John Zorn: Myth and Mythopoeia

Myth and Mythopoeia holds the course for John Zorn's career -- presenting music that is as difficult to hear as it is rewarding to absorb. There's also one track here that can be preserved for the ages.

John Zorn

Myth and Mythopoeia

Label: Tzadik
US Release Date: 2014-06-24
UK Release Date: 2014-06-09
Label website
Artist website

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

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

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