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Music / John Zorn

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Zorn and a brief summarization of all the genres he mixes in his music.

John Zorn (born September 2, 1953) is one of the most eclectic American composers and musicians alive today. He is a multi-instrumentalist, often classified as a Jazz or Avant-Garde Music artist, but his music is far more diverse. The man is the best musical example of Genre Roulette. There are few Western musical forms he hasn't had a go at: Jazz, Avant-Garde Music, Classical Music, Rock, Punk Rock, Surf Rock, Exotica, Electronic Music, Ambient, Klezmer, Improv, Hardcore, Grindcore, Death Metal, Thrashcore, Reggae, noise, Noise Rock, Blues, movie soundtracks... Not only that, but he mixes all of them together and switches back and forth between them, much like somebody surfing TV channels. He had said on many occasions that composer Mauricio Kagel was his first musical hero, who sparked his interest in experimental music. Another big influence is Carl Stalling, best known as the composer of the original Looney Tunes cartoons.

Zorn is One of Us in the sense that he started composing at an early age and build up a staggering album collection of hundreds of artists, whose influence he drenched into his own work and he frequently pays tribute too. He maintains independence from the mainstream music by working on his own independent label Tzadik. This allows him to both bring out solo records as well as producing and working with many different bands, such as:

  • The Hardcore and Grindcore groups Naked City, Hemophiliac and Painkiller;
  • The free Jazz and klezmer collectives Masada and Bar Kohkba,,...
  • The Dreamers, a blend of jazz and exotica , which is among his most accessible work.
  • His soundtracks are compiled under the ongoing series Filmworks.

People who want to dive into Zorn's work may experience Archive Panic. He has more than 400 recordings attached to his name! And some albums may be too inaccessible for the general public. This makes him a cult figure, rather than a household name.

Zorn also appears in the 1992 documentary The Revenge of the Dead Indians, where he and various celebrities (Noam Chomsky, Matt Groening, Iannis Xenakis, Frank Zappa, Pierre Boulez, Rutger Hauer, Dennis Hopper, Yehudi Menuhin, Benoît Mandelbrot, Yoko Ono) talk about the influence of John Cage. He's also the subject of an idiosyncratic documentary, Claudia Heuermann's 2004 film A Bookshelf on Top of the Sky: 12 Stories About John Zorn.

The Grindcore band "Fuck the Facts" was named after a track on the debut album of Zorn's Naked City band. Another band that ranks Zorn among its influences is Candiria. The tracks "Bonehead" and "Hellraiser" from "Torture Garden" (1990) are used in the opening scene from Funny Games (1998 and 2007).

On September 20, 2006, The Colbert Report mocked Zorn being awarded the Genius Grant. Colbert used a 10-second dissonant excerpt from the 50th Birthday Celebration series and compared it to his blowing into a saxophone, pleading, "Genius Grant please!" Zorn himself took the joke well and felt this Colbert Bump was hilarious.

Albums with their own page on TV Tropes

John Zorn's work provides examples of...

