Many consider composer/alto saxophonist John Zorn a seminal figure on the contemporary music scene.
But what he produced — it’s hard to say he simply plays — before a capacity crowd Tuesday night at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center was even more unfathomable than the music of Fausto Romitelli, which the Talea Ensemble played Saturday night at EMPAC.
At least with Romitelli’s pieces, a listener can discern a mind at work. There’s organization, some development of the sounds he puts on the page.
But Zorn was doing free-form improvisation. And the sounds he produced were more a catalogue of effects: squeals, high-pitched wails, moans, sobs, kissing sounds, screeches, plunking keys.
He uses flutter tonguing, distorts the sounds by overblowing or clamping on the reed or mouthpiece, changes the amplification of the vibrato wave and does circular breathing, which prolongs his ability to play. It’s as if he got bored one day playing music on the sax and decided to figure out what kind of effects he could produce.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, saxophonist Ornette Coleman was doing something similar, but he put his language into a jazz context. It was hard to find any context for what Zorn was doing.
The only mood or atmosphere that Zorn created was one of angst, discontent and an edgy unease. Considering that 50 percent of the crowd was under 25, maybe this is the sort of thing that appeals or they understand.
In all actuality, you could take hearing only two pieces, each of which was 20 minutes long. The only difference between the two was that Zorn played more actual pitches in the second improvisation.
The first “piece” played one tone that sounded like a foghorn; everything else was effects and distortion of sounds. In the second, he played slow, lugubrious-sounding tones or quickly moving sprays amid the other stuff.
It’s obvious he knows how to play the horn, because his fingers were doing what they were supposed to. But where’s the skill in all this? Zorn just started with one effect and went on from there.
According to hall staff, Zorn’s discs are the same sort of thing. That he obviously has a coterie of fans is great for him, but this reviewer isn’t one of them.