No sense of harmony, no sense of time
Don’t mention harmony, say
“What is it? What is it? What is it?”
Give a little shock, and he raises his hand
Somebody shouts out, says
“What is it? What is it? What is it?”
Talking Heads, Blind
Is it possible to find in John Zorn examples of what Edward Said defined in his collection of posthumous essays “On the Late Style”? I have been asking myself this question for some time, starting from when, a decade ago, I bought the CD “Masada Guitars”, Volume One of the CD series aimed at commemorating the first ten years of the Masada songbook, music originally played by the super quartet which included Zorn, Joey Baron, Greg Cohen and Dave Douglas. That record seemed to me a little different from those produced until then by bulimic New York composer / improviser and it was not the only one. Other records were added, all characterized by a marked melodic imprint, by the predominance of guitars and by the recovery and use of styles with an almost post-modernist footprint. But before we go into this selected discography (only 5 records, a drop in the Zornian record sea) we shall try to understand what can be defined as “late style”. At the beginning of everything there is the cumbersome and important figure of Theodor W. Adorno, who around 1934 was planning a book on Beethoven’s musical and aesthetic experience. In the notes for the drawing up, the object of analysis was increasingly delineating itself as a reflection on the nature of the artistic works of old age. In Beethoven’s last quartets, in the last piano sonatas or in the magnificent Missa solemnis, Adorno read their wrinkled, torn, jagged and disharmonious character. It was also a senile revolt against tradition and the imposition of canons, the rule assumed as a chrism of an affiliation to the great culture recognized: in short, late works, for the philosopher, give the reader or listener a subjective rebellion in the against conventions, which makes them, for this reason, aggressive and irreconcilable, opposed and anti-rhetorical.
The Arab-American intellectual Edward W. Said, who died in 2003, known to the general public for his commitment to the Palestinian cause and his post-colonial studies, takes up these themes in his collection of posthumous essays “On the Late Style”, where Said broadens the field of investigation started by Adorno talking about Late Style as a kind of self-imposed exile from what is generally acceptable, comes after it and survives beyond, as something that is inside the present, but at the same time is strangely separated. A sort of stylistic self-exile set by the author himself outside the clichés and self-imposed clichés by the past and by the stature and structure so far represented by the author himself, a criticism of society itself, a rebirth of stylistic customs, a remittance in personal discussion, a condition of estrangement and dispossession, of exclusion and minority, a form practiced with cunning and claimed, perhaps, even with pride.
But what does a composer/improviser like Zorn have to do with these aesthetic analyzes? The figure of Zorn has been repeatedly accused and read in a post-modern key given his ravenous ability to re-elaborate and re-propose different styles in new contexts. Like Zappa, Zorn is a keen and skilful manipulator of stylistic structures, which he manages to cross and merge with each other with speeds and combinations that can be alienating, shocking and even derisive, depending on the listener. These five records represent a sort of musical production in its own right from the rest of the variegated Zornian corpus and are joined by some stylistic threads that make me think of the presence of a sort of Late Style within the Zornian stylistic units.
Let’s start from 2003, John Zorn, on the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the composition of the Masada repertoire, had given birth to the umpteenth thematic series of his label Tzadik, the Masada 10th Anniversary, dedicated precisely to the celebration of this very important “songbook”. Masada Guitars is part of this self-congratulatory project and includes twenty-one compositions rendered in versions for acoustic guitar only.
The three guitarists who face the themes written by Zorn are Bill Frisell, collaborator of the saxophonist in numerous musical projects of the past (see Naked City); Marc Ribot, who had already taken part in other Masada recordings (in all Kokba bars), and above all he published for the Tzadik The Book of Heads and the lesser known Tim Sparks, from the world of acoustic fingerpicking guitar, and author of three remarkable CD for the Tzadik in which he faces the world of klezmer music. Each of the three interprets Zorn’s music arranging the themes according to their personal guitar approach, in which it’s possible to distinguish their technical and stylistic characteristics. Sparks, is particularly brilliant in fingerpicking, with many reminiscences of John Fahey (cited by Zorn in the liner notes) and I would say Stefan Grossman, with a harmonically rich and rhythmically complex technique, masterfully performed in the song Sippur. Ribot confirms to be essential, almost skeletal in the performance of the songs, almost scarifying the themes, exposing their being in a very effective way. Bill Frisell, definitely in great shape, is the only one to use the electric guitar in addition to the acoustic instrument and in some cases to resort to overdubbing, always with his “lateral”, a little alienating, approach. This record doesn’t follow the canons of the “usual”, harsh, violent and dissonant Zorn, the music flows pleasant and catchy even for those who have never been familiar with the New York composer saxophonist, while those already familiar with the Masada project will appreciate the beauty of guitar re-editions of these pieces already heard in other fields (jazz quartet, chamber ensemble, acustic trio). This record begins to show something different: a simplification in the style obtained through the use of the guitar, Zorn is absent and delegates the representation of his music to three very capable performers who are well aware of his styles and his compositional and improvisational characteristics, important proxies also because these three are well known for having each one’s own unmistakable style that is not canceled in the music of Zorn.
