Starter Kit: John Zorn by Chris Logan (Special Guest of The Synaptic)

“So you wanna know how to clear a party?” a friend of mine asked me several years ago. I was working at a little used CD shop in the mid-cities that had a fair stock of mainstream and weird stuff. There was a fair share of cool kids and weirdo’s. There was a fair share of people who cared and people who didn’t. We all had a common aspiration, in the end.  It was the music. We shared it like bread at a last supper or a warm beer in the cooler.


In his hand was a copy of an album by a band I had seen before but never took the interest explore. It was a black and white cover. A man and his bloodied face down on the sidewalk. He previously had neatly combed hair and a nice coat.  In the nearness of the photo, a gun. I would have bet that it was still loaded.

It was the first album by Naked City.

“This will clear your whole damned neighborhood if you turn it up loud enough. I kinda like it. You ought to try it out.”He went on and on for a few minutes about when he is tired of his company and wants to just get to bed this is the record that comes out. Instant room eraser.

Here is where my early and quiet affair with John Zorn’s work begins and crescendos into the napalm sex with an artist that I consider one of the most important composers in American history.

From Stalling to Morricone, Zorn has embodied the vigor from composers so far spread it is hard to make sense of the quilted mess, at times, until it is either tied up nicely or completely destroyed.

This is my Starter Kit.

Author’s Note: I am not an expert on the entire catalog of Zorn. The guy has racked up over 400 album credits that include performance, composition, production. I do not own everything. That’s gonna take a while.

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You may have already heard of the aforementioned Naked City record so I won’t start there. Let’s begin with what might be my favorite record of Zorn- Xu Feng: John Zorn’s Game Pieces Volume 1.

Xu Feng is in the composition style of what Zorn called game pieces. Basically, what we deal with here is the paired improvisation of artist versus artist. Two guitars. Two drummers. Two playing “electronics.” Zorn pieced it all together and created an album of fluid disaster. It’s a tsunami having sex with an earthquake on the shores of Shangri-la.  In between the thunderous double bass, pings and clangs that dominate the record are the scattered, tweaked out guitars and blips that create a gluey substance that you can sniff and get a total high from without the permanent brain damage. A metallic jazzed up séance of sound that you can find unrequited love in, as long as you play by their rules. Explore the “Hidden Fortress.”

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Vignette was a word I really wanted to avoid.  I wanted to stay away from using that word but to really understand Godard/ Spillane, it’s too damned hard.  This album brings together his “file card” system of composition, which I find the most challenging and gratifying listen. Zorn would simply write down ideas, words and music on to index cards while watching movies or reading or listening to music. All of it would be put through a sieve and sifted through again until placed in order of what would become Godard/ Spillane. The musicians would then play, in order, their parts and create the dark smoky streets of Spillane or the Nouvelle world of Godard. Each one perfectly crafted with the cards all in facing the right direction.  A grand moment in American composition that sends you away, scorned and scared, but then begs for you to come right back for one more embrace.

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This last suggestion is really difficult. I’ve spent more time going over what else may really define another corridor of Zorn’s catalog. His maze of style and craft is so varied. So lastly, I’ll put the ring on FilmworksXIII: Invitation to a Suicide. Zorn has created and composed, as of this moment , close to 24 different scores for films ranging from independents, cartoons and porn.  On FW13, he’s sticks to a very straight ahead sound and leaves little room for experiment here. Or did he? A few of the tracks are exactly the same just re-arranged with another instrument taking the lead role. “Lonely are the Dumb” is just like “Bugsy’s Jazztet” except for the weirded out fused guitar and so forth. FW13 really is no better than the others but I tend to gravitate to this more often than ever.

There it is. Prettied up. Bow tied and all that. Zorn is really so much more than anything I have attempted to translate. I will stand by my assertion that he is the last great American composer of the 20th century. If this even for a moment makes you think, “Well, that sounds interesting,” I say lunge forward with abandon. He certainly has something buried within the city streets of NYC for you find utter enjoyment in and I hope that you do.

Even if you’re just tryin’ to get everyone out of your damned house.

Special thanks to our special guest author Chris Logan. Chris is a long time veteran of the D/FW music scene, and has had his battles on the floors of many retail music shops in and around Fort Worth. Please visit his FB page Birth School Metal Death.

~ by thesynaptic on September 3, 2010.

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