Sunday, October 3, 2021

John Zorn - Bagatelles (Tzadik, 2021)

By Gary Chapin

Disc 1 & 4  *****

Disc 2  ****½

Disc 3 ****

There’s a scene in Amadeus when Salieri is getting his first look at young Mozart’s scores. He reads through them as he walks into his studio. The soundtrack swells up with whatever piece he’s reading, and he falls into a reverie. The scores fall from his hand, the leaves of music like the leaves of a tree in autumn. My question is this: was Salieri translating the written word to the sound of violins, cellos, etc., in his mind? Was he imagining what it would sound like? Or was he reacting to the musical ideas in their pure form. Was he reacting to the musical notations as direct ideas, unmediated by timbre? I wonder because, what if those same ideas emerged not from a Viennese orchestra, but from a British band shell group, or an accordion orchestra, or a punk group?

I wonder because this— the question of musical ideas and their relationship to the enacted timbral experience— is one of the fascinations that infuses my love of John Zorn’s body of work.

In 2015, from March to May, Zorn set out to compose a new book of tunes (as he had previously with the three books of Masada tunes) and came up with three hundred. His goal was to compose tunes that were “more atonal” then previous tunes books, and to create tunes that would serve as heads around which improvisers could blow freely. Five years of performances happened with a wide and deep variety of ensembles/players, and then some “choice” groups went into the studio. The four discs of this Bagatelle’s box set are the first fruits of that harvest, the discs featuring, respectively, the Mary Halvorson Quartet, Erik Friedlander and Michael Nicholas, Trigger, and Ikue Mori.

No compositions are repeated in the set. I had hoped at least some would be so that I could make comparisons, to look at the impact of musician and genre and instrumentation on a tune. Still, ostensibly, all the tunes of the book are the same kind of thing. This isn’t a knock on the creativity of the effort. It’s just a fact that a bunch of tunes consciously composed as a set will have some sort of unity to it. Do the mysteries of timbre, idiom, improv upset this assumption?

Not only are the groups different players, they are playing from different worlds. Trigger is hard core/punk guitarbassdrum trio (forgive the sloppy taxonomy). Mary Halvorson’s is a two guitar post-bop/po-mo/free quartet. Erik Friedlander and Michael Nicholas are two free improv cellists in Zorn-land. And Ikue Mori is … Ikue Mori.

This is an extraordinary set. The tunes are clever, intriguing, and bewitching. In the “head-blow-head” sense they provoke great improvisations from great improvisers. The tunes are a conceptual core threaded throughout in the form of melodies that hold together radically different aesthetic experiences. It is the melodies that hold this boat together. The melodies “are” the tunes.

Guitarist Mary Halvorson’s quartet, with Miles Okazaki also on guitar, Drew Gress on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums is easily the most joyous of the four. Halvorson is a dang national treasure, and while it might seem a thankless task to be her “second guitar” the two are having such fun playing off and with each other, and suddenly the fun is happening inside you. It’s the sort of fun that Eric Dolphy had in his compositions, with reckless, daring (as in “I dare you”) musical leaps across chasms of pitch, harmony, and timbre. The guitarists play freely with the envelopes of their instruments. Sometimes approaching the dry tone of “jazz guitar” other times getting at the ineffability allowed by effects boxes and metal melodrama and surfer surrealism. Gress is a dream (he always is), and Fujiware drives the whole band from underneath.

Friedlander and Nicholas’ two cello set (see this review talking about another of Zorn’s two cello project) begins with the sort of wide vibrato jump scare that Bernard Hermann made obligatory long ago. It’s sort of a calling card. Two free jazz cellos just showed up! Moving on, I am reminded very often of Friedlander’s work in the Masada String Trio. Does this make me shallow? It’s come to the point, I’ve heard so much Zorn ‘n’ cello that improvising cellos take me into a particular space — it’s an idiom. Though Zorn aimed for atonal, there’s still plenty of groove happening, and the two cellos shift from stabby-stabby to lush to intricate with facility. As with the two guitars in disc one, the communication here is a treat. These gentlemen are having a good time.

Trigger, featuring guitarist Will Greene, Simon Hanes, and drummer Aaron Edgecomb builds a bridge between Zorn the tunesmith and Zorn the hardcore/punk lover. I am not a hardcore/punk lover. Only a “liker.” I had not heard Trigger before, but when I tapped “play” it immediately felt familiar. I tracked it back to Zorn’s album, Insurrection, featuring different players with Julian Lage and Matt Hollenberg as paired guitars. The first tune on that disc, “Recognition,” occupies the same sonic space as this entire Bagatelle’s disc. But while Insurrection moves into different spaces, this disc does not. It feels like a case of “If you like this sort of thing, then you’ll like this sort of thing.” It further illustrates the fact that Zorn’s tune’s can occupy any idiom with startling success, even if that idiom is not especially interesting to me.

