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Saturday, October 21, 2023

Mathieu Amalric : the Man Who Shot John Zorn

By David Cristol

French actor and director Mathieu Amalric embarked on a passionate adventure after meeting and collaborating with John Zorn onstage in 2008. They became fast friends and two years later Amalric immersed himself in the protean Zorniverse and started filming the New York-based musician and composer at concerts and festivals over a period of five years, editing the resulting sounds and images into Zorn I 2010-2016. Zorn II 2016-2018 (premiered at Lisbon’s Jazz em Agosto special Zorn edition in 2018) and Zorn III 2018-2022 (first shown at the 2022 Reflektor event in Hamburg) followed. This is a labour of love on Amalric’s part, who finds time between acting in feature films (from arthouse French cinema to international works by Julian Schnabel, David Cronenberg, Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Kiyoshi Kurosawa…) and directing them (culminating with 2021’s Hold me tight) to continue this “film sans fin” (Zorn’s own words). Outside of the Marathons they were originally designed for, the movies have recently circulated in European cinema festivals, often accompanied by the director to present them to audiences. On Nov. 1 st they are getting a nationwide release in a circuit of theaters in France –on the very day Zorn gives his first Paris performance as part of a short European tour on celebration of his 70th birthday. Amalric, who lent his voice to Zorn’s 2012 Rimbaud and more recently to Song of Songs (both released on Tzadik), will be all over the concerts in Italy, France and the Netherlands (Oct. 29 to Nov. 4, 2023), to film the material which will complete Zorn IV, due to premiere in Vienna in 2024.


David Cristol: How did you come to meet John Zorn? Were you familiar with his music before your first collaboration?

Mathieu Amalric: In 2008 in Paris, John wanted to do The Song of Songs in French. Vincent Anglade, the programmer of Jazz à la Villette, gave him Clotilde Hesme's name, and mine. John knew who I was as an actor, and Vincent put us in touch. I knew a little about John's music, thanks to my sound engineer, Olivier Mauvezin. He'd played me a few tracks and I'd found it insane. I arrived, we rehearsed in the afternoon to play in the evening, and the next morning, curtain up, John was off to New York. But it so happened that director Alain Resnais was going to present Les Herbes Folles in New York a week later, and I was accompanying him on what was Resnais' last trip to this very important city for him. John had said, “Well, call me!” Well, I dared to call him when I got there, and what must have sealed this friendship – life is made up of such coincidences – was that it was Yom Kippur, probably the one day of the year when John doesn't work! Two years later, in 2010, John wrote to tell me that a TV channel, through the person in charge of cultural programming, wanted to initiate a portrait of him. It didn't work out with the prospective director, and John said “why don't you give it a try?” As soon as I said to him on the phone, “Well, maybe I'll give it a try,” he exclaimed, “Great, next week I'll be in Milan, we're having a marathon, you should come along.” I called Mauvezin and talked to Les Films du Poisson, the producers of my films, about the possibility of making a film for them. So, before filling in the forms to ask for financing, we started filming – the only time with a sound engineer – the images you'll see in Zorn I, at the Manzoni theater in Milan in 2010. Then the TV network called back to ask for the files to see if they'd accept financing. I started writing the project, preparing the paperwork, but it was boring and didn’t seem the right way to go about it. I had a Cannon 5d at the time, and a tiny Black Magic Pocket camera, with which I made C'est presque au bout du monde. So, we forget the commission altogether, and opted for complete freedom, no deadlines, no plan. When we meet, it's only in the context of the music, never in a private setting or filming him at home. Immediately, it was only about the music being made, and we kept to this framework – without it ever being mentioned, by a kind of friendship contract, in contexts where, as you know, there are no photos or cameras allowed. John feels the soul of the other person, what his music brings to a person, it's magnificent, and so there's a bond, it's as simple as that. He taught me a lot about being in the right place and asking the right questions. 

