Friday, June 13, 2008

John Zorn's "Filmworks": the saga continues

In which our brave correspondent analyses Volumes VII to IX.

"Filmworks VII: Cynical Hysterie Hour" is an absolute hoot. Twenty-three tracks, 28 minutes. It has backstory. It has important broader significance. It is the most fun you can have while keeping at least one foot on the floor at all times.

The backstory, as I understand it: this was released at the tail end of Zorn's relationship with Elektra Nonesuch. It appeared for, like, a couple of days, before it was withdrawn from sale, remaindered, deleted, whatever. Some years later, someone connected with Nonesuch, or its parent company, wanted to use the Knitting Factory, which for a while was Zorn's venue of choice, for a private function. It had already been booked for the night in question by Zorn himself. Result: the company got the venue; Zorn got his back catalogue; and everything became right with the world.

These pieces were recorded as the soundtrack to four episodes of a Japanese cartoon show. (Once again, you have to hand it to the Japanese.) This album, much more so than any of the other Filmworks, makes you want to watch the shows it was made for. They sound so perfect as kids'-TV music. But they also sound great on the headphones - as long as you don't want to concentrate on anything else.

The first six tracks, which soundtrack the first episode, amount to something of a star turn for Christian Marclay's turntables and Bill Frisell's banjo and atypically gnarly electric guitar. Tracks seven to eleven feature - get this - Robert Quine, Arto Lindsay and Marc Ribot on guitars. The music veers from punk snarl to a Morricone-like waltz to near-silence and back again. In five and a half minutes. There is even a really nice airy keyboard sound that I'm sure The Chills used around the same time, somewhere on "Submarine Bells", and which is surely due for a revival. Tracks 12 to 15 are quieter, string-based pieces, although Ribot is in there, as is Ikue Mori on electronics. The final episode, comprising tracks 16 to 23, are as insane as you would expect Zorn pieces with titles like "Stink of an Onion" and "Punk Samba" to be. This is the bleed I was referring to in my earlier Filmworks post, between the Filmworks and Zorn's many other hats. There is a clear line to be drawn between this music and, for example, the first Naked City album; "The Carl Stalling Project"; and "Spillane". It is a lot of fun.

"Filmworks VIII" is more serious. It is also perhaps the most satisfying of the first nine albums in the series, at least as a pure listening experience. It is divided into two halves; the first half is played by a stripped-down version of the "Bar Kokhba" personnel, with the addition of something called a pipa, a kind of Chinese lute. What you end up with might be called Eastern Europe Meets East Asia. The music, although Masada-like (but with an Oriental tinge), hasn't appeared on any Masada recordings, and the limited depth of my Zornology doesn't allow me to say whether this music pre-dated, and perhaps provided the spark for, the Masada avalanche, or whether it consists of unreleased Masada pieces, or whether it was written later (it was released well after the first batch of Masada albums, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything). In any event it is frequently gorgeous. The combination of bass, cello and violin, in particular, is something I could listen to for days on end. In fact, I have. (As a "bonus" you can play the melody line from "Shanghai" on one finger on the piano, while at the same time singing the words to an old Scottish song that may or may not be called "Ye Canna Shove Your Granny Off A Bus".)

The second half of the disc is a series of duo recordings of percussion and vibraphone. We like a nice, well-recorded vibraphone, my word we do. There are also several stretches of shimmering, almost aquatic, ambient percussion which obviously have film-accompaniment work to do but are entirely successful on their own.

"Filmworks IX: Trembling Before G-d", unexpectedly includes some of my favourite Masada pieces, done in a variety of styles and instrumentation (in fact, this disc can also be thought of as another in the series of Masada "recital" recordings). As is often the case with Zorn, you have the impression that the record started out with him thinking, okay, this person is available, or this instrument is one I haven't used before, or this combination of instruments; what can I do with it? (In the case of Masada, the answer being, write, like, 200 songs. And then write 350 more. Football commentators would call that a "work rate".) In this case, you can almost hear him thinking, hmmm, clarinet, that's an instrument I can put to good use; I know, I'll invite Jamie Saft and his box of tricks along. That might work. And of course it does. Although, in a typical Zorn gesture, the general calm is punctuated by a kind of Yiddish knees-up, "Simen Tov / Mazel Tov", featuring some kind of dinky Casiotone keyboard.

Next stop: "Filmworks X". The soundtrack to a film about a "voodoo priestess". Sweet.