If you have been following the career of avant-garde composer John Zorn lately, you’ll notice that you rarely get to hear him actually play. He releases dozens of albums each year and oversees the writing, conducting, arranging and production of each one. Yet I can only think of two tracks over the past seven years where Zorn played a little bit of saxophone. This changed around the time of the composer’s 60th birthday when he was given the opportunity to have his very own improvised organ recital in St. Paul’s Hall at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. This was a dream come true for John Zorn, whose personal connection with massive pipe organs stretches back to when he was 8 or 9 years old.
While the first two Hermetic Organ releases were recorded in St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City, this release documents the full birthday recital performed in Huddersfield in late 2013. According to Zorn’s liner notes for The Hermetic Organ Vol. 3 St. Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield, the festival organizers set him up with one hell of an instrument. The organ in St. Paul’s Hall is new, comes with a wide range of tones, and provided Zorn with an artist-friendly loophole in being able to manipulate the length of the vibrato on the spot. Accustomed to fiddling around with conventional church organs in his youth, The Hermetic Organ Vol. 3 essentially finds as a kid being handed the keys to a new candy store…one that makes your teeth rattle before they rot.
Zorn’s early exposure to the organ was during the ’60s, which dovetailed nicely into the numerous cultural changes that he and everyone around him were feeling. “[T]here was something psychedelic about it all — a sound that was truly out of this world, inspiring a world of fantasy and the imagination, of magic and mysticism.” The titles of the three pieces on The Hermetic Organ Vol. 3 touch on Zorn’s interest of where religion and mysticism collide. “The Fall of Satan” is the first and lengthiest track. “The Revelation of St. John” finishes the album and “Spectral Angels”, at 10:05, is the shortest piece.
Since The Hermetic Organ Vol. 3 is 37-plus minutes of off-the-cuff improvisation, a listener can’t go looking for arcs and themes a composer like Zorn will normally infuse into his works. Rather, the listener needs to be caught up within the sounds themselves in order to get anything out of such a release. They also need to process a few polar extremes. “An important element of The Hermetic Organ is contrast, Zorn writes. “[A]lternating between moments of outrageous intensity and subtle calm has always been one of the backbones of these performances.” Indeed, the dynamics on The Hermetic Organ Vol. 3 are a matter of feathers and anvils. Divine harmony lies down with perverse discord. Deep music and non-musical racket are means reaching for the exact same ends.
Zorn is able to produce sounds on the pipe organ that I wasn’t aware were possible. For instance, “The Fall of Satan” begins with a white noise backdrop while Zorn alternates cluster chords between different sets of keys. It spends three minutes coming to a head where the bottom drops out and trebly chimes repeat an ascending ostinato. It doesn’t sound like anyone is falling at this point, and surely not Lucifer himself. The music drops in and out of deathly silence, punctured by intermittent bursts of atonality. “Spectral Angels” behaves like a continuous, nebulous chord that sets the scene for “The Revelation of St. John”. By the program’s final piece, Zorn is able to make the mighty pipe organ sound like a malfunctioning computer. The upper register dissonance is nothing in comparison to the low guttural noises the instrument makes. There are moments of “The Revelation of St. John” where it sounds like the organ might not make it through the performance. If anything can be said for these disturbing, airy flutters, they can grab you from your la-la atmosphere and slam you to the ground.
The Hermetic Organ Vol. 3 St. Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield was an in-concert event and is probably best appreciated as such. I am able to respect and even admire the flights of fancy that Zorn pulls off here, especially after spending a majority of my life getting bored to death by Lutheran hymns played on a Presbyterian church organ. But if you were to tell me that I was going to be castaway on an island tomorrow and that I could only take 15 John Zorn CDs with me, this wouldn’t be one of them. The Hermetic Organ Vol. 3 is a festival keepsake.