Mathieu Amalric at Jazz Em Agosto2018
© Gulbenkian Musica / Petra Cvelbar

 When we met, I took my camera and shot stuff, for five years, until 2015. One day John asks what I do with the footage. "I don't know, I make backups.” And then he had the idea, because there was the Philharmonie de Bruxelles in Paris, that "maybe we could show something!". So he initiated the whole thing, because he loves cinema so much. He loves superimposing images onto his concerts, especially when he improvises on the films of Harry Smith or other experimental filmmakers, as he did at the Musée du Judaïsme a few years ago. He also imagined that between two sets of music, a screen would come down and people would watch something, and so there was this really beautiful setting where there were images for an audience coming to listen to Zorn's music. And that's what happened. I finished Zorn I with Caroline Detournay, the editor. The first thing was to find the hard disks, and realize I had lost footage which I remembered I'd filmed. Every time I went to a country, I'd ask John who his friends were, and that's how in Israel I met the wonderful Jeremy Fogel [clarinettist and vocalist, who has two albums on Tzadik, in 2009 and 2010] , a theologian, a musician, a genius who translated the new version of "Song of Songs" into English. I filmed Jeremy in Israel but never found the footage. I lost a lot, but not everything. Fortunately, the footage I shot in Japan with Makigami Koichi was not lost, and is in the first film. The good thing was that I knew the films were going to be shown in front of Zorn enthusiasts, so I didn't need to explain anything. When you see Japan in the film, people understand why we see Japan, you don't need a voice-over saying “John Zorn lived in Japan for nine years, six months a year.” This gave me an extraordinarily free cinematic form, knowing where the films were going to be shown, in what kind of environment. After the first film Caroline and I realized that we didn't want to end there. That it didn't make sense, that it was an expanding thing. That's why we wrote “to be continued.” Of course, when the film was shown at the Philharmonie, I was also filming the images that we see in Zorn II. That's the funny thing: every time a film is shown, there are images of the next one. That is why in Zorn III we see Barbara Hannigan asking, “Is the sound going to be shown?” Yes. The first time Zorn II was shown was when you saw it in 2018. Zorn said, “why not a second one for Lisbon?” then “why not a third one for Hamburg?” ... 

Image from Zorn I (2010-2016)

This seems to suit the way he operates when setting up a band: he makes an album without thinking that it's going to be a series. Then comes the desire to surpass oneself, to set new challenges for the musicians.

Absolutely. The films are like music sets that he programs. Whether it's images or music, it's all the same. It's part of the program, when he imagines a marathon: would there be room, what could be shown? One day, we were in New York together because Serre-moi fort [feature film directed by Mathieu Amalric in 2021] was coming out in the States. We spent the day together and he simply said to me “why not a IV?”. There will be a IV, scheduled to premiere in Vienna in 2024. This gives me a deadline to continue filming and editing. Each film is only ready just before it’s shown.

Isn't it difficult for you to intersperse these adventures with your activities as an actor and director?

No, because since these films are not commissions, I don't have to think that on such and such a date, I absolutely have to be there otherwise I'll miss the event, no. What isn't on film, for me, is also part of the film. It's just by chance that at this or that moment I happen to be filming. But I don't pick up a calendar and say “John is here, I've got to go there, otherwise it's not going to be good!,” No, no, no. I have the camera in my bag, but I don’t always take it out. Because that's what's beautiful, what you don't film. And I have a feeling that the fourth film might revolve around that. When John said “why not a III for Hamburg?,” it was after lockdown, that's why in Zorn III there's nothing from 2020 and 2021, we only had exchanges online, recorded the vocals with Barbara for "Song of Songs" [released on Tzadik as a limited edition in 2022] from home. I could have filmed that. But that would have been forced. As soon as I feel it's forced, I don't do it. And now I've got more experience with saving images, I know not to lose anything. We get together with Caroline, we look at the rushes, and then we say, well, that's funny, what you filmed was obviously more about that, or it seems to be more about this, and that's how the films take a direction, which isn't decided beforehand. When I'm shooting, I don't know that the heart of the film is going to be this or that, no, it's when we look at all the images and sound that we realize there's something that seems to sum up all John's work through a single piece of music for example, as happened with “Jumalaterret.” That's when I remembered the e-mail exchanges between John and Barbara, since I'm lucky enough to live with her. I experienced her anguish, it's all in the movie, I play on exaggeration a little. In the film, you might think it was a year-long correspondence, but in fact it only lasted a day and a half. The dates are told, I was having fun remaking “Rocky I”, so that the viewer would wonder was she going to make it? I can't even tell you what IV is going to be. But what I felt when I filmed in Hamburg, where III was shown, what I realized when I saved the images, without even looking at them, was that my pleasure was to be in the audience. In other words, I was fed up with filming work. I wanted to hear the music. So maybe that'll be a lead. As if, after 13 years, I had finally become a listener, a spectator!

