At 60, New York City-based composer John Zorn is wiser, sure, but no less prolific, thoughtful and antagonistic than before. His oeuvre is fantastically wide, from cutthroat jazz improvisation and pummeling noise-rock to gorgeous chamber music and, believe it or not, a genuine Christmas album. The saxophonist also runs the prolific Tzadik label, which releases Zorn's many works — including his latest album, Dreamachines — and highlights a vast swath of avant-garde and experimental music.
Celebrations for Zorn's birthday started earlier this summer, but continue through September, with events at places ranging from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Anthology Film Archive. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that, at his age, "there are no more doubts."
On turning 60
"There are no more doubts. It means that little guy that sits on my shoulder, the guy in the red suit with the pitchfork and the pointed ears and the tail, that little guy that's on your shoulder that once in a while used to whisper in your ear, you know, 'You could be really wrong about this.' That guy isn't around anymore. I brushed him off. Everything is very clear: what I need to do, why I'm on the planet, the best way to accomplish it, what is a distraction, what helps me focus. Everything is really there."
On his 'gift' of music
"I feel like there are messages, I feel like there are angels, I feel that there is a legacy and an energy. I feel that it's possible to tap into that. I just don't believe in ego that much. I don't think it's just me. I think you can even just talk about community. I could not do this music without these musicians. It's about people. Music is about people for me. It's not about sounds. It's about people; it's about putting people into challenging situations. And for me, challenges are opportunities."
On being exposed to different cultures growing up in New York
"I was never hit with any kind of value judgments about different kinds of music. Another thing I should say, growing up in New York, and in particular going to the UN school... I went to the United Nations school from kindergarten all the way through high school. I had the same 25 friends in the same class the whole time. And these are kids that came from Nigeria, from Japan, from France, from Germany, from Holland, from India, from Pakistan. I had friends from all over the world. That's how I grew up.
"I studied classical and was also turned on to jazz, I listened to rock, I listened to soul. Growing up in the '60s in New York, you listened to everything."
On his home environment
"I make music in my home, and I'll tell you what my home is. My home is not just an apartment. I've been living in the same place for 38 years. My home is a device — a device for enabling creativity. A device for cutting out the chaos outside that people think is reality; that's chaos. My home is a way of insulating myself and stripping that away so I can get into what reality is for me, which is creativity."
On being sensitive to other people's energy
"I need to be around supportive people, because I'm very susceptible to other people's energy. Some people are that way. And it took 50, 60 years to figure that out. I was wondering, 'Why am I so depressed when I get together with this guy?' Well, now I know why. It's nothing to do with me; there's nothing wrong with me, except that I'm very susceptible to all kinds of energies. I used to read reviews and I would be unable to write a note of music for months at a time, because some guy I don't even know who doesn't know me didn't like my work? Now I can look at it and say, 'You didn't like it? Well, there are many people who do.'"
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Composer John Zorn doesn't give many interviews, but we're happy to say he's our guest today. Zorn turned 60 yesterday. His birthday is being celebrated with an ongoing festival of concerts in Europe and the Americas, including a day-long celebration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art September 28th.
Writing about Zorn in the Wall Street Journal, Larry Blumenfeld said: Zorn, once tagged as a bad boy of the downtown scene, must now be considered among contemporary music's most prolific and wide-ranging achievers. His oeuvre has embraced with equal passion jazz improvisations, noise rock, chamber music and orchestral works.
Zorn is also important for releasing recordings of experimental music by other musicians on his record label Tzadik. Tzadik is a Hebrew word for a righteous man or spiritual leader. The label also has a series of recordings called "Great Jewish Music." We'll talk a little later about how Zorn got absorbed in Jewish culture.
