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Lincoln Center Festival: Zorn@60

DSC06459"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."

How do you define someone like John Zorn? Composer, performer, editor, and impresario, Zorn is someone who is almost uniquely difficult to pin down. He simultaneuously embodies all aspects of music—jazz, classical, hard core, world music—and none of them. Zorn insists that all of these different threads are somehow connected beneath the surface, but it's taken a long time for anyone other than Zorn himself to hear them.

Until now, Zorn—for many, the quintessential downtown NYC composer—has been spending more and more of his time uptown of late, as in 2011's Masada Marathon at the NY State Theather and his contribution to City Opera's Monodramas. But Zorn is getting the full treatment this week, as the Lincoln Center Festival presents two programs at Alice Tully Hall celebrating his upcoming 60th birthday. 

This actually isn't the first time Zorn has marked his birthday locally with a series of concerts. Ten years ago, Zorn celebrated his 50th birthday with a month-long series of performances at the late, lamented Tonic, where Zorn was once a regular fixture and whose closing inspired him to open The Stone, which continues to perservere. That 2003 festival reflected Zorn's multifaceted nature: his jazz and hard-core bands performed on Fridays and Saturdays, classical ensembles played on Sundays, and the rest of the week featured a hodgepodge of extended improvisations, jam sessions, and "game pieces." 

John Zorn and Singers

The Lincoln Center Festival is offering a somewhat more focused survey of Zorn's work this week. For those who may know John as an iconoclast with a bent for wild, violent sounds, Thursday night's concert presented a startling contrast. The bulk of the program consisted of two of John's recent works for a capella female voice: Shir Ha-Shirim (The Song of Songs, 2007) and The Holy Visions (2012).

The largely tonal music seemed to draw from all parts of music history—from Gregorian plainchant and the mystical hymns of Hildegard von Bingen to the 20th century vocal experiments of Monk and Glass. Dressed in white flowing gowns, like a tribe of vestal virgins, sopranos Lisa Bielawa, Mellissa Hughes, and Jane Sheldon, mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, and contralto Kirsten Sollek created remarkable textures and overtones, with the occasional piercing dissonance to remind us whose music this was.

John zorn organ

For the final part of the concert, Zorn—wearing his standard red t-shirt and camo pants—took the stage to play (or rather, unleash) the Alice Tully organ. Suprising for many (including your's truly) is the fact that the organ was Zorn's first instrument, and he has spent decades absorbing the instrument's wide and varied repertoire: everything from Bach to Messiaen, Ligeti, and Riley.

Zorn's improvisation, which he called "The Hermetic Organ," pushed the instrument to its absolute limits, using sand bags and his elbows to make harsh, violent tone clusters while creating decays and phasing effects by switching the bellows on and off. (Presumably, Lincoln Center had adequate insurance to cover any potential mishaps.) At times, Zorn's made a series of conductor-like hand gestures, as if he could control the organ by mere telepathy; such humor—standard issue for Zorn—seemed lost on all but a few in the hall. 

John zorn, alice tully hall

Tonight, the Zorn@60 celebration continues with a concert featuring his complete string quartets, performed by local upstarts JACK Quartet, Alchemy Quartet, and Brooklyn Rider. And, there are more concerts this fall, including a Masada Marathon, performances of his film scores, chamber music, game pieces, and much more. Go here for more info. 

More pics on the photo page.