On September 9, 2018 the Art Institute of Chicago presented performances of musical works by composer John Zorn. Zorn’s unique body of work draws on jazz, rock, punk, metal, classical, klezmer, sacred, mystical, experimental, film, cartoon and improvised music. Zorn is a musical alchemist able to transform this diverse material into something completely new. The program featured six hours of live performances plus documentary screenings. This concert provided listeners a rare opportunity to hear a variety of Zorn’s work expertly performed by many of the musicians that have been part of his universe for decades. John Zorn was also in attendance. He very briefly introduced each of the pieces and the musicians. He also performed in two of the day’s events. For the explorers of John Zorn’s musical universe this was a concert they will remember forever. For new comers and the curious, they were able to sample a very small part of the work of one of the planet’s most prolific and diverse contemporary composers.
The performances were situated in galleries that contained many of the museum’s most iconic art works. This provided an ambiance that allowed the pieces to be a “response” to the art works in the gallery. The day began with the American Brass Quartet greeting visitors as they performed “Pulcinella” on the Grand Staircase of the Art Institute. It was a wonderful performance that echoed through the museum, announcing the beginning of the day’s events. This was followed by an absolutely sublime performance of the “Gnostic Preludes” by the Gnostic Trio – Bill Frisell(guitar), Kenny Wollesen(vibraphone) and Carol Emanuel(harp). Hearing this music so beautifully played in a gallery containing some of the greatest art works of the Impressionist era was pure magic.
At noon it was off to the Dali room to hear members of the JACK quartet – Chris Otto(violin) and Jay Campbell(cello) with Michael Nicolas(cello) in a spectacular virtuosic performance of “Freud”, an intense spiky piece of sharp and sudden contrasts. This was followed by a stunning cello duo performance of “Ouroboros” another of Zorn’s intense virtuoso string works. Following this dramatic intensity was a performance of “Frammenti del Sappho” in the Sculpture Court by the voices of Rachel Calloway, Kirsten Sollek, Sarah Brailey, Eliza Bagg, and Elizabeth Bates. This is an incredibly delicate and beautiful work. The visual setting for this performance was wonderful and the performers were outstanding, but the acoustics didn’t work for me. This is an incredibly powerful piece that when performed in a space with acoustics similar to a church or temple would just wash over you and realign your molecular structure.
Next it was off to the Warhol room for a performance of a jazz inspired work, “Naked Lunch” with Sae Hashimoto(vibraphone), Shanir Blumenkranz(bass) and Ches Smith(drums). It was a very tight, high energy performance. Absolutely wonderful! I heard many people comment that it was their favorite performance of the day. Then it was off to the Joseph Cornell gallery for a solid performance by Erik Friedlander and Michael Nicolas of a series of “Bagatelles” for two cellos. By this point the audience had more than doubled.
At 2:00 John Zorn(saxophone) and Kenny Wollesen(drums) performed an improvisation in response to Jackson Pollock. At this point the size of the audience had greatly exceeded the capacity of the gallery and many listeners including myself had to hear the performance from one of the adjoining galleries. Despite being one room over the duo sounded fantastic and the crowd absolutely loved it. I have to say the crowd absolutely loved everything that was performed at this event. Next it was off to the Picasso Gallery to hear Julian Lage and Gyan Riley perform selections from the “Midsummer Moons”. This music is similar in some ways to the music written for the Gnostic trio in that it’s a very beautiful melodic music. Again, the crowd absolutely exceeded the capacity of the gallery. I along with many others had to listen from one of the adjoining galleries. It was another sublime performance!
At this point there were still four more performances and the documentary screening. Given the growing crowd I made the difficult choice to skip the documentary, the American Brass Quartet performance of “Blue Stratagem”, Michael Nicholas’s performance of “as Above, So Below”, and Chris Otto and Michael Nicholas’s performance of “Zeitgehöft”. This allowed me to get to the gallery where “Hockey”, one of Zorn’s game pieces was to be performed. John Zorn’s game pieces are a series of works for improvisers in which rules and strategies are interactively enacted upon by the improvisers during the performance of the piece. For this performance Zorn said that he chose the “wet” version of “Hockey”. John Zorn, Kenny Wollesen and Sae Hashimoto performed the piece on little percussion instruments built and or modified by Kenny Wollesen. It was a spectacular performance that took place in a small dark gallery of contemporary Asian art works.
The final performance of the day was in the Kandinsky Room. The JACK Quartet performed “The Unseen”. At this point the biggest crowds had dispersed but the Kandinsky room and its semi-adjoining gallery were filled to hear the days final piece. “The Unseen” is a delicate string quartet filled with shimmering harmonics that rise up from out of the silence, eventually disappearing. It was a great to end the day. The crowd really showed their appreciation for the JACK’s, John Zorn, all of the musicians that performed during this event and to the Art Institute of Chicago for programming such a rare and incredible musical event.
For me this was one of the best musical events I have ever attended.
Chris De Chiara