  • Alphabetical Theme Naming: His albums with the band Masada are titled after the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet: Alef, Beit, Gimel, Dalet, Hei, Vav, Zayin, Het, Tet and Yod – and contained compositions with Hebrew titles.
  • Alliterative Title: His 1992 album with Naked City "Grand Guignol". His 1997 album "Duras: Duchamp", his 2001 album "Madness, Love and Mysticism" and his 2007 album "From Silence to Sorcery". His 2010 album "What Thou Wilt".
  • Ambient: One of many genres he touched. "Absinthe" (1993), with his band Naked City, features a blend of ambient noise styled compositions. "Execution Ground" (1994) with his band Painkiller has a second disc with ambient dub versions of two tracks.
  • Animalistic Abomination: His album "Chimeras" (2003) references the Classical Mythology creatures chimeras.
  • As the Good Book Says...: "IAO" (2002) is inspired by Kabbalism.
  • Avant-Garde Music: This is the most correct label you can file him under.
  • Careful with That Axe: Many of his tracks with Naked City and Painkiller feature a lot of screaming.
  • Christmas Songs: "A Dreamers Christmas" is a 2011 album by Zorn's band The Dreamers with covers of Christmas carols.
  • Classical Music: One of many genres he touched. Prime examples are his 1983 "Angelus Novus", his 1993 "Kristallnacht", his 1998 "Aporias: Requia for Piano and Orchestra, his 1999 "The String Quartets", his 2000 "Cartoon S/M", his 2001 "Madness, Love and Mysticism", his 2001 "Songs from the Hermetic" (2001), "Chimeras" (2003),...
  • Concept Album: Zorn has released many albums that are tributes to certain artists, works or historical events. "The Big Gundown" reimagines Ennio Morricone's works, Spillane and "The Bribe" combines music and spoken word to bring a salute to the novels of Mickey Spillane. "Spy vs. Spy" reimagines Ornette Coleman. "Kristallnacht" (1993) commemorates the 1938 Kristallnacht events in Nazi Germany against Jewish civilians by combining klezmer with Death Metal.
  • Cover Album and The Cover Changes the Meaning: He has reimagined music by artists as diverse as Ennio Morricone, Sonny Clark and Ornette Coleman, often to the point that it is barely recognizable.
  • Covers Always Lie: Despite being pigeonholed as jazz his music really is far more diverse than that. Zorn remembers performing at the Marciac Jazz Festival, where Wynton Marsalis said about him: "That's not jazz." And he answered: "You're right! But this is the only gig I've got, man. Give me another festival and I'll play there.'"
  • Creepy Doll: His album cover for Music for Children (1998) featured a disturbing girl doll with breasts.
  • Crossover: He has worked together with Mike Patton, Bill Laswell, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Bill Frisell, Eugene Chadbourne, Mr. Bungle, Derek Bailey, Marc Ribot (of Tom Waits fame), and the Japanese Rock band Boredoms. The live album The Stone: Issue Three (2008) is an improvisation between Zorn, Lou Reed, and Laurie Anderson.
  • Cult Soundtrack:
    • The man has written music for documentaries, underground films, TV advertisements, cartoons,... which are all compiled under his Filmworks series, which has over 25 volumes now.
    • "Heretic" is the soundtrack to an underground porn movie, "Jeux des Dames Cruelles", and features photos in the artwork.
  • Death Metal: One of the many genres he experiments with, often combined with Grindcore and Thrashcore. His "Spy vs. Spy" (1989) album and his work with Naked City and Painkiller are prime examples.
  • Distinct Double Album: "Lacross" (1978), "Cartoon S/M" (2000), "Execution Ground" (1994), the Masada albums,... "Archery" (1982/2001) is a triple album.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: His album "First Recordings 1973" (1995) features all music Zorn made in the dawn of his career, when he was just 20 years old. While occassionally showing sparks of his later audacious experimentations a lot of it is not very impressive yet.
  • Endangered Species: His album with The Dreamers, "0'0" (2009) refers to the Hawaiian songbird family Mohoidae, which was threatened with extinction back then and has now effectively gone extinct.
  • Ennio Morricone Pastiche: "The Big Gundown" (1985) reinvents several movie soundtracks for which Ennio Morricone wrote the scores.
