John Zorn, age nine, playing in a surf band, Camp Killooleet, Hancock, Vermont, 1963.

WRITING ABOUT JOHN ZORN and his music feels like an act of cartography as much as an opportunity for critique. Zorn’s recorded appearances in the past forty-odd years—as improviser, composer, or both—number somewhere near seven hundred. That hallucinatory number represents the constant creation of music, sure, but it also indicates the borders of a psychic space radiating out of and above New York’s East Village. Zorn’s work has helped sustain a cohort of artists and workers that has wound its way through the downtown experimental-theater circles of the 1960s, the loft jazz scene of the ’70s, and up and into a small but growing present-day circuit of alcohol-free venues that funnel 100 percent of the door to the musicians. Zorn’s work ethic is appropriately legendary; it is the force behind both his daily output as a composer and the community he’s built.

In Charles Atlas’s documentary Put Blood in the Music (1989), Zorn talks about creating a combination of “jazz, classical, and hardcore,” but says that he hasn’t yet made it happen. Whether or not this hybrid has ever arrived, Zorn has spent the past few decades releasing recordings that plausibly fall into each of those categories and many others. He has written and performed string quartets, music more or less like jazz, music more or less like jazz combined with intrusive algorithms, musique concrète, acoustic guitar duets, solo organ recitals, soundtracks, thrash metal, spoken word, show tunes, and about forty-five records that defy succinct genre description. His music is intense, atonal, complex, and unforgiving. “Decision making is the product of consciousness, and that kind of human activity—a person’s being conscious—is the opposite of escapism,” Zorn wrote in a piece published in The Person in 1991 titled “Memory and Immorality in Musical Composition.” He further explained, “My pieces are opposed to escape.” Zorn’s work forms the foundation of an invisible village, a place where difficult music is kept in print and idiosyncratic musicians can get gigs; a vault where the history of the city’s avant-garde is written without apology and guarded by nothing more or less than the force of intention: strong, human, limited, free.

Zorn’s work forms the foundation of an invisible village, a place where difficult music is kept in print and idiosyncratic musicians can get gigs; a vault where the history of the city’s avant-garde is written without apology and guarded by nothing more or less than the force of intention: strong, human, limited, free.

Born in 1953, Zorn grew up in Queens. As a teenager who found Mauricio Kagel and Igor Stravinsky by way of Mickey Mouse, Zorn liked to attend concerts at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in Manhattan. He’d arrive in a bow tie and tails, hang around as people queued up, and ask after free tickets. He usually got in. At fifteen, he attended the premiere of Italian composer Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1968–69), a thirty-minute piece that quotes dozens of composers, including Gustav Mahler and Claude Debussy, and layers Berio’s own dissonant writing under a stream of vocalists reciting Samuel Beckett, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and bits of French graffiti. Young Zorn called it “pop music”; he preferred Charles Ives. The teen would also occasionally sneak off to a local church to practice playing the pipe organ. After a couple of years studying composition at Webster College in St. Louis (where he picked up the saxophone), Zorn moved briefly to the west coast before returning to New York, where he cultivated the generative binary of being a composer who works with rule-based systems but is powered by the engine of improvisation.

John Zorn’s poster for a show at the Saint, New York, 1980.

In those early years, Zorn—who lived on Lafayette Street, across from the Public Theater from 1975 to 1977—played with many musicians who were using that same binary to start fires in SoHo lofts, developing their ideas in open-ended settings, hosting shows where they lived, combining life and work into one continuous flow. “Improvising with other people is a source book for ideas for me, a workshop where I learn new ideas for composing pieces,” he told journalist Howard Mandel in 1999. “I see things that can’t happen in improvisation that I want to have happen, so I go and write a piece around it.” Guitarist Miles Okazaki, one of the musicians now working in Zorn’s orbit, describes his work with improvisers as “a kind of feedback machine for the composer, where his body of work is tied together with a common language, but put through the filter of a bunch of musical personalities, which could be fuel for new directions.” In 2002, Zorn described himself as “a composer who happens to play—it was a way of communicating with musicians, a functional way of interacting, but I’m not a player.” That said, his playing sounds like an alarm, a life force of high-pitched squeals and shrieks and tonal events. He makes his sax sputter and flutter rapidly enough to suggest a machine at work.

John Zorn’s poster for his Spring Olympiad: The Fourth Annual Retrospective of Compositions at Club 57, New York, 1981.

