John Zorn

John Zorn
John Zorn

Zorn performing in 2006
Background information
Also known as Dekoboko Hajime, Rav Tzizit
Born September 2, 1953 (1953-09-02) (age 58)
Origin New York City, United States
Genres Avant-garde, experimental[1]
Occupations Composer, producer
Instruments Saxophone, clarinet, flute, guitar, keyboards, double bass, drums, percussion
Years active 1973–present
Labels Tzadik, Avant, DIW, Elektra Nonesuch, Earache, Hat Hut, Shimmy-Disc, Eva, Toy's Factory, Nato, Lumina, Black Saint, Subharmonic, Parachute, Yukon, Rift
Associated acts Naked City, Masada, Painkiller, Hemophiliac, Weird Little Boy, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson
Notable instruments
Clarinet, Piano, Theremin, Wind machine

John Zorn (born September 2, 1953 in New York City) is an American avant-garde composer, arranger, record producer, saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist. Zorn is a prolific artist: he has hundreds of album credits as performer, composer, or producer. He's had experience with a variety of genres including jazz, rock, hardcore punk, classical, extreme metal, klezmer, film, cartoon, popular, and improvised music.[2] Zorn brings these styles to his work,[2] which he refers to with the label avant-garde/experimental.[1]

Zorn has stated that, "All the various styles are organically connected to one another. I'm an additive person - the entire storehouse of my knowledge informs everything I do. People are so obsessed with the surface that they can't see the connections, but they are there."[3]

Zorn has led the punk jazz band Naked City, led the klezmer-influenced quartet Masada and composed 'Masada Songbooks' (written concert music for classical ensembles), and has produced music for film and documentary.

Zorn established himself within the New York City downtown music movement in the mid 1970s and has since composed and performed with a wide range of musicians working in diverse musical areas. By the early 1990s Zorn was working extensively in Japan, attracted by that culture's openness about borrowing and remixing ingredients from elsewhere, where he performed and recorded under the name Dekoboko Hajime, before returning to New York as a permanent base in the mid-1990s.[4][5][6] Zorn has undertaken many tours of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, often performing at festivals with varying ensembles to display his diverse output.[7][8]

After releasing albums on several independent US and European labels, Zorn signed with Elektra Nonesuch and attracted wide acclaim in 1985 when he released The Big Gundown, a cover of music composed by Ennio Morricone.[9] He attracted further attention when worldwide by following this with the release of Spillane in 1987, and Naked City by Naked City in 1989.[1][10][11][12] Zorn then recorded on the Japanese DIW label and curated the Avant subsidiary label before forming Tzadik in 1995, where he was then prolific in issuing several new recordings each year as well as releasing the work of many other musicians.



Early life

John Zorn was born in New York City and learned piano, guitar and flute as a child.[13] He grew up in a household full of a broad spectrum of sound: his mother listened to classical and world music, his father to jazz, French chansons, and country music, and his older brother to doo-wop, and 1950s rock and roll.[14] Zorn recalled an episode of his life, after buying a record by Mauricio Kagel in 1968 at the age of fifteen, that influenced his subsequent taste for experimental and avant-garde music:[15][16]

Here we are: Kagel, "Improvisation Ajoutée." I bought this when I was about 15. Still marked: got it at Sam Goody in September, for 98 cents. And it's a really crazy piece, with the guys screaming and hooting, something that attracted me. I was over at my friend's house, and he really liked the Rolling Stones. And I just got this record, and I put it on and he looked at me like... who the hell are you? Are you out of your mind? And his mother was there, and she was like [puts palm on cheek] my God, take this off... and right then and there, I decided: this was the music.

Zorn spent time in his teenage years listening to classical music, film music, and, "listening to the Doors and playing bass in a surf band."[14] He taught himself about orchestration and counterpoint, by transcribing scores and using in his own compositions, a procedure of "plagiarizing, stealing, quoting, or whatever you can call it", of collage and transposition into his own world, that he has been using throughout his career.[17] He also studied music under Leonardo Balada.[citation needed]

Zorn picked up the saxophone after discovering Anthony Braxton's album For Alto (1969) while studying composition at Webster College (now Webster University) in St. Louis, Missouri, where he attended classes taught by Oliver Lake.[18][19] While still at Webster, Zorn incorporated elements of free jazz, avant-garde and experimental music, film scores, performance art and the cartoon scores of Carl Stalling into his first recordings which were later released as First Recordings 1973 (1995).[20]

Zorn dropped out of college. Following a stint on the West Coast, Zorn moved to Manhattan. There he gave concerts in his apartment and other small NY venues, playing saxophone and a variety of reeds, duck calls, tapes, and other instruments.[21] He founded a performance art project called Theatre of Musical Optics, in 1975 and became a major participant in the fertile, avant-garde, downtown music scene as a composer, performer and producer of music that challenged the confines of any single musical genre.[22] Zorn later used the term 'Theatre of Musical Optics' for the publishing company of his compositions.

