Show Summary Details

Page of
<p>Printed from Grove Music Online. Grove is a registered trademark. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use&#160;(for details see Privacy Policy).</p><p>date: 22 July 2019</p>

Zorn, Johnfree

  • Peter Niklas Wilson

(b New York, Sept 2, 1953). American composer and saxophonist. As a child he attended the United Nations School, where he had composition lessons with Leonardo Balada and Charles Turner. Later, as a student at Webster College (St Louis), he came into contact with members of the Black Artist Group (BAG) and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and began to play the saxophone. After a stay on the West Coast, he returned to New York in 1974, making his mark as a virtuoso saxophonist on the lively Lower East Side improvisation scene that grew up around such musicians as Eugene Chadbourne, Tom Cora, Fred Frith, Arto Lindsay, Christian Marclay and Elliott Sharp. In an effort to introduce structure into free improvisation, Zorn developed so-called ‘game pieces’, such as School, Pool, Archery and Cobra, that steer musicians’ interaction without specifying either the material or syntax of individual parts. His commercial breakthrough came with the release of the Morricone arrangements on the LP The Big Gundown (1986). Here, and in succeeding works, he employed abrupt, block-like alternations of contrasting styles and sound-types noted on index cards (hence the name ‘file card pieces’) to structure the music. His liking for extremes of tempo and dynamics led to the founding (around 1990) of groups such as Naked City and Painkiller, in which he engaged with Pop-Underground genres such as Trash and Speed Metal.

In 1992 Zorn and Marc Ribot formulated the manifesto of what they called a ‘radical Jewish culture’, the intention of which was to bring out and make visible the Jewish components of American culture. Zorn’s Holocaust work Kristallnacht (1992) was the first to document his engagement with his Jewish roots. Later, with ensembles such as Masada and Bar Kokhba, he used melodies inflected by Middle Eastern modality as the basis for jazz-inspired improvisation. Fully notated works such as Redbird (1995), a piece for chamber ensemble influenced by Morton Feldman, attested to a move away from the primacy of stark contrasts and rapid alternations.

The most charismatic figure in New York’s Lower East Side music scene, Zorn has been an archetypal example of the composer in the media age; he ignores the boundaries that have evolved between genres and takes inspiration from every kind of music available. His widely varied influences have included the music of Ives, Partch, Cage and Kagel, as well as Carl W. Stalling, a composer of animated cartoon scores, the hard-core band Napalm Death and improvisers such as Derek Bailey, Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton. Rejecting the Western concept of the autonomous genius-composer, he has created an aesthetic of productive collaboration and radical eclecticism. As well as composing and playing the saxophone, he has managed the avant-garde record label Tzadik.


this list contains only those recordings on which Zorn appears as leader or co-leader

School (1979, Parachute P004/006) [game pieces]

Pool (1980, Parachute P011/012) [game pieces]

Archery (1981, Parachute P017/018) [game pieces]

The Classic Guide to Strategy, Vols. 1–2 (1983–5, Lumina L004/010) [sax solos]

The Golden Palominos (1983, Celluloid/OAO CELL 5002)

Locus Solus (1983, Rift 007) [game pieces]

Yankees (1983, Celluloid/OAO CELL 5006) [with Derek Bailey and George Lewis]

Omaha (1985 - Celluloid SCEL 56) [with The Golden Palominos]

Ganryu Island (1985, Yukon 2101) [with Michihiro Sato]

The Big Gundown (1986, Nonesuch/Icon 9 79139) [file card pieces]

The Classic Guide to Strategy, Vol. 2 (1986, Lumina 10)

Cobra (1986, Hat ART 2034) [game pieces]

Deadly Weapons (1986, Nato 950) [with Steve Beresford, David Toop, Tonie Marshall]

Experimental Performance with John Zorn (1986, MobysMobys 0005) [with Jojo Takayanagi]

Godard ça vous chante? (1986, Nato 634) [sampler, includes Zorn's composition Godard]

Voodoo (1986, Black Saint BSR 0109) [with The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet; jazz works]

Spillane (1987, Elektra Nonesuch 9 79172–1) [file card pieces]

News for Lulu (1988, Hat ART 6005) [jazz works]

Replicant Walk (1988, Enemy/Wax EMY 109) [with Friction]

Spy vs Spy: the Music of Ornette Coleman (1988, Elektra/Musician 9 60844) [jazz works]

Cynical Hysterie Hour (1989, CBS/Sony, 24DH 5291) [film scores]

Film Works (1986–90) (1990, Eva 2024)

Naked City (1990, Elektra Nonesuch 9 79238)

Radio Hour (1990, Elektra PRCD 8195-2)

Torture Garden (1990, Earache Mosh 28) [with Naked City]

Guts of a Virgin (1991, Earache Mosh 45)

Improvised Music New York 1981 (1991, Muworks Records MU W 1007) [with Derek Bailey, Fred Frith, Sonny Sharrock, Bill Laswell, Charles K. Noyes]

Real Time 2: Yuji Takahashi conducts music by Zorn, Miyake, Maceda (1991, Fontec FOCD3151)

Buried Secrets (1992, Earache Mosh 62) [with Pain Killer]

Elegy (1992, Eva WWCX 2040)

Grand Guignol (1992, Avant Avan 002)

Heretic, Jeux des dames cruelles (1992, Avant Avan 001) [with Naked City]

Leng Tch’e (1992, Toy’s Factory TFCK-88604) [with Naked City]

More News for Lulu (1992, hat Art CD 6055)

Kristallnacht (1993, Eva WWCX 2050)

Radio (1993, Avant Avan 003) [with Naked City]

Rituals: Live in Japan (1993, Toy’s Factory TFCK-88627) [with Pain Killer]

