My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
The first pieces I heard of John Zorn’s were both titled Lacrosse, one from 1979 and the other from 1981. One was for a sextet, the other a quartet—no longer remember the order in which I heard the music, which was first, quartet or sextet, but the intensity is something I still remember. Over the years, I’ve managed with my lazy ears to take in the incredible variety of Zorn’s work, from his blowing tribute to Sonny Clark, to movie sound tracks, game pieces and his wonderfully absorbing Aporias (requia for piano and orchestra). I had never met Zorn before we sat down together to do this interview, but when he arrived at my door, midmorning on an unusually warm spring day, we jumped right into things; the conversation (and the coffee) flowed. From our two-and-a-half-hour sit-down we managed to find, for readers’ benefit, a beginning and an end, but the tone of the morning was more of a to-be-continued sort of thing, as there was simply so much to say and so much to listen to. Not only is John Zorn fantastically diverse and prolific; he’s got the charms of a storyteller.
John Zorn This is a killer building, one of the best buildings on the Bowery. What was it originally?
Michael Goldberg It was the original YMCA.
JZ You’re kidding. So, I brought you some CDs. I don’t know what you have or haven’t got.
MG I’ve got a mess of your music.
JZ But maybe you don’t have the classical stuff.
MG No, I don’t.
JZ String quartet? Yeah, you need the classical stuff. Here’s a brand new Masada. You listen to music when you’re painting?
MG All the time. And loud.
JZ Here you can do it loud. You’ve got the whole building! You’ve got all jazz shit here. Ornette! I was listening to him this morning, Live at the Golden Circle. So mostly jazz you listen to?
MG Well, I was listening to Neapolitan folk songs this morning. I love this guy, Robert Murolo. He’s got a family but he gets arrested all the time for fucking young boys. So, they put him in jail for a year.
MG He’s a big hero in Naples.
JZ Man, he should be in the clergy now.
MG So, are you married?
MG See, I am.
JZ How long have you been married?
MG A long time, Lynn and I have been together now since 1969. She and I are totally different, which I think is why we’re still together. She is a sculptor and she loves things like athletics, swimming, hiking.
JZ And you probably don’t do any of that stuff.
MG Well, I was in the service for four years.
JZ Where were you, in Europe?
MG In North Africa, then in Burma.
JZ Oh, Christ, you were in Burma!
MG Yeah, I was a master sergeant in Merrill’s Marauders.
JZ Oh, fuck! (laughter)
MG So when you write music, I gather you do it with a pencil or pen and paper?
JZ Yeah, pencil and paper. These are your notes? This is horrible! We’re having a great time, and you’re going to ruin it now with an interview!
MG No, no, don’t say that. We’ll bullshit all the way. So, I used to be quite friendly with the drummer Elvin Jones, you know him?
MG We saw each other for a while. And I remember he and Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison came out to San Francisco, when I was teaching at Berkeley. I had half a ferryboat in Sausalito, a studio. They came out looking to score grass, with an entourage of the meanest looking guys I’ve ever seen—about 20 of them trampling all over my boat. I thought, What the fuck is going to happen? But they played, and it was extraordinary. So I said to Elvin, “You know, I’m trying to listen to the time you are creating, and I can get into it, but I can’t get out of it.” And he said, “Well, that’s what it’s all about.” He said, “I don’t get out of it.”
JZ It’s like self-hypnosis, in a sense. When I’m writing, sometimes it gets to that place where I feel like the piece is writing itself and I’m trying not to get in the way. I’m getting ready to write a piece now, and it’s been six months thinking about it, changing the instrumentation, changing the name, doing more reading. I’m reading a lot of Aleister Crowley.
MG I gather that you do lots of reading.
JZ I like to read. I like to look.
MG I also gather you do lots of research for the music.
JZ Lots of research for life and music, same thing.
MG I have a vice; I buy records and books.
