About News

Why is John Zorn so important?

Melissa Smey

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create this season’s Composer Portraits program notes, as well as a series of Q&As with Executive Director Melissa Smey. Here is the fifth installment, centering around our upcoming evening of music from composer John Zorn. 

Q. John Zorn is an iconic composer and someone you know quite well.  

A. I remember going to his 50th birthday concerts at Tonic in 2003 not really knowing much about him, seeing Bar Kokhba, and having my mind blown. Yes, he’s been here a lot. We’ve had several concerts going all the way back to 2001. Hands down, Zorn is one of my favorite composers. I’d put him in my top five of all time right next to Stravinsky.

Q. There’s so much to know about Zorn. In a nutshell, why is he so important?

A. He was a visionary on the downtown scene in improvised music with his bands like Masada, which has a repertoire of three books of compositions with more than 600 songs. But he's so much more than that. He’s had punk projects and he’s written film scores and music for cartoons. He’s made sound installations. Then there’s the creative community that he fosters around The Stone and his record label Tzadik. And all the writings he’s published in his Arcana series. He’s created platforms that support such a wide variety of artists. I aspire to be like that. Out of all that he does, what resonates with me most is the community he creates. It’s brilliant.

Q. In a city where we still have “downtown” spaces and other venues for audiences to hear someone like Zorn, does he need to be here?

A. In the early days of Composer Portraits, there was still a strong divide between “uptown” music and “downtown” music. So it was incredibly important to bring someone like John Zorn uptown to the halls of academia at Columbia University and let people know that this is the face of classical music today.

Zorn has embodied what it means to make outsider art, but over the course of the last 15 years, he's been everywhere: at the Frick, the Met Museum, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Village Vanguard. So he's become the most embraced outsider I know. It's amazing, right? That the trajectory can change. By refusing to recognize boundaries or labels and by just doing what he wanted to do, he made a space that didn't exist. Our continuing work together is a good reminder, a good measuring stick, of where we’ve come from.

"He’s created platforms that support such a wide variety of artists... Out of all that he does, what resonates with me most is the community he creates. It’s brilliant."

Q. With five world premieres, it looks like Zorn’s program will be very much of the moment.

A. He’s always writing and making new pieces, so he wants an opportunity to showcase them. What we will hear is likely to be fresh out of the oven. He’s choosing the repertoire. He's putting everything together. He’s not playing, but it will be his players, his groups.

We'll have a new piece for piano called Encomia. There’ll be two new quartets for piano, vibes, bass, and drums. There’s also a trumpet piece called Merlin. It’s played on a double bell trumpet and it’s absolutely incredible.​

>> Learn more about John Zorn's upcoming Composer Portrait

Related Composer Portrait posts:

8 Questions to Executive Director Melissa Smey About Composer Portraits

Bringing Kate Soper’s IPSA DIXIT to Miller

Building the Unique Universe of Du Yun's Composer Portrait

More People Need to Know About Wang Lu

How Tyshawn Sorey's Portrait Came About

Cracking the Code: David T. Little