David Sheppard celebrates the film music of American composer John Zorn, a musician who, he suggests, is something of a victim of his own creative eclecticism and unremitting artistic curiosity, his true genius “obscured by the cloud of his own scorching but unclassifiable prodigiousness”.
I’m writing this on September 2, 2018, the date of American musician John Zorn’s 65th birthday. This is an occasion that, in my humble opinion, deserves to be widely celebrated, although I suspect it will not be. For Zorn is one of those pervasive musical presences, in a UK context anyway, that many seem to have heard of but relatively few seem to have actually heard, at least not in full measure.
I know I’m not alone in believing John Zorn to be a bit of genius, and he is a one-time Pulitzer Prize-nominee after all, but he really ought to be far more widely and regularly acclaimed, for his remorseless creative stamina if nothing else. Always too creatively curious and too willing to dive into unlikely or challenging cross-genre mash-ups to be trammelled by any one musical medium (and, indeed, his adoption of any particular genre is primarily a means of testing its elasticity), Zorn remains a cherishable national treasure and éminence grise to the US musical cognoscenti, but, more generally, still feels hidden in plain sight, as if obscured by the cloud of his own scorching but unclassifiable prodigiousness.
Suffering at the hands of his own versatilite proclivities he may be, but Zorn, a downtown New York City fixture by his mid-twenties, was once the coming thing of avant-garde jazz, with a reputation for unbridled outbursts of astonishingly adroit alto saxophone improvisation, inspired by everything from Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman and Charles Ives to the Looney Tunes of classic Warner Brother cartoons. It’s this 1980s, ‘crazed jazz improviser’ version of Zorn that defines him as a musician for many – but, really, that is just one small acre in what is a vast, sprawling artistic estate.
Indeed, when not summoning the nutty spirit of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck et al, Zorn has been engaged in everything from ambitious, post-Cageian compositional processes, often for large improvising ensembles, based on convoluted file card systems (as notably deployed on his 1987 Elektra-Nonesuch album Spillane), to searing, hardcore punk-rock via experimental Klezmer music and Chinese bossa nova (really). In between, over four decades of ceaseless creativity, he has collaborated compulsively with the great and good of the downtown scene and far beyond (for several years Zorn divided his time between the East Village and Tokyo). Christian Marclay, Arto Lindsay, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, John Lurie, Marc Ribot, Eugene Chadbourne, Derek Bailey, Wayne Horvitz, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Ikue Mori… you name them, Zorn has worked with them, and, increasingly, without deploying his once trademark sax. Then there are his many and various (sporadically still active) bands, like Naked City, memorably once described as ‘the world’s most avant-garde pop group’, grind-core trio Painkiller and the Jewish heritage-inspired Masada, in its various acoustic, chamber and electric manifestations, to name but three – or is it six?
Not being known for any one outstanding ‘thing’, history may judge Zorn’s oft-performed, but never written down ‘game piece’ composition Cobra, from 1984, and The Big Gundown, his 1987 album of radical, oriental-inspired re-interpretations of Ennio Morricone soundtrack music, to be his most enduring works; but, frankly, while the first is a never-performed-the-same-twice enigma and the latter a frenetic serpentine through percussion thrash, soaring Japanese vocal descant and classical piano etude (sometimes all in the same song), neither is exactly a shoo-in for the musical pantheon. Rather, Zorn’s oeuvre is hallmarked by its courageous stylistic hairpin turns, consistent inventiveness and coruscating musicality across all of its many diverse outputs. A polymath not a dilettante, he is, in short, unbrandable – which feels like a gloriously anachronistic honorific in these overhyped, over-niche-marketed times. Tellingly, his social media presence is erratic and scattershot to say the least. He’s too busy making, organizing and disseminating the music to spend much time showing off about it. Guitarist Marc Ribot calls Zorn the ‘Zen Master of getting things done’.
