November Music - John Zorn II

Another unforgettable marathon of high grade adventurous music

Monday November 5th, 2018

text: Robin Boer

Being a Zorn fan, there always remains a lot to wish for when he pays your country a visit, since his workload for the last 40 years is breathtaking. However, Zorn-fans are in for a big treat when he actually visits with a big line-up of musicians. For November Music 2018, he visits the beautiful historic city of 's-Hertogenbosch for the second year in a row to present (mostly) brand new music, of which some has never been played live before yet.

For this year, it all started with last year's performance of the American composer's Chamber Music, performed by Asko|Schönberg. With the ensemble, the then 31 year old flute player Felicia van den End played some stunning parts. Since Zorn visits every concert he presents at festivals, her exceptional musicianship was well observed immediately. Blown away by her performance, Zorn contacted the festival's artistic director Bert Palinckx he wanted to write a piece for string quartet and flute, especially for her. Of course Palinckx agreed, under the condition that Zorn would return for the festival this year. One year later, here we are with another impressive programme of known and (yet) unknown projects.


Just like last year, the day starts off (although now in the afternoon, luckily for the lazy fellas) with a 1 hour documentary, filmed by actor Mathieu Amalric (the mainstream movie public may know Amalric from playing the villain in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace). We watch a collection of fragments from Zorn's advertures of the last two years. All footage is raw, though enjoyable, with jokes, quotes and lots, lots of musical performances. During this edition, Amalric himself joined company with Zorn and his army to shoot footage of the day, and he introduces the film himself, too.

The Hermetic Organ

After the movie, we have enough time to move ourselves to the city centre of 's-Hertogenbosch. While the day starts (and ends) at the Verkadefabriek, this venue is not located within the city centre, but more up north-west of town. It takes a 12-15 minute walk to find a supermarket where we can buy and pack some beverages and head to the huge cathedral Sint Janskathedraal, where we will hear the master himself perform on the big church organ, just like last year. When last year we heard Zorn somehow 'discovering' the particular instrument and experimenting with it, we now hear a more prepared and inspired concert within the packed cathedral. We even dare to hear some Bach and Morricone, together with terrifying dissonant chords, low growling and high fluting sounds and even a few moments where Zorn is playing his signature screaming sounds on saxophone during this 21stconcert in the 'The Hermetic Organ' series. Wonderful.

Songs For Petra

Next stop is the Pleinzaal hall of the theatre Theater aan de Parade. It concerns the smaller hall of the complex, (last year we witnessed the 90 minute Chamber Music concert in the big hall, which took longer than planned and why we missed a bit of the Simulacrum concert at the Willem Twee Poppodium) and the place is packed within minutes. Petra Haden is the daughter of the legendary bass player Charlie Haden, who sadly passed away in 2014. Petra already recorded a few very impressive a-capella versions of King Crimson pieces, which can be found on YouTube. She recorded albums with Bill Frisell and Miss Murgatroid and sang and played violin on records by bands like The Foo Fighters, Beck, Mike Watt, Greenday, and as well a number of movie soundtracks. Guitar player/singer Jesse Harris, oddly enough the only musician not featured on the P.A. system, but only from his amp, helped shaping the songs from this particular set by using various themes he knows from different Zorn pieces. The band, completed by the extraordinairy Julian Lage (guitar), Jorge Roeder (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) sounds very tight, convincing and is enjoying every second. Haden's voice sounds wonderful; close to impeccable, but not completely: there is an honest rawness to be found next to her extremely charming and natural performance. The soloing by Lage is exceptional, creative, and always on point. For the audience that wasn't there for the documentary in De Verkadefabriek, Bert Palinkcx repeated his introduction where he mentioned a few changes of plans, announced earlier by Zorn. After 40 minutes, the Songs For Petra-set would end, and Zorn would complete last 20 minutes by playing with the Julian Lage Trio. But Zorn would not be Zorn if he didn't change plans again already: he asked for one encore by the Haden-fronted line-up and blew off his own planned finale. One benefit we took from it, is that we had enough time to move to the Willem Twee Concertzaal, where the Chamber Music programme is planned at 6pm.

JACK Quartet and Felicia van den End

After a well deserved break (which would be the last one for the day) we enter the classical room, excited about the Chamber Music section of today's marathon, by JACK Quartet. The concert starts 15 minutes after the scheduled time of 6pm, probably because of logistic reasons or whatsoever. Anyway, this concert is divided into five pieces, of which the first piece, called 'Ouroboros' has been written for two cellos. This music is intense, difficult, complex, exciting, scary and joyful at the same time. The second piece is the concert for flute and string quartet, written especially for Felicia van den End. It's called 'Nachträglichkeit' and, like other contemporary classical works by Zorn, the piece identifies itself being full of surprises. Extremely quiet moments, pauses, slow and dark movements, and unexpected, fast blows. Van Den End is highly impressive, and appears to be more than capable of mastering the matter. Zorn's reaction after completion sums it up quite well. Up next is another stunning piece called 'As Above, So Below', for solo cello, performed impeccably by Michael Nicolas. The set is being completed by the pieces 'Freud' (trio of Chris Otto on violin with Michael Nicolas and Jay Campbell on cello) and 'The Alchemist' by JACK Quartet. The latter can be defined as one of the very best pieces for string quartet, composed by John Zorn, thus the master himself.

