No one can adequately categorize, sum up, pigeon-hole or otherwise pin down the music of John Zorn. It's too eclectic, free-wheeling, wide-ranging and wildly unpredictable.
Jazz, klezmer, classical, avant-garde, cinematic – all this and more course through his work, which is being celebrated around the world on the occasion of his recent 60th birthday on Sept. 2. Major events at Columbia University, the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York attest to the stature of Zorn's work, even if much of it has unfolded on the margins of American culture, via independently produced recordings and alternative performance spaces.
In Chicago, "ICE: John Zorn Retrospective" will take place on the stage of the Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday evening, though "retrospective" doesn't seem like quite the right word for a program that will feature one major world premiere, several Chicago premieres and a majority of pieces created in the 21st century.
That's pretty much the modus operandi for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which under the direction of Claire Chase has been at the forefront of presenting new ideas in music that push beyond conventional definitions, genres and stylistic borders.
Why have ICE and the MCA decided to take on the colossus that is Zorn's work – or at least a sliver of it?
"I think Zorn is such a perfect composer (for the MCA) who crosses experimental music and all these idioms," says Peter Taub, who directs the performing arts programs at the museum. "More than many composers, he does make music with a broad set of references. He's drawn a lot form mystical traditions, ranging from Jewish to Zorastrian. I think that one thing that characterizes him as a figure and as a creative individual is (that) he's got a really restless imagination."
That's putting it mildly. Name another American composer who has invented music inspired by the movie scores of Ennio Morricone ("The Big Gundown" CD), the pulp fiction of Mickey Spillane ("Spillane") and the themes of Ornette Coleman ("Spy vs. Spy") plus classical string quartets, ear-shattering rock, the klezmer-meets-jazz experiments of his band Masada and the mystical, cross-genre meditations of his "Mount Analogue" recording of last year.
That Zorn has released hundreds of albums on his long-running indie label Tzadik Records, many spotlighting his own music, and helped launch the New York non-profit venue The Stone, says something about the breadth and industriousness of his work. Last year alone he has released more than a dozen of his own recordings on Tzadik.
The sheer profusion of this output, as well as its apparently increasing tempo, has had a profound effect on younger musicians.
"It's really hard to overstate how much he's influenced me personally as an artist, as an activist, as an entrepreneur, and how much he has influenced and mentored the group," says Chase, executive director of ICE and, like Zorn, a MacArthur Fellowship winner.
"What John has done is to challenge and circumvent and, in many cases, productively disrupt dominant paradigms of producing music, funding music and performing music."
In effect, Zorn has been instrumental in "forging new business models, because the ones we inherited don't work," adds Chase. "What he does to catalyze his own career always emanates from the artist and not from the market. … He's shown with every project – whether his record label, his book publishing, his concert presenting prowess – it's always better if it's from the artist. It has allowed the artist to do what he needs to do."
Through the decades, Zorn often has run into a buzz saw of resistance and critical nay-saying, though it clearly hasn't deterred him. Though he was unavailable for an interview in advance of the Chicago tribute, he addressed his critics and illuminated the source of his passions when he spoke to me on the eve of his downtown Chicago debut in 1989.
"Yeah, I've had a lot of serious problems with some listeners," Zorn said. "People put down my music for various reasons, but I think most of their objections amount to the same thing – they don't like the way I mix it up."
Yet Zorn's omnivorous approach to music always came naturally to him. As a youngster growing up in Queens, N.Y., "I remember I always used to buy tons of records, then take the best cut off of each and put it on a cassette, which I would listen to over and over," he said in the Tribune interview.
"One cut would be a classical piece, then a hardcore band, then a jazz song, then some easy-listening. So I eventually got into the habit of putting all those influences together and filtering them through my sick little brain," he joked. "The idea was always to create a music that has a vision. All the music that I've admired has had a vision of the world. All my true heroes have created music that takes a look at what we've created here on this planet in a way that nobody has done before.
"They create a sound-world of their own that you can recognize, that lives, like an organism."
In truth, Zorn has created multiple worlds of sound, with something to offend – or intrigue – just about everyone. Musical iconoclasts such as Charles Ives, Harry Partch and Edgard Varese clearly preceded Zorn and inspired him, as did the thinkers of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), whose innovations Zorn said taught him "how to blend improvisation with composition. I got quite turned on to what they were doing."
But Zorn has embraced the free-ranging spirit of all these inventors and applied it to a dizzying range of idioms, musical languages and performance methods.
The MCA program will reference the breadth of this work, starting with the Chicago premiere of a piece for solo clarinet, "The Steppenwolf," and closing with the world premiere of Zorn's "Baudelaires" for flute, bass flute, bass clarinet, bassoon, harpsichord, guitar, violin, viola and cello. That's not standard for any kind of chamber ensemble, but it points to what's on Zorn's mind today.