JZ Yeah, that’s my vice, too. Except I include movies in that vice, and it’s getting out of hand now. You know, when we were kids, we had to go to a theater to see a movie. And then television came in and you had to wait until midnight to see the one you wanted to see. Now, all you’ve got to do is go to a store and buy it and you can watch it whenever you want!
MG Your music is on that label Tzadik, and I was told that Tzadik means wise man, is that true?
JZ Well, it means a lot of things, it’s a letter in the Hebrew alphabet.
MG I asked my mother, and she said wise man.
JZ Yeah. Or it could be justice, or righteousness, the concept of right. Or a rabbi or holy man in a small community. One of the reasons I started Tzadik, which is my own label, is to keep things in print. I got tired of labels dropping things out of print when they don’t sell. Tzadik is driven by the need to keep important work in print forever, as a catalogue. You know, if we sell it, that’s great, but…
MG How many titles has Tzadik put out?
JZ About 250 now.
MG Whoa! Are you doing it pretty much yourself?
JZ I have about two or three people, we don’t have an office, we don’t even have a dedicated phone line. We do it out of our own homes, and we make it work.
MG That’s extraordinary. And does it make money to pay for itself?
JZ It breaks even. We lose ten, twenty grand every year. But then the people who are working say, Look, I’ll kick this back in, I don’t need to take this profit share. It’s very cooperative.
MG That’s wonderful. So they’re really believers.
JZ Yeah, these are believers—which is hard to find—people who care. And I’ve been lucky. So it survives because of goodwill, and because there are still idealistic people in the world.
MG Not many.
JZ Well, you’re one.
MG Yeah, but I figure I’m a little crazy.
JZ You can’t be idealistic in this world and not be crazy. Because they’ve created such a deep structure now, you can’t get in. And we don’t want to get in, we’re on the outside. But we’re not on the outside looking in, we’re on the outside looking out. So I feel we’re in a very healthy place. The idealists will always be in society, and we will survive.
MG I feel your music is very compartmentalized, this kind of music and this kind and that.
JZ On the label it was done that way deliberately. Because… well, I have certain obsessions.
MG Loads of obsessions!
JZ Oh yeah, I have obsessions. And it’s a way of focusing them. I guess the label is very supportive of the scene. It’s a way of supporting specific things that I feel close to. People send me shit all the time that simply isn’t appropriate for Tzadik. Like improvisation stuff, jazz stuff, those kinds of normal labels—no, not interested. More interested in the stuff that fits in between the gaps.
MG I was really impressed with the Masada group’s first recording of Alef, how you were involved with melody. I hadn’t heard that in your music before.
JZ No, that was a major exploration of melody, to see if I could write a book of songs like Gershwin or Thelonious Monk.
MG Exactly. You can whistle them.
JZ That was my challenge as a composer. Like with anything, to keep yourself interested in doing what you do, you set yourself challenges. So I said, Okay, I’ll try to write a hundred tunes in a year.
MG And are you still doing it or did you finish?
JZ No, I wrote 50 in a second year, 25 or 30 in a third year, and the fourth year another 25, and then I just stopped. It was basically a four-year project, I wrote about 200 tunes. I don’t think in those terms anymore.
MG Will Masada play live anymore?
JZ We just show up and hit, we don’t have to rehearse. So, yeah, we will continue to play in New York, just for fun. And on the road for big money. It’s not a band I can really say no to, because it’s effortless. But, my concerns have gone elsewhere. You work on a project for a while and then…
MG From what I gather, you’re very involved with recording and writing classical music. Have you ever thought about writing for a full symphony orchestra?
JZ Yeah, I’ve done that.
JZ Well, one of the things I gave you is a piano concerto for a 90-piece orchestra. See, that’s what I started out with as a kid, studying classically. I didn’t get into jazz until much later. And all of these various obsessions—whether it’s movie sound tracks, or classical, or jazz, or rock—all of that has been concurrent my whole life. At times different things come to the surface and get focused, and then they go out of focus and something else happens. I’m into working on concert music now because I get to stay home. I’m really tired of traveling. It’s like, man, you got a band, you’ve got to tour with it because that’s what makes the band good. That’s why those bands got so good in the ’50s and ’60s, because they were working all the time. They get an engagement at the Five Spot, and they play for three months, six nights a week! You play that much in your own town, sleep in your own bed, the music is going to go somewhere.