Zorn's compositions have been recorded by many groups, including his own, but even with his own groups, he sometimes doesn't play the saxophone, he just conducts. That's the case on his latest album "Dreamachines." From that album, this is his composition "The Conqueror Worm."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THE CONQUEROR WORM")
GROSS: John Zorn, welcome to FRESH AIR. Happy birthday, happy 60th. (Chuckling)
JOHN ZORN: Thank you.
GROSS: So we just hear "The Conqueror Worm," and I'm wondering is that inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe poem? Is it inspired by another composition that exists of the same name? Is it inspired by the movie, the English movie, the "Witchfinder General" and the English - the American version of the movie was called "The Conqueror Worm"? Or is none of the above? (Laughing)
ZORN: Well, that's an all of the above and none of the above. I guess the title came from the Vincent Price movie you were talking about, which I love so much. Somehow in my imagination it connected up with Brion Gysin, and the CD "Dreamachines" is all, somehow revolves around the work of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin.
So I wrote this very complicated piece. We went into the studio and as you know, on the record, there's a variety of different kinds of music that this band performs, and they're amazing musicians, some of the pieces more difficult than others. But "The Conqueror Worm" ended up being a piece that was just so difficult to play, we couldn't really get it in the studio satisfactorily enough.
So I put it aside. We recorded the rest of the music, and the CD was a little bit short. It was like 30-some-odd minutes, 38 or something. I needed one more piece. So I actually said, hey, guys, I'm just going to, you know, go into the studio and write a new piece, so take like a 10-minute break.
ZORN: And I wrote that piece in - like in the studio. (Laughing) In like five or 10 minutes. It just popped right out. And we recorded it. We did a couple of takes, and it was nailed. And it is one of the best pieces on the record. I think it's really slamming. It really gives everybody a chance to stretch out. And that happens sometimes, that kind of magic.
GROSS: And it's kind of film noir-ish, and I know you like film noir a lot.
ZORN: Yes I do, yes I do. Well, it has a mood, a nice mood.
GROSS: So there's a lot of celebrations that have been going on of your music for the past few months and that are going to continue because it's your 60th birthday. What does turning 60 mean to you?
ZORN: There are no more doubts.
GROSS: What does that mean?
GROSS: When do I get to say that? How old do I have to be?
ZORN: It means that little guy, that little guy that sits on my shoulder, you know, the guy in the red suit with the pitchfork and the pointed ears and the tail, that little guy that's on your shoulder that once in a while used to whisper in your ear, you know, "you could be really wrong about this," that guy's not around anymore. I brushed him off.
Everything is very clear: what I need to do, why I'm on the planet, the best way to accomplish it, what is a distraction, what helps me focus. Everything is really there. And I feel like - people have always said I'm very prolific, and I work very hard, I work all the time, I'm not really interested in vacations or getting away from my work. But I've gotten more and more prolific.
It's - at this point it's like turning on a tap, or it's like plugging into an energy source and staying plugged in. I used to think that composition was a matter of problem-solving, where you set yourself a certain number of problems, you have a certain set of limitations, there are parameters that you deal with, and then you solve those problems, and a piece comes out of it.
Now there are no more solutions because there are no more problems. I just turn the tap, and the music comes pouring out.
GROSS: OK, so you got rid of that devil with a pitchfork on your shoulder. But let me propose that there are some times - and you say that's why you have no more doubts. Let me propose that sometimes there's an angel on one shoulder saying are you sure this is the best you can do? Are you sure it's the right thing to do? Are you sure it's the ethical thing to do? Do you have an angel on your shoulder that creates or ever created doubt?
ZORN: Well, I wouldn't call that creature - I don't know if you'd call that creature an angel. I might call that creature my parents.
ZORN: Or like a policeman. One thing that I do ask myself when I'm in the creative process is does the world need this? And maybe that's along the lines of what you're thinking about. And I ask myself all the time.
GROSS: I'm just thinking about - I'm just thinking about doubt, that doubt sometimes comes from - not from a negative place but from a positive place, that sometimes you can't - you don't know what right is, or there are several things that are right. It's hard to make one's way in this world and know what the right thing to do is.
