While the amazing John Zorn is most known for his notorious noisemaking projects in free jazz and exploratory classical composition, he has some remarkable recordings that are less intense in volume and sound, if not less innovative and experimental in content.
One of these is the brief, but memorable, Mysterium, a 2005 release on Zorn's Tzadik label that finds him creating three varied and highly interesting pieces with a cadre of sixteen excellent musicians that tap into various magical expressions of the feminine.
The first piece, "Orphée," finds a stunning combination of brilliantly-played flute by Tara O'Connor underscored by David Shively's well-placed percussion, Stephen Gosling's ephmeral celese and keyboard, Lois Martin's sturdy viola, and the background atmospherics of June Han's harp and Ikue Mori's electronics coming together to take the listener on a nine-minute musical excursion to the mythic underworld of the Orpheus legend, steeped deeply in the inspiration of, as Zorn's liner notes from the airport in Toulouse waiting for a quick flight to Paris make known, the work of Claude Debussy, but with the modern touches with which Zorn excels. The composer also provides a typically eclectic list of those French artists whose impressionistic works, not just in music, but in art, film, and literature, animated this fascinating work.
To this listener, untutored in the specifics of classical composition, the minimalist female choral work, "Frammenti del Sappho," is the highlight of the record. With the work of the Rustavi Choir just recently highlighted in this blog and earlier appreciation given to the work of the polyphonic mastery of female Bulgarian choral music, this piece fits in nicely as a complement and contrast. Zorn noted the interest he took in the very different translation of Sappho's poems by Anne Carson and this blogger has that volume buried in a box up in the attic, having read it not too long before Zorn created this beautiful piece. The five singers perform with perfection and Zorn's take on the Renaissance's motet form is traditionally harmonic, as he explains in this liners, yet he adds the twist of creating over two dozen sections named for the letters of the Greek alphabet. Zorn felt that it is "one of the most breathtakingly beautiful pieces in my catalog" and it is certainly one of the most striking and memorable pieces this blogger has heard from the composer.
Finally, there is a piece in three movements called "Walpurgisnacht," or "Witches' Sabbath" and featuring the string trio of two violins and a cello. This is a work, influenced by the work of Anton Webern, that is generaly harsher, faster-paced, and heavier in dynamics. The composer had intended to create only two movements, after abandoning an earlier attempt at a first one, but then went back and completed the third, which is a very soft, slow and disquieting conclusion to a striking piece. Overall the work's mannerisms, with plucking, intense bowing and a complex sense of interplay between the trio of instruments conjures up a sense of the wild ways of witchcraft, which with the occult and mysticism, have been a continuing fascination for Zorn.
It is always a great pleasure to listen to the myriad ways in which John Zorn creates his own universe of diverse sounds and in the multivaried formats in which he presents them. Mysterium is a record in the "John Zorn Composer Series," which finds him at both his most accsssible ("Frammenti del Sapho") and dense and challenging ("Walpurgisnacht") and, additionally has a crisp, clear and rich sound. It is an experience that definitely rewards close attention.
John Zorn: Mysterium (Tzadik, 2005)
1. Orphée 9:07
2. Frammenti del Sappho 13:28
3. Walpurgisnacht 9:58