John Zorn on his Music
Whether we like it or not, the era of the composer as autonomous musical mind has just about come to an end. At this point in musical history, the relevant question is, “What exactly does a composer do?” Over the past 40 years, many of the great composers have worked with collaborators. Ellington had Billy Strayhorn as well as his amazing band. John Cage had David Tudor and Takehisa Kosugi. Stockhausen has depended on the Kontarsky brothers, Harold Boje, his son Markus, and Susanne Stephens, among others. Mauricio Kagel's group included Vinko Globokar, Christoph Caskel, Edward Tarr, etc. Philip Glass and Steve Reich work closely with their ensembles. The collaborative aspects of the recording process make this even clearer. When the Beatles put together Sgt. Pepper with George Martin, or Frank Zappa worked with the Mothers of Invention on the early Verve records, the collaboration helped produce a musical statement greater than the sum of the individuals involved. In a way, today’s musical maelstrom can be compared to the film industry, where specialized talents are contributed to create a work much richer than what one mind could create alone. My music depends on collaborators in a very special way. Most of the people I've associated with are creative improvisers who have developed highly personalized approaches to their instruments. These sounds defy traditional notation on score paper. We “notate” the music on tape by molding it in the studio, as it is happening, as a sculptor would mold clay. Over the past 15 years I have been fortunate to work with some of the great musical minds of our time, many of whom are on this record. It’s become just like a family. Of course composition needs some kind of stamp, a sense of cohesion. That’s what I was taught in school by uptight professors in thin ties and thick glasses who made me study pitch sets. I mean, give me a break from that sterile bullshit! But what all that schooling did impress upon me was the realization that every note needs to have a function, and that there always has to be a sense of going somewhere, the feeling that a personal vision is being realized. People often assume that the fast changes in my music are a result of tape editing. Nothing could be further from the truth. We do it the hard way, man, and I think that’s why it works so well. There are no tape edits in my work, ever. We’ll rehearse section one, then record it, rehearse section two, then record it, punching each section in place after the previous one, building the piece block by block, from start to finish. The overhanging sonorities, as one section bleeds to the next, help give my pieces a sense of unity; you can almost feel the sections growing out of one another. It is much more organic that way, and so, easier to listen to. I can’t believe I just said that. But really, I believe the human ear, being so sensitive, gets tired of artificial sound of tape edits real fast. Maybe that’s why tape music as a genre never really went anywhere. Edgard Varèse described himself as an “organizer of sound.” That concept is probably more valid today than in any previous era. Of course, composing music for improvising musicians, which has been my main interest as a composer since 1974, can be seen as a paradox. The key to harnessing the talents of these players, to taking full advantage of their potential, is putting them in inspiring contexts that spark them to even greater heights. Even in my early music I was hearing structure and form more than content. This concept has been a constant in my work: from game pieces like Cobra, Hsü Feng, and Ruan Lingyu; narrative pieces like Hu Die or Qùê Trân which aim at creating a new improvising tradition for a small group format; file card compositions, which are constructed in time, moment by moment, and realized in the studio like Godard, Spillane, and Forbidden Fruit; arrangements like the Kurt Weill piece and the Morricone tribute The Big Gundown; through to portraits or features, of which Two-Lane Highway is the first recorded example.
At one point I wanted to call this record Hip's Road. It's in the Harajuku section of Tokyo, but it's not a road; it's actually a boutique that caters to young teenage girls, like the ones you see singing pop songs on Japanese TV. That's not why I wanted to call the record Hip's Road; I like the name. The Japanese have a really great way of using and mixing up the English language. So “Hip's Road” for me is like the sound of “Naked Lunch” or “Blade Runner,” a combination of words that appeals to me. The Japanese often borrow and mirror other people’s cultures, that’s what’s so great about the place. They make a crazy mix out of it all. Of course, as a foreigner one can have a very strong sense of being outside their world – there's a certain kind of understanding that I’ll never quite get. But then again, I was always an outsider here in America. I mean, when I was growing up in Queens, with long hair, wearing weird clothes, looking like a hippie, people called me all kinds of bizarre names. I first visited Japan in 1985, but I’ve been interested in Japan since I was a kid, and I’ve been learning Japanese over a five-year period. I perform with Japanese musicians when I’m there. I write a lot, wander around, searching for rare Japanese pop singles, go to the movies, old book and poster stores, eat incredible food, and look at girls – the same stuff I do here. Right now I'm living in Tokyo for about six months out of every year. It’s a stimulating change in perspective, not only with regard to the music scene, but also with regard to who I am as a person, how I fit into American culture, what I am in Japanese culture.
