It seems to me that John Zorn has left no area of music untouched. I remember reading an interview where he described his record collection and the (sometimes dubious) ways in which it expanded. The one that particularly stands out is his recollection of how he got into thrash metal. He (a Jew) walked into the record store and asked the clerk (a skinhead) for his favorite five thrash CDs, then listened until he understood them. That type of open mind has certainly featured strongly in his music, as have all the styles he has heard. In the case of The String Quartets, he takes an intriguing take on the classical string quartet (duh), infusing it with everything from music that wouldn’t sound out of place on a western to highly spiritual music. And the result, as always, is incredible once listened to.
It begins with “Cat O’Nine Tails,” a composition that certainly lives up to its title: it often seems to be going in nine directions at once. Even when it does have semi-sane moments, they last only short times before he jumps off in another direction. Take, for example, the section around five minutes in where he goes from up-tempo classical to something western-ish to avant-garde to down-tempo classical in about 15 seconds, and makes it work. Two minutes later, he’s off doing a… waltz? And then, later still, he enters a phrase that wouldn’t seem out of place on the Looney Tunes. Unlike so many bands that attempt to genre-hop in this manner, Zorn manages to bring everything around so that it makes sense in the end. It actually almost feels like the song is in rondo form (A-B-A-C-A), except that instead of representing musical sections, A, B, and C represent musical styles. This tendency to try interesting and different composition techniques is a large part of why Zorn is so appealing to me in the first place, and thus this piece is somewhat a favorite of mine.
That said, the album’s only going to get better. “The Dead Man” is a wonderful piece in thirteen parts that explores more avant-garde arenas, relying extensively on plucks and screeches on the strings. The result can be very off-putting at times, but the approach is effective and only enhances the experience. Like “Cat O’Nine Tails,” “The Dead Man” tends to jump around from section to section, though there is perhaps even more continuity here, as it all tends to stay within the same style, with each section developing a different (yet similar) idea from the others. And still, the album’s going to get better.
“Memento Mori” is, for me, the album’s highlight and indeed one of the greatest pieces Zorn has ever done. At 29 minutes, it’s imposing and will probably take several listens to appreciate, but once it does, it really pushes all the right buttons. Dedicated to Ikue Mori (with whom Zorn has worked on multiple projects), this probably stands as his most emotional work (at least that I’ve heard, which, admittedly, leaves the door wide open). Despite the emotional content, however, it is, as Zorn has described, a “complexly hermetic work.” Whereas the first two compositions on this CD jumped about almost ceaselessly, this one works within great continuity. It shows Zorn contained, but within his container he explores every possible corner and wrings all the possible interest out of each spot, creating a mammoth of a piece of music and, again, one of his very best works.
Rounding out the CD is the beautifully spiritual “Kol Nidre,” named after the prayer that begins the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur (the day of atonement, generally considered one of the most important Jewish holidays). On Yom Kippur, Jews believe that they are sealed into either the book of life or the book of death for the coming year, and they fast the entire day. This piece taps into both of those aspects. It is sparse, almost empty in places, and it always feels as if it is hungering for something. It uses only what is necessary to make its “point,” and that is where its true appeal lies. It is a tragically beautiful, impeccably concise piece that, like “Memento Mori,” blends the emotional (and in this case Jewish) side of Zorn with Zorn the critical thinker.
With The String Quartets, Zorn shows his mastery of avant-garde classical music while at the same time showing that he is indeed human. This is music that manages to combine tremendous compositional skill with equally (if not more) tremendous critical thinking abilities, all without losing the emotional edge that is so much of why music is worth listening to. In short, it’s pretty damn close to a masterpiece. The first two pieces are a bit too free-flowing for my tastes, but they are still excellent, and the last two are both clear masterpieces. It’s not the best place to start your Zorn journey, but if you’re looking for yet another unique offering by the master of modern avant-garde, you should look no further than this.