|Born||(1953-09-02) September 2, 1953 (age 67)
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Genres||Avant-garde, experimental, avant-rock, jazz, grindcore, avant-garde metal|
|Occupation(s)||Musician, composer, producer|
|Instruments||Alto saxophone, pipe organ, clarinet, flute, keyboards, vocals, guitar, double bass, drums, percussion, theremin, wind machine|
|Labels||Tzadik, Avant, DIW, Elektra Nonesuch, Earache, Hathut, Shimmy-Disc, Eva, Toy's Factory, Nato, Lumina, Black Saint, Subharmonic, Parachute, Yukon, Rift|
|Associated acts||Naked City, Painkiller, Masada, Masada String Trio, Bar Kokhba, Hemophiliac, Moonchild, Violent Femmes|
In 2013, Down Beat described Zorn as "one of our most important composers".
Zorn established himself within the New York City downtown music movement in the mid-1970s, collaborating with musicians and developing new methods of composing experimental music.
After releasing albums on several independent US and European labels, Zorn signed with Elektra Nonesuch; in 1986, he earned exposure and acclaim with The Big Gundown, an album reworking the compositions of Ennio Morricone.
After living between Japan and the US for several years, he returned to Manhattan permanently and established his own record label, Tzadik, in 1995.
Tzadik enabled Zorn to maintain independence from the mainstream music industry and ensured the continued availability of his growing catalog of recordings.
He prolifically recorded and released new material for the label, issuing several new albums each year, in addition to releasing recordings by many other musicians.
He has composed concert music for classical ensembles and orchestras, and produced music for opera, sound installations, film and documentary.
He has toured Europe, Asia, and the Middle East extensively, often featuring at festivals with musicians and ensembles that perform his diverse repertoire.
Early life and career
Zorn's family had diverse musical tastes: his mother, Vera (née Studenski; 1918–1999), listened to classical and world music; his father, Henry Zorn (1913–1992), was interested in jazz, French chansons, and country music; and his older brother collected doo-wop and 1950s rock and roll records.
Zorn began playing saxophone after discovering Anthony Braxton's album For Alto (1969) when he was studying composition at Webster College (now Webster University) in St. , where he attended classes taught by Louis, MissouriOliver Lake.
While at Webster, he 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).
Zorn dropped out of college and, following a stint on the West Coast, moved to Manhattan where he gave concerts in his apartment and other small NY venues, playing saxophone and a variety of reeds, duck calls, tapes, and other instruments.
In 1975, he founded a performance art project called the Theatre of Musical Optics and became a major participant in the downtown music scene as a composer, performer, and producer of music that challenged the confines of any single musical genre.
Zorn's early major compositions included several game pieces described as "complex systems harnessing improvisers in flexible compositional formats".
These compositions "involved strict rules, role playing, prompters with flashcards, all in the name of melding structure and improvisation in a seamless fashion".
Zorn's game pieces were often titled after sports, and include Track & Field (1974), Baseball (1976), Lacrosse (1976), Dominoes (1977), Curling (1977), Golf (1977), Hockey (1978), Cricket (1978), Fencing (1978), Pool (1979), and Archery (1979), several of which were recorded and originally released on Eugene Chadbourne's Parachute label, becoming the first albums under Zorn's leadership.
In the early 1980s, Zorn was heavily engaged in improvised performance which included "blowing duck calls in buckets of water at fringe venues" as both a solo performer and with other like-minded artists.
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.
Zorn has subsequently released these recordings as CDs on Tzadik making them more widely available than the original vinyl pressings.
Zorn's breakthrough recording was 1985's widely acclaimed The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone, where Zorn offered radical arrangements of music from Ennio Morricone soundtracks, that incorporated elements of traditional Japanese music, soul jazz, and other genres.
The Big Gundown was endorsed by Morricone himself, who said: "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".
Zorn followed this with his second major-label release Spillane in 1987, which included performances by Albert Collins and the Kronos Quartet, and the extended title track, one of Zorn's file-card compositions, which featured text by Arto Lindsay over a film noir inspired collage.
This method of combining composition and improvisation involved Zorn writing descriptions or ideas on file-cards and arranging them to form the piece.
Zorn described the process in 2003:
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."
Beginning in 1986, Zorn participated in several projects focused on the compositions of modern jazz musicians which highlighted his unique saxophone style including Voodoo (1986) by the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, and Spy vs Spy (1989) featuring hardcore punk-informed interpretations of Ornette Coleman's music with Tim Berne.
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".
While interest from Hollywood 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) and in 1990, he composed the soundtrack for the Raúl Ruiz film The Golden Boat.
Zorn did attract the interest of filmmaker Walter Hill who contracted him to compose music for a film to be called Looters.
Although Zorn's score was not used in the final release he used the commission he received for composing to establish his own record label, Tzadik, and released Filmworks II: Music for an Untitled Film by Walter Hill in 1995.
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.
