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John Zorn at 59

By Meghann Wilhoite


It’s difficult to pin a label on John Zorn. Active since the early 70s, Zorn has effectively woven his peculiar style of musical experimentation into the fabric of New York City’s downtown scene. His work — in the general sense of the word — has varied from philanthropic to shocking, with a curatorial bent that has often held quite a bit of sway.

Where to start? I could talk about Zorn’s music venue, The Stone, which pays for itself through CD sales and other contributions, so that “100% of the nightly revenue” goes directly to the performing musicians.

Or I could talk about his Obsessions Collective, a “non-profit alternative to the commercial Arts scene,” which boasts zero overhead so that, like with The Stone, every cent derived from sales goes directly to the artists.

Or maybe I should tell you about Zorn’s record label, Tzadik, which releases the work of contemporary composers “who find it difficult or impossible to release their music through more conventional channels.”

But perhaps I should first tell you about his “radical Jewish music” projects, which found initial voice when Zorn curated the Art Projekt Festival in Munich in 1992, and resulted in what has since been considered a sort of radical Jewish music manifesto (written by Zorn and guitarist Marc Ribot).

What I really don’t want to do is try to “describe” the MacArthur Fellow’s music to you — because, to be honest, it’s almost impossible. Sometimes it’s noise, sometimes it’s atonal, sometimes it’s klezmer, sometime it’s jazz. It’s always pushing the boundaries of what you think it will be.

In honor of Zorn’s 59th birthday (which took place over the weekend), why don’t we just enjoy this clip from 1991, featuring Zorn’s group Naked City performing at the Vienna Jazz Festival? Be warned, this might fall in the “shocking” category for you! (Zorn is the one the camouflage trousers and that’s Mike Patton from Faith No More on vocals.)

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Meghann Wilhoite is an Assistant Editor at Grove Music/Oxford Music Online, music blogger, and organist. Follow her on Twitter at @megwilhoite. Read her previous blog posts: “Saving Sibelius: Software in peril” and “The king of instruments: Scary or sleepy?”

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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