All About Jazz

Home » Articles » Extended Analysis

676

John Zorn: John Zorn: Dictee / Liber Novus

Warren Allen By

Sign in to view read count
John Zorn

Dictée / Liber Novus

Tzadik

2010

If the ever-productive multi-instrumentalist John Zorn's compositional oeuvre yields one simple theme, it is the sheer variety of his interests and vision. Perhaps none of his personal oeuvres better encapsulate this than his file card compositions. These are usually extended pieces that consist of a vast number of diverse musical ideas, written down on file cards, which Zorn then cuts between in the studio, often at a rapid pace. Some of these "scenes" last only a few seconds, while others develop slightly longer. Between the high-speed cuts from idea to idea, the fact that the pieces frequently make artful use of sound effects, and the deep and ever-changing use of texture and soundscapes, listening to these compositions is can be equated to watching a movie through the ears.

There is often some level of tribute within the file card pieces. Spillane (Nonesuch, 1991) and "Godard" were musical reflections of the art made by film noir author Mickey Spillane and director Jean Luc Goddard—through Zorn's unique mirror. The Bribe (Tzadik, 1998), a kind of sequel to Spillane, and the earlier Deadly Weapons (Nato, 1986) collaboration illustrate the development of Zorn's film noir aesthetic. The Naked City superband employed similar ideas in many of their hardcore mini-tunes, and Zorn's Big Gundown (Tzadik, 1986) tribute to Ennio Morricone also featured file card ideas.

The form allows Zorn to toy with traditional genres without constraining himself to one. Cutting at high speed between saloon-style country & western, hardcore metal, and lounge jazz enables a vast span of ideas to be used as source material, which in turn can be arranged by the composer into something unique with personal context, much in the manner of a director in the cutting room. Yet in recent years, Zorn has seemed to move somewhat away from the file card compositions, with greater emphasis on projects such as his hardcore Moondchild bands and his melody oriented Masada songbooks. 2009, however, saw the release of Femina (Tzadik, 2009), a new file card piece paying tribute to women in art and life, which pushed the boundaries of the medium even further, and met with considerable acclaim.

Now, a year later, with Dictée / Liber Novus, Zorn presents two new file card compositions, one dedicated to Korean-American writer Theresa Hak-Kyunch Cha and the other inspired by Carl Jung's dream explorations chronicled in his Red Book (Liber Novus or "New Book" in German). With both compositions, Zorn seems seem less interested in cycling through "traditional" genres, as he did to an extent on earlier recordings like Spillane and Naked City (Nonesuch, 1990). Different sections suggest echoes of composers such as Morton Feldman, Meredith Monk or avant-garde film director and film composer Alejandro Jodrowsky—and also demonstrate the vast influence of East Asian culture on his aesthetics. But perhaps more than ever before, each distinct section of music also seems more distinctly and personally "Zorn" in its defiance of easy classification or musical norms.

Particularly striking is the truly remarkable and artful use of sound effects, samples and electronics. On "Dictée," the crumpling of papers, the rhythmic clicks of a typewriter, and (appropriately enough) the hum of a movie projector all create tangible mental images from which each ostensible scene grows out. Nature—the sounds of birds, wind, and water—also plays a large part. These effects create a sense of peace when blended with the lush sensuality of voice, which drifts in and out with haunting snippets of Korean and French. By contrast, "Liber Novus" is more discombobulated—a series of scenes cut out of the nightmares and fantasies of fever dreams.

The transition between compositions is brief, almost perfect, but the difference between them becomes rapidly clear. Perhaps because of the source material that is Jung's Red Book, the composition is more chaotic. The animals in "Liber Novus" hiss, roar, snarl and squeal, and John Medeski's ethereal organ casts a surreal pall. Zorn provides brief snippets of German narration, and the chanting of Buddhist temple monks is employed amidst alternating swaths of exotica and peals of electronic craziness. It encapsulates a kind of daunting mystical search for self, with a distinct sense of motion through strange and unusual levels—a kind of sonic pathway up some imposing Holy Mountain.