Zorn gained wider notice in the ’80s with compositions such as Godard (1986) and Spillane (1987), which he scored by writing images on index cards—“bloody murder with a car,” “drinking a cup of coffee,” “long wait”—that then served as cues for the musicians. Zorn sometimes paired his prompts with bits of notated music, and sometimes not. The transitions between these moments function like aural jump cuts, abrupt and dizzying. The music comes across as what it is: rooted in noir culture, propelled by straight-edge jitters (Zorn is fiercely and famously sober), compositions that either mimick film scores or were sparked by them. (Zorn was also one of the first avant-garde composers to take Warner Bros.’ cartoon composer Carl Stalling seriously.) Cue up Spillane, inspired by crime novelist Mickey Spillane and his best-known character, the detective Mike Hammer, and you’ll get cat-burglar hi-hats with spooky bass lines jumping directly into dialogue with a grindhouse sax and a Laundromat guitar. You’ll hear artist and saxophonist John Lurie as Hammer, grumbling, “You kill ten guys, one of them’s bound to come back.” Godard, after the French auteur Jean-Luc, is a torqued-up merry-go-round of French, Chinese, and English spoken over drum machines, pianos, horns, turntables, and harpsichord, all of it arranged in brief bundles with an intimidating attention to detail. Nowadays, Zorn rarely uses referents that are easily identifiable, though his music still evinces his wildly catholic tastes, his demand for technical skill, and a predilection for convulsion. His music works in the key of physical reaction, where information circulates between bodies instantly. One of Zorn’s masterworks is the brief Étant Donnés: 69 Paroxysms for Marcel Duchamp (1997), which moves in fifteen-second blocks through silence, cello scrapes, and the sound of someone gulping water with difficulty.

In the early ’90s, Zorn left his labels Nonesuch and Warner Bros. in search of greater artistic freedom. He started his current label, Tzadik, in 1995. In a 2002 interview, Zorn defined tzadik as “justice, or righteousness, the concept of right. Or a rabbi or holy man in a small community.” His own concepts of right and wrong mostly center on the presentation and ritual of music. Having grown tired of fighting venues that refused to eliminate alcohol and other distractions for both the audience and the performers, he started his own club, the Stone, in 2005. The original location at Avenue C and Second Street closed in 2018, but the Stone continues its programming at the New School on Thirteenth Street. Starting in March, it will also present shows at the happylucky no. 1 gallery in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Rehearsal for John Zorn’s Archery, 1979, Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York, ca. 1979. Fourth from right: John Zorn. Photo: Michael Macioce.

Tzadik is Zorn’s main outlet for releasing recordings, his own as well as those of his artistic family members. For many, the CD was the first format of the digital age, the moment when sound was turned into ones and zeros, shrunk down via codecs. (Some of the albums that reach the Billboard charts these days are only released in physical formats, grudgingly, weeks after they drop; others not at all.) For Zorn, however, the CD was in fact the last physical format—and he’s sticking with it, saying that Tzadik is in “the business of making CDs.” One way to understand the value of his label is to give serious consideration to the works it releases as objects, things made by hand and shared among people. To date, the label has put out over eight hundred albums, which can roughly be broken down into fifteen categories. Among them is the Archival Series, devoted to recordings of and by Zorn, within which there are six subcategories: Book of Angels, Filmworks, Game Pieces, Music Romance, John Zorn’s Olympiad, and the Hermetic Organ. The Spectrum Series, which could be thought of as Stuff by Friends of Zorn, has released twenty-seven albums since 2012; the Composer Series is devoted to “the world of classical concert music,” under the aegis of which seventeen of Zorn’s works appear; while the Spotlight Series releases music by “adventurous young musicians.” Tzadik also releases music categorized as Lunatic Fringe, Film Music, Oracles, New Japan, Radical Jewish Culture, and still more. For all Tzadik’s breadth, its catalogue somehow melts into a holistic thing; there is a shared faith in the action of making the note. Even if someone is creating sound by rubbing a matchbox against a drum head, that creation represents both a value and a choice. Whether composed or improvised, such notes are strikes against death, laid out in time. “If you’re playing in a free improvisation, you need to hear any number of things, like listening for energy and propulsion, things that are not traditionally taught in ear training and harmony classes,” says Richard Kessler, executive dean of the New School’s College of Performing Arts as well as dean of the Mannes School of Music. “We’re developing a new graduate degree in music, and much of it will reflect the ways I have come to understand what John and his larger community do.” Various members of Zorn’s community—Ikue Mori, Kris Davis, and Marc Ribot, to name a few—are already teaching at the New School.

His music works in the key of physical reaction, where information circulates between bodies instantly.

John Zorn performing at Bimhuis, Amsterdam, March 25, 1993. Photo: Frans Schellekens/Getty Images.

