Tonic, an ascetic little hostel for outre music and arty noise inthe longtime cultural center of outre artiness, Manhattan's LowerEast Side, closed down in April after nine years of hot-and-coldbusiness--a casualty of engulfing gentrification and bureaucraticharassment, according to the club's owners. For their last night onNorfolk Street, they arranged to go out as grandly as possible andbooked John Zorn, the fifty-three-year-old godhead of the downtownmusical scene, to lead two sets of performances by an ad hocassemblage of musicians in his sphere. The line for admissionstarted forming more than three hours before showtime, and itstretched along two blocks before the doors opened. The evening waschilly and wet. I counted three open umbrellas, including my own.
A film crew was interviewing people on line, and one of the men in agroup ahead of me waved down the camera operator. "If half thesebullshit parasites came down here before this place closed," hetold the film-maker, "it wouldn't have to close!" As the crew moveddown the sidewalk, the piqued guy asked me if I had a cigarette,and I asked him to tell me about some of his favorite Tonic shows.He said this was only his second time at the club, although heloves John Zorn and had seen him play elsewhere.
About ten minutes before the first set was scheduled to start, Zorncame striding down the street, parallel to the queue, just a fewfeet from the people, glaring straight ahead. He was carrying hisalto saxophone in a case and wearing baggy desert-camouflage pantsand an orange T-shirt--the same clothes (or precisely matchingones) that he had worn each of the last three times I had seen himperform this year, once earlier at Tonic and twice at The Stone,the tiny storefront performance space that Zorn himself owns andoperates on Avenue C. As he sped past, fans burst into a chant of"Zorn! Zorn!" He glowered in silence, and when the camera pointedat him he shook his head, declining the attention. I could onlywonder what the shouting fans and the film crew had in mind. Whywould they think that someone who makes a point regularly to appeardressed in camouflage and a T-shirt would want attention?
In the music he put together that night, Zorn made a bookend to theconcerts that he had organized for Tonic shortly after the clubopened in 1998, events that had helped considerably to establishTonic's credibility as a bohemian refuge. On both occasions, Zornserved in part as a creative shepherd-- selecting, organizing, andhosting the performers--and also as the special guest star of hisown show, sort of a recherche hydra of Ed Sullivan and the Beatles.On the last night at Tonic, the musicians drifted in and out of theclub and all around the bandstand, and their playing stylesvaried--more than two dozen artists performed in variousconfigurations into the early hours of the morning--though theywere connected in their common passion for free improvisation,their take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward conventional Westerntonality, and their conception of noise as music.
None of this thinking has been new or radical in the domains ofclassical music, jazz, or hardcore rock and punk for years. Butneither have the ideals of free improvisation, atonality, ornoise-as-music poured out of the rarefied waters of art music intothe mainstream to join the standards of value applied on AmericanIdol. Indeed, the unifying principle of much of the work performedat Tonic from its opening shows to its closing ones, as with a greatdeal of music at other new-music venues such as the KnittingFactory and The Stone, is not really its ostensible newness orradicalism, but rather its unacceptability in popular culture.Though commonly regarded as insular and self-referential, the worldof John Zorn and his peers and followers is integrally engaged withthe mainstream, in that it defines itself by its conscientiousalienation from it. The music is all about status.
Zorn appeared onstage after about half an hour of performances byfour small groups, one of which featured the delightful pianistSylvie Courvoisier, who produced a spirited rhythmic sound collageby rapping and strumming every part of the inside of theinstrument. One of the drummers used a violin bow to play the steelrim of his snare drum. A percussionist thwacked on a Jew's harp andyammered loopy gibberish while his partner did a slow, rudimentarytap dance. It was all resolutely different. And yet it was allnearly identical to the neo- Dada happenings of the Warhol era--the1960s again, but without the ameliorating benefit of the drugs.
Performing in a trio with piano and drums, Zorn played animprovisation of sound graffiti sprayed in bursts and flurryingsplashes of accelerating propulsion. He began with a series ofshort modal phrases, but quickly abandoned modality and, in littletime, dropped tonality altogether, screeching and cronking. Earlyin his career, Zorn began to develop an expansive vocabulary ofextramusical sounds that he could produce with precision on thealto saxophone, often by using only the mouthpiece of theinstrument, sometimes by playing the mouthpiece through a bowl ofwater. For a few years, he tried to devise a system to identify allthe noises he could make and to notate them with hieroglyphic-likesymbols, an effort along the lines of his idol Harry Partch'sattempts to invent new scales and notational methods to accommodatethe odd tones, microtones, and quasi-tones that emanated from theinstruments that he constructed out of old light bulbs, emptyliquor bottles, and driftwood. To the uninitiated, the sounds thatZorn produces may sometimes seem like assaultive noise blurted outarbitrarily. In fact, they are assaultive noise crafted withmeticulous care. For this piece, Zorn employed the entiresaxophone, though he blew into it so hard that the instrumentrattled in his hands and appeared about to fly apart.
