Review: John Zorn’s Cobra – 30th Anniversary (11/29/14)

On Saturday night I headed to Brooklyn with some friends to catch John Zorn’s 30th anniversary performance of Cobra at Roulette. Cobra premiered at Roulette in 1984, so it was certainly the perfect place for the anniversary concert. (It’s one of my favorite NYC venues, I’m always happy when something I want to see is happening there.) Zorn put together an all-star cast of his usual suspects including a lot of my favorite downtown musicians: Cyro Baptista on percussion; Sylvie Courvoisier on piano; Trevor Dunn on upright bass; Mark Feldman on violin; Erik Friedlander on cello; George Lewis on trombone; Eyal Maoz and Marc Ribot on electric guitars; John Medeski on organ; Ikue Mori on electronics; William Winant on percussion; and Kenny Wollesen on drums.

The night kicked off with a Q&A which was supposed to be Anthony Coleman asking John Zorn questions about Cobra. It deteriorated quickly into a bit of a tirade when Zorn saw someone in the audience taking a picture with their cell phone. He went on at some length about how there should be no record made of this concert in any way – no recordings, no photos, etc. I hesitated to even write this blog, but I guess us writers still have that whole ‘free speech’ thing going for us. Since there was such a strict ban on photography I am forced to give you only this artist’s representation of the concert:
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Concert Review: John Zorn Marathon at the Walker Art Center (4/6/13) – Part 1: Book of Heads, Hockey, Cobra, Composer Q&A

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. (more…)