Darius Milhaud’s polytonality and Shostakovich’s cynicism seem to welcome the listener as they approach John Zorn’s latest effort, while Jacques Ibert’s perennial state of unrest and irony, quietly (albeit not silently) lurk in the background. As peculiar as the thought might sound, avant-garde can sometimes revel in vintage clothes, toy with retroactivity, instigate a certain eagerness for obsoleteness and still sound quintessentially fresh. Fragmentations, Prayers & Interjections is certainly a fine example of this contradiction. It is an inspired work which vouches for Zorn’s maturity and sophistication, while at the same time it is a testimony of his detachment from the purity of musical unpredictability and improvisation. The Arcana Orchestra, lead by David Fulmer, take on the challenge. The final result? An accurate rendition of Zorn’s musical paradigm.
The rich musical assortment on display is introduced by the now legendary “Orchestra Variations”: a piece commissioned by the New York Philharmonic back in 1996 and performed for the first time in 1998 with Leonard Slatkin on the podium. The five or so minutes of atonality and subtle allusions to Stravinsky’s genius are somehow reminiscent of Zorn’s early infatuation with Olivier Messiaen and Arnold Schoenberg, but the overall impression is one of incompleteness, as if one could not help but feel that the carefully constructed dynamics of the piece would not be out of place in a more structured and articulated composition.
Ironically, “Contes de Fées” – a work composed three years later – presents itself as its ideal continuum, with Chris Otto’s violin leading the orchestra into twirls and dramatic rumbles, while still managing to keep a delicate balance between the soloist and the often (superbly) disruptive contribution of the ensemble. The piece’s gloomy air is somehow evocative of György Ligeti’s and, again, Schoenberg’s darkest corners. A common Jewish heritage represents – perhaps – an all too easy fil rouge connecting these three diverse souls but, for as banal as it may sound, their conflicting relationship with their common roots make of “Contes de Fées” a clear rendition of avant-gardism as the purest representation of the many conflicting natures of Judaism.
“Kol Nidre” confirms this impression by conveying the artistic uneasiness of Zorn’s Masada projects, by giving way to the silent Jüdisch Angst through minimalism. It is a tragic piece of music that speaks the language uttered by the likes of Sibelius and Gustav Mahler’s early works: compositions somehow marred by naïve mood swings, but genuinely elegant nonetheless. If there is a theist element in “Kol Nidre”, it is well hidden behind a quasi-cinematic flow and an orchestra which seems completely at ease fiddling with volumes and tones.
The last piece — “Suppôts et Supplications” — is the most recent composition of them all, penned in 2012 for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It appears to close an ideal circle initiated by the opening “Orchestra Variations”, with a wholesome array of moods and styles which, alas, add nothing to the preceding pieces. It is a tune wisely based on subtle harmonies and a clever use of the many possibilities the Arcana orchestra, an 83 strong ensemble, can give to a composer like Zorn.
Fragmentations, Prayers & Interjections is an amazing collection of ideas, rather than an album per se. Its lack of consistency undeniably constitutes an asset, rather than a disadvantage, as is often the case with the music written by one of the most prolific tunesmiths of our era. Zorn proves that he has yet to explore the numerous opportunities given by orchestral arrangements, and that the time is probably right for him to start developing a new path in his career. A 46-minute experiment and an anticipation of more things to come rarely – very rarely – are so beautifully crafted.