Music

John Zorn: In Search of the Miraculous

Avant-garde extraordinaire and veteran weirdo John Zorn has once again defied expectations after years of offending the status quo, with an album of polite, forgettable piano jazz.


John Zorn

In Search of the Miraculous

Label: Tzadik
US Release Date: 2010-02-23
UK Release Date: Import
Label website
Amazon
iTunes

Does John Zorn ever get bored of never being boring? For 30 years now, the hyper-prolific composer has made a career out of restlessly splicing styles with post-modern zeal. The most influential of his work even sounds impatient: his tendency to interrupt tuneful genre pastiche with blasts of noise and atonality has had an indelible effect on extreme music (how else to account for modern grindcore’s affinity for goofball avant-gardism when the rest of metal still looks like a Frank Frazetta drawing?). He is often ingenious and sometimes unlistenable, but never dull. Maybe it was only a matter of time, then, that this kind of predictable unpredictability would become a routine and breaking free meant conquering the final, untouched frontier: being boring. On In Search of the Miraculous, John Zorn does exactly that.

These are, admittedly, fighting words. Released on Zorn’s New York-based Tzadik label, his new record features many of the virtues that set even his lesser works above the vast majority of experimental music. The compositions are balanced just right between being intricate and hanging loose, and the piano-led ensemble assembled here plays through them with precision and restraint. The production is crisp and clear; the vibes shimmer on top of sinewy basslines, and no one overtakes anyone else. In other words, the whole thing is very, very professional.

And that’s, unfortunately, all it really is. Miraculous is basically a prog-rock song cycle played as dinner music, resulting in ten sonically homogenous pieces that could easily work as incidental music for The Sims. The fact that they bear a D&D Adventure Kit’s worth of epic titles like “Prelude: From a Great Temple”, “The Magus”, and “Journey of the Magicians” comes across as a nudge in the ribs, reminding us how dramatic this Lite FM-ready stuff isn’t.

That’s not to say that it isn’t pretty. Zorn’s knack for a melody is in full force here, and repeated listens make that even clearer. “The Book of Shadows”, in this regard, is the disc’s one standout track, as unassuming as it is hummable, as obvious a choice for scoring a rainy soap opera as it is an actual song. Yet, even calling is a standout is a bit of a stretch, since it simply does best what every other midtempo, major key, snare-brushing, vibe-ringing, standup-bass-walking track already does. Apologists might claim the giddy gawdiness of Zorn’s more colorful, spasmodic recordings, especially with Naked City and Painkiller, make his genre purism look bland simply by contrast, but they would be wrong. After all, take his brilliant 1998 double-LP The Circle Maker, which is performed entirely on strings (a chamber trio on the first disc, a jazz sextet on the second). Like Miraculous, it is stately, unadorned, and supposedly steeped in mysticism. It is also, however, dynamic, expressive, and utterly intoxicating, developing distinctly Sephardic moods and drama with a limited sonic palette.

With In Search of the Miraculous, that limitedness is all there really is. According to the Tzadik website, this is one of twelve planned releases this year, and knowing John Zorn, he wanted the opportunity to force himself into even less expected musical territory. He’s succeeded, and shown the world that he can make faceless, functional music with the best of the world's shopping network jingle-writers. Now, hopefully, he realizes that being boring is, well, boring, and goes back to what he does best: being awesome.

4

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image