ZORN LIVES IN AND THROUGH MUSIC, so to simulate at least some of the focus and drive in his work, I spent a year going to his performances and listening to his CDs. In March, soon after the original location of the Stone closed, I went to one of the improv shows that he had been presenting on Sunday afternoons at the Village Vanguard. He rarely allows concerts at the Stone to be recorded, and almost never his own regardless of venue. His belief is that live music “only exists for that moment, for those people, and that is beautiful.” It is hard to argue that point, though the quality of these shows is such that I will not be heartbroken if I learn someday that a guerrilla Alan Lomax type has been recording them all in high fidelity. At the Vanguard, Zorn opened by playing alongside drummers Ches Smith and Kenny Wollesen and laptop magician Mori. The composer began with a series of extended, sustained notes, and appeared to be in a relaxed and ecstatic frame of mind, a little like saxophonist Pharoah Sanders at his most lyrical, a little like nobody else. Smith and Wollesen locked teeth and rumbled happily with him in an even-tempered, bubbling time signature. Mori filled in the cracks with slivers of bright noise. The music was elegant and alive and spacious. The performance later turned scruffy and loud with the help of guitarists Mary Halvorson and Ribot, the latter comfortably channeling the blues.

Cover of Pat Metheny’s Tap: Book of Angels Volume 20 (Tzadik, 2013).

Zorn’s calendar is more or less split between improvising dates and presentations of his written work. His long-running Book of Angels project enlists various musicians to interpret a book of his compositions that make use of the “Jewish scale,” a pitch set also sometimes referred to as the “Egyptian scale” or the “Ethiopian scale.” The various sections of his book are named after dissident angels, many of whom are “fallen,” or figures associated with Satan: Xaphan, Asmodeus, Astaroth. As there are no liner notes or lyrics accompanying any of the CDs released in association with the project, it’s hard to say what these figures mean, exactly, or what they’re up to. One of its highlights is Tap: Book of Angels Volume 20 (2013), by Pat Metheny. The only other musician on this release is drummer Antonio Sanchez. Metheny brings Zorn’s work into brilliantly weird focus via guitars, keyboards, marimba, and flügelhorn. Sometimes, as on the track “Phanuel,” Metheny fits into the smooth-jazz genre he’s often said to belong to, but most of his playing is neither as wound up as Zorn’s nor as plangent as his own usually is. “Mastema” uses a kind of dense, drop-footed interaction between the drums and guitar, though it’s relatively compact, and the composer’s atonal runs are a great place for Metheny to become a distorted and squelchy guitar god. “Hurmiz” sounds like he’s playing at the Stone from his California studio, Sanchez burping around his kit while Metheny attacks the piano like Cecil Taylor. The rest of the album gives the guitarist’s astonishingly crisp acoustic playing plenty of room.

This album sent me to one that can stump even a Zorn fan: Midsummer Moons (2017). Performed entirely on two acoustic guitars by Gyan Riley and Julian Lage, the material has few of the twitches and little of the atonality you often hear in the composer’s work. It feels like a medieval hallucination iterated by the Grateful Dead—precisely the kind of album you never thought you’d hear Zorn make—and it’s a genuine pleasure. An album that is more Zorn than Zorn is Valentine’s Day (2014), which could be his calling card. On it, Ribot and bassist Trevor Dunn lay into a bunch of Zorn’s prime angles and clusters, distorted and blinky. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey rustles up all the dust and carries it into power-trio territory (to use an unappealing term for the perfectly good tradition of three people playing loudly and at the limits of their technique). But the album is a bit of a rope-a-dope. In 2011, Zorn released Enigmata, which comprises just Dunn’s and Ribot’s performances. Three years later, he added drums to that same audio and called it Valentine’s Day. The material sounds slightly juicier with just two musicians, but Sorey’s pressure-washing style makes clear why it’s necessary to have these two recordings in the world. It helps to have a sense of righteousness if you want to add a new musician to an existing album—and it helps even more when this act of control pays off.

Even if someone is creating sound by rubbing a matchbox against a drum head, that creation represents both a value and a choice. Whether composed or improvised, such notes are strikes against death, laid out in time.

