Eugene Chadbourne plays John Zorn’s Book of Heads, the circle will not be broken on #neuguitars #blog #JohnZorn #EugeneChadbourne

Eugene Chadbourne plays John Zorn’s Book of Heads, the circle will not be broken on #neuguitars #blog #JohnZorn #EugeneChadbourne

December 2022. John Zorn’s Tzadik ideally closes a circle opened in the 70s, releasing the CD “John Zorn’s Olympiad volume 3 Pops plays Pops”, where one of the myths of improvisation, guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, plays the Book of Heads, a series of studies for improvised guitar, composed for him and dedicated to him by John Zorn between 1976 and 1978. This CD ideally closes a circle, a circuit left open to the curiosity of musicians and music lovers, opening, as it is rightly so when we talk about an open work, further, exciting prospects.

“Composed from 1976-1978 and now studied by guitarists the world over, The Book of Heads is one of Zorn’s most popular and oft-performed composition.”1

Book Of Heads were written, between 1976 and 1978, specifically for Eugene Chadbourne, and basically incorporated all the strangest sounds that could be created on the instrument at the time, using techniques typical of Chadbourne’s playing in the second half of the 70s (balloons, a bow, a slide, clothespins, pencils, metal plates typical of thumb pianos) and other ideas developed within a group of skilled and unscrupulous improvisers: Frith, Sharrock, Bailey, Kaiser, Duck Bake, Davey Williams, etc.

“In meeting Eugene Chadbourne in 1976 I found a kind of soulmate and we began to work together and hang on a daily basis, talking about a huge variety of music, films, books, philosophy and more. He was one of my first serious musical colleagues and we shared a lot of the same passions, imagining ourselves as a kind of”Bird and Diz.” We toured together, released self-produced records, made posters, played on each others’ compositions and improvised with a wide range of musicians and non-musicians, performing coundess gigs in and around New York, often at my apartment across from the Public Theater – a six floor walkup to an artist studio at 430 Lafayerre Street that was the first home of the Theatre of Musical Optics.”2

1Notes from the obi of the cd “John Zorn James Moore Plays The Book of Heads”, Tzadik, 2015

2Notes from the cd “James Moore Plays The Book Of Heads – CD and DVD of a film by Stephen Taylor”, Tzadik, 2015

Eugene Chadbourne is not an easy artist to describe. Born in 1954 and raised in Boulder, Colorado, he started playing guitar after seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan TV Show. His unique and personal style seems to be the bizarre result of a complex genetic crossing between folk protest and free improvisation, noisecore and virtuosity, Country & Western and free Jazz. A form so deliberately contradictory, so ridiculously incompatible, as to seem simply perverse. His prolific record output is characterized by freeform guitar, salacious jokes, satire, political commentary, scary noises and bizarre mayhem, a double assault on both classical formalism and rock romanticism. Healthy bearer of a defined aesthetic, he has no qualms about manifesting his blatant hostility towards the glossy patina of high culture. The cracked details of his art form define it as a product of the 60s counterculture, of Captain Beefheart, marijuana, Phil Ochs, anti-Vietnarn war protests, John Coltrane.

“l’ve always been a big fan of solos.I love bearìng groups where somebody ‘takes a solo’, it’s very very nice. One thing that might be lackìng in ìmprovised musc where everyone’s always active is that you don’t have soloists.”1

Why are these compositions so interesting? The Book Of Heads represent an interesting example of how a series of graphic scores designed for music studies can become something much more semiotic, in which the sign is transposed from one purpose to another. In a way, Book Of Heads teach us that music should no longer be self-referential. Not self-referential in the sense of contemporary music, with the composer abandoning a dominant position, in a similar but reversed way to Cage’s ideas. Not self-referential in the sense of the improviser who accepts to operate on structures defined by others who can come out of their stylistic path and their imagination. Non-self-referential in the sense of the figure of music itself, who can look at other ideas and other aspects of society. All without taking itself too seriously. As in the “gonzo” version of Chadbourne.