Perhaps more so than any of his other work, the file card compositions give Zorn the chance to be himself. Longtime listeners will recognize certain distinct flourishes from his earliest works—the sudden interruption of a section with a scream, as well as numerous Game-piece-style downbeats of vibes and electronics signaling a scene change. The exotica and 1970s instrumentals that have characterized Zorn's recent work make appearances in some beautiful solos by Sylvie Courvoisier on piano, Kenny Wollesen on vibraphone, and Ned Rothenberg on bass flute and shakuhachi (a traditional Japanese end-blown bamboo flute). One particularly striking flute theme from earlier shows up later on cello, providing a certain continuity that isn't always present in Zorn's work, almost in the way of Feldman's "Rothko Chapel." Yet in contrast with classical minimalism, these pieces are in perpetually motion and metamorphosis. And potentially lost amidst the many unusual flairs of the music, as in the most suspenseful films, are their delicate use of dynamics and tension.

If there is any complaint here, it is the brevity of the two compositions, which combine to clock in at just under 40 minutes. It has a great staying power that leaves listeners wanting more, even as they try to understand the extent of what they heard. Like a great film that lingers on the eyes after the projector is long off and the theater has emptied, the music persists even in the absence of traditional form or melody. While there is likely some improvisation in the course of the individual scenes, it would be a mistake to call this "jazz." The art springs out from the arrangement and the conception of this music as something new. For adventurous listeners in search of new musical experience, it is an exciting experience that is vast in scope and full of delightful mysteries.

Tracks: Dictée; Liber Novus.

Personnel: Sylvie Courvoisier: piano, French narration; Okkyung Lee: cello, Korean narration; John Medeski: organ; Ned Rothenberg: shakuhachi, bass flute, clarinet; David Slusser: sound effects; Kenny Wollesen: vibes, percussion, Wollesonics; John Zorn: Foley effects, samples, German narration; Stephen Gosling: piano.

Title: John Zorn: Dictee / Liber Novus | Year Released: 2010

Tags

comments powered by Disqus

CD/LP/Track Review
Live Reviews
General Articles
CD/LP/Track Review
Live Reviews
CD/LP/Track Review
Extended Analysis
Read more articles
 

Psychomagia

Challenge Jazz
2014

buy
 

The Hermetic Organ...

Challenge Jazz
2014

buy
 

Dreamachines

Challenge Jazz
2013

buy
 

The Mysteries

Challenge Jazz
2013

buy

Related Articles

Read Trouble No More - The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981 Extended Analysis
Trouble No More - The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981
by Doug Collette
Published: November 19, 2017
Read Love, Gloom, Cash, Love Extended Analysis
Love, Gloom, Cash, Love
by Patrick Burnette
Published: October 21, 2017
Read Motel Shot: Expanded Edition Extended Analysis
Motel Shot: Expanded Edition
by Doug Collette
Published: July 16, 2017
Read Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead Motion Picture Soundtrack Extended Analysis
Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead...
by Doug Collette
Published: July 14, 2017
Read Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe  Edition Extended Analysis
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th...
by Doug Collette
Published: May 27, 2017
Read Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - Deluxe Edition Extended Analysis
Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack - Deluxe Edition
by Doug Collette
Published: May 20, 2017
Read "Love, Gloom, Cash, Love" Extended Analysis Love, Gloom, Cash, Love
by Patrick Burnette
Published: October 21, 2017
Read "Motel Shot: Expanded Edition" Extended Analysis Motel Shot: Expanded Edition
by Doug Collette
Published: July 16, 2017
Read "Trouble No More - The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981" Extended Analysis Trouble No More - The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 / 1979-1981
by Doug Collette
Published: November 19, 2017
Read "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe  Edition" Extended Analysis Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th...
by Doug Collette
Published: May 27, 2017
Read "Generation Next: Four Voices From Seattle" Interviews Generation Next: Four Voices From Seattle
by Paul Rauch
Published: June 19, 2017
Read "The Beatles - On the Road, 1964-1966" Book Reviews The Beatles - On the Road, 1964-1966
by Nenad Georgievski
Published: August 19, 2017
Read "Tokyo Jazz Joints: Capturing An Old Love Story" What is Jazz? Tokyo Jazz Joints: Capturing An Old Love Story
by Ian Patterson
Published: September 12, 2017
Read "Holiday 2017 III - Popular" Bailey's Bundles Holiday 2017 III - Popular
by C. Michael Bailey
Published: December 9, 2017
Read "Herbie Hancock at the Gaillard Center Music Hall" Live Reviews Herbie Hancock at the Gaillard Center Music Hall
by Rob Rosenblum
Published: October 23, 2017