When I did Zorn I, it was a kind of admiration trip, the wonder of a guy who's been lucky enough to be thrown into a musical constellation and can't come back, it's just music in every sense. For II, I couldn't continue this exercise, it had to be a study of his music, hence John's words written on the screen, a melancholier mood than the first, where we perceive a more solitary man. And the third had to be very different too. So I said, let's do some exegesis, and let's start from a piece of music. That's why I edited the film with the score; I know how to read scores since I learned music in my youth. When editing the film, I had the score, and I wanted it to be sharable, and the more precise you can be, the more universal it can be. I felt that people could understand and feel it that way. And that's what happened with III, at the screening at Cinéma du Réel, where for the first time people didn’t come to listen to John's music, but rather to a documentary film festival. Most of them had never heard of John Zorn. I was afraid and told the organizers “I don't think people will be interested, these films are only made for concerts, for the fans.” But they told me not to worry. Initially, we were going to show them on the occasion of John doing a concert at Beaubourg at the same time, and because of Covid that couldn't happen. But the cinema's programmer confirmed her desire to “show the Zorns”. And we had the screening, three days before the event at the Elbphilarmonie in Hamburg. I was so scared that I was drinking at the bar thinking people would leave the theater, anxious and regretting to have agreed to the screening. Barbara found me, I was sobbing “no, why did I do that, they're bored, they won't understand, it's not for them, they don't give a shit” ... And then... it was madness. We’d just finished III the day before, I worked a lot on the subtitles to make them musically precise. Barbara discovered the film in front of a full house, and the people were jumping all over the theater. Since then, people have been telling me that these films should be shared, that it goes beyond the music. 

Image from Zorn II (2016-2018)

I've witnessed this at the screening of II in Lisbon: the large auditorium was packed, admission was free, people having no idea about Zorn came to see what it was about and it was clear that the energy emanating from the movie was reaching beyond the circle of the connoisseurs, provoking strong emotions in the audience, making the music accessible to those who wouldn't know which way to approach it, the visual dimension giving a glimpse of the processes at work, whatever the style tackled.

Yes, that's it! Because the films feed off John's energy and philosophy, it's incredible, it's magical... [very moved]. On III for example, this music that seems very difficult, I knew that the fact of going back to the workbench, of starting the same moment again, of feeling technically exactly what they were looking for together, with such joy, an absence of seriousness that is extraordinary, that's when we felt looking at the rushes that in fact this moment of rehearsal in the Gulbenkian room was going to be the heart of the film. People began to love this music, and it's important to remember that, as I knew it would be screened just before the “Jumalaterret” concert, I didn't want people to have everything either... I wanted them to be hungry! I was designing the film for people who would then have an appetite for listening to the live piece right afterwards. 

Image from Zorn II (2016-2018)

You film the musicians - Barbara Hannigan, John Zorn and his troupe with obvious passion. Given the diversity of the corpus over the years, was there a particular concert, record or moment that triggered your interest? Do you keep up with new releases?

I can tell you the first piece of John's music I ever heard. It's a funny way to start. It was during the shooting of Un homme un vrai [2003] by the Larrieu brothers, where Olivier Mauvezin was the sound engineer. Olivier also does all my films. We were having drinks in his room, he'd put on some music, and one moment I heard something, and I asked what it was, it was really good, and so the first music I heard from John was The Gift. So you see, well, it's sort of John for dummies, you know, the one where he's having fun doing easy listening, and I have to admit that, as it's the first John record I've listened to, I've got a Proust's madeleine feeling for The Gift, in which I now hear a lot of complexities, poly-texts, treasures. Olivier put it on because we were dancing, it was a cool atmosphere. Immediately afterwards, he made me listen to Naked City and Kristallnacht. I'm not someone who can quote albums or song names. But what I heard blew me away. A guy who does that, and who also does this, wow, my jaw dropped. And I love that I haven't yet heard all of John's music, I love that idea. He gave me two more records recently in New York. I got hooked on John's music in 2008 at Jazz à la Villette and then when he came back to Paris in 2013 [on the occasion of his 60th birthday marathon] . At the time, I was young and brave, I went on the stage with the camera, among the musicians and all. When recording Rimbaud, there's a moment when John takes the camera and films me. It happened, really, just like that, bang! Nothing premeditated. It’s in the film, as you will see. 