Zorn often used his film work to introduce new groups or experiment with new compositional methods; Filmworks 1986–1990 (1991) featured a sixty-four second interpretation of the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which links his Morricone tribute to the musicians who would become Naked City; Filmworks III: 1990–1995 (1997) featured the first recordings by the Masada lineup produced for Joe Chappelle's independent feature Thieves Quartet; Filmworks XI: Secret Lives featured the Masada String Trio; and Filmworks XXII: The Last Supper highlighted Zorn's growing interest in composing for vocal groups.
From the mid-1990s, Zorn composed film music only for projects which he found personally interesting or of artistic merit.
On occasion, Zorn would produce soundtracks for productions with more mainstream appeal such as 2002's Filmworks XIII: Invitation to a Suicide for a black comedy about a man selling tickets to his own suicide to save his father's life, Filmworks XVI: Workingman's Death (2005) for a documentary portraying hazardous employment undertaken in developing countries, Filmworks XVIII: The Treatment (2006) for Oren Rudavsky's romantic comedy based on the tango music of Astor Piazzolla, and Filmworks XIX: The Rain Horse (2008) for a Russian animated short film.
In 2013, after releasing 25 volumes in his Filmworks Series, Zorn announced that he would no longer be releasing music for film.
Featuring Zorn (saxophone), Bill Frisell (guitars), Fred Frith (bass), Wayne Horvitz (keyboards), Joey Baron (drums), and occasional vocals from Yamatsuka Eye (and later Mike Patton), Naked City incorporated Zorn's appreciation of hardcore bands like Agnostic Front and grindcore bands like Napalm Death along with influences like film music, country or jazz into compositional experiment.
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".
Zorn 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."
This approach culminated in a string of "hardcore miniatures", intense brief compositions often lasting less than a minute, 42 of which were featured on the EP, Torture Garden (1989).
Some of these tracks had also featured on the band's debut Naked City and others would resurface on the band's 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 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 crediting a wide range of musical influences.
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.
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.
Both bands attracted worldwide interest, particularly in Japan, where Zorn had relocated following a three-month residency in Tokyo.
The trio also released a live recording as part of Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration Series.
John Zorn has established a diverse repertoire of music written for chamber music and orchestral settings.
As Zorn's interest in Naked City waned, he "started hearing classical music in [his] head again."
Zorn started working on compositions that drew on chamber music arrangements of strings, percussion and electronic instruments.
This was followed by the piece Kristallnacht recorded in November 1992, his premiere work of radical Jewish culture, featuring seven compositions reflecting the Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") in late 1938 where Jews were targets of violence and destruction in Germany and Austria.
The establishment of Tzadik allowed him to release many compositions which he had written over the previous two decades for classical ensembles.
Zorn's earliest released classical composition, Christabel (1972) for five flutes, first appeared on Angelus Novus in 1998.
Zorn credits the composition of his 1988 string quartet Cat O' Nine Tails (commissioned and released by the Kronos Quartet on Short Stories) to awakening him to the possibilities of writing for classical musicians.
This composition also appeared 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 the first Masada Book.
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.
Much of Zorn's classical work is dedicated or inspired by artists who have influenced him:
- Duras: Duchamp (1997) contains tributes to Marguerite Duras and Olivier Messiaen
- Songs from the Hermetic Theatre (2001) features compositions dedicated to Harry Smith, Joseph Beuys, and Maya Deren
- Madness, Love and Mysticism (2001) featured Le Mômo, inspired by Antonin Artaud, and Untitled, dedicated to Joseph Cornell
- Chimeras (2001) was based on Arnold Schoenberg's atonal composition, Pierrot Lunaire
A 2009 performance of the album's centerpiece 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".
Later works expanded to include vocal and operatic works; Mysterium released in 2005 featured Frammenti del Sappho for female chorus; Rituals (2005) featured Zorn's opera composed for the Bayreuth Opera Festival in 1998; and La Machine de l'Être composed in 2000, premiered at the New York City Opera in 2011, and recorded for the 2012 album Music and Its Double.
The experience of composing Kristallnacht prompted Zorn to explore his Jewish heritage and examine methods of composing using the Phrygian dominant scale.
Zorn set himself the task of writing 100 compositions within a year.
Within three years, the number of compositions had grown to 205 and became known as the first Masada Book.
The initial fruits of 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), Dave Douglas (trumpet), Greg Cohen (bass), and Joey Baron (drums) that performed jazz-styled compositions based on Sephardic scales and rhythms.
The original Masada albums were named after the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet 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 (2001) and as a DVD (1999), and a double-CD of unreleased studio recordings, Sanhedrin 1994–1997 (2005).
The quartet released a live recording as part of Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration Series.
In 1996, Zorn released Bar Kokhba featuring Masada compositions recorded by a rotating group of musicians.