ZORN: I think that's true for, you know, the first part of your life. But I think - you're talking about the age of 60, for me what the age of 60 is? No, I don't have those doubts anymore. I know why I'm here. I know what I need to do. I know what's - I don't know whether right and wrong, you know, has so much of a play into it.
I create work, and I devote myself to the creative process, and I try to, you know, stay pure in that process and be worthy of the messages that I receive. You can't sit down and write 300 compositions in a three-month period and think that you're doing it all by yourself. Obviously, there's something going on here. And whether you want to call it channeling or being connected to a creative force or knowing your history and knowing where you belong, that's, you know, maybe a personal thing. Maybe I believe all of the above. But I, you know, I don't think I have doubts anymore of that kind.
GROSS: You obviously have a gift. And some people - some people, when they have a gift, they define it as something that's God-given and is coming directly from God, and it makes them more religious or more spiritual. And other people think of it as something that they have and ascribe some totally different reason to it. Do you ever wonder, like, what is this gift and why do you have it?
ZORN: I feel like there are messages. I feel like there are angels. I feel that there is a legacy and an energy. And I feel that it's possible to tap into that. I just don't believe in ego that much. I don't think it's just me. I mean, you can even just talk about community.
I could not do this music without these musicians. It's about people. Music is about people for me. It's not about sounds. It's about people; it's about putting people into challenging situations. And for me, challenges are opportunities.
GROSS: Now you've used, you know, words like being in touch with angels and that something's happening beyond your ego that it's like you're channeling...
ZORN: Well, you know, you need to believe in something that's bigger than yourself. I think that's what everybody wants to believe in that. And I think artists - I have art. I have music. I have the history, this legacy behind me that I can look up to. This is what I believe in. If you want to call it God or spirituality, that's all up to you. Basically I believe in something that's bigger than myself, and that gives my life meaning.
GROSS: And that thing is art, as opposed to organized religion.
GROSS: Nevertheless, you've done a lot of music that relates to being Jewish. You have a series of albums called "Radical Jewish Culture." You have - your record label is called Tzadik, which means a righteous person. So what does being Jewish actually mean to you, and does that connect at all to this sense of something larger that you feel you're tapping into when you make music?
ZORN: Well no, I'm not a practicing kabbalist. I'm not a spiritual master. I'm not a rabbi. I don't - but it's part of who I am. I spent a lot of time in Japan, 10 years living there half the year, you know, every year. I had an apartment there, and I went back and forth. And after a while I kind of hit a cultural wall. I learned the language. I learned a lot about the music. I had a lot of musical colleagues, a lot of friends.
It was a great time, a time of learning. But at a certain point, and I think by - I did this maybe from like '84 to '94, something like that. At some point I began to say, well, who am I, what am I doing? Everybody comes to this point in their life when they get to be 40 or so. You turn around and look at your roots. You try to find a home. You want to know where you belong.
And being Jewish became something that was important to me. It had not been important to me up to that time. But I turned around and looked at the culture, at my friends, who - many of whom were Jewish, and that was something to think about. It raised a lot of questions.
And what it did that's relevant to this discussion is it created a body of work. It inspired me to create a body of work.
GROSS: And I think the part of your body of work, because your body of work is vast, but the part of it that you're talking about now connects with Jewish music and Jewish culture. What is the Jewish music that you were actually exposed to when you were young, and what's the Jewish music that you investigated when you became more deeply interested in it?
ZORN: Well my parents were not outwardly Jewish. They came out of a generation where being a Jew was not only a disadvantage, it was actually a death sentence. And they escaped all of that, and we celebrated Christmas. We didn't have Jewish music in the house.
GROSS: Did they grow up in America?