Image from Zorn III (2018-2022)

Are shoots improvised, with no location scouting or shooting plans? Or do you prepare the filming according to the works to be performed and the context and configuration of the venues? Does filming music involve new shooting techniques, adapted to each situation?

Oh yes, totally improvised. No preparation, nothing at all, nothing. I don't need anything, no technicians, I make do with what's there, so yes, that means adapting techniques. Little by little I perfected them, I now shoot with a Lumix GH5, I bought two X Voigtländer lenses, which open to 0.9, they're photo lenses that allow me to quickly shoot in the dark. I like using fixed lenses because they force me to get closer or further away, whereas zooming isn't the same thing. I like having fixed lenses so I can see how close I can get, and I've also improved my sound, which means that I now have four sound sources. On II I already had a PCM, an h1, three sound sources. I move them around depending on what's going on.

Did you ever work with Zorn's sound engineer Marc Urselli?

No. Marc, whom we see quite often in the picture, doesn't record concerts anymore, it's been over for a long time, live music isn't recorded anymore, John doesn't want to. This philosophy that opens II with the sentence “It will never happen again,” I find magnificent. No recording, it’s only for the people who were there and will have the memory of the concert. So the sounds recorded are mine. But when John played the white organ in II for example, in Paris, he was very happy during the rehearsals so he said maybe tonight I'd record it, it would be nice to have a trace, and he said could you call your friend? I called Olivier, and Olivier came and recorded the concert, the improvisation at midnight on the organ, and gave the tapes to John. And that gave me a good sound for the organ moments. Now I manage quite well, and above all I work with a sound editor, Sylvain Malbrant, and a mixer, so that in the end we have something bearable from a sound point of view. Then there are all the mistakes and accidents, for example in III, when Stephen Gosling drops the microphone, I lost all the sounds from before, which are only recorded by the camera. We manage.

You maintain a raw quality without creating a gap between what we see and what we hear. There are so many films where the sounds and images don't work together.

These tools are incredible, between the camera mic, which is a very good mic now, and the sound sources. And I asked for advice, found stands and tools to hang my gear, and it doesn't matter whether these tools are seen in the picture, you can see the microphones, I play with that, it allows me to have a close source, a more distant source, and then in the sound editing and mixing they manage to create rich textures.

Did you think about also getting on camera the works in which you take part as a narrator, such as Song of Songs in Hamburg?

This live performance was a first time, so I was hoping not to screw up, that's all. I didn't think at all about filming. 

Image from Zorn III (2018-2022)

Did you have any references in terms of musical films?

Not really, you have to be in the moment, it's really a dance, I like the physical side of the moment when you're filming, trying not to miss the focus too much, thinking at the same time to place the microphones in the right place depending on what's going on. It's not a question of reference at all, but rather of breathing together with the musicians. That's what guides me. It's extremely physical, very sensual. That's the state I'm in.

The music influences the way you capture it.

That's it. Then editing is different. When it comes to editing, the notion of bringing up a good show comes into play. Since you're offering something to be seen, how can it be shared? There are notions of boredom, interest, emotion and so on. In the first instance, I'd say my reference is John's own music. That is, polyphony, collage, Godard, speed, poetry, haiku and so on. I'm talking about Zorn references, Artaud, Spillane, Duchamp… 

Image from Zorn III (2018-2022)

Has Zorn seen the films and given you his opinion?

He's seen them, but he doesn't comment on them or ask for them to be cut. I'm the one who asks him to watch them, “please, I need you to watch them, John!” He doesn’t want to. I trick him into watching them by telling him I need him to check some technical things, to avoid mistakes. And so he sees the films before they are completely finished. But there's never been any request for a change. I can't tell you how moving the letters he sends me when he sees the films are. Sublime, because it's the freedom of the other, it's the opposite of copyright or censorship, of the right of inspection... Nothing! It's friendship. Similarly, in his relationship with musicians, what he says about Cobra in III is that he doesn't write for himself, but for the moment when the audience receives this thing and thinks “what the fuck?”, and appropriates it, the music process becomes you. And so that's what it's about, I'm the one who works hard to get him to look at it! On II, it was easier because there were lyrics, and I really wanted him to like them. That's the only time we talked about what would look best on screen. But on III nothing at all. I was very worried about III because, in the end, it's an extremely intimate film, especially the choice of e-mails; I asked John if I could use them because I felt it could be very beautiful, and he immediately gave me all the e-mails. And then I wondered if it would be interesting to ask “John, read me your e-mails with your voice, Barbara, read me the e-mails with your voice,” but I thought that the right place would be for me to read the e-mails. So we tried like that, and found that it worked, with me reading their e-mails.

