In the documentary film A Bookshelf on Top of the Sky, John Zorn outlines his simple, three-tier philosophy to composing music: 1) Challenge yourself, 2) challenge your musicians, and 3) don’t even think about your audience. As has been the case lately, especially with the piano-driven mystical works, it appears that Zorn is asking us to challenge our preconceived ideas of him before challenging his musicians. Then again, the former MacArthur grant recipient has many musical sides. Myth and Mythopoeia is just one of at least nine releases from John Zorn for 2014 so far, and it modestly spans his current interests. If you’re wondering where that puts this release conceptually, you can throw it into that loose category with other classical hodge-podge releases like What Thou Wilt and From Silence to Sorcery. The main difference is that Myth and Mythopoeia just might be a little bit better.
First up is “Pandora’s Box”, featuring the Arditti Quartet and soprano Sarah Sun singing in German. Compositionally, it’s from the Please Stop Hurting Me school of thought pioneered by the likes of Schoenberg. Sun delivers her parts with sinister whispers and spiky melodies. At one point, she has to sustain a note that is almost out of her range. A few minutes later, she gives the inhaling croak of a lifetime while Arditti completely shred apart the listener’s remaining thoughts on this extreme form of expressionism. “Pandora’s Box” keeps the weird, eerie mystery going for over 13 minutes. As openers, it can be as striking is it can be off-putting. Boring it is not.
“Missa Sine Voces” explores the softly syncopated mystical works that Zorn has been piling on lately, though this time he reserves the piece for an instrumentation that would normally favor his atonal side. “Missa Sine Voces” is a little atonal here and there, but the focal point of the track is the Talea Ensembles harpist giving classic Zorn ostinatos, while auxiliary percussion hangs the occasional lantern along the way. The pianissimo dynamic gives the impression that an eruption is on its way, but “Missa Sine Voces” only kicks out these little seizures from which it quickly recovers. It manages to straddle a unique line by being Myth and Mythopoeia‘s most pastoral as well as its most unnerving piece.
“Zeitgehöft” and “Hexentarot” are both performed by the trio of violinist Chris Otto, pianist Stephen Gosling, and cellist Jay Campbell. These are those kinds of classical pieces that, if you don’t understand them now, you probably won’t understand them ever at all. No matter what the tempo or the dynamic is, the atonality never lets up. These truly are moments when Zorn challenges his musicians with lightning-fast notes that require the trio to stop together on the same dime. “Babel” is a cello showcase for Jeff Zeigler who saws and saws away at his instrument, altering the notes only on occasion. Being the shortest piece on Myth and Mythopoeia, it’s more of a vehicle for the exploration of sounds, rhetorically asking the question, “How many sounds can I get out of a cello and a full set of fingers?” Other sounds pop in and out of the background to help break up the format, should listening to a cello hyperventilate for five minutes wear you down. But as I noted about “Pandora’s Box”, boring it is not.
I recommend Myth and Mythopoeia solely based on the powerfully mysterious “Missa Sine Voces”. You can look at the surrounding pieces in a number of ways — either as gravy, cold side-dishes, distractions, or some nice desserts. But the 13:25 track that summarizes the paradox that is John Zorn is a compelling reason to keep tracing the iconic composer’s career. As uneven and difficult as it is to follow, it’s certainly worth it when things like this happen.