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Sunday, September 10, 2017

John Zorn - There Is No More Firmament (Tzadik, 2017) ****

By Connor Kurtz

Starting an album with fanfare is one of the most questionable decisions an artist can make when it comes to making an album. It's overdone, it's dated, it's cheesy, and it's exactly how John Zorn opens his new collection of compositions, There Is No More Firmament. In 'Antiphonal Fanfare for the Great Hall', a single trumpet introduces us with the fanfare we expect and feared. My eyes begin to roll to the back of my head. Soon enough another trumpet joins, followed by four more, and they all play together for almost no time at all before they fall out of sync into a giant atonal mess of horns competing for prominence. Once they completely fall apart, they find life in a minimalist motif which seems to call back to the fanfare which opened the piece. What was old and banal has become new and exciting; this is a major theme throughout all eight of the compositions presented on There Is No More Firmament. Zorn takes apart what was formally beautiful and new, but now lousy and kitsch, and rebuilds it into the music of Zorn which we've come to love.

Towards the end of 'Antiphonal Fanfare', the motif shrinks into little more than a series of layered drones, only to spontaneously fall back into the atonal pit which we felt we had left for good minutes ago. This is another one of the album's major themes: the roles of beauty and chaos in music, and perhaps in life as well. I believe that Zorn wants to remind us that from chaos can come beauty, and that the opposite is true as well. An even greater example of this is in the string trio Freud, the album's most recent composition. Unlike 'Antiphonal Fanfare', 'Freud' kicks right into the fastest paced string madness one could imagine. The first 30 seconds are absolutely suffocating. There are fragments of beauty and chaos scattered through the piece, and extended techniques are used liberally, but what is most surprising is a brief passage about 7 minutes in where a sole cello plucks a petit, but gorgeous, melody on his instrument. It comes out of nowhere and it never returns, but this moment is truly lovely, and the madness which surrounds it perfectly juxtaposes it.

Even with the score in front of me, I struggle to believe that the solo trumpet piece 'Merlin' was actually composed and isn't an improvisation. Two separate versions of 'Merlin' appear on Firmament: the first performed by Peter Evans on a B♭­ jazz trumpet, and the second by Marco Blaauw on his specially built double-bell trumpet in C. The piece is a complex web of extended techniques, half-improvisations and rapid-fire notes, all thrown into a blender. The two performances together shine a light on how the piece operates, as they can be juxtaposed to find what ideas are forced by the composition and which come from the performers. The disappointment here is finding that it's almost all in the composition, so the second performance serves little more use than that of a platform to compare the technique of the two performers (Evans is much more guttural and, in my opinion, more exciting). Still, I can't help but feel that this album may have been better off with one less 'Merlin'; which brings me to this album's biggest flaw: very little thought seems to have gone into the track-list and how it will work as an album. This flaw becomes even more obvious in the next track.

After 20 minutes of ruthless atonal compositions, we arrive at 'Divagations': a jazz trio in two movements. From reading the booklet, it seems that Zorn's intention was to introduce a classical pianist, Stephen Gosling, to a jazz rhythm section, Christian McBride and Tyshawn Sorey, to result in "a true blending of classical and jazz." I think that that is a wonderful idea, but it's simply not what we get in 'Divagations' at all -- instead we're treated to a jazz trio with a particularly wild pianist, ringing closer to Cecil Taylor than any classical composer of pianist. Now, I actually adore 'Divagations' -- I think it's one of the best pieces in this set. It kicks off with a hard-hitting bop groove with an invigorating swing that makes me want to dance, but it isn't long before a cacophonous explosion which isn't far from what we heard in Antiphonal Fanfare. A difference between the two, however, is that 'Divagations' moves quickly; so, when it dives into chaos, it's quick to regain its footing. Sadly, this great piece is slightly soured by its poor placement -- for the rest of the album I find myself asking, "hey, whatever happened to that jazz track?"

The clarinet solo 'The Steppenwolf' (named after the novel by Herman Hesse, and not the band which played 'Born to Be Wild' which, very unrelated, was the main song we practiced in my middle school jazz band), performed by Joshua Rubin, comes with the following subtitle: 'For Madmen Only--Price of Admission: Your Mind.' This subtitle will not prepare you for this piece. I don't say that because this piece is completely insane, but because it is completely beautiful. The piece is slowly, or should I say meticulously paced, and focuses on gradual scales and subtly appearing and dissolving themes. This piece particularly showcases the virtuosity of Joshua Rubin, who gives a performance which is both spell-binding and inspiring. He has a way of pacing where he accelerates or decelerates wherever he finds it best, and that result in a piece which sounds natural and nuanced. I'm not sure why the subtitle was given to this piece, but 'The Steppenwolf' is a pleasure to listen to.

'In Excelsis' is, surprisingly, another fanfare. This one kicks off with some hefty low-end dissonance, which gives way to some very traditional fanfare. Even Zorn addresses that this sounds fairly traditional, "on the surface" he says, but there are some references to more contemporary music hidden inside. First of all, there are some rather challenging polymeters present in the composition (3/4, 5/4 and 7/4 simultaneously, as Zorn states in the liner notes) which the listener may not pick up on in first listen. There are also some rather odd harmonies, giving off a slight "out of place" feeling. It is true that the piece has little to give to avant-garde art lovers or new music fans, but it is only a couple of minutes and it's undeniably joyful, so I'll allow it.

Finally, we have the album's longest cut, title track and most serious composition, 'Il n'y a Plus de Firmament' for wind quintet, which is performed by the Talea Ensemble. The piece was influenced by Zorn researching wind quintet music, and failing to find an "intense piece that really kicks ASS" (wait, didn't I call this piece serious?) Besides the ass-kicking thing, this piece's primary musical influence is Edgard Varèse. The piece creates a scenario which allows for Varèse's usually brand of mania to find its way into a new setting, a setting which uses an ensemble using wind instruments with over 200 years of history. The piece drifts along moods, many of which are manic either in their enthusiasm or depression, and often allows the deeper instruments to provide guidance. This piece is new and exciting, but also indebted and knowledgeable of both the avant-garde and traditional music which proceeds it. That is something that contemporary music could use more of, in my opinion.

All in all, There Is No More Firmament is an excellent collection of compositions performed by consistently excellent performers, hand-picked by the composer. My biggest gripe is the way the album is presented: Do we really need two fanfares? Why is there a jazz trio in the middle of this? Are the two interpretations of 'Merlin' distinct enough to both be featured here? For fans of Zorn, I strongly recommend this one. It is stronger than the majority of his classical collections, such as last year's Commedia Dell'arte. But for me, I doubt I'll ever listen to this album as a whole again --instead, opting to take the pieces in on their own when I like.