Over and above all this (and there is more – not least his fearless, long-standing record label, Tzadik, and The Stone, his not-for-profit artist space in the East Village, a vital nexus for the local avant-garde and experimental music scenes), Zorn has also spent much of the last three decades composing for film. A perfect repository for his capacious creative range, his film work, it transpires, is as spiritedly innovative as everything else he produces, although, crucially, many (although by no means all) of his soundtracks err toward the meditative, fragile and, at times, unapologetically beautiful.
I admit that I knew little of Zorn’s film work until earlier this year, when I watched In The Mirror of Maya Deren, Martina Kudláček’s wonderfully evocative portrait of the titular, Russian-born, mid-20th century experimental filmmaker, with music by Zorn. We’re a very long way from Looney Tunes here. With track titles like ‘Drifting’, ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘Nightscape’, this is contemplative, minimal music that lends subtly evocative atmosphere to clips of Deren’s astonishingly seductive, dream-like films. Arranged for an ensemble featuring Zorn on impressionistic piano and Wurlitzer, alongside an organist, cellist and percussionist, the music is both transparent and empathetic, equally a neutral frame for, and a poignant counterpoint to, Deren’s strange, voluptuous moving images. Located, in typically mercurial Zornian style, resolutely between genres, the cues oscillate between modern composition, chamber jazz, hymnal invocation, percussive Africana and kendhang orientalism, while never quite being any of those things. It feels like music that has always been there, it’s just not quite clear where there is.
As with almost all of Zorn’s cinema work, there is a soundtrack album (Filmworks 10: In The Mirror of Maya Deren, released in 2001) that contains music from the movie and also additional, extended pieces in a similar same vein, meaning the record has its own distinct identity beyond its role as a score document. It is currently one of my most treasured albums. That the album is part of a John Zorn Filmworks series, the tenth in what, it transpires, is a jaw-dropping 25 volume Tzadik-released sequence covering the years 1986 to 2013 (when Zorn, for reasons unclear, seems to have ceased his soundtrack work), was another revelation. Most of this summer has been duly spent researching, sourcing, purchasing and immersing myself in further volumes, many of them containing two or three separate soundtracks. None that I’ve yet listened to has disappointed, even briefly, and each is liberally sprinkled with moments of golden transcendence.
Zorn is responsible for all kinds of writing for screen, from documentaries and underground films (sometimes funded or produced by Zorn himself) to adverts (including one directed by an acknowledged hero, Jean-Luc Godard), TV shows and, unsurprisingly, cartoons. The Tzadik label even owes its existence to soundtrack work by dint of the commission funding Zorn received to create music for Walter Hill’s 1992 Film Trespass, although ultimately it was Ry Cooder’s music that graced the finished edit. Undaunted, Zorn’s version – the music ranging from densely textured tapestries of tropical percussion and prepared piano to mysterioso high-tension strings – would duly appear on 1995’s Filmworks II: Music for an Untitled Film by Walter Hill.
I have yet to fully dive into the likes of Filmworks VII: Cynical Hysterie Hour (music Zorn created for the so-named Japanese cartoon), Filmworks XX: Sholem Aleichem (a score based on the music of eastern European Jewry) or Filmworks XVII: The Treatment (the accompaniment to Oren Rudavsky’s 2006 film, based on Astor Piazzolla tango music), although I’m more than intrigued by the snippets I’ve heard of all three on YouTube. I can, however, fully endorse Filmworks XII: Three Documentaries (namely a trio of 2002 cine-curios: Homecoming, Charles Dennis’s tribute to the dance programme at New York’s Performance Space 122; Shaolin Ulysses, Mei-Juin Chen and Martha Burr’s film depicting the lives of Shaolin monks living in the USA, and Family Found, Emily Harris’s portrait of outsider artist Morton Bartlett). Enjoyed as a homogenous album, this is music of restrained intoxication, from Chinese-flavoured miniatures for erhu, string bass, nylon-string guitar and percussion (‘Bamboo Forest’) to numinous choral collages (‘Vocal Phase’). It is, by turns, coolly ascetic and reassuringly mellifluous, and, like all good film music, as emotionally evocative as it is simple, and always ineffably redolent of moving images even without any being visible.