After the first set, Zorn spoke briefly--very briefly--to a smallgroup of fans and a couple of journalists assembled near the doorto the club's office. "The yuppies are taking over," he warned usin a vatic hush. "We're all fucked. " He lowered his head andhurried away, presumably to prepare for the second set.
The last night at Tonic presented John Zorn--a guarded manprotective of his public image--as he likes to be seen: a martyrlychampion of a noble and doomed cause, a victim of institutionalindifference and maltreatment. He revels in his vaunted status asan outsider and a cultural insurgent; hence the meticulousscreeching and cronking, as well as the guerrilla's pants. Foryears, before he switched to the orange T-shirt, he performed inone printed with the phrase "Die Yuppie Scum." In the fewinterviews he has given, Zorn has been quick to articulate his heroworship for artistic dissidents and outcasts such as Partch,Charles Ives, Joseph Cornell, and Harry Smith-- his determinationto follow their example, and his fear of oppression by giant,faceless institutions. "I think the outsiders, the individualists,the people who have a messianic belief in themselves and are ableto stick with their vision despite all odds ... the people that canstick with that, they're the ones that are really going to make adifference in the world," he said in an interview with the magazineJazzTimes. "And they will always be a small number, and I've alwaysaspired to be one of that number." And this: "I see enormouscorporations acting like slave masters, like the return of thepharaohs. I see co-opting all around. I see McDonald's everywhere.I see the destruction of ... the small mom and pop stores.... Thatis the big problem--the pharaohs controlling us. Sure, there willbe independent artists, always. But they'll always be on thefringe."
Apart from the vainglory of such messiah talk, there is a sizableproblem with Zorn's ongoing self-projection as a repressed,misunderstood, and underappreciated musical outcast. It is the factthat he is now a well- established and celebrated figure, acomposer recognized not only in the downtown institutions in whichhe has always thrived, and in the sibling bodies that he hasfounded and run for the advancement of his own work and that of hiskindred souls and proteges, such as The Stone and his record companyTzadik, but in major cultural institutions as well. The pharaohs ofthe arts establishment have bestowed honor and riches upon him.Last year he won a MacArthur "genius" grant ($500,000), and inMarch he received the William Schuman Award from the ColumbiaUniversity School of the Arts, one of the largest grants given toan American musician ($50,000). The latter is given for lifetimeachievement, and has gone previously to composers such as MiltonBabbitt, Gunther Schuller, and Steve Reich.
But the achievements of Zorn's lifetime so far are a mixed lot--allof them extraordinary in one way or another, some indisputablysignificant, others dubious. He is certainly important and may wellturn out to be historic as a symbol of musical adventurism and aninspiration to other composers--like Eric Satie, an enigmaticprovocateur with an outsize mystique who stirred acolytes to dowork better than his own. Over the decades since Zorn emerged as amodel of the free-spirited genre-bending associated with downtownManhattan, he has drawn countless musicians and composers into hisorbit, and he has recorded or performed with dozens of them,including some fine ones, among them the composer and trumpeterDave Douglas, the guitarist Bill Frisell, the pianists AnthonyColeman and Wayne Horvitz, the cellist Erik Friedlander, and thedrummer Joey Baron.
Zorn is an exceptional artist, without question, because he prizesand seeks exceptionalism above all. This is not to say that he isexceptionally good at his art. What he is good at--so very good asto suggest a kind of genius--is being exceptional. Unfortunately,uniqueness is not an aesthetic value; it is a term ofclassification. To say that Zorn is one of a kind, as he certainlyis, is to ignore the larger matters of his nature as an artist and,more significantly, the nature of his work, much of which is thinand gimmicky, and some of which is elementally corrupt.