On Jazz and Pop
I grew up in New York City as a media freak, watching movies and TV and buying hundreds of records. There’s a lot of jazz in me, but there's also a lot of rock, a lot of classical, a lot of ethnic music, a lot of blues, a lot of movie soundtracks. I’m a mixture of all those things. Of course, I play the saxophone, and I'm much more interested in Charlie Parker, Lee Konitz, and Ornette Coleman than in Jacques Ibert! But jazz is not the tradition in which I feel I can make a significant statement, even though the jazz feeling is essential to me. I believe that improvisation needs to be combined more with composition in order to try creating something new. We should take advantage of all the great music and musicians in this world without fear of musical barriers, which sometimes are even stronger than racial or religious ones. That's the strength of pop music today. It’s universal.
On Carl Stalling
Cartoon music is a very strong influence in the way I put together the disparate elements of my pieces. To me, that's one of the biggest compositional problems. It’s something all artists have to deal with, whether they’re working on canvas or on screen. Stravinsky and Carl Stalling, who was the composer responsible for the soundtracks to many of the great Warner Bros. cartoons of the forties, were successful at that. Their mastery of block structure completely changed the way I see the world. To separate Stalling's music (full orchestra and sound effects) from the image and dialogue and listen to it in the abstract is to enter a completely new dimension. You are constantly being thrown off balance, yet there is something strangely familiar about it all. It’s the great American avant-garde music of the 1940’s. At that time, neither Cage nor Harry Partch came close to what Stalling was doing. He’s created a body of work that’s unrecognized and unparalleled.
Because I write in moments, in disparate sound blocks, I sometimes find it convenient to store these “events” on filing cards so they can be sorted and ordered with minimum effort. After choosing a subject, in this case the work of Mickey Spillane, I research it in detail: I read books and articles, look at films, TV shows, and photo files, listen to related recordings, etc. Then, drawing upon all of these sources, I write down individual ideas and images on filing cards. For this piece, each card relates to some aspect of Spillane’s work, his world, his characters, his ideology. Sometimes I wrote out only sounds: “Opening scream. Route 66 intro starting with a high hat, then piano, strings, harp.” Other times I thought of a scene from a movie like Year of the Dragon, and I wrote: “Scene of the crime #1 - high harp harmonics, basses and trombone drone, guitar sonorities, sounds of water dripping and narration on top.” That image had its origins in the scene where Mickey Rourke, who plays a Polish detective in Chinatown, goes down into the bean sprout cellar and discovers the body. It’s an image that stayed in my mind, and I wanted to include it in Spillane. So I scored it the way I would have done it if I had written the music for that film. Sorting the filing cards, putting them in the perfect order, is one of the toughest jobs and it usually takes months. Picking the right band is essential because often just one person can make or break a piece. I set up the overall arc, but there’s a real give and take with the musicians in the studio. Sometimes I bring in written music and I run it down to the players, layering and molding it as it is being played. Other times I’ll simply say something like “Anthony, play some cheesy cocktail piano.” Or, “Bill, go and improvise My Gun Is Quick” [an early Mickey Spillane novel], and we’ll do take after take until we’re all happy that every note is perfect. I do have a reputation for being a tyrant. In pieces like Spillane, I control the complex matrix of the structure, the detail in the arrangements and orchestration. This is clearly my world – ultimately I have the final say. But the collaborative spirit is still very, very strong, and with different players, the individual moments of the piece would obviously sound quite different. My works often move from one block to another such that the average person can hear no development whatsoever. But I always have a unifying concept that ties all the sections together. In Schönberg’s early atonal compositions, he didn’t know what he was doing. To give his atonal pieces a sense of unity, he worked with texts, and the only way he knew when a piece was over was when the text ran out! In the same way, in these early pieces of mine, I’m unifying the disparate elements by relating them all to one dramatic subject. Not a set of pitches or a set of keys that modulate from one to the next. Instead, a group of images, ideas, all drawn from one source. Director Jean-Luc Godard was my first subject. Mickey Spillane is the next. As for the listener, ultimately the most subjective response is the best response. Eventually, total subjectivity becomes total objectivity. That’s the way I see the world. That’s the way I see all my heroes: Ives, Partch, Varèse, composers who created their own musical worlds, regardless of the incomprehension of those around them. These artists were doing something no one else had done before because it was a subjective and ultimate expression of their vision. But soon people got attracted to the freshness of these worlds and kept coming back to them. And then they became part of our culture. These composers – along with them Stravinsky and many others – attacked every parameter of music to make it their own: rhythm, harmony, counterpoint, instrumentation, everything. And, all along, that has been my desire, too.