Filmworks XIII: Invitation to a Suicide, the soundtrack to Loren Marsh’s dark 2004 comedy about a man selling tickets to his own death in order to save his father’s life, is another winner. Using a crack band, featuring Marc Ribot’s glinting electric guitar and Rob Burger’s plangent accordion, this is yet more hard-to-generically-define composition, pitched somewhere between French bal-musette and a kind of dreamy, vaguely Romany-toned country-folk-jazz (like I said, it’s hard to define!). It’s melodically rich and delivered with a quite glorious finesse, especially the rippling title theme, with Ribot’s silvery guitar and Kenny Wollesen’s vibes in wonderfully sinuous unison. Zorn wrote all the music here, but doesn’t appear on the recording. He writes, tellingly, in the sleeve notes, however: “…composition and recording, even after 40 years of it, continue to be a constant, never-ending outlet of surprise, inspiration and experiment.”
Amen to that.
Other recommendations from the series include Filmworks XXI: Belle de Nature/The New Rijksmuseum (the latter an accompaniment to a documentary about the refurbishment of the titular Amsterdam museum, featuring Zorn and Uri Caine on rasping harpsichords, brilliantly so on the minimalist-baroque two-piece ‘Meeting’ – think Scarlatti made over by Philip Glass), and Filmworks XXII: The Last Supper – Zorn’s soundtrack to Arno Bouchard’s 2009 sci-fi short, featuring alluringly sculpted minimalist choral works (again recalling Philip Glass as well as Meredith Monk) and absorbing pieces for voices and percussion. The very first volume in the series, Filmworks 1986-1990 – a compendium of his, mostly deep underground, early film work – is also fascinating as it charts Zorn’s four-year ascent from wacked-out cartoon jazz to the beginnings of his more introspective latter-day signature, an evolution made manifest in the shape of music-box-like album closer ‘End Title’.
All of this music should appeal to anyone who has given house room to understated soundtrack work by the likes of Ry Cooder, Yann Tiersen or Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Likewise, if you value more intimate recordings by Philip Glass, John Adams, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Michael Nyman, Wim Mertens, The Kronos Quartet, Penguin Cafe Orchestra or, indeed, any of other contemporary composition heavy hitter whose work more regularly graces TV and movie productions, this is music for you.
If all this Zornology is proving wearying to absorb, you could do worse than explore the self explanatory Filmworks Anthology, released in 2005, which draws from some, if by no means all, of the significant works. Alternatively, you could do as I did, and tumble happily down a Zorn-shaped YouTube wormhole. Discovering Zorn’s extensive film composition archive has certainly been a splendid and inspiring ear-opener for me, and while I am swimming in this magnificently eclectic music, I am, mouth-wateringly, barely a fifth of the way through the multiple volumes.
Indeed, this is a rich seam that keeps on giving, and by digging into it I have discovered other charmingly ‘lower case’ (non-soundtrack) Zorn albums, such as 1998’s Music For Children (part of yet another enticingly titled JZ album series: Music Romance – see also the Book of Angels series. Feeling exhausted yet?) – in which delightful glockenspiel reveries rub up against frenetic, sugar-rush jump-jazz – and A Vision in Blakelight, Zorn’s delicately jazzy, harp and vibraphone-caressed tribute to William Blake.
So please see this article not as any kind of definitive guide to John Zorn’s film music, but as a door opener to his exhaustive and, from evidence thus far accrued, criminally under-celebrated trove of instrumental wonders. Perhaps you can join me in the journey of discovery that I have so blissfully embarked upon and help to upgrade Zorn’s wider reputation from that of kooky improv-jazz provocateur to extraordinary purveyor of the musically sublime – a composer arguably right up there with the cine music Maestro whose work he once bowdlerized: Ennio Morricone.
A belated Happy Birthday, John.