Zorn solo

Where Zorn only played his alt saxophone for only a few minutes during the finale of 'Essential Cinema' in last year's programme, we are being treated with 30 minutes of pure solo saxophone performance in a very special place: the Jheronimus Bosch Art Centre. Formerly a church, not decorated with huge replica's of Jheronimus Bosch's most famous works and big puppets of some of the featured creatures from his paintings. Right in front of the impressive 'The Garden of Earthly Delights', Zorn is giving a performance to remember, with all possible types of noise that can be produced on a saxophone, duck calls included. Sensational!

Lage, Riley and Frisell

Luckily, the Noordbrabants Museum is the location where we, again (last year we heard a selection of Zorn's famous 'Bagatelles'), will enjoy some acoustic guitar music by Julian Lage and Gyan Riley. This year, Zorn released his album 'Midsummer Moons', featuring ten virtuous and versatile compositions for these two guitar players. The nice thing, is that they both feature their own dialect, and both are very capable of accompanying and soloing in a tasteful and exciting way. But... then again, we are attending a John Zorn-led concert marathon, where anything can happen, even changing the music programma completely and adding a third guitar player. And not the least... it's Bill Frisell, long-time fellow-musician and friend. Instead of 'Midsummer Moons' we get six brand new compositions, again, with an enormous amount of versatility and virtuosity. Frisell is playing architectural, where both Lage and Riley are sharing the spot. Hopefully this music will see the light of day on CD next year, but again, with John Zorn, you can not be too sure of things.

Kalevala and Hildegard

Again for something completely different, we take a very short walk, because two streets further, we find the beautiful big Protestant church. Last year, the 'Madrigals' were giving a splendid performance. Tonight, we will witness two performances. The first one features the world premiere of 'Jumalattaret': a cycle of songs for voice and piano worshipping the gods, who draws on the most significant text of Finnish literature, the epic Kalevala, a collection of oral tradition stories published in 1835. It proves to be another challenging piece, where the many skills of singer/conductor Barbara Hannigan are pushed to it's very limits. Stephen Gosling plays the otherworldly parts flawless. At the side of the hall, Amalric is doing all within the possible to create proper footage for the next Zorn documentary, which, hopefully, we are able to watch in the future, assuming that Zorn perhaps will return to November Music in 2019. Who knows? Hannigan is capable of many things with her voice. Her tone range is huge and the dynamic use of her voice is impressive. She needs to handle a lot of ultra-fast and complex intervals here, sometimes very quiet and introvert, and sometimes very loud and intense. After the last note, the audience provides a loud, standing ovation. We notice the presence of the Dutch conductor/pianist/composer Reinbert de Leeuw, who clearly enjoyed the performance as well, and, since he did collaborations with Hannigan, it's no surprise to find her (with Zorn) next to him, sharing a few words shortly, during the change to make the stage clear for 'The Holy Visions.' Composed and recorded in 2012, the five vocalists Sarah Brailey, Elizabeth Bates, Eliza Bagg, Rachel Calloway and Kirsten Sollek are doing another impressive job, performing the almost twenty-five minute piece, inspired by the characteristics of the twelfth century composer Hildegard von Bingen. The Holy Visions proves to be one of Zorn's most loved vocal works and there is no reason to argue about that.

John Zorn's Cobra

For the Grand Finale of today, John Zorn's Cobra, we need to hurry up, because we need to return to De Verkadefabriek, which leaves no time to stay within the church for one second longer than absolutely necessary. During the final applause, we leave and walk our lungs out to be on time for the last show. And luckily, we are able to catch a chair on the front row! Like the Chamber Music section, this concert starts fifteen minutes after the initial starting time of 11pm. Zorn needs to spend a little extra time on preparations / fast rehearsal- and soundcheck. Even after time, people try to get in the room. Then, finally, the complete range of musicians are entering the stage: Julian Lage, Matt Hollenberg (gtr), Bill Frisell, Okkyung Lee (cello), Michael Nicolas, Jay Campbell, Jorge Roeder, Craig Taborn (piano), Ikue Mori (electronics), Cyro Baptista (percussion), Kenny Wollesen and John Zorn himself. Cobra was conceived as a system with very detailed rules but with no pre-conceived sequence of events (a "game piece") for a group of musical improvisors and a prompter, and is performed by different groups of musicians since Zorn completed it in the year your ProgJazz reporter was born, which appears to be 1984. The prompter is showing different cards, in different colours, with different signs on it, to inform the concerning musicians when and what to play. We won't tire you with more rules of the game. Then again, it's pretty challenging to describe how the experience of attending a Cobra-session affects a listener. It is interesting, to say the least, how accurate musicians act and react to their master's commands. Melodies or harmonies that warm the heart are nowhere to be found. You are luckily to catch a few seconds of swinging jazz, only to be thrown to the other side of the room again, where a thundering amount of deafening noise makes you want to cover your ears. But we won't do that, it would only spoil the experience. Let's say to judge the experience that is Cobra, you need to be there yourself.

John Zorn is controversial in many ways. He doesn't allow photography, filming or other types of recording by the audience or festival organization. The only person allowed to record today, is Mathieu Amalric. A John Zorn concert is for those who are there, at precisely that particular moment, which shouldn't be captured for consumption in future times. Whether one may agree or not, after another unforgettable marathon of high grade adventurous music, with all connected elements concerned, John Zorn and his army are worthy of respect. Lots of it.