Performer, composer, entrepreneur John Zorn is the ultimate multi-hyphenate artist and unclassifiable independent. But he pursues his defiantly outsider vision with such ferocity that the vortex of his imagination continually sucks in mainstream interest and trappings, such as four albums for Nonesuch (1985-1990, before leaving for his own label), a commission from the New York Philharmonic, major media profiles, and a MacArthur Foundation grant (which brought him a short mocking feature in a “Who’s Not Honoring Me Now” segment on The Colbert Report.)
Born in New York City, Zorn played several instruments as a child and began exploring the wide range of styles – from The Doors to Mauricio Kagel – that has characterized and informed his music ever since. While at Webster College (now Webster University) in St. Louis, he discovered Anthony Braxton’s now-classic solo album For Alto and began playing saxophone. Webster is also where he began studying the cartoon scores of Carl Stalling, but he dropped out of college, spending some time on the West Coast before moving to Manhattan and becoming a pillar of the downtown music scene.
“My study, my life, the world I dealt with, the traditions I felt connected to, my heroes Harry Partch, Steve Reich, Ives, Stravinsky, Varèse – all these people I see as a line and I see myself at the end of that line,” Zorn told Edward Strickland in an interview published in 1991. “But people of our generation have been exposed to more music than any other in the history of the world because of the recording boom. As a kid I listened to my father’s jazz 78s, blues, pop, and rock on the radio – I was really into surf music – and at 18 or 19 I started studying jazz saxophone. All of these musics made me who I am. Today you’re able to buy music from all over the world at the first record store you see. This is the music that results. In a sense, my music is rootless since I draw from all these traditions; I don’t hold to any one camp.”
Zorn writes down fragments – ideas gleaned from his vast field of references and suggestions about their character and possible orchestration – and uses flashcards to organize this material for pieces such as For Your Eyes Only. Often referred to as a chamber symphony, For Your Eyes Only is more like a cartoon tone poem, a manically focused, jump cut collage of quotations.
“The Brooklyn Philharmonic called me up and asked me to write something for next year,” Zorn told Strickland. “I’m going to write a chamber piece. No improvisation, entirely notated. Every note – because that world is not about improvisation. I’m not interested, like Cage, in giving a symphony orchestra a bunch of little pictures from Thoreau and seeing what they come up with. I’m interested in getting the best out of these players and inspiring them, which means finding out who loves to play virtuosic music and who doesn’t and writing specifically for that group.”
The result, completed in October 1989, is a sonic crazy quilt. Virtuosity is indeed required; every instrument is treated as a soloist. Instructions and characterizations in the score range from “calm, brooding,” “dreamlike,” through “like a march” and “precisely” to “fast, go crazy!,” “laughing,” and “as if falling down stairs.” There are bits where the reference is recognizable, whether to a specific piece or just a genre, and many more where the recontextualized allusion is teasingly vague. Identifying the sources is not the point, nor is waiting for a favorite style to appear – you may love Stravinsky and/or samba, but they go by in seconds. Where an earlier composer might surprise you with an unexpected chord in a field of tonal tensions, Zorn jolts you with colliding micro-pieces (though little here outside Western art and vernacular culture, except for a few Latin suggestions) and never allows a stylistic consensus to form.