Zorn: The Aristos, ten metaphysical ambiguities for violin, cello and piano

Program Note

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring,

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

—T. S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding” (Four Quartets, 1942)

John Zorn has called Manhattan his home since his childhood, which he spent listening to classical music and film scores alongside the rock and pop of the mid-’60s. Soon after starting composition lessons, he discovered a few avant-garde albums during one of his record store trawls, including Anthony Braxton’s seminal For Alto (1970), which led him to take up the saxophone and spurred his interest in experimental music. Zorn left New York for a short stint to study music at Webster College, but quickly dropped out and returned to the city in pursuit of the legendary downtown scene. 

In the following years, Zorn gave solo saxophone performances in his apartment and made his first innovations in experimental composition, conduction, and free improvisation. He wrote a series of “game pieces” in the mid-’70s, such as Lacrosse (1976), Hockey (1978), Archery (1979), and Cobra (1984), which synthesized the rule-based structures of various sports with musical prompts on flash cards. He achieved his first major recognition outside of the downtown scene with his album The Big Gundown (1985), released on Nonesuch, which reimagines several works by film composer Ennio Morricone in Zorn’s genre-bending style. The album features over forty musicians, some of whom are credited in the liner notes with such diverse instrumental contributions as a full batucada ensemble, turntables, microcomputer, saw (played by Zorn himself), shakuhachi, shamisen, and “sexy Italian vocals”. 

He issued three more records on the Nonesuch label before forming his own Tzadik in 1995, including a series of file-card compositions on Spillane (1987), hardcore arrangements of Ornette Coleman’s tunes on Spy vs Spy (1988), and pieces designed to test the limits of a rock band instrumentation on Naked City (1990). In 1992, Zorn wrote a series of traditionally notated chamber works for the Kronos Quartet (sometimes with electronics) inspired by Kristallnacht, which led him to write at least 600 klezmer-inspired tunes collected in his Masada books. He has continued to compose concert works alongside his other projects, including Aporias: Requia (1998) for piano and orchestra, Chimeras (2001) based on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Mysterium (2005) for female chorus, and Rituals (2005), a short opera written for the Bayreuth Festival. Recent works include Pandora’s Box (2013) for string quartet and soprano; The Remedy of Fortune (2015) for string quartet, inspired by a poem of Guillame de Machaut and commissioned by the JACK Quartet; and the piano trio Ghosts (2015), loosely based on Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio.

Zorn’s 50th birthday in 2003 was marked by a month-long concert series at The Stone – the East Village venue he curates – and he embarked on a global Zorn@60 tour of museums and concert halls in 2013, which included a retrospective of his chamber works by the International Contemporary Ensemble. Last year, Zorn wrote The Bagatelles, a collection of 300 atonal compositions, which were premiered at The Stone over the course of six months during the 2015-16 season. The Aristos was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

—Josh Davidoff