AMN Reviews: John Zorn – Sacred Visions (2016; Tzadik)

8345There is something appealing about medieval music, even if one does not buy into the religiosity typically referenced therein. On Sacred Visions, the legendary saxophonist and composer John Zorn offers two pieces that are modern takes on the ancient.

The Holy Visions opens the album with five-voice, all-female contrapuntal choral music based on the life of Hildegard von Bingen. Subdivided into nearly a dozen sections over its 23 minutes, the track features both minimalistic themes, as well as the more chaotic breaks that Zorn is known for. Thus, this is not traditional church music in any sense, despite exhibiting a beatific feel at times. The vocals are not in English (Latin perhaps?) which adds to the mystical feel. At its best moments, The Holy Visions layers the voices in unusual arrangements and staggered lines that exceed the sum of their parts.

The Remedy of Fortune is a 15-minute string quartet inspired by 12th-century troubadour Guillaume de Machaut. Performed by the illustrious JACK Quartet, this piece exercises plucking and sawing, interspersed with flourishes and crescendos. A few medieval-sounding themes are quickly presented, then discarded. Despite Zorn’s basis of the piece, this is modern classical music. Discordant and disconnected, The Remedy of Fortune moves in unpredictable directions, exercising the full registers of the instruments. Often, the violins provide high-pitched atmospherics that are juxtaposed with uptempo runs from the viola and cello.