Friday, April 30, 2010

John Zorn - Cat O' Nine Tails

In the years following World War II and to the present day, composers have been taking music in almost every direction imaginable. They build upon, expand, and even create new aspects of music and sound through instruments and technology. American avant-garde composers did not and do not hesitate to incorporate a wide array of different styles and genres, always searching for unique sounds to blend. John Zorn (b. 1953) has been doing exactly that, employing eclectic genres of music in his compositional style. Although he is best known for his avant-garde jazz music, he has dipped into classical, experimental, hardcore, punk, dub, ambient, and film music.

Zorn's 1988 string quartet Cat O' Nine Tails was his first attempt at composing in a classical style, though by no means does he stay within the genre. Elements of jazz, ambience, and even metal permeate the music. I find it difficult to describe the piece, because it is not held together by any melodic or musical material, but by subtle rhythmic motives and characterizations. Zorn characterizes animals (cats, dogs, and mice), creaking doors, and a theremin, using these sounds and emulations to attempt to weave a story of feline fiasco.

The piece as a whole alternates between passages of tonality and atonality, and each new section seems to have almost no relation to the one preceding it. There are sudden shifts of tonality, rhythm, dynamics, tempo, and register with no warning. These elements immediately reminded me of Godard's jump-cuts in À bout de souffle, and when I began researching the piece after my first initial listens, I learned that Zorn's composition was influenced by Godard's unusual film technique[1]. He calls this method of composing "file-card composition," which can be described as collective but guided improvisation. Zorn writes a description of the music he desires on a file card, and arranges them with specific musicians and their styles in mind. The cards do not call for transitions or segues, hence the distinctive "jump-cuts" between sections of the piece. It is almost as if, through this method, Zorn is inviting the listener to make his/her own coherence out of the piece strictly through his/her imagination and visualization. This idea reminds me of The Ornithological Combat of Kings, in which Heinrich attempts to create a story strictly through music, which ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. (Sadly, I do not think Zorn came any closer than Heinrich.)

Aside from comical and creepy characterizations of animals, I found the tonal passages of the piece to be the most interesting and telling of Zorn's diverse interests in music. He composes a jaunty, country-like theme, a habanera, some swanky jazz, a lilting waltz that conjures visions of Harry Lime[2], and a few passages that sound like homages to Bernard Herrmann. I liked these smaller sections so much that I wish there was more than just a few seconds of each of them. But the feature of the piece I thought was the most significant was the use of technology to enhance the recording. By playing with the channel output so specific sounds come from specific directions, Zorn is able to create an intense atmosphere that cannot easily be emulated on a stage. While Zorn did not create this technique, it has remained popular since its inception and is common use among even pop musicians.

I thought the piece was fascinating, curious, and disappointing. The sudden changes in the music piqued my interest at first, but as it lacked direction my intrigue waned. I would have liked to see some coherence or meaning between the tonal sections of the piece, but they moved by so quickly that it was difficult to discern them upon the first listen, and the effect proved to be more disconcerting than engaging.

Like the Heinrich piece, Zorn’s programmatic-without-a-program work finds me confused and disengaged from the piece, which contains elements of a story but no plot. It wasn’t so much that I disliked the piece – I actually liked the piece quite a bit – but I wanted it to have more direction, and when it never did I was disappointed. Perhaps if I had access to his file cards for the piece, I would have been more interested and drawn to the music.

Although undoubtedly different, I think Cat O’ Nine Tails lacks certain cohesion and finesse demanded of music in the Western canon. The ideas are there, but they are so scattered and disjointed that attempting to unscramble the pieces without a score or his file cards is almost futile. Ultimately, Zorn’s piece falls short of fully captivating and at times can even alienate the listener. Another feature of the piece that may be off-putting is that, because of the use of file cards and no solid score, each performance and recording of the piece is different, not to mention it would be nearly impossible to perform the piece without Zorn's file cards and personal involvement.

Zorn’s peculiar and at times bizarre style has garnered attention from many and he has won several awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship. No public figure escapes the scrutiny of the cold, hard media however, and here is this little gem I came across while researching Zorn, who took it all in good humor.

[1] This made me feel pretty smart and I excitedly told my roommate, who is also a fan of Godard and Zorn. This quickly inspired us to abandon our homework and watch À bout de souffle...again.

[2] I took this as a reference within a reference as many films of the French New Wave, including Godard and À bout de souffle, were heavily influenced by film noir.

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