Which brings us to the Ikue Mori disc, which has left me a bit speechless. I am in awe. Mori “plays” a laptop for this work and the pieces have such wit, depth, knottiness, and complexity … it may be just that I’m not very familiar with electronic music these days, but I found myself asking, more than once, how is she doing this? Her sounds are “typical” computery synth sounds or instrument patches (which makes them untypical sounds for this context), and come in quantized fragments that have me wondering what is improvised and what not. Just as so much of Zorn’s work is found in cinema soundtracks, Mori’s work inhabits the space from 1950s electronica to “Song of Storms.” My intrigue and curiosity (i.e., ignorance) don’t form a barrier to loving this disc, which is in the purest sense one of the most beautiful sets of music I’ve heard in years, but drive me to listen again and again and again.

Zorn is in a race (consciously or not) to become the world’s most prolific composer (Zappa, Braxton, and Trad Arr are still ahead, I think). I once heard Zorn lament about folks likening the Masada quartet to Ornette Coleman’s original group. He attributed it to the fact that the two groups had similar instrumentations. But Coleman’s project through those Prestige and Atlantic years was creating weirdo melodies — wonderful weirdo melodies — within which joyfully free improvisors could fly (ditto with Braxton’s 1974 and 1975 recordings for Arista). This work, the Bagatelles, feels like part of the same project, and I kinda can’t imagine a better project to join up with.

8 comments:

  1. You know the movie version of Salieri is all made up bullshit, right? It can still serve to make a point as long as you know what it's based on. This is like Disney brainwashing people about lemmings.

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  2. I have to say, that scene in “Amadeus” has always seemed to me pretty straightforward. Salieri was hearing in his head the music Mozart had written, complete in every respect. The point is that there were no corrections or revisions. Constanze, Mozart’s wife, tells Salieri that the music was fully formed in Mozart’s head before he wrote it down with complete fluency. Salieri says:

    “Astounding! It was actually beyond belief. These were first and only drafts of music, yet they showed no corrections of any kind… Here again was the very voice of God!”

    It could be said that this scene is not really about what Salieri hears in his head, reading from the score (which is easily done by musicians and conductors) but more remarkably, that those sounds were transcribed from what Mozart himself heard in his head, fully formed, manifesting his divine gift.

    Although the scene is fictional, it is based on a common perception of Mozart, a child prodigy, as having a musical mind so advanced that he could compose works complete using his inner ear. It’s original source was a letter published in 1815 in which Mozart explained his compositional process:

    “Provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodised and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once.”

    Unfortunately the letter is a forgery, and we know from Mozart’s sketches that although he used a musical shorthand, he did make revisions and found some works, such as a set of string quartets, the “fruit of long and laborious effort.”

    Notwithstanding this, In the context of the movie, and Peter Schaffer’s play on which it was based, I think the scene is perfectly legitimate. One of the movie’s themes is that God had chosen to overlook the pious Salieri, a musical mediocrity, and conferred the power to write such inspired music on a coarse, scatological youth (borne out to a certain extent by Mozart’s letters - the real ones).

    I don’t think this qualifies as bullshit, and indeed Schaffer was not the first to recreate in this imaginative way; his play was inspired by Pushkin’s drama, “Mozart and Salieri”.

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  3. Using a scene from a play or movie which sparked a question for me means it's pretty much irrelevant whether it really happened or not. It was just a launch into an inquiry. I did not expect the Salieri gambit to be the thing that drew attention, here.

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  4. Amadeus was a masterful film. Salieri thought he had a bargain with God: I remain chaste; you give me musical genius. Then he encountered Mozart, who chased girls under tables and wrote music that Salieri could recognize as transcendent but could not produce. He then decided to get revenge on God. Not a good business model.

    Reference to the movie implies nothing about the historical figures.

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  5. Thank you for this review! I've been listening to Zorn quite a lot lately, and I appreciate your perspective on this work. His pieces are so fascinating and engaging on so many levels, and the way they get expressed through diverse performers -- it's really something.

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  6. Small correction, Miles not Michael.

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  7. Small correction, Miles not Michael.

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