AMN Reviews: ICE John Zorn Retrospective in Chicago (October 26, 2013)

John Zorn (cropped version)
John Zorn (cropped version) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saturday night, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) performed six John Zorn Compositions at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. ICE has garnered acclaim throughout the U.S. and Europe by taking a refreshing modernist approach in their choice of pieces. This return to their hometown featured four Chicago premieres, as well as one world premiere. While Zorn is well known for haphazardly mashing genres at will, the evening’s works were all examples of his spiky avant-garde classical style.

The evening began with The Steppenwolf, a rather non-descript clarinet solo, and rapidly moved into Occams Razor, a piano and cello duo. On the latter, Zorn’s schizophrenic compositional approach was first displayed, which continued throughout most of the rest of the works. He seems to alternate between rapid, chaotic motifs and slower interludes. Often, these elements appear to have little connection with each other, except perhaps in Zorn’s mind.

The Tempest came next, featuring clarinet, ICE leader Claire Chase on flute, and New York all-purpose jazz drummer Tyshawn Sorey on percussion.  It shouldn’t be surprising that Zorn’s writing is well suited to Sorey’s improv leanings, as Mr. Sorey played aggressively on the kit when called to, and also provided atmosphere with a pair of large bass drums.

A string trio, Walpurgisnacht, followed, largely in a similar style to that of Occams Razor. However, if you closed your eyes, you could envision this piece being the background music for a demented Tom and Jerry cartoon, with plucked cello strings for tiptoeing and contrapuntal blasts for chase scenes.

After Canon to Stravinsky, a short piece written by Zorn at the age of 19 upon Stravinsky’s death, all ICE members walked out to set up for the world premiere of Baudelaires. An interpretation of the works of the French poet of the same name, it included a movement referring to Baudelaire’s writings on opiates.  Fitting to the mind-bending themes of the evening, no doubt.  While it was hinted that Mr. Zorn was in attendance, the audience didn’t know for sure until he walked out on stage, looking a couple of decades younger than his 60 years. He thanked ICE profusely before they broke into this conducted piece, the highlight of the evening.

After ICE left the stage, Zorn came out again, with sax in hand, accompanied by Sorey. He referred to what they were about to play as “Some east coast shit,” and duo proceeded to rip through a few minutes of free improv.  What could be a more appropriate encore?

At some point in the last few years, Mr. Zorn has made the transition from New York bad boy to elder statesman of the avant-garde.  While followed by academics for quite a while, this year has seen world-wide celebrations of his music. More prolific than ever, he is at, or is still yet to reach, his compositional peak.