ZORN: My mother was born in the Bronx. My father was born in the old country and moved to Astoria, Queens, when he was about six years old. And they had very full, beautiful lives. My mother was a professor of education. My father was with Patton in the Third Army, and he was wounded in Metz by a sniper and came back to New York and married my mother. And it was the American dream, in a way.
GROSS: Did they lose family in the Holocaust?
ZORN: Yeah, yeah, there were such problems. But I think they found it difficult to understand why I wanted to reconnect with being Jewish. My father literally said to me, hey, man, I gave you a way out of this, because I went to a Protestant church when I was growing up, and that was a little confusing.
GROSS: Why did they do that?
ZORN: Well, they were trying to help me. They were trying to save me from what they thought was a disadvantage. And, you know, I never really gave it a second thought. I - you know, when you're a kid, you do what you do. But as I got older, and I, you know, grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, had Jewish friends all my life; as I started making music and started, you know, thinking about it in my conscious brain, I began to realize, wow, a lot of these cats are Jews.
Why is that? Why am I - why am I more comfortable with this? Why - am I more comfortable with this? What is going on here? And in asking those questions, a bunch of friends got together - Anthony Coleman, Marc Ribot, Frank London, and we began to talk about it.
And my method is not just to talk but to do. So it ended up with me organizing a series of concerts, which I called "Radical Jewish Culture." And it was a kind of a nice feeling of coming together, of a community.
GROSS: Did you grow up - I don't think you went to synagogue very much, if at all.
ZORN: Never, never, never went to shul.
GROSS: OK, bar mitzvahs, where you heard a lot of...
ZORN: Didn't have a bar mitzvah.
GROSS: No bar mitzvah for you. What about friends?
ZORN: I didn't go to any bar mitzvahs until my friends started having kids, and they had bar mitzvahs. I mean, I really was separate from that whole organization. And what I connected with was something that was more spiritual and something that was more cultural.
GROSS: My guest is composer John Zorn. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Your music is very unconventional, but when you were growing up, Jewish in a Jewish neighborhood, but your parents sent you to a Protestant church and wanted to give you a way out of Judaism, did you wish at that time to be more conventional and to be more like your friends who were Jewish and didn't - weren't going to church?
ZORN: I was always an outsider, proud of being an outsider. I always reveled in the outsiders. I'm not sure why that is. I was born in '53, and I think one of the first movie experiences I had was going to see "Ben-Hur." It came out in '59. And back then, you know, movie theaters were big, beautiful wonderlands, you know.
ZORN: And made even more huge by the fact that I was so small. I was only, you know, a couple feet high, this little six-year-old. And my parents took me to see "Ben-Hur." And on the way home, long movie, I was in my parents' Pontiac, and I would always sit in the backseat and play around with little toys and stuff, you know, in the backseat.
And I was really tired, and I fell asleep. And when I woke up, I was alone. I was alone in the car. The car had been parked on the street. The doors were locked, the windows were rolled up. I'm sure everybody out there is, like, shocked, but maybe that wasn't such an unusual thing. Maybe they just didn't want to wake me up. I don't know what it was.
But I was alone, and I kind of - I was six - got out of the car, locked the door, closed it, wandered over to my parents' house, buzzed the buzzer, and my mother came to the door. I'll never forget the look on her face. It was not one of shock or humiliation or feeling guilty. She thought it was the funniest thing she ever saw in her life. She started laughing.
And she called my father. She said Henry, Henry, come and look at this. I said: Did you forget something in the car? Oh, she was just - that was just the funniest thing she ever heard. And I remember thinking: I'm going to have to take care of myself for the rest of my life. I can't trust these people. (Laughing)
GROSS: Wow, you think they - like they forgot about you, that they left you in the car by mistake?
ZORN: I don't know. They might have forgotten. They might have started arguing. They argued a lot. I mean, there were a lot of things going on back then, you know. It's not for me to make a value judgment, but all I can do is say for myself what it did was it created a feeling of independence, a feeling of inner strength. It didn't crush me.