  • Epic Rocking: His tracks can be very long. "Leng Tch'e" (1992) consists of one 31:37 minutes long track. Then there is "Redbird" on "Redbird" (1995), which is 41:01 minutes long. On Music for Children "Cycles du Nord" takes up 20:54 minutes and is nothing but three wind machines and some feedback playing. "Mount Analogue" (2012) consists of one track, "Mount Analogue", which is 38:21 long. "The Hemetic Organ" (2012) is completely improvised and live, 36:25 long. The 31:55 track "Batrachophrenoboocosmomachia" on the Painkiller album "Talisman: Live in Nagoya" (2002). The longest track in his work so far is the 47:49 "The Dream Membrane" on the album "The Dream Membrane" (2014) with David Chaim Smith and Bill Laswell.
  • Everything Is an Instrument:
    • On "The Book Of Heads" (1995) Zorn rubbed ballons on guitar strings until they popped, hold talking dolls up to the microphone, pulled guitar strings out of the bridge notch, hit the strings with pencils and played with rice!
    • Zorn used water, glass bowls, metal pipes, wax paper, mud and staple guns on his album "Songs from the Hermetic Theatre" (2001).
    • The track "Cycles du Nord" on Music for Children (1998) is a 20-minute composition for wind machines.
  • Exotica: His 2001 album "The Gift".
  • Face on the Cover: Interestingly enough, Zorn doesn't feature his own face on album covers much, if any. A notable exception is "First Recordings 1973" (1995), a collection of recordings he made when he was 20 years old and in college. He used a childhood foto of himself in front of a desk.
  • Feminism: His 2009 album "Femina" is a tribute to the artistic creativity of women.
  • Freaky Is Cool: A geeky music fan who managed to make a career out of making eclectic music.
  • Garden of Evil: The Naked City album "Torture Garden" (1990) is a shout-out to Octave Mirbeau's eponymous novel.
  • Genre-Busting and Genre Roulette: Zorn fits in all genres.
  • Gnosticism: He has released several albums with a band called the Gnostic Trio: "The Gnostic Preludes" (2012), "The Mysteries" (2013) and "In Lambeth" (2013).
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: His 1997 album "New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands" (1997) has narration in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese. "Kristallnacht" and his Masada and Bar Kohkba albums have tracks with Hebrew titles.
  • Gratuitous Panning: On "Spy vs. Spy" (1989) Zorn is recorded on the right channel, while Tim Berne appears on the left.
  • Grindcore and Hardcore: One of many genres he touched. His bands Naked City, Painkiller, Hemophiliac and Moonchild Trio specialize in it. Mick Harris (Napalm Death, Scorn) played drums in Painkiller.
  • Hemo Erotic: The band Hemophiliac.
  • Homage:
    • Zorn has released several albums that are odes to artists and works he likes: Mickey Spillane, Jean-Luc Godard, Ennio Morricone ("The Big Gundown" (1985)), Ornette Coleman, Marguerite Duras, Marcel Duchamp, Bruno Schultz, Arthur Rimbaud, Nosferatu,...
    • He has also contributed to tribute albums to Thelonious Monk and Kurt Weill. On his debut album "The Classic Guide To Strategy" (1983) the first two tracks are homages to Looney Tunes composer Carl Stalling, while the other six are all shout-outs to Japanese avantgarde musicians.
    • "Two-Lane Highway" on Spillane is essentially a concerto written for, and featuring, blues guitarist Albert Collins.
    • His album "Elegy" (1992) is dedicated to Jean Genet.
    • The track "Notre dame de l' oublie" on "Absinthe" (1993) is dedicated to Olivier Messiaen.
    • "Cycles du Nord" on Music for Children (1998) is a 20 minute windmachine composition dedicated to Edgard Varčse.
    • "Redbird" (1980) has tribute compositions for artist Agnes Martin.
    • "BeuysBlock" on 2001's Songs from the Hermetic Theater is a tribute to German artist Joseph Beuys.
    • The track "Shibboleth" on From Silence to Sorcery (2007) is a tribute to the Jewish poet Paul Celan.
    • "Alhambra Love Songs" (2009) features musical tributes to Vince Guaraldi, Clint Eastwood, David Lynch, Mike Patton and visual artist Harry Everett Smith.
    • "Dictée/Liber Novus" has two compositions: "Dictée", a homage to writer and conceptual artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and "Liber Novus" was inspired by the "Red Book" of Carl Jung.
    • "Interzone" (2010) and "Dreamachines" (2013) pay tribute to William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. "Nova Express" (2011) is also inspired by Burroughs' prose.