MG I got into the Five Spot very early. I had some friends who lived right across the street who said, “Hey, they’re playing music over there, you ought to go down and hear it.”
JZ This is like ’58 or something?
MG No, earlier. It was about ’55—there were two brothers, Joe and Iggy Termini.
JZ Yeah, of course, famous cheapskates.
MG My buddy Norman Blum and I would go there six nights a week and drink. We ran up a tab drinking cheap champagne. A guy named Ivan Black, I remember, who was a booking agent, he convinced Termini to get a good piano and get Monk in there. It was absolutely terrific to go there to hear the way this guy approached the same music, night after night, differently, all the time. Beautiful player.
JZ What was the audience like then, how big?
MG It was mostly artists, and it got to be really crowded. I forget how it worked, but then Ornette came in. And he was there for about five, six months. So anyway, I listened to a lot of music then, drank a lot of champagne too.
JZ (looks around) You got some serious shit under these neon lights, here.
MG That little figure is about 1200 B.C.
JZ It’s beautiful. But these lights are kind of…
MG They synthesize daylight. They’re called North Light bulbs.
JZ Oh, it’s a special bulb. Did you used to work in real light—window or skylight?
MG I prefer it, but…
JZ You own the top floor, can’t you do something? Why don’t you break it open and make a window?
MG It costs twenty thousand bucks.
JZ What’s twenty thousand, it’s a bag of shells, man! Look at these horrible lights!
MG I’m used to it. (laughter)
JZ This is giving me a headache; do you hear them buzzing?
MG I don’t hear them anymore.
JZ Well, I hear it. Break through that roof! Twenty grand? It’s a bag of shells!
MG You’ve spent quite a bit of time in Japan, haven’t you? I’ve been told that your music is very well received there.
JZ I don’t think it’s well received anywhere. I think there are small groups of people that believe in it, or are intrigued by it, or are drawn to it for a variety of reasons. And some of the reasons could be shit, and some could be valid. I can’t be involved in that at all. But Japan was my home for ten years off and on, back and forth. I had an apartment there and I felt a commitment. Eventually, I came back to New York as a real home. Japan’s a very lonely place. People don’t hang out. You know, like we’re doing? You and I made a connection that’s a real connection. I’m probably going to come over for dinner within the next couple of weeks, couple of months? That can’t happen in the same way in Japan. People are very guarded. They won’t call you, not because they’re unfriendly, but because they don’t want to impose on you. And as a result, people get very isolated. When my father died, I started thinking about friendship and about family, and the meanings of those words. They have very different meanings in Japan than they do here. I grew up with those definitions, I wasn’t able to negotiate a complete transformation.
MG Why did you go there?
JZ Music, food, film, friends. I was invited to play for three months. I really loved it, and stayed on. And I still go back every year.
MG And you got to speak the language.
JZ I learned to speak the language and to read it. I became well versed in a lot of the underbelly of Japanese culture. And that was a real learning experience. It helped me figure out who I was. Learning another language helps you, really, with English. It helps you focus your communication in a very real way, and that was great. And being hit front on with a completely different culture helped me appreciate my own culture. I wouldn’t have gotten into Jewishness as much as I did if I hadn’t been in Japan.
MG Did it have something to do with the death of your parents, too?
JZ The death of my father, going to Germany a lot and experiencing that whole thing, and then, thinking how many close friends and colleagues were Jews. It began to be kind of remarkable. Eventually, it came out in my life, like anything else that we think about that’s real.
MG See, I don’t feel myself very Jewish, unfortunately. I wasn’t raised that way.
JZ But it’s part of who you are.
MG I’m aware that I’m a Jew. I have no problem with that.