Early composition

Zorn's early major compositions included several "game pieces" or "game theories", which he's described as "complex systems harnessing improvisers in flexible compositional formats,"[23] and which "involved strict rules, role playing, prompters with flashcards, all in the name of melding structure and improvisation in a seamless fashion."[1] Game pieces were often named after sports, and include Baseball (1976), Lacrosse (1976), Dominoes (1977), Curling (1977), Golf (1977), Hockey (1978), Cricket (1978), Fencing (1978), Pool (1979), and Archery (1979) which was recorded at Martin Bisi's studio. His most enduring "game piece" is Cobra (1984) which he first released on album in 1987 and in subsequent versions in 1992, 1994 and 2002, and has revisited in performance many times.[24][25][26] Zorn addresses both his own history and the musical philosophy behind his early works in the book Talking Music by William Duckworth.[27]

In 1981, Zorn was "blowing duck calls in buckets of water at fringe venues," which included 8BC, Roulette, Chandelier, and Zorn's own clubhouse, the Saint.[1] Zorn's first solo saxophone (and duck call) recordings were originally released in two volumes as The Classic Guide to Strategy in 1983 and 1986 on the Lumina label. Zorn's early small group improvisations are documented on Locus Solus (1983) which featured Zorn with various combinations of other improvisers including Christian Marclay, Arto Lindsay, Wayne Horvitz, Ikue Mori, and Anton Fier. Ganryu Island featured a series of duets by Zorn with Satoh Michihiro on shamisen, which received limited release on the Yukon label in 1984. Zorn has subsequently released these recordings as CDs on Tzadik making them more widely available than the original vinyl pressings.

Breakthrough recordings

Zorn's breakthrough recording was 1985's The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone, where Zorn offered radical arrangements of the Roman composer's themes from movies including The Big Gundown (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The Big Gundown was endorsed by Morricone who is quoted as saying "This is a record that has fresh, good and intelligent ideas. It is realization on a high level, a work done by a maestro with great science-fantasy and creativity... Many people have done versions of my pieces, but no one has done them like this".[28] Zorn's versions of Morricone's compositions incorporated elements of traditional Japanese music, soul jazz, and other diverse musical genres. Zorn's 15th Anniversary re-release of the album featured additional explorations of Morricone's work.

He first released the composition 'Godard', a tribute to French film-maker Jean-Luc Godard whose jump-cut technique inspired Zorn's compositional approach, on the French tribute album The Godard Fans: Godard Ca Vous Chante? in 1986.[29] Zorn followed this with his second major-label release Spillane in 1987 composed of three different tribute compositions. The title track featured text by Arto Lindsay set to an array of sonic film noir references, 'Two-Lane Highway' a blues-based form to highlight the guitar of Albert Collins and 'Forbidden Fruit', Zorn's tribute to a Japanese film star, performed by the Kronos Quartet.[29] Further exploration of film noir themes were recorded for radio plays and released by Zorn as The Bribe: variations and extensions on Spillane (1998).[30] 'Godard' and 'Spillane' were re-released as a single CD, Godard/Spillane, on Tzadik in 1999.[31]

These pieces are described by Zorn as "file-card compositions", a method of combining composition and improvisation in which Zorn would write down a description of what he wanted on file-cards and arrange them to form the piece.[32] Zorn described the process in 2003. "I write in moments, in disparate sound blocks, so I find it convenient to store these events on filing cards so they can be sorted and ordered with minimum effort. Pacing is essential. If you move too fast, people tend to stop hearing the individual moments as complete in themselves and more as elements of a sort of cloud effect... I worked 10 to 12 hours a day for a week, just orchestrating these file cards. It was an intense process - one I don't want to go through again."[3]

Zorn's "file-card" method of organizing sound blocks into an overall structure largely depended on the musicians he chose, the way they interpreted what was written on the file cards, and their relationship with Zorn. "I'm not going to sit in some ivory tower and pass my scores down to the players." said Zorn, "I have to be there with them, and that's why I started playing saxophone, so that I could meet musicians. I still feel that I have to earn a player's trust before they can play my music. At the end of the day, I want players to say: this was fun - it was a lot of fucking work, and it's one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it was worth the effort."[3]

Jazz interpreter

Beginning in 1986 Zorn participated in several projects focused on modern jazz composers which highlighted his saxophone style. These included Voodoo (1986) by The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, with Wayne Horvitz, Ray Drummond and Bobby Previte and Spy vs Spy (1989) featuring hardcore punk-informed interpretations of Ornette Coleman's music performed by Zorn and Tim Berne on saxophones, Mark Dresser on bass and Joey Baron and Michael Vatcher on drums.[33] News for Lulu (1988) and More News for Lulu (1992) featured Zorn, Bill Frisell and George Lewis performing compositions by Kenny Dorham, Sonny Clark, Freddie Redd, and Hank Mobley. He performed on two recordings by organist Big John Patton - Blue Planet Man (1993) and Minor Swing (1995) and contributed to the Sax Legends series (later re-released as The Colossal Saxophone Sessions) in 1993 with a version of Wayne Shorter's composition "Devil's Island" alongside Lee Konitz, who Zorn has described as "one of my all-time heroes".[34]

While Zorn is often considered a jazz musician his schema is considerably broader. He stated "The term 'jazz', per se, is meaningless to me in a certain way. Musicians don’t think in terms of boxes. I know what jazz music is. I studied it. I love it. But when I sit down and make music, a lot of things come together. And sometimes it falls a little bit toward the classical side, sometimes it falls a little bit towards the jazz, sometimes it falls toward rock, sometimes it doesn’t fall anywhere, it's just floating in limbo. But no matter which way it falls, it's always a little bit of a freak. It doesn’t really belong anywhere. It's something unique, it's something different, it's something out of my heart. It's not connected with those traditions."[1] "But the music is not jazz music, it’s not classical music, it’s not rock music. It’s a new kind of music... So I feel like that created a deep misunderstanding in what this music is. People started judging this new music with the standards of jazz, with the definitions of what jazz is and isn’t, because stories about it appeared in jazz magazines. And now I’ll do a gig at the Marciac Jazz Festival and I’ll get offstage and Wynton Marsalis will say, “That’s not jazz.” And I’ll say, “You’re right! But this is the only gig I’ve got, man. Give me another festival and I’ll play there.”"[35]

Film music

Zorn has written music for documentaries, underground films, television advertisements and cartoons which are documented in the Filmworks albums on the Tzadik label. Some of these film scores are jazz-influenced, others classical, and most feature ensembles consisting of rotating combinations of downtown musicians. Zorn has often used his cinematic and television commissions to experiment with line-ups and forms that would become more established parts of his musical canon.