    • "At the Gates of Paradise" (2011) is inspired by William Blake and the gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi library. "A Vision in Blakelight" is also inspired by Blake.
    • "Rimbaud" (2012) is a tribute to Arthur Rimbaud.
    • The track "À Rebours" on "Music and its Double" (2012) is dedicated to composer Gyorgy Ligeti, while "La Machine de l' Être" on the same album is inspired by Antonin Artaud.
    • The music on his album "On the Torment of Saints, the Casting of Spells and the Evocation of Spirits" (2013) was inspired by William Shakespeare's The Tempest.
    • "Of Wonder and Certainty" from "The Dreamers" (2008) is dedicated to Lou Reed.
  • I Kiss Your Hand: The cover of "Madness, Love and Mysticism" (2001) features a woman with a male hand in her mouth.
  • Improv: A majority of his work is improvised together with other artists, what lead him to be categorized as Jazz, more based on the method than the actual music. But Zorn also makes game piece improvisations, where the improvisations are more controlled according to a set of rules. His albums Spillane, "Godard/Spillane" and "Xu Feng" are prime examples of this technique. On "The Hermetic Organ" (2012), "The Hermetic Organ, Vol. 2" (2014) and "The Hermetic Organ, Vol. 3" (2015) Zorn improvised an entire piece on an Aeolian Skinner pipe organ live at St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia University. Lou Reed, who attended the first performance, called it "a night of culmination and conquest." "Downtown Lullaby" (1998) is a collective improvisation album.
  • Indecipherable Lyrics: If lyrics are featured at all in Zorn's work they are often in a foreign language or screamed so loud that they are incomprehensible.
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: A lot of his song titles for Naked City and Painkiller fall in this category. See Refuge in Audacity below.
  • Instrumentals: The majority of his work is instrumental.
  • Jack of All Trades: Zorn is skilled in alto saxophone, pipe organ, clarinet, flute, keyboards, vocals, guitar, double bass, drums, percussion, theremin, wind machine and (notoriously) duck calls, although his primary instrument, and the one he can wreak most havoc with, is alto sax.
  • Jazz: The very narrow genre his music is usually filed under.
  • Jump Scare: His music changes so many styles that you're bound to be scared out of your seat at certain points.
  • Live Album: Too many to count. Zorn has relased concert albums documenting performances in the USA, Europe, the Middle East and Japan.
  • Location Song: The album "Ganryu Island" (1985) is named after a small Japanese island of the same name, where samurai warriors Miyamoto Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro engaged in battle.
  • Lucky Charms Title: The tracks on the Hemophiliac album "50th Birthday Celebration Volume 6" are all symbols. [1]
  • Minimalistic Cover Art: Several album covers are quite simple.
    • "Redbird" (1995) is just a reddish color, with the album title and his name on it.
    • The cover of "IAO" (2002) is completely white.
    • "Alhambra Love Songs" (2009) is also white, but has the title and text on it.
    • "Interzone" (2010) is a grey, white album with some weird symbols on it. "Enigmata" is a 2011 white album with an enigma symbol on it.
    • "Nosferatu" (2012) is completely black, with red lettering.
    • "The Hermetic Organ" (2012) has a blue cover with a symbol on the cover.
    • "Rimbaud" (2012) is a blue cover with just the written name Rimbaud on it.
    • "Music and Its Double" (2012) is a completely white cover, with some abstract imagery on it and the artists' name and title.
    • "The Concealed" (2012) is a white cover with just a circle, triangle and square on it.
  • Miniscule Rocking: Several tracks on his Naked City albums are less than a minute or even half a minute long.
  • Mood Whiplash: Not surprisingly, seeing his pet peeve for changing genres so quick and sudden.
  • Nightmare Fuel: "Kristallnacht" is an album about The Holocaust. As such it's quite disturbing. The second track, "Never Again", consists of twelve minutes of the sound of glass breaking, chopped-up Hitler speeches, footsteps, discordant violins, klezmer, and a high-pitched squeal. The liner notes warn that the song can cause nausea and headaches.
