Concert(s) Review: John Zorn All-Star Orchestra (9/25/2013) and Chamber Music Marathon (9/26/2013)

EDITED VERSION: This is an edited version of the original review after I received a take-down notice from someone named Charlotte at the Miller Theatre threatening to have me thrown out of the Game Pieces concert if I did not comply with their requests. I am not allowed to have so much as a cell phone pic from the Miller, so this post and the upcoming review of Game Pieces the next night will be completely free of anything but text. After that we will hopefully resume normal service, assuming I don’t get any more take-down notices from anyone else…

I’m sorry I took so long to re-post it, but I got the take-down notice shortly before heading out to dinner and the concert on Friday, and then on Saturday I spent eleven hours at the Metropolitan Museum for the epic all-day marathon there. All free time since then has been used for eating, sleeping, and digesting new music experiences.

On Wednesday and Thursday this week, it was time for a massive dose of John Zorn’s classical music, at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Wednesday night was the “All-Star Orchestra” and Thursday was billed as a chamber music marathon. Between the two nights we heard no less than seventeen of Zorn’s classical pieces, including many I’d never heard before and a few premieres that had never been performed before. It was a pretty special occasion for us devoted Zorn fans. I have met three people so far this week that have traveled to New York from another country just to see these Zorn@60 concerts, so it is really wonderful of Mr. Zorn to give us so much bang for the buck with these incredible marathon concerts. Some of the New Yorkers I’ve talked to are a bit blasé about it because he plays here a lot, but for those of us who can only come to NYC for special occasions, this has been an unparalleled week of music so far.

There was so much music and so much variety that I can’t possibly write about all of it, so I’ll have to pick and choose some favorites. My absolutely far-and-away favorite from Wednesday night was Kol Nidre. It was the first piece of Zorn’s that I ever heard performed live, at the 92nd Street Y back in 2006 (IIRC). That performance was a ~15-piece string orchestra conducted by Zorn himself, and it was the most intense piece of music I’d ever seen. I was very much looking forward to seeing it again with a large string ensemble. This time he had a BIG orchestra… I couldn’t even begin to count the musicians on stage, but the program listed over 50 string players. The sound was powerful, and they used that power to the fullest with sudden and intense swells in volume. David Fulmer did an excellent job conducting. I had goosebumps up and down my arms a few times because it was so emotionally arresting. I feel like having a little lie-down just thinking about that piece.

(“Kol Nidre” video removed per request of the Miller Theatre)

On the next night, my favorite pieces were all pieces which were new to me. I’d only heard four or five of the thirteen chamber music pieces before, and some of the new ones were just brilliant. I asked my friends after the show which pieces they liked the best and there were three that really (more…)

Concert(s) review: John Zorn at the Anthology Film Archives (9/21 & 9/22/2013)

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.

Night One

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 (more…)

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 (more…)

Concert Review: John Zorn’s Masada Marathon (9/15/2013)

On Sunday I went to the Skirball Center at NYU for one of John Zorn’s spectacular Masada Marathons. I’ve seen a number of them before (five, IIRC) and every one has been both different and wonderful in its own way. This one featured more bands than any I’d seen before, a total of thirteen – including a couple I hadn’t seen before. In order of performance: Bar Kokhba, Banquet of the Spirits, Mycale, David Krakauer & his band (billed on the program as simply “Krakauer”), Erik Friedlander solo, Secret Chiefs 3, the Dreamers, Malphas, Roberto Rodriguez Octeto Masada, Uri Caine solo, Abraxas, Masada String Trio, and the grand finale, Electric Masada.

If you’re not familiar with Zorn’s Masada music, it’s basically a songbook of tunes that he wrote based on certain rules – they are all short (and meant to be improvised/expanded upon by the musicians interpreting the tunes) and are based on certain scales/modes that have a Judaic feel to them. He’s released dozens of albums based on the hundreds of tunes in the Masada songbooks, and in recent years he has put together a number of Masada Marathon concerts where he gets together a large number of bands to play Masada material.