Zorn stated that "After my record The Big Gundown came out I was convinced that a lot of soundtrack work was going to be coming my way".[36] While Hollywood acclaim was not forthcoming he attracted the attention of many independent filmmakers. The first director to commission him was Rob Schwebber for the 1986 short White and Lazy followed by his work for Sheila McLaughlin's film, She Must Be Seeing Things (1986). In 1990, he composed the soundtrack for the Raul Ruiz film The Golden Boat. All these soundtracks appeared on Filmworks 1986-1990 along with a sixty-four second interpretation of the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which featured future members of Naked City.

Zorn's second Filmworks release documented his Music for an Untitled Film by Walter Hill (1996) which was composed for the film Trespass (1992) but replaced by a score by Ry Cooder.[37] Filmworks III: 1990-1995 (1997) featured the first recordings by the Masada lineup for Joe Chappelle's Thieves Quartet (1993) along with early drafts for the Cynical Hysterie Hour project, duets with Marc Ribot which featured in Mei-Juin Chen's Hollywood Hotel (1994), and a series of commercial soundtracks for the advertising firm Weiden and Kennedy, including one directed by Jean-Luc Godard - a long-term Zorn inspiration.[38] Filmworks IV: S&M + More (1997) and Filmworks V: Tears of Ecstasy (1996) both included music written for films dealing with BDSM.[39] Filmworks VI: 1996 contains the soundtracks to three underground films produced in 1996; Dina Waxman's Anton, Mailman, Henry Hills' Mechanics of the Brain, and Maria Beatty's The Black Glove.

Filmworks VII: Cynical Hysterie Hour re-released the themes that Zorn produced for a Japanese cartoon which had only been previously available in limited release in Japan. Zorn regained the rights to these recordings by trading a booking at The Knitting Factory to Sony executives.[40] Filmworks VIII: 1997 features music for the documentary Port Of Last Resort (1998), which detailed the experiences of Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai during the years preceding World War II, and the soundtrack to the underground film Latin Boys Go to Hell (1997).[41][42]

Zorn's next soundtrack work did not appear until 2000 with Filmworks IX: Trembling Before G-d featuring music for an award winning documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews trying to reconcile their sexuality with their faith directed by Sandi Simcha DuBowski.[43] The following year Filmworks X: In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2001) featured music for a documentary on the life and work of underground filmaker Maya Deren.[44]

The year 2002 was a very productive one for Zorn's cinematic scores. Filmworks XI: Secret Lives (2002) featured the Masada String Trio performing music for Aviva Slesin's documentary film on Jewish children hidden from the Nazis.[45] Filmworks XII (2002) features music for three documentaries; Homecoming: Celebrating Twenty Years of Dance at PS 122, Shaolin Ulysses, a film about Shaolin Monks in America, and variations on the theme for Family Found, a documentary on outsider artist Morton Bartlett.[46][47][48] Zorn released his third soundtrack collection of 2002 with Filmworks XIII: Invitation to a Suicide, written for a black comedy about a man selling tickets to his own suicide to save his father's life.[49]

Zorns next two Filmworks releases featured in documentaries examining Jewish identity and antisemitism. Filmworks XIV: Hiding and Seeking (2003) provided the soundtrack a documentary about an Orthodox Jewish father attempting to alert his sons of the dangers of creating barriers between themselves and those outside their faith.[50] Filmworks XV: Protocols of Zion (2005) featured music for a documentary about a resurgence of antisemitism in the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks.[51]

Filmworks XVI: Workingman's Death (2005) presented themes for a documentary portraying hazardous employment undertaken in the Ukraine, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and China.[52]

Filmworks XVII (2006) featured music for Martina Kudlacek's documentary Notes on Marie Menken intertwined with Zorn's percussive score for Beth Cataldo's portrait Ray Bandar: A Life with Skulls.[53][54] Filmworks XVIII: The Treatment (2006) featured music for Oren Rudavsky's romantic comedy based on the tango music of Astor Piazolla.[55]

Filmworks XIX: The Rain Horse (2008) was written for an animated children's short film by Russian director Dimitri Gellar. Also released in 2008 were Filmworks XX: Sholem Aleichem containing music for a documentary on the Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem, Filmworks XXI: Belle de Nature/The New Rijksmuseum featuring soundtracks for another of Maria Beatty's films and a documentary on the restoration of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, and Filmworks XXII: The Last Supper.