Two ensembles arose from this album; the Masada String Trio, composed of Greg Cohen (bass), Mark Feldman (violin), and Erik Friedlander (cello); and the Bar Kokhba Sextet which added Marc Ribot (guitar), Cyro Baptista (percussion), and Joey Baron (drums), both of which were featured on 1998's The Circle Maker.
In 2003, Zorn formed Electric Masada, a band featuring Zorn, Baptista, Baron, and Ribot, along with Trevor Dunn (bass), Ikue Mori (electronics), Jamie Saft (keyboards), and Kenny Wollesen (drums) releasing their debut live album from Zorn's 50th Birthday Concert series and a double live CD recorded in 2004.
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, and Tim Sparks; Masada Recital by Mark Feldman and 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 316 compositions.
He has released twenty volumes of Masada Book Two compositions all performed by other artists.
The Masada quartet performed at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in March 2007 for what were billed as their final concerts.
Zorn's Masada compositions and associated ensembles have become a central focus of many concerts and festivals and he has established regular 'Masada Marathons' that feature various bands and musicians performing music from the Masada Books.
Zorn completed the third Masada book, titled The Book Beriah, in 2014.
Zorn released one of his most popular albums, The Gift, in 2001, which surprised many with its relaxed blend of surf, exotica and world music.
On February 29, 2008, at St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, Zorn premiered The Dreamers which saw a return to the gentle compositions first featured on The Gift and established the band of the same name.
In 1992, John Zorn curated the Avant subsidiary of the DIW label and released several Naked City recordings on the label as well as many other albums featuring Zorn affiliated 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 record label to ensure the availability of his catalogue and promote other musicians.
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 featured 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; 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.
The Stone (music venue)
Zorn's earliest New York performances occurred at small artist-run performance spaces including his own apartment.
As his profile grew, he became associated with several Lower East Side alternative venues such as the Knitting Factory and Tonic.
On Friday April 13, 2007, Zorn played the final night at Tonic before it closed due to financial pressures.
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.
Zorn holds the title of artistic director and regularly performs 'Improvisation Nights'.
Zorn feels that "The Stone is a unique space and is different from Tonic, the Knitting Factory, and most of the other venues we have played at as there is no bar ... so there is NO pressure to pack the house with an audience that drinks, and what night you perform has nothing to do with your power to draw a crowd or what kind of music you might play".
In December 2016 Zorn announced that The Stone would close in February 2018 but that he was hopeful that a new location could be found, stating "Venues come and go, but the music continues on forever!"
By March 2017 Zorn had negotiated with The New School to move The Stone to Greenwich Village.
On February 25, 2018 the last performance was held at the original venue and Zorn moved operations to The New School's The Glass Box Theatre on the basis of a handshake deal.
50th and 60th birthday concert series
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.
A total of 12 live albums were released on his 50th Birthday Celebration Series.
Zorn's 60th birthday celebrations encompassed concerts across the globe from festival appearances to unique events in art galleries and unusual venues across 2013 and into 2014.
The first concerts under the Zorn@60 banner were performed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in April 2013.
The European leg of Zorn@60 commenced at the Barbican Theatre in London in July 2013.
Festival appearances in Belgium, Poland, Spain and Germany followed soon after.
These were followed by concerts in Victoriaville, Canada.
Zorn undertook another of his celebrated Masada Marathons at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in August.
Further New York City concerts in September included performances of music for film at the Anthology Film Archives, classical works and Cobra at the Miller Theatre, a day-long concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a performance of improvised duets with Ryuichi Sakamoto.
The final Zorn@60 concerts were performed as part of the Adelaide Festival in Australia in March 2014 featuring a four concerts covering the breadth of his compositional and improvisational range.
Arcana (book series)
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.
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."
New volumes have since been released; the eighth volume was published in September 2017.
In 2001, John Zorn received the Jewish Cultural Award in Performing Arts from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
In 2006, Zorn was named a MacArthur Fellow.
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."
Main article: John Zorn discography
- Money (1985), a "manic collage film" by Henry Hills on "the early days of "language poetry" and the downtown improvised music scene."
- Put More Blood Into the Music (1987), documentary by George Atlas on New York avant garde music, aired Sunday March 12, 1989 as episode 292 of The South Bank Show.
- Step Across the Border (1990), documentary on Fred Frith.
- A Bookshelf on Top of the Sky: 12 Stories About John Zorn (Tzadik, 2004), film portrait by Claudia Heuermann.
- Masada Live at Tonic 1999 (2004), concert film.
- Celestial Subway Lines / Salvaging Noise (2005), experimental documentary by Ken Jacobs with soundtrack by Zorn and Ikue Mori.
- Sabbath in Paradise (Tzadik, 2007), documentary by Claudia Heuermann on Jewish musical culture in New York's avant garde Jazz scene in the 1990s.
- Astronome: A Night at the Opera (2010), an opera by Richard Foreman, music by John Zorn.
Credits to the contents of this page go to the authors of the corresponding Wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John Zorn.