It made me feel like, I just have to do this on my own. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to have to do it on my own. And I feel like I re-parented myself with art and music. That was a place that was always beautiful, always gave back to me, that made me feel like I had worth.
GROSS: You also created your own sense of family and community.
ZORN: And eventually that's also what I did is that...
GROSS: Through your art, yeah.
ZORN: Musicians that would believe in what I did, they became my family, and they still are.
GROSS: Well, that story about being locked in a car alone happens after you go to see "Ben-Hur." And there's that really famous chariot race scene where, like, a wheel comes off of one of the chariots, right?
GROSS: And like when you're a kid, seeing something like that on a big screen could be, like, absolutely gripping and also terrifying. Did that affect your experience of being alone in the car?
ZORN: I don't think so. I don't feel a connection. I mean, I can tell you that I watch "Ben-Hur" a lot.
ZORN: I mean, sometimes I have it on repeat play. I was watching it just last night. You know, when I write music, I don't like to write in silence. I like to have something going on behind me. I don't really watch "Ben-Hur," it's on in the other room, and I'm sitting in my work room, and I can hear it. And it kind of makes me feel like I'm not alone.
I'm in the house. There's someone there. There's - you know, it's very familiar. I've seen the movie hundreds of times, literally hundreds, not 100, like 200, 300 times.
ZORN: Sometimes it's like on, it just plays five, six times a day. It's just going, going, going. And I get into different phases with different movies, but that was certainly one of them. And maybe it's a movie that, you know, I saw back when I was a kid that somehow made me feel comfortable.
I was the kind of kid that was in the basement in front of the TV till late at night watching movies. That somehow gave me comfort. My mother also had a story where when I would cry, she'd put me in front of the TV, even if there was just a test pattern going, and it would quiet me down.
GROSS: I don't remember the score from "Ben-Hur." Is it good?
ZORN: It's brilliant, Miklos Rozsa, brilliant. Amazing music.
GROSS: Oh, I should go back and listen to that.
ZORN: Oh fabulous music.
GROSS: Composer John Zorn will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: I want to play a track from your band Masada. You have different bands, and this band is named after the people in the Jewish fortress during the Roman Empire era who kill themselves rather than be taken prisoners by the Romans. And it's a live recording with you conducting and producing, and this is like from, I think 2003. And the track I want - the composition of yours I want to play is called "Malkut." Am I pronouncing that correctly?
ZORN: Yeah. That's good enough.
GROSS: And I want to tell you one of the things I really like about this. And you could tell me if what I'm hearing is anything close to what you're doing. (Chuckling)
GROSS: So it's kind of going back and forth between - parts of it are going back and forth between a Yiddish-sounding melody and "Fur Elise," the Beethoven composition that so many people know because when they took piano lessons as a child, as I did, you're taught to play it. Is that happening in your mind there?
ZORN: Yeah. Absolutely that's happening. But...
GROSS: And you're...
ZORN: What it means is that...
GROSS: Yeah. Go ahead.
ZORN: ...you know, whatever you think it means is what it means.
GROSS: Well, what I'm hearing is like...
ZORN: I don't have any deep agenda here.
GROSS: ...that you're finding this kind of musical connection between Beethoven and a style of Jewish music.
ZORN: You could put it that way, or it could be something entirely other. This was, you could say, musical etude - a way of just putting disparate elements, elements of music that maybe don't belong together in some way and trying to find a way to make them work. These compositions from the first book of Masada were written in '93, '94, '95, '96, at the beginning of my kind of Jewish awakening, and it was written at a time when composition was problem solving for me. It was a matter of really setting myself different musical issues and problems and trying to solve them.
GROSS: OK. So is the John Zorn composition "Malkut" from around 2003.
ZORN: Yeah. I think this was performed at my 50th birthday concert at Tonic.
GROSS: Oh, god, really?
GROSS: Great. And...
ZORN: I believe so. Yeah.