JZ Did you ever talk about it, like with Rothko? Or Feldman?
MG Not really. I’ve been talking about it with my dentist recently. My dentist, who I’m quite friendly with, is a French Jew. A very elegant man who has become more aware of his Jewishness and has been receiving instruction a couple of days a week.
JZ He’s been going to a rabbi.
MG Exactly. So he and I have been talking about that. He had been the dentist for the king of Morocco, and the harem. They used to send the jet over for him, he had a clinic there. He’s got a lot of funny stories. So I guess I’m becoming a little more aware of what it means to be a Jew.
JZ You must be incredibly aware, growing up through the ’40s.
MG But you see, my experiences with anti-Semitism—
JZ With the name Goldberg?
MG I was 17 when I went into the service, I needed my parents’ permission. And I went into paratrooper training after basic training, down in Fort Benning. One night this guy from Oklahoma, a big guy who had “King of the Ozarks” shaved into his hair, says to me—this from behind—”Here’s our New York Jew!” and lifted me into the air by the elbows as I came out of the shower, with a towel around my waist—wearing clogs. So that night, we slept in double-decker bunks; he was in the upper bunk, and I took a brick and broke both his kneecaps.
MG Then they put him in the hospital. I went into the hospital and gave him a concussion with another brick. So that was my reaction to anti-Semitism.
JZ That’s a good, honest reaction.
MG Precise, it was precise. When you started playing the saxophone, you probably started playing bebop right away?
JZ Within a year, I started to play bebop. It was the literature of that instrument at that time. You have to come to grips with that music.
MG Do you still practice?
JZ No, I haven’t practiced in over 20 years. Since 1981, that was it. I think of myself as a composer who happens to play—it was a way of communicating with musicians, a functional way of interacting, but I’m not a player.
MG You play other instruments beside piano and sax?
JZ Not really. I mean, when I was younger, I studied all the different things, guitar, played bass in a surf band, trombone, flute, clarinet. Learned everything for compositional purposes.
MG You ever play with that trombonist Ray Anderson?
JZ Yeah, I know Ray! But I never played with him. He’s, I think, firmly in the jazz world, and I’m not the kind of guy who can call someone up out of the union book, put my music in front of them and say, “Hey, check this out.”
MG I used to be close with Morty Feldman.
JZ That must have been amazing.
MG He had these eyes, he looked like Dr. Cyclops.
JZ He had those thick glasses.
MG And he was a big fatty. I was going around with a painter named Joan Mitchell, and we had a date to meet our friend Barbara—an absolutely gorgeous woman, with blond-red hair—out at Coney Island. So we asked Morty to come along with us. Seeing Morty in swimming trunks was like a horror movie.
JZ Oh my God. (laughter)
MG We get to the beach, Barbara was on the beach towel, she stood up, and it was love at first sight. They grabbed each other—they had never met before—and they fell down on the sand and began…whatever they were doing. It was unbelievable. But I liked his music a lot, I still listen to it.
JZ So you work on several paintings at a time?
MG Yes, and I’ve become mildly schizophrenic, because I’m doing several kinds of painting at the same time.
JZ That’s the same with me.
JZ I go into a studio and do some rock-based movie sound track for somebody for a day or two. At the same time, I’m working on a concert music piece, and playing with Masada live at night. All concurrent. It makes sense in today’s world. Was it like that in the ’50s? Or did people need to focus more on specific things?
MG I don’t know about music, but I do know that in the late ‘40s, early ’50s, making paintings was a viable revolutionary concept in the sense that one felt that you could change the world. That’s what late Modernism was all about, you felt you were doing something important.
JZ You don’t feel that anymore?
MG Well, I think it was Lenin who said that freedom is the recognition of necessity. And I think that we, as artists, have that same kind of thing. We pare down to what’s necessary to us.
JZ We’ve made a lot of sacrifices to live the life that we live.