Zorn established Naked City in 1988 as a 'compositional workshop' to test the limitations of a rock band format.[56] Featuring Zorn on saxophone, Bill Frisell (guitars), Fred Frith (bass), Wayne Horvitz (keyboards), Joey Baron (drums), and occasional vocals from Yamatsuka Eye, Bob Dorough, and later Mike Patton, Naked City incorporated Zorn's appreciation of hardcore bands like Agnostic Front and grindcore bands like Napalm Death with his other influences and experimented with compositional form and cover versions.[57]

Named after a 1945 book of graphic black and white photographs by Weegee the band performed an aggressive mix of "soundtrack themes, bluesy hard bop, speedy hardcore rock, squealing free jazz [and] metallic funk".[58] Zorn has stated that "Naked City started with rhythm and blues/Spillane type things then went into this hard-core thing... because I was living in Japan and experiencing a lot of alienation and rejection... My interest in hard-core also spurred the urge to write shorter and shorter pieces."[59]

Naked City followed the release of their self-titled album with Torture Garden a collection of 42 'hardcore miniatures'; intense brief compositions often lasting less than a minute, in 1989. Some of these tracks had featured on Naked City and others would resurface on the bands next full-length release, Grand Guignol (1992), which also included performances of works by Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin, Orlande de Lassus, Charles Ives, and Olivier Messiaen. The band's third album, Heretic (1992), featured more of these short improvisations produced for the soundtrack of an underground S/M film Jeux des Dames Cruelles. The band released a second EP, Leng Tch'e, in 1992 featuring a single composition which lasted just over half an hour. Radio, released in 1993, was the first Naked City album composed solely by Zorn, and featured tracks drawing on a wide range of musical influences including Charles Mingus, Little Feat, Ruins, Booker T. and the M.G.'s, Colin Wilson, Albert King, Chuck Brown, Orchestra Baobab, the Accüsed, the Meters, Tony Williams' Lifetime, Anton Webern, Sammy Cahn, Frank Sinatra, Morton Feldman, Igor Stravinsky, the Melvins, Beatmasters, Septic Death, Abe Schwartz, Ivo Papasov, Naftule Brandwein, Repulsion, Led Zeppelin, Bernard Herrmann, Santana, Extreme Noise Terror, Conway Twitty, Siege, Ornette Coleman, Corrosion of Conformity, Massacre, Quincy Jones, Sam Fuller, Funkadelic, Carcass, Liberace, Jan Hammer, Eddie Blackwell, Charlie Haden, Mick Harris, Carole King, Red Garland, Boredoms, Jerry Reed, SPK and Roger Williams in addition to Zorn's previously identified touchstones.[60] The final recording from the band Absinthe (1993) featured a blend of ambient noise styled compositions with tracks titled after the works of Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire and other figures in the fin de siècle Decadent movement, and a dedication to Olivier Messiaen. Zorn disbanded Naked City after this release but briefly reformed the band for a European tour in 2003.

Zorn also formed Painkiller with Bill Laswell on bass and Mick Harris on drums in 1991. Painkiller's first two releases Guts of a Virgin (1991) and Buried Secrets (1992) also featured short grindcore and free jazz inspired compositions. They released their first live album, Rituals: Live in Japan on the Japanese Toys Factory label in 1993 followed by the double CD Execution Ground (1994) which featured longer dub and ambient styled pieces. A second live album Talisman: Live in Nagoya was released in 2002 and the band was featured on Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 12 (2005) with Hamid Drake replacing Harris on drums and guest vocalist Mike Patton.[61]

Both bands attracted worldwide interest, particularly in Japan, where Zorn had relocated following a three-month residency in Tokyo.[62] Zorn collaborated with, and produced, numerous Japanese 'noise' artists including Merzbow, Otomo Yoshihide, Melt Banana and frequent collaborator Yamatsuka Eye. Many of these artists have now released albums on Tzadik and some regularly travel to New York to perform.

Releases from both bands were criticized for their graphic album covers. The cover of the eponymous album by Naked City used the Weegee photograph 'Corpse with Revolver C.A. 1940' which shows a gangland killing as did their later live album.[63] Zorn left Electra Nonesuch after the company's response to the artwork for Naked City's Grand Guignol, releasing the remaining Naked City albums on a Japanese-based label, Avant.[64] The Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence protested against Zorn because they believed that the images used in the graphic design of Naked City's Torture Garden and Leng Tch'e portrayed degrading images of Asian people. To avoid problems, Zorn removed the original albums from retail sale and later replaced the artwork with new packaging titled Black Box.[65] Painkiller's Guts of a Virgin EP was banned in the UK after customs seized and destroyed the first shipment for violating the Obscene Publications Act.[66] Execution Ground was also released with the original cover photograph of a lynching removed. Zorn later re-released the Naked City and Painkiller albums as box sets with restored artwork after forming his own record label.[67]

Zorn recorded Hemophiliac in 2002 with Mike Patton and Ikue Mori which continued his interest in hardcore improvisations. The first release from this trio was a double CD set which was signed by the performers. Limited to 2,500 copies this album soon became a highly sought after collectors item.[68] The trio also released a live recording as part of Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration Series.

In 2006 Zorn formed the hardcore voice/bass/drums trio of Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn, and Joey Baron which became known as the Moonchild Trio.[69] That year two albums of Zorn's compositions performed by the trio were released: Moonchild: Songs Without Words and Astronome. A third album with the trio, but also featuring Zorn, Ikue Mori, Jamie Saft and chorus, Six Litanies for Heliogabalus, was released in 2007.[70] Their fourth release The Crucible appeared in 2008.[71]

Concert music

John Zorn has established a diverse repertoire of music written for chamber musicians and orchestras. As Zorn's interest in Naked City waned he "started hearing classical music in [his] head again."[72] Zorn began composing the suites Elegy (1992) (dedicated to Jean Genet) and Kristallnacht (1993) both of which drew on chamber music arrangements of strings, percussion and electronic instruments.