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: His music is so unpredictable that it can provide a Jump Scare here and there or have disturbing, unsettling sounds. Take his band Naked City, for instance. The songs shift from smooth jazz to grindcore to death metal shredding back to jazz and then all over again within the span of seconds. The entirety of it is punctuated with Yamatsuka Eye making the most terrifying noises he possibly can with his mouth.
  • Noise Rock: Several albums fall into this trope. The most extreme record is "Weird Little Boy" (1998), an Avant-Garde Music album by Zorn's one-off band Weird Little Boy where the experimental noise is so out there that it divides fans whether it's one of their best or their worst. Trey Spruance, who played on the record, disowned it and advised people not to buy it.
  • No Title: "Euclid's Nightmare" (1997) has 27 untitled tracks, of which several are intentionally identical - tracks (7) and (18); tracks (3) and (20); and tracks (5), (14), and (27
  • Number of the Beast: Zorn signed and numbered 666 copies of the album "The Satyr's Play/Cerberus" (2011) and produced 66 copies of a limited edition book version which were individualised and hand bound in black goat skin.
  • Obligatory Bondage Song: A lot of albums with Naked City have covers featuring people in sado-masochistic poses and bondage, including Radio. The track "S & M Sniper" from "Torture Garden" (1990) is a song example. "Submission", "My Master, My Slave" and "Dominatrix 5B" from "Heretic" (1992) too.
  • One-Word Title: The albums "Elegy" (1992), "Kristallnacht" (1993), "Redbird" (1995), "IAO" (2002), "Chimeras" (2003), "Magick" (2004), "Mysterium" (2005), "Rituals" (2005), "Femina" (2009), "Interzone" (2010), "Enigmata" (2011), "Nosferatu" (2012), "Rimbaud" (2012), "Lemma" (2013), "Dreamachines" (2013),... and that's just the albums in his own catalogue!
  • Opera: His album "Rituals" (2005) is an opera, first performed at the Bayreuth Opera Festival in 1988. The Moonchild album "Astronome" (2006) was staged as an opera by Richard Foreman.
  • Pun-Based Title: His album "Lemma" (2013) is a nod to the mathematical equation Zorn's lemma by namesake Max Zorn. They aren't related, by the way.
  • Punk Rock: One of the genres he touched upon.
  • Record Producer: He is producer of a lot of other bands.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Zorn's music changes styles and moods so abrupt that his work is bound to polarize people. Some of his album covers have also pushed boundaries by showing scenes of violent deaths or creepy sexual images. His song titles can sometimes be audacious too: "Igneous Ejaculation", "Fuck the Facts" (from "Naked City" (1990), "Perfume of a Critic's Burning Flesh", "Jazz Snob Eat Shit", "Pigfucker" (from "Torture Garden" (1990)), "Sweat, Sperm + Blood", "Coprahagist Rituals"(from "Heretic" (1992)), "Guts of a Virgin", "Handjob" and "Purgatory of Fiery Vulvas" (1991) with Painkiller.
  • Reggae: One of the genres he touches upon.
  • Rock Me, Asmodeus!: His album "Asmodeus: Book of Angels Volume 7" (2007) is a literal example.
  • Satyr Play: His 2011 album "The Satyr's Play/Cerberus" provides music to the tale.
  • Shout-Out: Where to start?
  • Skull for a Head: "The String Quartets" (1999) features a skull on the album cover.
  • Something Blues: The track "Alhambra Blues" on "Alhambra Love Songs" (2009).
  • Special Guest:
    • His band Naked City features contributions from Noise Rock band members like Boredoms, Napalm Death, and Carcass, but more significantly, the band's guitarist was jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and its bass guitarist was Henry Cow guitarist Fred Frith, both of whom have illustrious solo careers.
    • On the album "Grand Guignol" (1992) Bob Dorough, composer for Schoolhouse Rock! and Miles Davis, is special guest.
    • On his 2009 album "Femina" Laurie Anderson provides the narration.
  • Surf Rock: One of the many genres he uses in his music.
  • Theme Naming: He has composed "game pieces", which are best described as musical Improv under a series of strict rules. He literally named several of these game pieces after sports, including Track & Field(1974), Baseball (1976), Lacrosse (1976), Dominoes (1977), Curling (1977), Golf (1977), Hockey (1978), Cricket (1978), Fencing (1978), Pool (1979), and Archery (1979).
  • Who's on First?: A track on John Zorn, Derek Bailey and George Lewis's album "Yankees" (1983) carries this title.
  • World Music: His work with the band Masada mixes klezmer music.