Sunday, November 9, 2014

It's about people

John Zorn receiving an honorary Doctorate of Music.
Hankus Netsky, John Zorn, Tony Woodcock (L to R)
This past Tuesday, November 4th I went to the New England Conservatory of Music to attend "The Music of John Zorn". The night included a pre-concert discussion with John Zorn, Anthony Coleman, and Hankus Netsky; a presentation of an honorary Doctorate of Music upon Zorn by Tony Woodcock; and a student concert of music from Zorn's prolific career. And within the twists and turns of words and music, one could only realize that people can unite anything.

It's about people
What John Zorn taught me about life

John Zorn, Anthony Coleman, Hankus Netsky (L to R)

1. Zorn taught me about integrity. 

Netsky started the Q&A by asking Zorn of his musical heroes. Upon much prodding, Zorn came out by saying his hero was Jack Smith, the American film director, and explained that as an artist, you have to pay your dues - you have to earn the right to do what you do. Zorn paid his dues with Jack Smith. 

Smith was always performing, and would give shows for three people in the audience. Zorn always wondered what would happen when nobody showed up - and Smith did the same exact thing. This purity of purpose showed that Smith was what he did, unique. In this way, Zorn learned integrity. Coleman interjected these humble beginnings were also in Zorn's musical career: Zorn created intensity with even six or eight people at a show. 

Listen to "Saigon Pickup": 

2. Zorn taught me about the intensity of intimacy. 

You take a small canvas and create something that changes in the world. "Bigger is better loses humanity, while intimacy touches you directly." Intimacy is seen in reduction and in small ensembles. Zorn prefers to be concise, so every note has weight and meaning. Small groups can interact with meaning.

I thought Zorn really hit on something when he explained that music is a platform - music is really the people and feelings, and the energy they bring to the work. Zorn continued by saying it is all more than notes on a page, it's about life experiences; sound on its own is very uninteresting. Zorn claims, "I write for people - people are interesting, not music or sounds". 

Hankus Netsky, John Zorn, Tony Woodcock (L to R)

3. Zorn taught me that music is united by people.

If you took one look at "The Music of Zorn" program, you would think, "how could this piece, 'Madrigal's Book II for six female voices', be followed by 'Rain Flowers'?". And this chronology hit on more than just breaking genres. Zorn explained, "What ties my genres together is people. I met certain people, I made a bond, and I wrote for them." Zorn has rock music friends that inspire rock music, and he claims these friendships create a fluency of language. It's about having a rich life with diverse people - a sort of palette cleansing. 

Watch "Cobra": 

NEC students performing "Cobra" under director Anthony Coleman

4. Zorn taught me about community.

Zorn laughed about how he used to play in the basement of a pet shop with Coleman. Zorn claimed that community was one of the most important things about his humble beginnings, because the people that were there supported each other. Zorn added that when success happened, the money went to charity, his own label, grants, books, and more because everything is about community: "Music is about people, and without people there is no music". 

5. Zorn taught me about roots. 

Roots are about looking deeper inside your self: "Where are your roots? Who are you?". These questions provoked Zorn to write for his Jewish fusion group, Masada. 

Watch "Tekufah": 

6. Zorn taught me that some things you just can't notate. 

In addition to his Jewish roots, Zorn talked about his childhood and how when he first heard jazz he was struck by the foreignness of it: "How do you notate this jazz?". 

Yet, what was funnier than this quip, was the fact that Zorn actually gave up speaking for a year in his adolescence. Zorn believed that spoken language was just a big lie. His report card even stated, "While I identify with his suspicion with spoken language, I do believe he has taken it a bit too far." Maybe this disgust for spoken language led to his prolific musical career, since music is an unspoken language in many senses. 

NEC students performing

7. Zorn taught me that music is sacred.

Zorn admitted that his childhood was beautiful, because everyone had a piano, and if you wanted music you had to learn it. "Things happened through learning and discovery, not boom anything you want." This sentiment has allowed Zorn to keep a sense of treasure and sacredness within his music: "Music is a place to go I can always count on, it's always a source of joy."

Listen to "Between Two Worlds": 

NEC students performing

8. Zorn taught me to live with positivity. 

At the Montreal Jazz Festival, the great Dr. Lonnie Smith told me to surround myself with positive people. This advice has really touched me, and Zorn reiterated the importance of supportive people. Zorn admitted, "It's about loyalty, belief, integrity, sacrifice. These things make communities work, and make music and art deep and meaningful."

Zorn tries to channel four things within all of his music: 1) catharsis 2) imagination 3) craft 4) honesty. And he always ties these four qualities together with people. 

John Zorn
Final thoughts: 
During the talk, Zorn mentioned that artists need support not criticism. I can only agree - a self critical personality needs support to thrive. That is why, as an aspiring musician, I do not write negative blog posts. I think it is better to share the lessons that I learned from an experience with others. Because, at the end of the day, we are all just people. 

This concert reminded me of my poem "About People" from my jazz poetry blog, "Without a Poem". 

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