Zorn was quoted in 1998 as saying "Sometimes I get the feeling that people just don't see me as a composer, but it's what I've always been since I was eight years old... I've always thought of myself as a composer, but the world has had a hard time looking at me as a composer because a lot of what I compose is controversial."[73] The establishment of Tzadik allowed Zorn to release many compositions which he had written, over the previous two decades, for classical ensembles. Zorn's earliest released 'classical' composition (for five flutes), 'Christabel' was written in 1972 and first appeared on Angelus Novus in 1998. Redbird (containing new compositions for bass drums and a harp/viola/cello/percussion quartet inspired by Agnes Martin) and The Book of Heads (35 etudes for solo guitar written in 1978 for Eugene Chadbourne and realised by Marc Ribot) were released in 1995 as part of Tzadik's Composer Series. Zorn credits the composition of his 1988 piece for string quartet "Cat O' Nine Tails", commissioned and originally released by the Kronos Quartet, to awakening him to the possibilities of writing for classical musicians. This composition was featured on The String Quartets (1999) and Cartoon S/M (2000) along with variations on "Kol Nidre", inspired by the Jewish prayer of atonement which was written at the same time as (but not part of) the first Masada book.[74] Duras: Duchamp (1997) consists of two 'tribute' compositions, the first dedicated to Marguerite Duras has four movements lasting roughly thirty-four minutes influenced by the composition of Oliver Messiaen, the second "69 Paroxyms for Marcel Duchamp" lasts just over thirteen minutes. Aporias: Requia for Piano and Orchestra (1998) was Zorn's first full-scale orchestral release featuring pianist Stephen Drury, the Hungarian Radio Children's Choir and the American Composers Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

Songs from the Hermetic Theatre (2001) featured four experimental compositions; "American Magus", was Zorn's first piece of electronic music dedicated to Harry Smith; "BeuysBlock", a meditation on the work of Joseph Beuys; "In the Very Eye of Night", a tribute to Maya Deren; and "The Nerve Key", Zorn's first piece of computer music. Madness, Love and Mysticism (2001) featured "Le Mômo", inspired by Antonin Artaud, performed by Stephen Drury (piano) and Jennifer Choi (violin); "Untitled", dedicated to Joseph Cornell, a cello solo for Erik Friedlander; and "Amour Fou" featuring the trio. Chimeras (2001) was inspired by Arnold Schoenberg's atonal composition "Pierrot Lunaire".

Several of Zorn's later concert works drew inspiration from mysticism and the works of Aleister Crowley in particular. Magick (2004) featured the Crowley Quartet on "Necronomicon: for string quartet" and "Sortilège" written for two bass clarinets. A 2009 performance of "Necronomicon" was described as "...frenetic vortexes of violent, abrasive motion, separated by eerily becalmed, suspenseful sections with moody, even prayerful melodies. The music is sensational and evocative, but never arbitrary; you always sense a guiding hand behind the mayhem".[75] Mysterium released in 2005 featured "Orphée" performed by a sextet of flute, viola, harp, harpsichord and electronics; "Frammenti Del Sappho" for female chorus; and "Wulpurgisnacht" for string trio. Rituals (2005) featured Zorn's five movement opera for mezzo soprano and ten instruments composed for the Bayreuth Opera Festival in 1998. From Silence to Sorcery (2007) features three compositions; "Goetia" consists of eight variations for solo violin performed by Jennifer Choi; "Gris-Gris" is composition for thirteen tuned drums performed by William Winant; and "Shibboleth" is a tribute to Paul Celan scored for clavichord, strings and percussion.

Zorn's concert works have been performed all over the world and he has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic and Brooklyn Philharmonic.[76] When the piece for the Brooklyn Philharmonic was played at New Music America festival, he wrote in the pamphlet with the music:[77][78]

Less than an actual music festival, New Music America is a one-sided overview that's more about politics, marketing, and sales than about the music it pretends to support... it's no more than a convention for the people in the music business who try to "out-hip" each other in the manipulation of artists. This postmodern yuppie tendency of business people dictating creative policy to artists is a very real danger that I intend to avoid at all costs.

Masada Books

Masada: Joey Baron (dr), Greg Cohen (b), Dave Douglas (tr), John Zorn (as)

John Zorn recorded Kristallnacht in November 1992, his premiere work of radical Jewish culture, featuring a suite of seven compositions reflecting the infamous Night of Broken Glass in late 1938 where Jews were targets of violence and destruction in Germany and Austria.[79] The experience prompted Zorn to further explore his Jewish heritage and composing using Jewish musical styles.[80][81] Zorn then set himself the task of writing 100 compositions within a year incorporating klezmer styles with his already broad musical palette.[82] Within three years, the number of compositions had grown to 200 and became known as the first Masada book. Zorn explained:

The project for Masada was to create something positive in the Jewish tradition something that maybe takes the idea of Jewish music into the 21st century the way jazz developed from the teens and 1920s into the '40s, the '50s, the '60s and on...

... My initial plan was to write 100 tunes in a year that touched upon the Jewish tradition and that was an interesting challenge. It was really fun as a composer to come home and write a something that could be finished sometimes in 10 minutes, sometimes in an hour or sometimes an evening...

