By Dale W. Eisinger
John Zorn is a complicated figure in the history of the American avant-garde. His performances are at times alienating, and on the whole dense. In the '70s, when he moved to New York and began making a name for himself as a saxophonist, composer, and founder of the performance art project Theatre of Musical Optics, he rejected much of the "cool" culture of his time. He flouted conventions of composition, performance, pedagogy, and promotion in order to retain total control over his work, and remains a linchpin of the sort of New York counter culture that is at once exclusionary and influential.
Zorn didn't dislike "scenes," per se, as he ran with very specific types of composers and performers-- Milford Graves, Bill Frisell, Arto Lindsay, Laurie Anderson-- in the Downtown Music movement of the '70s. Zorn was also instrumental in the rise of avant concert spaces in the city with his work at venues like Tonic and the original Knitting Factory. His performances, curation, and administrative work helped to sustain some of those first inklings of New York DIY. Currently, he's artistic director at Alphabet City's The Stone, a performance space he founded in 2005. His label, Tzadik, has released records from Merzbow, Mike Patton, Kayo Dot, and hundreds of other out and left-field artists since '95. Despite his underground ethos, his establishment accreditations are too many to list, and he's credited on more than 400 records as producer or performer.
But attempting to summarize or label the career of the avant-garde composer and multi-instrumentalist contradicts the spirit of his art. Zorn's been reluctant to deal with press over the years, saying we've done him no favors and caused him nothing but troubles. He's gone as far as asking journalists not to review his shows. As I told Zorn before this email interview, it was not our intent to paint him in false light, exploit his likeness, or make any assumptions of his work. I wanted to introduce him to a new set of listeners who may be unfamiliar with his unflinching autonomy and radical aesthetic sense. Zorn possesses a beautiful mind, one capable of elucidating his unique musical language for a younger generation of likeminded artists.
In what is intended to illuminate "the most important musical voices of our time," Zorn will appear at Columbia University's Miller Theater on Friday, December 9th as part of the space's Composer Portrait series. In addition to larger ensemble pieces, there will be four world premieres and one New York premiere of some newer compositions by Zorn, each technically demanding and written with a specific performer in mind: cellist Fred Sherry, violinist Jennifer Koh, pianist Steve Gosling, the Talea Ensemble, and conductor Brad Lubman. Afterwards, Zorn will play late-night organ improvisations at St. Paul's Chapel.