To find a similar but differently structured situation we have to wait for 2012 and 2013 with a new cd series entitled “Mystic Series”. In this new series we find two CDs, “The Gnostic Preludes” (2012) and “The Mysteries” (2013), both performed by the same trio, namely Bill Frisell on electric guitar, Carol Emanuel at the harp and Kenny Wollesen at the vibraphone.
Here Zorn leaves the most open structures of the Masada compositions for more defined lines. Let’s talk about preludes, dances, performed by an unusual, non-classical trio, with an even more minimal shape. We are talking about much more defined forms, with a classical, almost neoclassical structure. The qualitative leap is evident, the question is whether it’s a return to a classicism that Zorn had clearly ignored up to that moment. These records are, of course, very valid, well cared for and produced and with wonderful packaging. Zorn is not wrong. Here he makes a simply unprejudiced use of the melody, all the songs are apparently simple, with the three instruments repeating in turn, weaving together the same motifs and in turn moving away from each other, performing personal digressions that eventually coming back together to the structure of the songs. But why? The desire to explore new paths? To go against the tide?
Questions that we find again in 2017 when a new record, “Midsummer Moods”, is released. This is the first on made by an unpublished couple of guitarists: Gyan Riley and Julian Lage. It shows a new return to “pastoral” music. Something intimate, special, bewitching, moving and emotional. In a word: beautiful. Riley is not new at home for Tzadik, while Julian Lage, one of the best jazz guitarists currently available to us, is a new entry. Both are confirmed as a truly remarkable couple in the execution and interpretation of these new duets composed by Zorn, inspired by the Shakesperian visions of the moon.
In the notes accompanying the CD, Zorn writes: “For millennia the moon has been a subject of deep fascination— a symbol of love, lust, madness and dreams. More than a passive observer, it is a powerful force whose brilliant luminosity exerts an intoxicating effect upon the winds, the tides, our emotions and more. This dark and moody CD of music inspired by Shakespearian Lunar imagery features ten lyrical compositions evoking the magic of Sister Moon. Stunningly performedby two of the most fabulous new guitarists working today—Julian Lage and Gyan Riley, this is a beautiful and heartfelt program of music for late night contemplation on a romantic midsummer evening. “ The references here are obviously classical, Renaissance, the model is John Dowland. A leap over the centuries, therefore, a post-modernist reference? A new style added to his collection? Why does an ultra contemporary composer like Zorn need to recover such a well-known style and to be romantically inspired by the moon? Just him, the classic pragmatic New York workaholic?
The final answer could (I write could because with Zorn the doors are open to every possible reading and interpretation) arrive from the recent (2018) “Chesed”, fourth chapter of the monumental cd box, “The Book Beri’ah”, dedicated to the last book of compositions on Zorn’s Jewish themes and his last unfortunate commercial adventure. Here we find Julian Lage and Gyan Riley, who once again demonstrate their harmony and their skill. Thinking about what we said before, how does this record sound?
It sounds post-modern. The collection of styles that Zorn managed to add to this work is impressive. I can’t understand if it’s a dive into his past, drawing a significant parallel with choral works, like Spillane and Godard, or a demonstration of “late style” as Said intended it to be? As a form of resistance and demonstration of artistic commitment outside of the current times? It’s difficult to find an answer, but in this record we find, carefully integrated together a whole series of styles and solutions already adopted in the past by Zorn and where nothing is left to chance. Or in this possible case, “we can define as” Late style “another form of refusal, that of accepting and following a unique style, the refusal to identify oneself in a single stylistic current, the desire to use any available style and to leave behind a historical, progressive vision of creativity? Let’s wait for the next move and the next cd.