... The Masada songbook was really something that was like the Irving Berlin songbook or the Burt Bacharach songbook or the Thelonious Monk songbook. Here's another lifetime for me. So when I look at what's been accomplished in the world of Masada, it's kind of unbelievable. Of course I had no idea at the times I started. My initial idea was to write a hundred tunes. And then I ended up writing over 200 for the first book and then performed it countless time for years.[83]

The initial releases featuring this compositional approach were ten albums by Masada appearing on the Japanese DIW label from 1994. Masada (later referred to as 'acoustic' Masada) was an Ornette Coleman-inspired quartet with Zorn (alto saxophone), Joey Baron (drums), Dave Douglas (trumpet), and Greg Cohen (bass) that performed jazz-styled compositions based on Sephardic scales and rhythms.[84] The original Masada albums were titled after the first ten letters of the Hebrew Alphabet – Alef, Beit, Gimel, Dalet, Hei, Vav, Zayin, Het, Tet and Yod – and contained compositions with Hebrew titles. Further releases by Masada consisted of live performances of the band recorded in Jerusalem, Taipei, Middleheim, Seville and in New York at the Knitting Factory and at Tonic and as a DVD, and a double CD of unreleased studio recordings, Sanhedrin 1994-1997 (2005).

The Masada quartet performed at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in March 2007 for what were billed as their final concerts.[85] Zorn reformed the band as a sextet with Uri Caine and Cyro Baptista in 2009 saying:

I felt like we kind of hit a plateau a little bit with it in 2007 and I said, “Well, maybe the quartet is really done. Maybe we’ve accomplished what we can accomplish. Maybe it’s time to put this to bed.” And then I was asked by the Marciac Jazz Festival to put together a slightly larger group. They asked me what if I added a couple of people to Masada and I said, “I can’t add anybody to the quartet. The quartet is the quartet, that’s what we do.” But then I thought, “Well, if I was going to add someone I would probably ask Uri and Cyro.” So we tried it at Marciac and it was unbelievable. We didn’t even have any rehearsal time. I just passed the charts out and said, “OK, just watch me because I’ll be conducting. Let’s just do it.” And it was one of those magical clicks on the bandstand that sometimes happens. So yeah, this band is taking off again. After 15 years of doing this music, we can still find new things.[35]

The Masada Book has been performed by many different ensembles and musicians. The Masada String Trio composed of Greg Cohen (bass), Mark Feldman (violin), and Erik Friedlander (cello) regularly performs and records Zorn's Masada pieces. This group, with the addition of Marc Ribot (guitar), Cyro Baptista (percussion), and Joey Baron (drums) also perform as the Bar Kohkba Sextet. Electric Masada, the most recent regular Masada ensemble usually features Zorn, Baptista, Baron, and Ribot, along with Trevor Dunn (bass), Ikue Mori (electronics), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Kenny Wollesen (drums).[86] A Tenth Anniversary Series of Masada recordings was released by Zorn beginning in 2003. The series featured five albums of Masada themes including Masada Guitars by Marc Ribot/Bill Frisell/Tim Sparks, Masada Recital by Mark Feldman & Sylvie Courvoisier, Masada Rock by Rashanim and two albums featuring various artists - Voices in the Wilderness and The Unknown Masada.

In 2004, Zorn began composing the second Masada Book, 'The Book of Angels', resulting in an additional 300 compositions.[87][88] Zorn explained:

After 10 years of performing the first book, I thought 'Maybe it'd be nice to write some more tunes.' And I wrote 300 more tunes. When I started writing those it was 'Let's see if I can write a hundred songs in a month this time.' I've been working on these scales and playing these tunes all this time. In the back of my head somewhere are lodged all kinds of new ideas. Let's see if I can come up with 100 tunes in a month instead of in a yr. So in the first month, I popped out a hundred tunes; the second month, another hundred; in the third month, a third 100 tunes. I had no idea that was going to happen.[83]

He has released several albums of Masada Book Two compositions performed by other artists. Recordings by the Jamie Saft Trio, Masada String Trio, Mark Feldman & Sylvie Courvoisier, Koby Israelite, The Cracow Klezmer Band, Uri Caine, Marc Ribot, Erik Friedlander, Secret Chiefs 3, Bar Kokhba Sextet, Medeski, Martin and Wood, and the Masada Quintet have been released in this series. The titles of many Masada Book Two compositions are derived from demonology and Judeo-Christian mythology.

Tzadik record label

In 1992 John Zorn collaborated with the Japanese Disc Union label to curate the Avant imprint, a subsidiary of the DIW jazz label which released the first Masada albums. Several Naked City recordings were released through the Avant label as well as many others on which Zorn featured downtown musicians including Derek Bailey, Buckethead, Eugene Chadbourne, Dave Douglas, Erik Friedlander, Wayne Horvitz, Ikue Mori, Bobby Previte, Zeena Parkins and Marc Ribot.