JZ And people don’t appreciate that. They think we’re out here balling, you know? It’s not that way. It’s hard work, and you get isolated. And you get distracted by the normal human need for companionship and love and understanding and appreciation. Those are distractions from doing the work, I feel. That’s why I can’t read magazines or newspapers, I don’t look at TV. I try to focus on what’s important, which is really the work itself. Making sure that you do the best possible thing in the purest possible way with the most imagination and technique and honesty that you can pull together.
MG I want to ask you something about doubt.
JZ We live with it every single microsecond of every day. I’m constantly in doubt about what I’m doing, I’m constantly tortured, and that’s why I say happiness is irrelevant. Happiness is for children and yuppies. I’m not striving for happiness, I’m trying to get some work done. And sometimes the best work is done under doubt. Constant rethinking, and reevaluating what you’re doing, working and working until you feel it’s finished. And that’s an interesting point too, that you’ve got to know when to stop. Sometimes there’s a magical moment when everything comes together.
JZ They’re very infrequent, maybe they happen once every couple of years. I had it last on a violin concerto I finished, that isn’t recorded yet. It’s inspired by some of Joseph Cornell’s work. When I was growing up in Flushing, Queens, we lived right near him; I used to see him hanging out at Manny’s Candy Store on Fresh Meadow Lane. Anyway, I called it Comtes de Fées. It was right around the time that my mother had died. And structurally I was working with some very rigid rules. I don’t always use rigid rules, but with this one, I wrote the violin part first, from beginning to end. Then I took all the pitches in the violin part, wrote them out on a piece of paper, and used that same ordering of pitches to orchestrate the rest of the piece. And I went halfway through, and then I started the ordering again. There was a page that was meant to be at the beginning that I ended up putting at the end, and then I used pitches from the violin part of that for an interlude. All of a sudden, everything came together in this strange—I don’t know what it was—it was like a satori of some kind. I got like, Wow, this is amazing, it’s all organic, it totally works.
MG Marvelous experience.
JZ Very rare.
MG Listening to your early music, in terms of say, the saxophone, it seemed that you were looking to find every possible sound that the instrument could make. Is that true?
JZ Early on I created a grid. I was very interested in Egyptian art and still am. I was looking at hieroglyphics and hieroglyphic dictionaries and I created a lexicon of sounds that were my language on the instrument. It could never be a complete document of all the possible sounds on any instrument, but it was a pretty copious list of very strange squeaks and howls and bumps in the night.
MG Who among the classical composers do you listen to, or like?
JZ So many, it’s hard to even begin. Gyorgi Ligeti, I like Steve Reich’s music, Harry Partch, Xenakis, Feldman, Boulez and Stravinsky.
MG Nobody talks about Partch anymore.
JZ Partch is the greatest. You create a language and then you speak in that language. Harry Partch created his own world from scratch. He created his own instruments, his own way of notating the instruments, created an ensemble so that he could get the pieces done right. In terms of the way I work with musicians, Partch is a major influence. And the idea of Duke Ellington having a band that you work with again and again. Harry Partch had a band of musicians that worked together, lived together. Sun Ra did that kind of thing. I don’t want to live with these guys, but I have a pool of players that I know I can count on, who when I point to them, are going to do something great.
MG When you get into the studio to record, do you tinker with the compositions that you’ve created?
JZ Sometimes they’re completely created in the studio. Sometimes they’re tinkered with, sometimes they’re laid down just as I envisioned. You’ve got to remain flexible to live in this world, and when you work with people, there are a lot of question marks. You can ask someone to do something that maybe they can’t do. Or, they’ll do it differently than how you would have done it, but you’ve got to learn to accept their spin. That’s the secret of a Duke Ellington concept, where you give something to someone and they transform it through their personal filter. And when you find someone whose filter interacts with yours in a very creative, helpful way, then you’ve got a member of the group. Then you’ve got a pool.