It has a special resonance with the fact that you're the one who brought them together.

That's not true! That's what John says, and what he wrote in the presentation of Song of Songs, but it's not true. I didn't do anything. In fact, I don't remember. When I said to John, “I'm happy, I've met this crazy chick and I don't know how it's possible that this bombshell is in love with me,” he said, “Wait a minute, this chick is a killer, I know her!” The truth is, they knew each other's music. They'd been circling around each other for a long time. They knew of each other's existence. In Zorn I we already see Barbara, at the Stone in the audience... I'm glad to have footage from the old Stone in I

Barbara Hannigan and Mathieu Amalric at the  Reflektor Festival
Photo (c) Daniel Dittus

Do you enjoy accompanying screenings and meeting audiences? Since you've screened them in places as diverse as Japan and Lapland, are the reactions very different each time?

Jacky Evrard, who created Côté court au Cinéma de Pantin, a festival of short films, under the aegis of André Labarthe, did two screenings. Ah! Let me digress. At some point, while editing, I thought that if it could have the beauty of the portraits Labarthe made of all those filmmakers and dancers he filmed, so if you want a reference, there you go, Labarthe. In Lapland, we only showed III, because we were in Finland. There were lots of musicians there. In Japan, there was Makigami Koichi and next year he's organizing a Cobra session at a little music festival he set up in Atami, the town where he was born, where I was recently, there was an improvisation with Jim O'Rourke and Eiko Ishibashi [composer of the film "Drive my Car"] , and so I filmed it there and maybe it'll be in the IV. There's a sublime moment when Jim O'Rourke tells me about his meeting with John, and well, I didn't take the camera, because, I don't know how to tell you, you're there, the guy's telling you something, we’re smoking outside, the camera is inside. I'm not going to tell him “wait, stop, I'll get my camera.” It's not the same thing. John told me something about his work with Jack Smith, who was a man of experimental theater. Jack Smith had asked John to take a camera and John thought there was film in it. After a while, the camera started making a funny noise, and he realized that in fact there was no film in it, and Smith said, well, that's the beauty of it. And that's where John got the idea for what he's doing with the “theatre of musical optics”.

There's a short video on YouTube where he talks about this aspect of his work.

Yes. And you know what? John directed this video. Ah ah ah! Yep! Wait until you see IV. When Jim O'Rourke was very young, he was 23, he'd arrived in New York from Chicago with his Irish parents, he was living with his mother, and John, who'd heard Jim's music, called him on the phone and offered him a musical collaboration, and there was Jim's mother speaking in the background, and Zorn asked who’s that voice? And Jim says “that's my mother.” And John says “wait, you live with your parents? Oh no, that's not possible. You've got to get out of here, you're not living with your parents, how old are you?” And John gave him money to leave his parents' house. 

John Zorn. Image from Zorn I (2010-2016)

 Could Zorn III be seen as a sequel to C'est presque au bout du monde [It’s almost at the end of the earth], in which you filmed Barbara Hannigan's physical, sensual and transcendent singing?

No, I didn't imagine it that way. On the contrary, I was careful not to repeat myself. There's just one thing in common: at the very end of the film, we hear the same sound Barbara makes when she begins to warm up her voice, in a wide shot, but that's all. But in any case, Zorn III wasn't a film about Barbara, either during shooting or editing. The editor and I felt that Barbara was a vehicle through which we could talk about John. Barbara was like a witness, if I dare say, to an initiation for a newcomer to the Zorn world, allowing us to tell what other musicians have told you about working with Zorn. In this case, Barbara served as my gateway to Zorn-universe, in terms of the musical process between the composer and the performer. And there's a narrative structure that emerges, each part has titles. I had filmed Barbara at the New Morning listening to Zorn in Paris, when he couldn’t play at Pleyel and retreated to the New Morning at the last minute. Barbara received the music, she was ecstatic. Barbara is like Voltaire’s Candide character, a stranger who has landed in an unfamiliar world. How will she use her hatchet to conquer the branches of the jungle, defeat the wild beasts and manage to ... well, manage to make it! It was very important to strike the right balance so that the film didn't come across as being about Barbara. The title is Zorn III, not Hannigan I. We see more of her on screen, but she's obsessed with John. In the film, while Barbara is working, John is also working. He's on tour, he's with other musicians... The first time we see them together in the same shot is forty minutes into the film. It's the western aspect of the film: when are they going to face each other? It's built like that, like a suspense story, from the e-mails to the rehearsal. They meet at the first rehearsal. And then he laughs, and she's scared. And he takes away her fear. It's a film about their relationship, starting from a distance during lockdown. I cut out all the moments when Barbara made jokes directed at me. Whereas in C'est presque au bout du monde we see on camera the moment we fall in love, we are living our encounter. In Zorn III, I barely kept a glance at the camera. 