In 1995, in co-operation with jazz producer Kazunori Sugiyama, Zorn established the Tzadik label to ensure availability of his catalogue and promote experimental musicians. Zorn said that the label is a way to shield from the power of the music industry, with "giant corporations acting like slave masters, like the return of the pharaohs," merging together to get even more powerful like in the Polygram-Universal acquisition; and to shield from distribution companies like Tower, HMV, and Virgin Megastores, that are destroying "the small mom and pop stores—people that love the music and that’s why they have their store," and from the insidious pollution of the tastes of the masses, "with brainwashing and brain-control. These marketing guys who are at the head of all these companies, they’re really the ones that are spoon-feeding everybody shit."[1]

Zorn is inspired by other artists and different musical styles, particularly those working in improvised music. He has a special attraction to underground artists and musical styles that are extremely loud, wild, or creative. Tzadik has established a diverse catalogue reflecting Zorn's range of musical influences and influence. The Tzadik website describes the label as "...dedicated to releasing the best in avant garde and experimental music, presenting a worldwide community of musician-composers who find it difficult or impossible to release their music through conventional channels".[89]

The label's releases are divided into series:

  • The Archival Series features Zorn's recordings exclusively, including re-releases of several albums that appeared on other labels, Zorn's film work, and recordings from 1973 onwards;
  • The 50th Birthday Celebration Series is 11 live albums recorded in September 2003 at Tonic as part of the month-long concert retrospective of Zorn's work;
  • The Composer Series features Zorn's music for 'classical' ensembles along with work by many other contemporary composers;
  • The Radical Jewish Culture Series features contemporary Jewish musicians;
  • The New Japan Series covers Japanese underground music;
  • The Film Music Series features soundtracks by other musicians (Zorn's Filmworks recordings are feartured in the Archival Series);
  • The Oracle Series promotes women in experimental music;
  • The Key Series presents notable avant-garde musicians and projects;
  • The Lunatic Fringe Series releases music and musicians operating outside of the broad categories offered by other series;[89] and
  • The Spotlight Series promotes new bands and musical projects of young musicians.

Tzadik also releases special edition CDs, DVDs, books and T-shirts. Since 1998 the designs of Tzadik releases have been created by graphic artist Heung-Heung "Chippy" Chin.[90]

Music romance

Zorn released Music for Children in 1998.[91] The album, identified as "Music Romance Volume One" portrayed the broad spectrum of Zorn's compositions. Music for Children opened with a polyrhythmic etude for percussion and celeste, featured three short Naked City compositions, written at the time of Torture Garden, performed by Zorn with the Boston-based band Prelapse, a composition for wind machines and feedback dedicated to Edgard Varèse, a classical chamber piece for violin, percussion and piano, and ended with a music box-styled lullaby. The second "Music Romance" album, Taboo & Exile, was released in 1999 and featured a similar spectrum of broad styles.[92] One of Zorn's most popular albums was the third in the series, The Gift (2001), which surprised many with its relaxed blend of surf, exotica and world music.[93] Zorn released The Dreamers in 2008 which is considered to be a sequel to The Gift although not identified as a volume of "Music Romance". 2009 also saw the release of the album O'o, featuring the same style of music and set of players as the 2008 album.

50th birthday celebration

In September 2003 Zorn celebrated his 50th birthday with a month-long series of performances at Tonic in New York, repeating an event he had begun a decade earlier at the Knitting Factory.[94][95][96] He conceptualized the month into several different aspects of his musical output. Zorn's bands performed on the weekends, classical ensembles were featured on Sundays, Zorn performed improvisations with other musicians on Mondays, featured his extended compositions on Tuesdays and a retrospective of game pieces on Wednesdays.[97] Twelve live albums were released on his 50th Birthday Celebration Series which featured performances by the Masada String Trio, Milford Graves & John Zorn, Locus Solus, Electric Masada, Fred Frith & John Zorn, Hemophiliac, Masada, Susie Ibrarra, Wadada Leo Smith & John Zorn, John Zorn solo, Yamataka Eye & John Zorn, Bar Kokhba Sextet and Painkiller.[98]

Recent projects

Zorn was the principal force in establishing The Stone in 2005, an avant-garde performance space in New York's Alphabet City which supports itself solely on donations and the sale of limited edition CDs, giving all door revenues directly to the performers.[99] Zorn holds the title of artistic director and regularly performs 'Improvisation Nights'.[100] On Friday April 13, 2007, Zorn played the final night at Tonic, the Lower East Side venue where he played regularly for the previous decade, which closed due to financial pressures.[101][102][103] On January 10, 2008, Zorn performed with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson at a special benefit night at The Stone which was also released on The Stone: Issue Three on CD.[104]

On February 4, 2008, Zorn premiered his work for three cellists "777" performed by Fred Sherry, Erik Friedlander, and Michael Nicolas at the Guggenheim Museum. Zorn premiered The Dreamers with members of Electric Masada on February 29, 2008 at St Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn.[105] On March 27, 2008, Miller Theater at Columbia University in New York City, which has been the venue for several premieres of Zorn's concert works, hosted the first performance of a new composition by John Zorn, "The Prophetic Mysteries of Angels, Witches & Demons".[106][107] Zorn curated the music for the Aleph-Bet Sound Project, a sound installation featuring new music by Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Erik Friedlander, David Greenberger, Chris Brown, Z’EV, Terry Riley, Alvin Curran, Christina Kubisch, Marina Rosenfeld, Raz Mesinai, and Jewlia, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum from June 4, 2008 to January 8, 2009.[108] Zorn's "Shir Ha-Shirim" premiered in February 2008.[109] The piece is inspired by the Song of Songs from the old testament and is performed by an amplified quintet of female singers with female and male narrators performing the "Song of Solomon". Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson read the texts in English for the February performances. The group returned to New York for performances at the Guggenheim on November 23 and 24, at which Ayelet Rose Gottlieb and Jeremy Fogel recited in Hebrew. These performances at the Guggenheim Museum in November 2008 featured choreography for paired dancers from the Khmer Arts Ensemble by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro.[110] The ensemble includes Marc Ribot on guitar, Carol Emanuel on harp, Trevor Dunn bass and the five extraordinary female vocalists. The Daughters of Jerusalem, as they are known for this project are, Lisa Bielawa, Martha Cluver, Abby Fischer, Kathryn Mulvihill and Kirsten Sollek. Photos of February rehearsals. Shir Ha-Shirim was also performed in Milano, Italy on September 24, 2008 and in Paris, France for the Jazz à la Villette event, on Saturday September 5, 2009.

