you search for “john zorn cobra score” you’ll find a variety of info). It is fantastically complex – the musicians can signal the prompter by indicating with their fingers a number and a body part (mouth, nose, eye, ear, head, palm) and there are also headbands and hats that can be used as signals. The headband/hat subsystem allows a musician to take more control over the proceedings, letting them ignore the prompter and control other musicians using a number of different hand signals. In total there are dozens of different signals and the performers have to be on top of them at all times, keeping a constant eye on the prompter but also trying to watch other musicians as well. You can see the concentration on all of their faces as they play, while at the same time they are thoroughly enjoying the game, often unable to suppress a grin at their fellow performers when something particularly exciting is happening.

I have incredible respect for the musicians that can play these difficult pieces so well. It’s a different way of improvising – instead of waiting till you get your big solo and then playing whatever you want and being the center of attention, the game pieces are very much a cooperative exercise where no one person really gets to be the star. This is, I think, very relevant to the way that Zorn puts together all of his bands, and maybe the reason that so many of them play together so well. The game pieces, though rarely played and probably rarely listened to, are really a key part of Zorn’s oeuvre.

Next up in the week-o-Zorn, my review of the Metropolitan Museum marathon – and the triumphant return of videos and photos to Concert Manic! Stay tuned!

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