Image from Zorn III (2018-2022)

How do you manage to intersperse these shoots between your various projects as director and actor?

It's gymnastics sometimes. When I was shooting Les fantômes d'Ismaël in 2017, I really wanted to go see Zorn, even if it meant sleeping in a rented car in Basel outside the airport because there were no hotel rooms left in the area.

Which dimension do you prefer in Zorn's work? Is there a part of his work that particularly appeals to you, another to which you return less, yet another that intrigues you without having found the key?

I cannot isolate one part of his work that touches me more than another. It's an expanding world where nothing is impossible. I don't have a favorite thing. Sometimes I like The Gift for the melodies, and when I hear Necronomicon for string quartet, I go in a trance. And then I want to listen to a concert with the screams of Yamatsuka Eye. I love Ribot's guitar, there is a song that I love deeply in volume 21 of Filmworks, Belle de nature, the tune 'Orties cuisantes,' it's very soft and then it's four minutes of Hendrix-style guitar solo. Sometimes I put this song on and dance by myself. That's why I put a brief shot with Barbara and an electric guitar, in our house in Brittany. A shot of private life, filmed on an iPhone, but which fits into the subject of the film. I have this guitar because I had to learn to play it for my role in Tralala by the Larrieu brothers. I also really like the album dedicated to Maya Deren, the three versions of Kyiv with a preference for the piano one. John's themes are so strong that one wonders if they didn't exist before him. It’s like with the Beatles or Bach, how can we imagine that these pieces haven’t existed forever? They were there before Earth was created. And I have to mention the Ennio Morricone tribute album, which is the record through which a lot of people had access to Zorn. I also like the care taken in the design and manufacturing of the records, and I filmed things that I almost included in III but which will probably be in IV, the process of making the records, the beauty of these objects, Zorn being present at every stage, from the concept to the choice of materials and inks for the covers.

In the credits of Barbara (2017), we find accordionist Vincent Peirani. Your films often have a relationship to the world of music; either directly through their subject, or as an expression of the characters' emotions (Hold me tight).

When there was the screening at the Cinéma du Réel, I wondered which musicians would be happy to see this. I called Vincent. He's on the road all the time, but came to see the three films. You should have seen Vincent's face in front of the films! He knew Zorn, musically. It had an effect on him, he was in a state of impossible joy and desire to continue making music. I had also invited Michel Portal but he was unable to come.

What is your musical background? Are you a musician yourself?

I lived in Moscow with my journalist parents until I was twelve and I learned music, that's why I read scores, which was useful in editing III. I play the piano… when I'm alone. With Barbara, I am immersed in music. I realized afterwards that the fact of having filmed Barbara and John for twelve years has, without me realizing it, influenced the way in which I conceive the narration for fiction films. I noticed this on “Hold me tight”, where there is almost no dialogue and where the narration passes through other means and sounds. 

Image from Zorn III (2018-2022)

What is your favorite musical film (documentary or fiction)?

A real musical shock was Get Back, Peter Jackson's film about the Beatles, broadcast on Disney +. Didn't you see it? You are crazy. It's the most beautiful thing that exists in the world. It lasts nine hours and is constructed from images filmed in 1969 over the 25 days of the creation of the last Beatles album, until the last concert on the roof. I kept taking breaks because I couldn't believe it. And that fueled me for Zorn III. This nourished my awareness that we could make time an element of the work. I allowed myself to do a very long scene where they don't leave the room. Like Hitchcock! The rehearsal scene lasts around 35 minutes. I dared to do this after seeing Get Back. On Zorn I the scenes are very short and on II they are quite short but there was also Zorn’s reflection on what it means to be a musician today. What does a musician do today? He has to take care of money, organization, improvisation, putting people together, performing, traveling, everything. Maybe a bit like Bach. It was necessary to address all these aspects and reflect them in the images of travel, shared meals, etc. There are wrinkles in this film, moments of solitude, and a lot of shots of drummers, Tyshawn Sorey, Joey Baron and the others.

