Sunday, January 22, 2012

John Zorn: Kristallnacht

Labeling and classifying music and musicians may or may not be useful or fair, but there are certainly instances where it can be pointless.   This is definitely the case with John Zorn, whose long career has been filled with examples of music that defy easy categorization.

In 1990, when exploring various forms of music became a fascination for YHB, Zorn was notorious for the Torture Garden album released under his Naked City project.  That recording will be covered here eventually and it was an interesting and remarkable introduction to this fascinating artist.

Later, came Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), recorded in 1992, and comprising the first release in Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture series.  Though Jewish, he had not explicitly identified personally with his heritage until about the time of this mind-blowing recording.  Kristallnacht is a searing examination into the Nazi-led attack against the Jewish population of several occupied states in 1938 (and in which my future wife's maternal grandparents and other family were entangled in Vienna and from which some escaped and others perished in concentration camps.  I also have Jewish ancestry--my grandmother, though mostly Hawaiian,  had the maiden name Levy, as her paternal grandfather, the only of his family born outside of what is now Poland, left San Francisco for Honolulu in 1880.)

Sounds of broken glass, white noise, heavy percussion and grinding guitar evoke the horrors of Nazi brutality, while clarinet, trumpet and violin reflect the sadness, grief and contemplation of these actions, and there is plenty else on this amazing recording to show the range of emotions that one cannot get from films, books or other artistic expressions.

The opening track, "Shtetl (Ghetto Life)" intersperses Nazi rally speeches to a gorgeous klezmer or Jewish folk melody in a forceful juxtaposition that lays the groundwork for the evocative work to come.  The next piece, "Never Again," uses extreme white noise to capture one emotional and psychological state of mind concerning the topic and Zorn warned that the piece "contains high frequency extremes at the limits of human hearing & beyond, which may cause nausea, headaches & ringing in the ears.  Prolonged or repeated listenings is not advisable as it may result in temporary or permanent ear damage."  This track lasts nearly 12 minutes and is one manifestation of Zorn's approach to music (and sound) that has made him a controversial figure over his career, but its carefully layered montage of broken glass sounds represents the rioting.

Then, comes to eerie windswept ambience of "Gahelet (Embers)" reflecting the quiet, but not the calm, that followed the violence and destruction with barely audible violin, guitar and radio sounds.  Other tracks use some of Zorn's interesting approaches to composition with abrupt changes in styles, tempos and instrumentation, while "Barzel (Iron Fist)" is what it's title implies, a bludgeoning, pummeling piece of guitar, percussion and blaring sirens and noise representing Nazi militarism and terrorism.  The last piece, "Gariin (Nucleus—The New Settlement) is most notable for William Winant's inventive percussion and guitarist Marc Ribot's stunning soloing.  In fact, Zorn's careful composition and production is enhanced by the masterful playing on this record, including the work of Mark Feldman on violing, Anthony Coleman on keyboards, Mark Dresser on base, David Krakauer on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Frank London on trumpet--all Jewish musicians.  The CD booklet has images of a burning synagogue, a glorified statue symbolizing a "Nazi Ideal", a Nazi soldier, and corpses of Jews at Bergen Belsen and excerpts of writings about the rioting and Jewish identity.

Zorn has been quoted as saying that Kristallnacht represented a passionate response to years of denying his Jewish heritage in dealing with the Holocaust.  It is truly a visceral, emotional and thought-provoking recording that leaves a real impact on the listener and it defies any attempts at "File Under . . ."

John Zorn:  Kristallnacht (Tzadik 7301, 1995)

1.  Shtetl (Ghetto Life): 5:51
2.  Never Again: 11:41
3.  Gahelet (Embers): 3:25
4.  Tikkun (Rectification): 3:02
5.  Tzfia (Looking Ahead): 8:46
6.  Barzel (Iron Fist): 2:01
7.  Gariin (Nucleus—The New Settlement):  7:58

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