On Two-Lane Highway
In the case of Two-Lane Highway, my role is perhaps more akin to that of an organizer, producer, and director. The piece was created to highlight the guitar of perhaps the greatest living bluesman, Albert Collins. I wanted to put him in a setting that was sometimes comfy, sometimes very challenging and new for him, where he could burn. I thought about this piece for months. I bought and listened to almost every record Albert Collins ever made. During this time I constructed a plot, taking Collins through twelve scenes of various moods, keys, tempos, etc. It’s Albert Collins wandering across the Texas landscape. I then brought the band together, worked through the interludes, and set up the grooves. Now, Collins needs more time to develop ideas than I gave to the sequences in Spillane, for example. I wouldn't have been taking advantage of what Collins can do as a musician if I imposed a Spillane-type time dimension on Two-Lane Highway. My job here was to set him up in such a way that when we got to the more unusual or 'outside' settings, he felt a part of it all. In this case, it definitely meant compromising on the speed with which my music changes, and that's fine, because ultimately the piece is about Albert. Two-Lane Highway was originally planned to be about eight minutes long, but once we got into the studio it all opened up and I realized I had to let it go. It had acquired a life of its own. This is essentially my portrait of a great bluesman. Although this piece could be subtitled Concerto for Albert Collins, it’s really a band piece. The creative input and inspiration provided by all the players produced a true collaborative environment.
On Forbidden Fruit
To balance the dramatic, narrative style of Spillane and the hot, live band quality of Two-Lane Highway, I came upon the idea of writing something for a more “pure music” context when I was in Tokyo in January of 1987. I settled on an instrumentation featuring the Kronos Quartet; Christian Marclay, using only records of string music; and one of my very favorite voices in the world, Ohta Hiromi. The piece really came together, however, in July 1987, when, devastated by the sudden death of the great Japanese film star Ishihara Yujiro, I felt an inescapable desire to write a tribute piece for him and include it in this album. I worked quickly on a set of variations, inspired largely by the photo of him with his wife, Kitahara Mie, and Tsugawa Masahiko, from his debut film Kurutta Kajitsu [see back cover photo]. Mie is unbelievably gorgeous in this photo. The actual theme of the variations is a set of twelve sound blocks - for instance, having all four instruments play glissandos – which instead of being presented in direct sequence are spread out over the entire duration of the piece. Composed of sixty sections in all, four sets of twelve variations each, and the twelve themes, all squeezed into ten minutes, this is perhaps my most compact and fast-moving piece to date.
I’ve got an incredibly short attention span. In some sense, it is true that my music is ideal for people who are impatient, because it is jam-packed with information that is changing very fast. But it also takes a little patience because if you get to something you don't like, you have to wait ten seconds or so until it turns into something else. 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 “cloud effect.” In fact, there are sections of Spillane that are two or three minutes long. Here, I've offset the speed with something slow – like the rain scene at the end of the piece – to give the speed perspective and meaning. Still, you’ve got to realize that speed is taking over the world. Look at the kids growing up with computers and video games – which are ten times faster than the pinball machines we used to play. There's an essential something that young musicians have, something you can lose touch with as you get older. I love bands like Hüsker Dü, Metallica, Black Flag, Die Kreuzen. Speed bands, thrash bands ... it’s a whole new way of thinking, of living. And we’ve got to keep up with it. I’ll probably die trying.
From the composer's notes and a conversation with Jonathan Cott. Edited by David Bither.