Do you like accompanying the screenings of these films, meeting the spectators?

We had a screening in Tokyo, at an extraordinary avant-garde festival in Shibuya. And then we did another screening, in a small café in Kyoto with a debate, more intimate, for sixty people. I think John would have loved this. There were a lot of people who were crazy about John's music, in Japan. In Tokyo it was special because there was vocalist Makigami Koichi, whom I hadn't seen for a long time and who was discovering Zorn III. And he wrote to John to inquire if he could show the films at the next edition, and Zorn said “go ahead, show all of them”.

Once the films are finished, do you ever re-edit them?

Not at all. Only subtitle errors that I need to correct. I try to avoid nostalgia. In Lisbon, I filmed very beautiful moments where we were doing the sound and image tests at the Gulbenkian for the Zorn II projection in the large auditorium, and then I decided not to include all that in the III. Each time must be from the present and new images. There is not one similar image between the three films...

Would you like Zorn to write a soundtrack for one of your films?

Absolutely. It could happen. But it’s something that needs to be created from the start. I would have to write the film with background music already composed from a story that I would have told him... The writing of the screenplay would really be done once he had composed the music. We talk about it. He was very disappointed by the way the directors used the music he had composed for them. The musical dimension of my cinema is present before I start writing the script. For Hold me tight, Debussy was already there, Rameau was already there. They are the ones who give me the right tone. Even for Eat your soup it’s Glenn Gould’s interpretation of the Gigue that inspired my way of filming, of detaching myself from the autobiographical aspect. It’s not when I’ve finished that I think “hey, it would be nice to put some music there,” no, no. The music is there from the start.

Image from Zorn II (2016-2018)

For more information about the films (in French) see here



Electric Masada – 50th Birthday Celebration Volume Four (Tzadik, 2004)

Masada – 50th Birthday Celebration Volume Seven (Tzadik, 2004)

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

John Zorn – Moonchild (Tzadik, 2006)

Ben Goldberg Quartet – Baal: Book of Angels vol. 15 (Tzadik, 1999)

Mark Feldman & Sylvie Courvoisier – Malphas: Book Of Angels Vol. 3 (Tzadik, 2006)

Cyro Baptista – Banquet of the Spirits (Tzadik, 2008)

John Zorn – Rimbaud (Tzadik, 2012)

Electric Masada – At the Mountains of Madness (Tzadik, 2005)

Makigami Koichi – Koedarake (Tzadik, 2005)

Masada – Live in Sevilla (Tzadik, 2000)

John Zorn – The Big Gundown (Tzadik, 2000)

Banquet of the Spirits: The Book Beri'ah Vol 9 — Yesod (Tzadik, 2019)

Masada - Volumes I – X (DIW 1994-97) ; 10-CD Boxset Reissue (Tzadik, 2023)

John Zorn – Valentine’s Day (Tzadik, 2014)

John Zorn – Simulacrum (seven albums on Tzadik, 2015-2020)

John Zorn – Madrigals (Tzadik, 2016)

Julian Lage & Gyan Riley – The Book Beri'ah Vol 4 – Chesed (Tzadik, 2019)

John Zorn – The String Quartets (Tzadik, 1999)

John Zorn – Filmworks vol 1-26 (Tzadik, 1997-2008)

John Zorn – O’o (Tzadik, 2009)

John Zorn – Cobra (Tzadik, 2002)

John Zorn – The Hermetic Organ volumes 1-10 (Tzadik, 2012-2022)

John Zorn and Thurston Moore – “@” (Tzadik, 2013)

Ikue Mori – Bagatelles Vol.4 (Tzadik, 2021)

Trigger – Bagatelles Vol.3 (Tzadik, 2021)

Asmodeus – Bagatelles Vol. 9 (Tzadik, 2022)

Peter Evans – Bagatelles Vol. 14 (Tzadik, 2023)

John Zorn – Nove Cantici Per Francesco d’Assisi (Tzadik, 2019)

John Medeski Trio – Bagatelles Vol. 8 (Tzadik, 2021)


Martin Schray said...

Very good and insightful interview. Thank you, David.

Stef said...

Waw! ... no other words for this.

Anonymous said...

So over-hyped. Let’s see how history remembers him.