In some respects Zorn is a curious and complicated mix, a sort of hybridization between a classical composer, a jazz musician, a radical improviser, a music entrepreneur, a pop music expert, a record collector, an avid cinephile and a careful analyzer. of the cultural and urban community that surrounds it. His absolute dedication to the art, an almost nerdy and pure workaholic dedication, has led him to understand how new developments in contemporary music can be successfully translated through a music of popular derivation and in the way in which composition and improvisation can be united with each other through musicians with an uncommon level of open-mindedness. With Book Of Heads Zorn leaves the scores of his more classically academic compositions, leaves the role of conductor in his game pieces, leaves his role of radical improviser to create hybrids that give new meaning to all the musical structures that surround him in the New York cultural scene.

“Toy ballons, talking dolls, mbira keys, wet fingers whops, whisks, knocks, multiple harmonics: these 35 études for solo guitar, composed in 1978 for Eugene Chadbourne, give a new meaning to the word ‘virtuoso’.”2

1Ben Watson, “Hobo trails and boho trials”, The Wire, Issue 177, November 1998, pag.50

2Notes from the obi of the cd “John Zorn The Book of Heads”, Tzadik, 1995

In a certain sense, these scores certify Zorn’s role as a “cultural chronicler” in representing, distilling it into a sort of thirty-five small musical haikus for guitar, a cultural and musical scene, the alternative underground New York of the years between 1976 and 1978. He carefully followed what was happening in the underground of those years, he incorporated the best that was achieved in terms of musical creativity and social behavior and condensed it into thirty-five graphic scores, creating at the same time a tradition that could continue to evolve in the years to come through new generations of guitarists. The story of this CD looks like a popular novel. Kenji Shimoda recorded these songs on August 22, 2007 and October 2, 2008 at Kampo Cultural Center, Kyoto. With a delay of twelve, thirteen years compared to the first complete recording which took place in 1995 by Marc Ribot. Then the Kampo Studio closed and all traces of the recordings were lost. As in the best popular novels, thirteen years later Shimoda himself found, remastered and selected for this CD, fifteen studies out of the thirty-five composed by Zorn. Was it worth waiting all this time? Definitely yes. Chadbourne’s interpretation is spectacular, true gonzo music for connoisseurs. As a good interpreter and inspirer, the guitarist takes ample margins both of risk and of freedom. The pieces are all comfortably dilated, reaching unusual lengths compared to all the other interpretations I had previously heard. Chadbourne can’t resist adding his own sense of humor, making these performances truly amusing and entertaining, alien to any self-satisfaction, typical of some contemporary music. In the Book Of Heads the interpreter, the performer is no longer a means, an intermediary, but a close collaborator, an investigator. He is entrusted with a more or less precise plan of action, a certain number of structures that he can combine in the way that suits him best. Also in this case the composition is no longer something already done, but rather something to be done, made to be adapted. From a means of communication it becomes a means of cooperation and this kind of open form has sometimes made necessary new conceptions of the notation itself based quantitatively and qualitatively not only on the notes but also on the actions. All this is directly related to the poetics of the open work.1

In music, I think a composition, a piece has to work on many different levels. It has to be something that can be approached to the level, more immediate, simpler and then beyond this evident level there should be more subtle, complex levels. Experimental music today has known how to create its own language, partly derived from the old, partly new. A phenomenon that has very deep origins, not only musical but also political and social. Nowadays there is a musical pluralism and my pleasure and duty is to navigate through these languages looking for the thread that holds them together. Zorn and the Book Of Heads are a prime example of this. Personally, I don’t conceive of history in a deterministic way, as a series of events that take place because there has been a cause that has produced certain effects. In music there is not that linearity of development which allows science (a very light vision of science) to make predictions on the basis of experience and acquired data. Like any form of creativity, BOHs are more than just an individual fact. Creation needs dialogue, interlocutors and musical creation also needs interpreters in the most concrete sense of the term. Performers are not invented, nor is the audience invented: they are part of a cultural and evolutionary process which implies a dialogue, which is not always peaceful. The composer, the interpreter and the listener do not belong to different socio-cultural categories. All three produce culture. BOH are the demonstration of how languages cannot be invented: they are formed and transformed, under all sorts of influences, even extraneous to music. Art is not deaf to history.


Andrea Aguzzi, John Zorn The Book Of Heads: John Zorn The Book Of Heads – NeuGuitars

1Umberto Eco, Opera aperta. Forma e indeterminazione nelle poetiche contemporanee, Bompiani, 2013

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