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.
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…)