When I’m writing music, just me alone, pencil and paper, I’m thinking of the musicians who are going to be in between me and the audience performing the music. A composer’s job is different than a painter’s. You work right on the canvas and do what you need. The canvas goes to the audience and they see it. The audience can’t look at a score and envision what’s supposed to happen. I have to write for a musician who then goes on a stage and presents it to an audience. And what you’re dealing with there is everything that’s inside a human being: neurosis, ego, vanity, pettiness, and incredible sensitivity, supportiveness, enthusiasm, creative energy. I have to take all that into account when I put notes on paper. I have to create something that will excite a musician, so that the energy transfers from the page to the musician to the audience. The secret is that relationship.
MG Over the last two years, I’ve heard about four different records, one by this guy Tom Varner, who went back, Jesus, a hundred some odd years and took a whole bunch of old American songs. And Uri Caine recently came out with a record. A couple of other people are going back into the American songbook.
JZ Tin Pan Alley.
MG Did you ever do any of that?
JZ I haven’t mined that so much. I got out of the habit of doing renditions of other people’s music. It was very important to me early on as a way of defining my own musical language, to use these other pieces, arrange them creatively and filter them, as it were, through my language. Now I don’t feel the need to do that. I’ve gotten to a place where I can speak almost eloquently in the language that I’ve developed over the past 25, 30 years.
MG Is your classical music persona different than that of your other kinds of music? In other words, when you go to a concert of your classical music, do you dress differently?
JZ This is the way I dress, day or night.
MG You know what I mean?
JZ I know what you mean, there are a lot of levels to what you’re talking about. There’s the persona that you put out almost inadvertently, because it’s who you are. And then there’s the persona that is perceived by other people, whether they know you or not. And then there’s the work itself. I prefer to talk about the work rather than the persona. The persona is what the rest of the world wants to talk about. And why is that? Because it’s hard to talk about nonverbal creativity? Or is it because they have some weird obsession with the cult of personality? People talk about what I wear, how I talk. I’m a down-to-earth person like you, who’s going to tell it like it is. If someone’s jiving me, I’ll say, “Fuck you, you’re jiving me.” And people are threatened by that. And then they think you’re some obnoxious asshole, when you’re just someone who is very straight about shit. People are interested in people, is that what it is? Why aren’t they interested in the work? People come to my house and it’s like, where’s the furniture? I don’t have any furniture. If you want to sit, you sit on the floor. It’s a small place, covered wall-to-wall with books, CDs, records, movies, everywhere, and that’s it. They freak out—what’s going on here? I can’t figure this out. There’s no kitchen, there’s no place to welcome a visitor. I say, “This is where I live.”
MG No kitchen in your place? How come?
JZ I needed room for books! So I got rid of the kitchen.
MG So you don’t cook or anything like that?
JZ I eat out.
MG Well, we’ve got to get you here for dinner. We’re both good cooks. (yelling to his wife, Lynn) John does not have a kitchen in his place!
Lynn Umlauf (laughter) Fantastic!
JZ I think the idea of an artist standing outside society is still alive. I think it’s an important role. It’s always been an underappreciated role, we become victims, we become targets, because our lifestyle has to be different in order to get the job done. And we make a lot of sacrifices to do what we do.
MG I totally agree, but some artists have accepted the society’s values, and just amplified them.
JZ That’s the road to hell, if you ask me. You know, the elitist nature of what you do is so fascinating. Because you’re not an elitist person at all, and the process of what you’re doing is so real.
JZ See, music is different because you can make a CD and you can sell it to anybody for ten, fifteen dollars. Music used to be like art in that it was elitist. In the old days, courts and kings would have composers, churches hired composers. But to hear the music was something else.
MG Rubens, who was also a Dutch diplomat, used to travel when he went on diplomatic missions with a 16-piece string orchestra. And every time he stopped, they played music for him.
JZ (laughter) I’ve read that, too.
MG That’s my ambition! Let’s end on that note.
JZ That’s a good one.
—Michael Goldberg is a painter who lives in New York and Spannocchia, Italy. He teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York and exhibits internationally.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.