Crowley at the Crossroads - John Zorn

  • London
  • United Kingdom
  • The Barbican
  • 2006-06-18

Following Saturday night’s tribute to legendary jazz guitarist Derek Bailey, avant-garde composer and musician John Zorn continued his weekend residency at London’s Barbican and also his acknowledgement of his major influences with a programme influenced by Aleister Crowley. The evening consisted of the performance of two compositions based on the work of the British occult master, and also a screening of the film The Man We Want To Hang, directed by another follower of Crowley’s, Keneth Anger, shown with accompanying sounds played by Zorn.

The first piece performed was “Moonchild”, a composition written for voice, bass and percussion and working as a project for longtime Zorn collaborators Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn and Joey Baron (whom Zorn left the performing to). The piece was made up of eleven seperate “Songs without Words”, featuring the extensive range of Patton’s famous rhythmical and experimental vocal excursions showcased on delights such as Adult Themes For Voice and the works of the avant-metal group Fantomas. As well as Mr Bungle, his Trio Convulsant and various other jazz works Trevor Dunn is also a member of Fantomas, and that band is a useful starting point for thinking about “Moonchild” — the spastic quiet/loud noise experiments that the piece has to offer are often very similar, as well as sounding similar to the duo led by another previous Zorn collaborator: Tatsuya Yoshida’s Ruins. As well as Patton’s vocals — which ranged from whispers, chants and guttural spurts, to swirling, loud gurgling and his trademark piercing high-pitched scream — and body movements (including the other trademark rocking motions as well as new moves like a Golem-like crouched sway and grab action) Dunn’s basswork was often louder than loud, making use of a range of distortions whilst playing rapid runs, switches and frenetic math as well as beating out sustained drone and using copious harmonics — often discordantly. On one piece, one of the more light and contemplative, Dunn’s quiet harmonics were also coupled with the de- and re-tuning of the strings, creating an interesting effect. Throughout the compositions Baron performed impeccable percussion, his abilities for both jazz and heavier musics being shown off. Through dramatic shifts from relentless tom-thuddery to blasts to intense cymbal crashing, to quiet rhythms and slow fills and just through an array or complex beats and time-signiatures really, Baron looked effortlessly in control, he and the pieces proving how perfectly the drums can also be the agent of disruption to the uniformity of a piece — not that this piece stayed the same for any real sustained period of time anyway.

louder than loud, making use of a range of distortions whilst playing rapid runs, switches and frenetic math

Between the two compositional premieres came a screening of The Man We Want To Hang, a film shot by Kenneth Anger at an exhibition of artwork — drawings, paintings and objects — by Aleister Crowley and related to him. The film featured a soundtrack of abstract electronic noises and samples mixed and manipulated by Zorn. The soundtrack was quite different to that performed by Zorn live with Fantomas and friends last year, the piece remaining slightly lighter, though still quite disconcerting.

The last section of the evening’s bill was perhaps the most interesting of all — “Evocation Of a Neophyte And How The Secrets Of The Black Arts Were Recealed Unto Her By The Demon Baphomet” is a piece of about fifteen or twenty minutes in length performed by the awesome London Sinfonietta with synergy vocals and a lead soprano by Sarah Eyden. Conducted by Brad Lubman the orchestral arrangement was for harp (played by Helen Tunstall), contrabasoon (John Orford) and percussion — including bells, chimes, large drums, gongs and brooms played with brushes (by David Hockings and Charles Fullbrook).

evocative and chillingly affecting — the chorals echoing haunting but spiritual works

The nearly twenty-strong choir took on the majority of the piece though — seemingly mostly without words as with “Moonshild” but though with chanting and powerful whispering including certain stand out captions, notably “Crowley” and the haunting repetition near the end of “I summon thee, I summon thee”. The piece certainly was evocative and chillingly affecting — the chorals echoing the haunting but spiritual works of composers like Arvo Part, or the masters who he himself evoked, but with the minimal, incidental and incredibly experimental orchestral accompaniment and the mood emanating from the subject matter and influence of Crowley’s occult magick rituals giving the piece a dark edge to it and making it in keeping with the sound and feel of the opening piece. For the most part it retained this seriousness and stark, ritual emotion but this was also intercut with the humour of the brushes on brooms and the minor stab at jazz ofered for a few seconds from Orford’s contrabassoon (which mostly otherwise offered drones at choice points). The main focus for the piece quite naturally often fell to the soprano of Eyden though, who performed the emotive lead melodies with a lyrical and poetic beauty; honest and as magical as the piece demanded.

Crowley at the Crossroads offered a fascinating insight into the minds of two incredibly important cultural figures in John Zorn and Aleister Crowley, as well as an interesting meditation on influence and some outstanding performances by incredibly accomplished musicians and pieces achieving their world premiere — Zorn’s reputation was never in doubt but this evening goes to prove once again not just how interesting the man is but just how much and what great variety he has to offer to the musical world — to jazz, rock, metal and classical forms, or indeed rather to that experimental terrain in the middle of everything.

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