When: Thu., Jan. 26, 9 p.m. 2017
In the early nineties, composer and musician John Zorn was living in a tiny two-bedroom apartment in the East Village. The walls were filled floor to ceiling with records, cassettes, and CDs—thirteen thousand of them in all. Zorn began and ended each day listening through some of them. There wasn't much else in the apartment, just a bed and a TV. TV was an obsession, and he would spend the day with it on, even when practicing his saxophone or writing music. If a bit of a jingle caught his ear, he'd add it to whatever piece he happened to be working on at the time. The same would go for anything else that would pass by his ears—a bit of melody from Charles Ives, a John Coltrane lick, a texture from Karlheinz Stockhausen, a tune from Carl Stalling. He was, and is, a musical omnivore, ingesting every sound that comes his way.
Unsurprisingly, Zorn's compositions tend to be simultaneously overcaffeinated, flighty, and hyperkinetic. He spent the seventies and early eighties writing what he called "game" and "card" pieces for various improvisers in which he would sculpt strange, ever-changing musical structures.
Cat O' Nine Tails, from 1988, was one of Zorn's first pieces for classical musicians: the Kronos Quartet. In Raleigh, N.C. Symphony members David Kilbride, Karen Strittmatter Galvin, Samuel Gold, and Nathaniel Yaffe will perform it as part of the symphony's ongoing series at Kings. The piece was originally subtitled "Tex Avery Directs the Marquis de Sade," which hints at both its humor and its perversity. The work is essentially a postmodern collage. In just under thirteen minutes, it cycles through sixty different musical cells, alternating between cartoon music, "collage elements," interludes, noise, and improvisation. Flashes of famous string quartets bump against noisy squalls that dissolve into Bugs Bunny outtakes. A country tune grows out of some misremembered Pierre Boulez, which morphs into a dark tango. And on and on. Don't attempt to find a story or attach any logic to anything that happens; meaning for Zorn come from those disjointed moments between fragments, where genres bend and structure dissolves. It's the sound of those thirteen thousand records playing one after the next, piling up within a singularly hyperactive imagination.
The other half of the quartet's performance is Ravel's luscious string quartet. It's a strange pairing, but Ravel's imperturbable flow will seem even more soothing and serene after Zorn's barely contained chaos. —Dan Ruccia