"If the tapes are rolling or you remember what I said, that's the fucking interview. You want to hear an artist's voice? You're hearing it."
This was about halfway through a telephone call with John Zorn, most of which involved him explaining why, after three months of negotiations, he had decided not to grant The Squid's Ear an interview. We were working on a special issue to coincide with his fiftieth birthday and a month of concerts he was doing at Tonic. We had suggested talking to him about the different projects that were to be presented, and he called the idea boring. Besides, he said, he'd much rather have a conversation with an artist than a journalist. We suggested he speak with another musician or composer about surviving in the so-called "classical" world. He nixed the idea without offering a reason, but assured us we'd come up with something. After a few more go-rounds, he went back to the original idea, and suggested early July. Phone calls in July weren't returned, however, and a little Web investigation revealed that he was touring Europe with Electric Masada. Upon his return, he'd decided not to do the interview.
"Look, Kurt, I think you can do this without me," he said. "Listen to the music and answer the questions yourself." When I suggested that our readers would like to hear his take on revisiting his work, he said that sounded like People magazine.
"These little peppery phrases that you put through the article don't even matter," he said. "What matters is what's happening, the music.
"What, how did I decide to work with this drummer from Chicago? He knows Bill, that's easy. You can figure it out yourself. Whatever you guys write about, you write about. I can't be concerned with it or I would have killed myself years ago."
How do you revisit old works, I asked him. Do you listen to your old records? Do you work from scores?
"No, not at all."
And a long pause. The silence, I told him, was deafening.
What is it like to go back and work with material that you've said was from an angry period in your life, like Painkiller or Kristallnacht when you're now doing very different sorts of things?
"Kristallnacht is not just an angry piece," he replied. "It's the story of the Jewish people.
"If you take a look at the month, there's no angry music in it. Don't make the mistake that every time someone screams on a saxophone, it's about rage, it's about some Japanese woman screaming and being tortured.
"Given the 20 minutes we just spent on the phone, I could have answered all of your questions," he said. "But I can't deal with it, man." We talked for another 25, after which I sat down to write. I soon realized, however, that the last thing I wanted to do was go through a month of Zorn performances, write about my impressions of the various projects and speculate about why certain things were not included. Turns out, I guess, I can't blame him.
Over the course of September, a surprising array of Zorn's projects, compositions and musical ideas will be presented at Tonic, his Lower East Side home since breaking all ties with the Knitting Factory, reportedly after discovering that they were broadcasting his rehearsals over the Internet without his knowledge. There will be improv meetings with Mike Patton, Ikue Mori, Milford Graves, Yamatanka Eye, Fred Frith, Susie Ibarra, Wadada Leo Smith and Derek Bailey. A half dozen "game pieces" will be presented, in which participating musicians have a set of constraints under which they can attempt to influence the progress of a performance during its course. Nine contemporary classical compositions, including a premiere, will be presented, along with as many nights of the various Masada permutations. And, of course, the uncatagorizable make up a large part of the bill: Kristallnacht, New Traditions in East Asian Bar Music, Locus Solus, Book of Heads, the sorts of things that make Zorn the enigmatic figure that he is.
What's left out? Well, Naked City for a start. After two shows in Europe over the summer, hopes were high that he'd bring the group home. Rumor is that the paycheck across the Atlantic was more than they could pass up. Stateside we don't treat our artists so well. Big picture might be that we get what we deserve. But what we deserve ain't so bad. We do have the home field advantage, after all, and 30 nights of Zorn is nothing to sneeze at. We shall endeavor in these pages to cover most, if not all, of the month. We'll also keep trying to get the man to talk to us, although the former goal holds much more promise. We hadn't set out to do a fanzine, we just kind of ended up there.