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First Night: Mr Angry trades in his wild image

John Zorn Ensemble


WHILE TRYING to describe composer/saxophonist John Zorn's music to someone on the bus, it occurred to me that ordinary life is getting more avant-garde than music can ever be. The first blast of Zorn's Naked City band might have sounded like a scary, possible future, but his trademark wild, violent clash of different genres and cultures is sounding more and more like the present - or vice versa.

Zorn acknowledged his role as grand old angry young man when he explained that last night's performance was an acoustic one, and apologised to those who expected him "to come out and scream".

Billed as "Modern Chamber Music", the programme comprised six longish pieces, that in some respects defy criticism - Zorn's chamber music is a critique of 20th-century modernism, cycling and cutting between sounds and styles that could have included Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cagel, Tatum, Stalling and flavours of vernacular music, but who knows what I missed.

The first of three string quartet pieces Memento Mori was the longest example of Zorn's painstaking eclecticism. Kolnitre, by extreme contrast, gave us the unfamiliar sound of Zorn exploring one idea, a slow-moving lament with drone accompaniment that left the audience demanding more. The encore was a powerful version of Cat-o'-nine-tails, the string quartet piece made familiar by Kronos.

The other, non-quartet pieces were the slightly jokey and (I hope) ironically titled Music For Children and the UK premiere of Rugby, one of his famous "game" pieces from the 1980s. Now that the metaphors of games and play are high on the agenda for anyone creating interactive media, Zorn again looks so far ahead that he's on the way back. Coming through every bar of every piece of the programme was Zorn's intense love of great, virtuoso musicians and the noises they make. Maybe he feels music is too important to be left to composers.