Zorn at 60: An All-Star Orchestra Concert

Zorn at 60: An All-Star Orchestra Concert

Composer John Zorn

Composer John Zorn

My mind and body still resonate from last night’s opening concert of Miller Theatre’s Zorn at 60 festival. In mid-August, I had received an invitation from conductor David Fulmer to join a “mega-orchestra to include all the most distinguished contemporary ensembles, quartets, and chamber formations here in New York City” to perform an evening of John Zorn’s new or rarely played orchestral compositions.

David wasn’t exaggerating; the all-star roster of eighty-eight musicians represented a staggering array of ensembles and renowned soloists. To name contemporary string quartets alone, we had representatives or founders from Kronos, Flux, JACK, Ethel, Mivos, and Momenta, to say nothing of mixed ensembles like Tashi, Decoda, Ensemble ACJW, International Contemporary Ensemble, Talea Ensemble, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, countless downtown ensembles, and musicians with rare pedigrees like Avery Fisher Career Grants and Juilliard doctorates.

From the first rehearsal to the final concert, everyone’s total commitment and enthusiasm drove the ensemble to deeper aesthetic extremes and fuller realizations of the scores. While people frequently evoke words like “anarchy” or “chaos” to describe Zorn’s music, an incredible amount of structure and detail underlies a seemingly frenzied exterior.  When performers fully realize every nuance and instruction, Zorn’s complex rhythmic juxtapositions, colorful orchestrations, and larger structures emerge as intricate, expressive, adventurous and oftentimes humorous tapestries, not the jumbled, sonic messes that too often result whenever new music receives too little rehearsal or exceeds the limitations of its players. Believe me, John was pushing the ensemble to its absolute limits, and each second of rehearsal counted.

While Fulmer and the ensemble did their utmost to prepare the music, Zorn guided the process by making sure every last actual sound matched his imagination, whether it meant experimenting to find just the right dynamics for the trumpets’ muted “murmurings” or making sure that the percussionists had heavy “1950’s vintage garden shears” not “cheap 1990’s hedge clippers” for the perfect chop to punctuate a phrase.

As always, Zorn embodied the perennially youthful, joyful, downtown “bad boy,” dropping double entendres, cajoling players by name, and sporting his signature camouflage pants and black t-shirts commemorating past seasons of his East Village new music venue The Stone.  I’m happy to report that our concert was recorded and you will be able to hear it in its entirety on a forthcoming album from Zorn’s record label Tzadik, which has selflessly furthered the careers of so many creative, non-mainstream artists.

Miller Theatre features additional concerts this week of Zorn’s chamber music and game pieces. All year long, venues and festivals around the world will continue to celebrate his vast and contrasting legacy.  If you don’t know his music, check out one of the many documentaries on YouTube and have a listen to some of his scores.

For a taste of the wonderfully creative and eclectic New York City downtown music scene Zorn has fostered, enjoy the opening improvisation from my band KNOT’s debut concert at The Stone:

Click here to view the full  John Zorn at 60 Orchestra Roster– arguably one of the greatest large-scale new music orchestras ever assembled!  Read Steve Smith’s rave New York Times Concert review.   Click here to read 60 tributes for Zorn at 60. Or listen to an in-depth NPR Radio interview with Zorn.


Doc Wallace

26 September 2013


  1. Congratulations on what sounds to have been a wonderful gathering of talent and intent. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the experience with us, David. -Kurt 🙂

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