Sax Legends Vol. 1 (1993, King/Paddle Wheel KICJ 139)

Sax Legends Vol. 2 (1993, King/Paddle Wheel KICJ 140)

Absinthe (1994, Avant Avan 004)

Alef (Masada 1) (1994, DIW–888)

Filmworks II–VI (1995–7, Tzadik TZ 7306–7310)

First Recordings 1973 (1995, Tzadik TZ 7304)

Redbird (1995, Tzadik TZ 7008)

Bar Kokhba (1996, Tzadik TZ 7108–2)

Company 91, Vol. 1-3 (1994, Incus CD 16-18)

Execution Ground (1994, Subharmonic SD 7008-2) [with Pain Killer]

Beit (Masada 2) (1995, DIW-889)

Art of Memory (1995, Incus CD 20) [with Fred Frith]

Gimel (Masada 3) (1995, DIW-890)

Dalet (Masada 4) (1995, DIW DIWS-3)

John Zorn’s Cobra Live at The Knitting Factory (1995, Knitting Factory Works KFW 124)

The Book of Heads (1995, Tzadik TZ 7009) [performed by Marc Ribot]

Hei (Masada 6) (1995 - DIW 899)

Vav (Masada 7) (1995, DIW 900)

Harras (1995, Avant Avan 056) [with Derek Bailey and William Parker]

John Zorn’s Cobra: Tokyo Operations ’94 (1995, Avant Avan 049)

In Memory of Nikki Arane (1996, Incus CD 23) [with Eugene Chadbourne]

Zayin (Masada 8) (1996, DIW-915)

New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands (1997, Tzadik TZ 7311)

Duras: Duchamp (1997, Tzadik TZ 7023)

Het (Masada 9) (1997, DIW-925)

The Parachute Years 1977-1980 (1997, Tzadik TZ 7316)

Euclid’s Nightmare (1997, Depth Of Field DOF 1-2) [with Bobby Previte]

Angelus Novus (1998, Tzadik TZ 7028)

Tet (Masada 10) (1998, DIW-933)

Filmworks VIII (1998, Tzadik TZ 7318)

The Circle Maker (1998, Tzadik TZ 7122)

Downtown Lullaby (1998, Depth Of Field DOF-2) [with Wayne Horvitz, Elliott Sharp, Bobby Previte]

Yod (Masada 11) (1998, DIW-935)

Aporias (1998, Tzadik TZ 7037)

The Bribe (1998, Tzadik TZ 7320)

Music Romance Vol. 1: Music for Children (1998, Tzadik TZ 7321)

Masada Live in Jerusalem 1994 (1999, Tzadik TZ 7322)

Masada Live in Taipei 1995 (1999, Tzadik TZ 7323)

The String Quartets (1999, Tzadik TZ 7047)

Godard/Spillane (1999, Tzadik TZ 7324)

Taboo and Exile (1999, Tzadik TZ 7325)

Masada Live in Middelheim (1999, Tzadik TZ 7326)


  • E. Troyano: ‘John Zorn’s Theatre of Musical Optics’, The Drama Review, 23 (1979), 37–44
  • D. Ilic: ‘John Zorn: The Art of Noise’, The Wire, no.31 (1986), 30–32
  • H. Mandel: ‘I Have a Lot of Little Tricks’, Ear, 11/2 (1986–7), 16–17 [interview]; repr. as ‘Ich habe viele kleine Tricks’, MusikTexte, xxiii (1988), 28–30
  • E. Strickland: ‘Spillane, the Works … Looking for Zorn’, Fanfare, 11/5 (1987–8), 344–55
  • G. Santoro: ‘Quick-Change artist Makes Good’, Down Beat, 55/4 (1988), 23–5
  • A. Lange: ‘Der Architekt der Spiele’, NZM, Jg.152, no.2 (1991), 33–7 [interview]
  • P.N. Wilson: ‘Früchte des (John) Zorn’, NZM, Jg.152, no.2 (1991), 40–43
  • J. Zorn: ‘Memory and Immorality in Musical Composition’, Poetics Journal, no.9 (June 1991), 101–105
  • K. Gann: Soundpieces 2: Interviews With American Composers, New York 1993, 507–42
  • K. Whitehead: ‘A Field Guide to Cobra’, Pulse!, November 1994, 46–8,112
  • S. Drury: ‘A View from the Piano Bench, or Playing John Zorn’s Carny for Fun and Profit’, PNM, Vol. 32 No.1, Winter 1994, 194–201
  • G. Huesmann: ‘John Zorn: von der Verfügbarkeit der Töne’, Die Befreiung der Musik, ed. F.X. Ohnesorg (Cologne, 1994), 319–37
  • A. Jones: Plunderphonics, 'Pataphysics & Pop Mechanics (Wembley, 1995), 143–54
  • W. Duckworth: Talking Music (New York, 1995), 444–75
  • Eureka (1997) [Zorn issue; in Jap.]
  • H. Mandel: ‘Guerilla Strategist’, Resonance, 6/1, (1997), 18–20
  • P.N. Wilson: ‘“Radical New Jewish Culture”: Polemische Anmerkungen zu einer erfolgreichen Inszenierung’, NZM Jg.152, No. 3 (1998), 22, 24
  • F. Kaplan: ‘Horn of Plenty: the Composer who knows no Boundaries’, New Yorker (14 June 1999)
  • L. Blumenfeld: ‘Scene by Scene’, Jazziz, 16/8 (1999), 42–8, 80
  • B. Milkowski: ‘One Future, Two Views’, Jazz Times, 30/3 (2000), 28–35,118–21

See also

Postmodernism, §1: History, definitions

Neue Zeitschrift für Musik
Perspectives of New Music