Control was very much the name of the game during another Vanguard show in late May of last year. Zorn largely presented quartets performed by Sorey on drums, Sae Hashimoto on vibes, Shanir Blumenkranz on bass, and Steve Gosling on piano. The music was tight and athletic and left very little room for error. At one point, before a quick trio improvisation, the composer announced that he was going to play the sax because “Lorraine asked me to,” referring to Lorraine Gordon, the legendary owner of the Village Vanguard, who passed away the following month. The final piece was a new composition titled Descent into the Maelstrom (2018), for which Zorn sat on the edge of the stage, following his score on an iPad, smiling and nodding along. During shows, Zorn will often drift between the roles of performer and leader, sometimes shouting or singing directions to the players in the middle of a piece. After the musicians finished Descent—completing a performance that sounded entirely coherent—Zorn inched toward the center of the stage and made an announcement: “I don’t know what the fuck that was, so we’re going to do that one again.” Sorey slowly reassembled his score, which took a minute, as he likes to fling each page to the side as he plays, and the quartet dutifully ran through it again. It was a strange moment, as I couldn’t tell the difference between the two renditions. But that Zorn cared enough to demand that they get it right was exhilarating. The musicians didn’t seem to mind.

The complexity of Descent made me return to one of the recordings in Zorn’s Hermetic Organ series, an ongoing project started in 2011 for which Zorn improvises on a church organ. The origin of this work dates back to his childhood, when he watched Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and decided that he wanted to have that same terrifying impact on audiences. Pipe organs are sonically overwhelming instruments, and Zorn approaches them as such. Aside from the intensity, his work on the organ doesn’t sound anything like his saxophone playing, which typically moves at light speed, notes popping like pills from a blister pack. On the organ recordings, Zorn moves slow blocks of air through the room until they pile up. On The Hermetic Organ, Vol. 3—St. Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield (2015), Zorn instead creates chaos inside the pipes, and on the album’s track “The Revelation of St. John,” he manipulates the stops and blowers into a pitch-perfect imitation of a jackhammer. The composer appears to specialize in making instruments create sounds they were not designed for.

John Zorn performing at Jazz em Agosto, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, July 29, 2018. Photo: Pedro Cvelbar.

Last year, from the end of July to the beginning of August, Zorn was the honoree for a special edition of Jazz em Agosto, a ten-day festival at the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, which devoted itself to his music. The players were almost entirely from New York, and despite the severity of the heat (which reached 112 degrees Fahrenheit), the festival perfectly showcased his work. Fragments of some shows remain burned into my memory: Zorn’s indoor organ recital, with Mori on laptop, was scorching; John Medeski’s organ trio with David Fiuczynski and Calvin Weston was confusing and bloated; the Dither, an electric guitar quartet trading improvised phrases for Zorn’s early cue-based game piece Lacrosse (1977) in an auditorium inside the main building, was sparkly and hilarious.

Rehearsal for John Zorn’s Archery, 1979, Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York, ca. 1979. Third from the left: John Zorn. Photo: Michael Macioce.

My two most vivid recollections are nothing alike. The first is of the performance of Zorn’s Bagatelles—an ongoing series of short compositions that can be expanded by the players, and that, so far, he’s refused to record—by pianist Kris Davis, bassist Drew Gress, Halvorson, and Wollesen. It was some of the most exquisitely balanced music I heard all year. I felt like someone was tracing a cathedral on the back of my arm for the entire thirty minutes of the piece. Davis has a degree of control and physical strength that gives her performances a wide dynamic range, and Wollesen is a buttery force, able to incrementally dial his drumming up and down. (He is expert at using fast snare rolls to create a kind of spiderweb bridging two moments.) My second recollection is of the Masada quartet. Bassist Greg Cohen, drummer Joey Baron, trumpeter Dave Douglas, and Zorn have been playing together for more than twenty-five years, and it is evident in the unity of their playing. The lines vary while still arraying themselves in a pure and sticky togetherness. Everyone knows how to get in and out of the channel worn by the music.

Zorn’s compositions for Masada feel like the earliest mark of his later career, one of his first overt engagements with Jewish culture and the “Jewish scales” that run through the rest of his catalogue. (Masada is named for an ancient fortress in the Southern District of Israel in which the occupants, during the first Jewish-Roman War, committed suicide rather than submit to enemy forces.) The night the quartet played, the compositions were Zorn’s, but the music belonged to the four players and their voices. Baron is joy in the form of a drummer, and any time the band lays out for him is a lesson in how a kit works. Cohen has one of the roundest, fullest tones in the game, and when all broke down to Cohen and the two horns, the sound was heaven. Though ten years younger than Zorn, Douglas acts like an older brother to him. He brought no sheet music to the stage, and paced around in his own circle of power, often keeping his back to the composer. The two played their hearts out, Douglas the crystallizing force of bop, Zorn the outsider brought down to earth. It also sounded like jazz, as though its innovation and lunacy and convulsion simply had to be brought forth. If the rogue recordist exists, I pray he was there.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer who lives in New York's East Village.