In 2009, American playwright and avant-garde theatre pioneer Richard Foreman directed Astronome: A Night at The Opera based on Zorn's Astronome (2006).[111]


In 2000 Zorn edited the book Arcana: Musicians on Music featuring interviews, essays, and commentaries by musicians including Anthony Coleman, Peter Garland, David Mahler, Bill Frisell, Gerry Hemingway, George Lewis, Fred Frith, Eyvind Kang, Mike Patton and Elliott Sharp, on the compositional process.[112] Zorn released the second volume of Arcana: Musicians on Music in the Summer of 2007. According to the preface by Zorn, "This second installment of what will be a continuing series of books presenting radical, cutting-edge ideas about music is made, like the initial volume, out of necessity."[113] The second volume contains essays by more than 30 musicians including Annie Gosfield, Trey Spruance, Zeena Parkins, Steve Coleman, Marina Rosenfeld, Carla Kihlstedt, David Douglas, Bill Laswell, Trevor Dunn, and Jewlia Eisenberg. In October 2008, a third volume of the Arcana series was released containing essays by Wadada Leo Smith, Frank London, Greg Cohen, Sean Lennon and Jamie Saft.[114] In Septermber 2009 Volume IV was released, and Volume V is scheduled to be released on July 2010 with subtitle Musicians on Music, Magic & Mysticism.

Awards and critical reception

In 2001 John Zorn received the Jewish Cultural Award in Performing Arts from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.[115] In 2006 Zorn was named a MacArthur Fellow.[116][117] In 2007, he was the recipient of Columbia University's School of the Arts William Schuman Award, an honor given "to recognize the lifetime achievement of an American composer whose works have been widely performed and generally acknowledged to be of lasting significance."[2] In 2011 Zorn was awarded the Magister Artium Gandensis, an honorary degree from the University of Ghent.[118]

Zorn has attracted mixed receptions by critics throughout his career stating that "The press has never done anything but ignore and ridicule and marginalize my music—downtown music, because they don't know what to call it."[119] A 1999 NY Times article by Adam Shatz accused Zorn of "attempt[ing] to recast Jewishness as a defiantly marginalized identity -- to claim victim status -- [which] has an air of calculation about it that overpowers his music."[120] Several letters to the Editor from critics and musicians appeared in the following weeks in support of Zorn's artistic merit.[121][122][123] In the opinion of Howard Mandel, who has interviewed Zorn numerous times,[124] Zorn has often expressed a reluctance to grant interviews and has requested that journalists not review his performances.[125]

The character of Stephen Colbert from the TV show The Colbert Report mocked the MacArthur Foundation's award of the Genius Grant to Zorn on the September 20, 2006 episode in his segment titled "Who's Not Honoring Me Now". Colbert used a 10-second dissonant excerpt from the 50th Birthday Celebration Series and compared it to his blowing into a saxophone, pleading, "Genius Grant please!"[126] Zorn's comments on the Colbert segment were "It was a hilarious spot."[83]




  • Zorn. J. (editor) (2000) Arcana: Musicians on Music, Hips Road: New York (ISBN 188712327X)
  • Zorn. J. (editor) (2007) Arcana II: Musicians on Music, Hips Road: New York (ISBN 0978833767)
  • Zorn. J. (editor) (2008) Arcana III: Musicians on Music, Hips Road: New York (ISBN 0978833775)
  • Zorn. J. (editor) (2009) Arcana IV: Musicians on Music, Hips Road: New York (ISBN 0978833783)
  • Zorn. J. (editor) (2010) Arcana V: Musicians on Music, Magic & Mysticism, Hips Road: New York (ISBN 0978833791)


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  • Duckworth, William (1999) Talking Music, Da Capo Press (ISBN 0-306-80893-5) pp. 444–476
  • Gann, Kyle (2006) Music Downtown: Writing from the Village Voice p. 232
  • Gordon, Ted (2008) John Zorn: Autonomy and The Avant-Garde.
  • Mandel, Howard (1986) Howard Mandel interview John Zorn, EAR Magazine Vol. II no. 2, oct., 1986. LOGOS.
  • Mandel, Howard (1988) Ich habe viele kleine Tricks. John Zorn interview. MusikTexte 23, Febr., 1988.
  • Mandel, Howard (1997) Guerilla Strategist: John Zorn interviewed by Howard Mandel, Resonance vol. 6 nr. 1, 1997.
  • Mandel, Howard (2005) Jazz: Who What Where Why New York Press, September 7, 2005.
  • Mandel, Howard (2008) Musicians Dread Words, Jazz Beyond Jazz, March 2, 2008.
  • Milkowski, Bill (1998) John Zorn interview in Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries New York: Watson-Guptill Publications
  • Milkowski, Bill (1999) John Zorn; His Own Scene, NY Times, October 17, 1999
  • Milkowski, Bill (2000) John Zorn: One Future, Two Views [2] (interview) in Jazz Times, March 2000, pp. 28–35,118-121 (accessed 24 July 2010)
  • Milkowski, Bill (2009) John Zorn: The Working Man in Jazz Times, May 2009 (accessed 24 July 2010)

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