Through his fiercely individualistic modes of working, Zorn detersattention to the work itself. He is obsessed with processes andsystems, and he is often cavalier about their results. In thesmall-ensemble performances and albums that first brought himattention, Zorn led improvising musicians in what he called "game"pieces. Zorn did not compose them, exactly, but was responsible forthem in that he invented and supervised the unprecedented system ofrules for their spontaneous invention by the performers. He deviseda set of signal cards, each of which indicated, in code, whencertain musicians should play: now, the brass instruments; now,drums and guitar; now, the person to the left of the last personwho played; now, nobody.... Further upending the standard notionsof compositional authority or prerogative, Zorn left it to themusicians to call for the cards to be changed. His role was to standin front of the group, hold up the cards, and switch them at theplayers' demand. The meaning of these cards changed as he addedbody-language cues, such as how high he held the sign and whetheror not he was wearing a baseball cap at the moment.
The byzantine rules--to which the audience was never privy--were theartwork, such as it was. As Zorn explained, "What I came up withwas this kind of game structure that talks about when people playand when they don't play but doesn't talk about what they do atall." Not what, but when: the content, the music itself, scarcelymattered to Zorn, who was concerned mainly with the novelty of itssystem of generation, a scheme not devised in service to theexpression of human feelings, but brazenly indifferent, if nothostile, to them. As such, Zorn's game work was less an innovationin the creative process than a debasement of it.
Without making too much of his admiration for messiah figures, it isclear that a dominant theme of Zorn's career has been hisdedication to attempting to invent new musical paradigms and launchnew movements. At some point in his late twenties or earlythirties, Zorn grew more interested in his Jewish heritage, as manyartists (and non-artists) of all backgrounds turn to their roots asthey age. The results of Zorn's ethnic awakening have included abody of more than five hundred shortish compositions with the grouptitle "Masada," named for the famous Jewish martyrdom site of theRoman era; his record label Tzadik (tzaddik denotes a righteousperson, a saintly person, in Hebrew); and an umbrella effort thatis broader, more ambitious, and more nebulous, which Zorn callsRadical Jewish Culture.
Zorn has overseen the performance and the recording of the Masadapieces by ensembles of various sorts--art rockers, chamber groups,and a jazz quartet featuring Zorn on alto saxophone, Dave Douglason trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. Ascompositions, the Masada pieces are simple and repetitious,inspired loosely by traditional melodies and, for the most part,constructed with the standard tools: minor keys and folk-dancerhythms. Many of the tunes are charming and elegiac, unique amongZorn's generally oppressive work; and Douglas, Cohen, and Baron areall players of uncommon sensitivity, employed well here. Zorn, too,though scarcely on the level of his bandmates as aninstrumentalist, plays with rare nuance and delicacy on some of theMasada CDs.
Beyond the Masada pieces, the concerts and recording projectsorganized by Zorn under the rubric of Radical Jewish Culture havebeen a mishmash of works, some related so tenuously to Jewishculture that Zorn's application of the phrase seems less radicalthan cynical. An early example, and just one of many, is Zorn'smulti-artist, two-CD tribute to Burt Bacharach, titled Great JewishMusic. The collection features a hodgepodge of artists associatedwith Zorn, as well as Sean Lennon, playing Bacharach hits such as"Close to You," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," "What's NewPussycat," and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." The music isdelightful pop schmaltz; but apart from the Yiddish origins of thatterm, it is no more Jewish music than this sentence is Magyarlanguage because its writer has great-grandparents from Hungary.
Zorn was asked, on NPR, what exactly it is that makes music Jewish."Well, you know, I've been doing this for quite a while and I don'tthink I can honestly answer that question very accurately," hesaid. "It could be a lot of things. It could be just an intentionof it wanted to be that. It could be a scale. It could be somedramatic subject or theme. It could be something historical. Itcould be something that's just emotional. It could [be] a lot ofthings. It could be nothing. I don't know." But to identifysomething or someone as Jewish and then accept "nothing" as alegitimate reason--surely this is in some way to deny the richness,and even the legitimacy, of Jewishness; it is, in its whatever-ismabout its own identity, reckless and demeaning to real Jewishculture. Zorn, following up on the Bacharach CD, approached DaveBrubeck with the proposition of honoring his work in the "GreatJewish Music" series, and Brubeck had to tell Zorn that he is notJewish. Thinking of "Blue Rondo a la Turk" and "Pick Up Sticks," Iwonder why Zorn presumed that Brubeck is a Jew. Was it thecantorial part that Brubeck once included in a religious oratorioabout social justice? But Brubeck, a Catholic, has also composed amass. Or was it his nose?
On that last night at Tonic, Zorn headed back to the stage for thesecond set, and fans once again yelled out to him, "Zorn! Zorn!"Somebody hollered "Shalom!" and Zorn replied, "What it is!" What itis? That is a perfectly, bafflingly appropriate salutation for theliving master of creative delusion.