Review of John Zorn Marathon at UCLA, May 2, 2015

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SC3-Live

I was dragged to this concert by my wife.

Of course, I could have been dragged to worse things, so no complaints here!

Background: I’ve never been a regular listener of John Zorn, and only owned one cassette (Naked City) in the ’90s, which I did enjoy at the time. All the noisy saxophone and gargling / screaming by Yamatsuka Eye made my teenage self laugh. There was obviously some technical skill happening, too. But I mostly liked it because the majority of music I had heard at that age could be considered “safe” and did not express my feelings of anxiety and alienation. Thus my interest in Avant Garde, Experimental, Noise, Extreme Metal, and Punk. Those musical genres felt “rebellious” to me.

At almost age 40, I don’t consider it rebellious to sit in a fancy theater at a college (with people my age and older) and listen to noise.

I could write a lot about what I personally did not enjoy about Abraxas and Bladerunner, but I’ll just summarize those two — then tell you what I DID like about Secret Chiefs 3.

Abraxas: Blocks of cliche surf / spaghetti western guitar glued together with blocks of noise and screechy telecaster. Was this earlier John Zorn material? I don’t know. It sounded similar to that Naked City record I mentioned earlier.
Bladerunner: Dave Lombardo of Slayer playing beats. Bill Laswell playing pseudo-oriental / pentatonic scales. John Zorn’s saxophone screams. Then devolving into white noise jams. A lack of conceptual development, mostly just banging on things.

We got up and left after 4 of those Bladerunner “songs.” If I were age 14 and forcing my high school classmates to experience all that chaos as a form of revenge, it would have been a dream come true. But at this point in my life, it’s definitely not my scene.

But Secret Chiefs 3? I can appreciate them.

They performed music from something called Xaphan: Book of Angels, Vol. 9 a.k.a. John Zorn Masada Book 2. Allegedly composed by John Zorn.

It had been years since I had seen SC3 live, so I was immediately re-impressed by Trey Spruance’s beautiful “arrangement” skills. The degree to which he customized the John Zorn compositions? I don’t know. But it sounded very much like original Secret Chiefs 3 material. All of the instruments existed in their own space, with elegant transitions and counterpoint. A central “theme” was passed back and forth, morphing between voices and timbres. The music contained actual melodies, and even though it was a bit too phrygian dominant for my tastes, it was solid and sensible material. There was forward motion and change — the beginning, middle, and end of a composition sounded similar and related to each other — not simply cut and paste repeats of an identical verse and chorus. And the dynamics were far more nuanced than the usual Velocity 127 and Velocity 0 of modern 1-bit rock music.

As you can tell, I don’t have a deep artistic appreciation of the music from the SC3 set — but I do very much respect it from an academic standpoint, and enjoyed that segment of the show. It seemed to have more in common with classical music than rock music.

Would I put myself through it again? No. I’d invest the $20 in something else. But at least the theater was clean and had chairs.

-Carl.

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