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 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.” Together, we would perform an evening of John Zorn’s new or rarely played orchestral compositions.

An All Star Orchestra

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, JACKEthel, Mivos, and Momenta. Moreover, we had musicians from mixed ensembles like Tashi, Decoda, Ensemble ACJW, International Contemporary Ensemble, Hat TrickTalea Ensemble, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Also present were legendary downtown musicians, and artists with rare pedigrees like Avery Fisher Career Grants and Juilliard doctorates.

From the first reading to the final concert, enthusiastic commitment drove us to deeper aesthetic extremes and fuller musical realizations. Although critics frequently evoke words like “anarchy” or “chaos” to describe Zorn’s music, an incredible amount of structure and detail underlies his seemingly frenzied exterior.  When performers fully realize every nuance and instruction, Zorn’s complex rhythmic juxtapositions and colorful orchestrations emerge as intricate, expressive, and oftentimes humorous tapestries.

Zorn’s Vintage Garden Shears

If complex new music exceeds its performers’ limitations or receives too little rehearsal, a jumbled, sonic mess can result. Believe me, John was pushing our ensemble to its absolute limits, and each second of rehearsal counted.

As we did our utmost to prepare the music, Zorn vigorously guided our process. He coached the trumpets’ dynamics for “murmurings.” Because a percussionist’s “cheap 1990s hedge clippers” just wouldn’t do, Zorn replaced them with his “1950’s vintage garden shears.” -When you want to punctuate a phrase with the perfect chop, actual sounds must match your imagination.

As always, Zorn embodied the perennially youthful, joyful, downtown “bad boy.” Sporting his signature camouflage pants and black t-shirts commemorating past seasons of his East Village new music venue The Stone, Zorn dropped double entendres and cajoled players by name.

I’m happy to report that our entire concert will be available on CD from Zorn’s record label Tzadik. Instead of pursuing commercial success, Tzadik has focused on supporting creative, non-mainstream artists, as well as his own work.

Can’t Get Enough Zorn?

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

For a taste of  Zorn’s eclectic downtown scene, enjoy the opening improvisation from my band KNOT’s debut at The Stone:

For further insight, read Steve Smith’s rave New York Times Concert review and 60 tributes for Zorn at 60. I also highly recommend this current,  in-depth NPR Radio interview.


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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