For this article, I’m going to write about the bands I thought were particular highlights, instead of trying to be completist – thirteen bands in one post is a bit overkill even for me. I really thought all 13 of the bands were at the very least good and/or interesting, but sometimes a blogger has to make tough choices…

Bar Kokhba was first up, and they are always a favorite of mine. It’s a real all-star band: Marc Ribot on guitar, Joey Baron on drums, Cyro Baptista on percussion, and the Masada String Trio (Erik Friedlander, Mark Feldman, and Greg Cohen) on cello, violin, and bass, respectively. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better band, and they’ve been playing together for about fifteen years as a group (some of them have been working together since the 80s) and they are always really tight and throw down a fantastic groove. I thought the first piece was a bit tame, understandable when they’re warming up the crowd. But in the second piece they really knocked it out of the park – especially Marc Ribot, with a few fiery solos. He just flipped that “It’s Time To Be Awesome Now” switch somewhere in his brain and cranked out some crazy, fun stuff. Bar Kokhba is a band that can be pretty laid back – surfy and groovy – but it’s a slow burn that can really go over the top when they have a chance to stretch out on stage. I think sometimes the limited time they get in these Masada Marathons works against them, since they have to stop playing almost as soon as they really get going.

I had terribly unfortunate camera problems on the night of the show (and me sitting front row center, too! What a wasted opportunity) so you’ll have to settle for audio with no picture:

Banquet of the Spirits was up next, and their set was a lot of fun. They are pretty much a band designed for fun: Cyro Baptista, the Brazilian percussionist who seems like he must have rhythm flowing through his veins; Brian Marsella, a fantastic and wild keyboard player (who you can also hear playing in Zion80, a band I’ve mentioned before); Shanir Blumenkranz, a talented multi-instrumentalist who played in several bands throughout the evening; and Tim Keiper on drums… I always feel a little bad for someone playing drums in Cyro’s band, how can you keep up with him?! But Keiper manages to do just that. The band only played a few tunes, but they changed the tone considerably, from Bar Kokhba’s sunny surfy grooves to something darker, weirder, and more exotic. The very beginning of the set started with some deep rumbling, strange and difficult-to-identify percussion noises, and some slightly creepy piano. Very atmospheric, and totally different from the band we’d just seen. But after that eerie introduction they launched into some faster, more rhythm-focused music, featuring a lot of interesting bass textures and some wonderful work on the keyboards from Brian Marsella. It’s a bit hard to pin them down into a genre, I guess you could call it “world jazz.” I’ve seen them 4-5 times and they are always exciting and fun.

Another favorite from the first half of the night was Erik Friedlander – I’ve always been impressed with his solo performances, but he’s taken these Masada pieces so far beyond the (more…)

Performer Spotlight: John Zorn (a guide to Zorn@60 in NYC)

(NOTE: I updated the Sept 28 Metropolitan Museum concert section after they posted the full schedule on 8/30.)

I don’t really have any big concerts for a couple of weeks (and the last few concerts I went to ended up unblogged due to a variety of factors like illness and a painful dental emergency) so I decided I would write up a little overview of one of my favorite performers/composers, John Zorn, and the line-up of concerts he’s got going on in the next month or two.

Zorn is in the middle of an incredibly prolific part of his career – he’s released five albums this year, and I think there were eleven last year. It can be hard to keep up, and even harder to know where to jump in if you’re just starting out. (I usually tell people to start with the Bar Kokhba triple-CD live set – absolutely great music, and very easy to get into.) As far as genres go, he does anything from twinkly Christmas music to stuff that will scare the neighbor’s dog if you play it too loud. (I’m also told that Anulikwutsayl freaks out my friend’s cat. But what do cats know, anyway?) Anyway, he covers a lot of territory: classical, jazz, rock, world(ish), improv, avant garde, noise – there’s hardly anything he hasn’t at least briefly touched upon.

As part of his 60th birthday celebrations, he’s arranged a wonderful array of marathon concerts around the world – I believe he’s hit 14 countries plus a couple of cities in the U.S. so far this year, with a couple more European dates still to come. I’ve managed to see a couple of different marathons in 2013 already, and I’m very excited about all of the upcoming shows in New York – during the next month or so he’s got a truly spectacular series of concerts lined up in his hometown. I understand that not everyone aspires to my level of concert mania, so I thought I’d go over the list of upcoming NYC shows and make some recommendations for the more casual fan or the curious listener who wants to try live Zorn for the first time.

  • August 29: John Zorn & Fred Frith at the Stone. As far as I know, this will be a fully improvised set. Frith mainly plays guitar and has been in many bands, including Henry Cow, Naked City, and Cosa Brava. This show is recommended for the more hardcore fans and those who have a particular love of improv. Probably not a great introduction to Zorn’s work, if you’re looking for that.
  • Sept 2: John Zorn improv birthday party at the Stone, with guests including (more…)