GROSS: And now we're in the middle of all the John Zorn 60th birthday celebrations.
ZORN: The 60th.
GROSS: So here we go. And we're going to hear Mark Feldman, violin; Erik Friedlander, cello; Greg Cohen, bass; with John Zorn conducting.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "MALKUT")
MASADA STRING TRIO: (Instrumental)
GROSS: That was the John Zorn group Masada, and the composition was called "Malkut." And it's John Zorn's 60th birthday. There are celebrations through New York, and really the world of people performing his compositions.
You were born in 1953, so you were like the tail end of the first generation that grew up with rock 'n' roll. And the adult generation was saying rock 'n' roll is a passing phase, you're going to outgrow it. Did people basically say the same to you about the avant-garde when you started listening to and performing avant-garde music? Like, you're going to outgrow this and just like, turn to, like, more conventional music, and was there any truth to that?
ZORN: Well, I can certainly see where some parents may have said that to their children, but no one ever said anything like that to me about any kind of music. Music was always in my house, in my parents' house. They listened to all kinds of music. It's true they didn't listen to rock, and I would bring in a variety of different things - whether it was The Doors. I was really into The Doors because of the organ and I was really interested in organ music through Bach and through "The Phantom of the Opera." I brought in some rock things and they didn't like it, but they didn't say I was going to outgrow it. I don't think they looked that far into the future, to be honest. They listened to country and western. They listened to fado. They listened to world music. They listened to classical. I brought sound, movie soundtracks into the house. And I pulled out my father's old 78s. He had old 78s of Louis Armstrong, of Dizzy Gillespie, of the Mills Brothers. Music was obviously important to him. But I was never hit with any kind of value judgments about different kinds of music.
I think - another thing I should say is growing up in New York - and in particular going to the U.N. School, which is, I went to the United Nations School from kindergarten all the way through high school. I had the same 25 friends in the same class the whole time.
ZORN: And these are kids that came from Nigeria, from Japan, from France, from Germany, from Holland, from India, from Pakistan. I had friends from all over the world.
GROSS: Did you study classical music when you were young?
ZORN: Yeah. Yeah. I studied with Leonardo Balada, who was the music teacher at the U.N. School. He's a very great composer who lives in Barcelona. We're still in touch. I had been already improvising on the piano because my grandmother and my aunt had pianos in their houses. And I had been improvising on the guitar. I played flute, I played clarinet, I played bass, I played guitar, blah, blah, blah. But I think, yeah, I studied classical and also was turned on to jazz. I listened to rock, I listened to soul. I mean, growing up in the '60s in New York, you listened to everything. Salsa was exploding. I mean...
GROSS: How did you feel about the studying technique part of learning music...
GROSS: ...practicing, practicing, practicing?
ZORN: Well, you know, I mean, discipline is a very important thing. And, you know, I wanted to play the bass and my parents said, you know, you don't want to play the bass, that's in the background. You want to play the guitar, that's in the front, you know. So, you know, I want to play the bass. No, no, no, we'll get you a guitar. They got me a little guitar. Then they had a teacher come by who was very strict and very disciplined and had me spend all my time playing scales. And he wanted me to play the chromatic scale, four octaves, from the lowest note to the highest note of the guitar and back down in eight seconds. And I worked on that a lot but I couldn't get it any lower than 12. And he said until you can get it at eight seconds, you know, I won't let you play a Beatles tune or anything like that. You have to do this.
ZORN: So I told him to go get stuffed and I started doing my own thing. And discipline is important as long as you're having a good time. What I always did was I did what I enjoyed, and I think that's why I don't have any grey hairs. I'm 60 but I look like I'm 40. And I have a very beautiful life with great friends and I look forward to waking up every day. Every day is a vacation but every day is a workday. I don't want to take vacations because music is my life and if I escape from music, that's the same thing as death. So a vacation is death to me. Sitting on the beach for a week is my idea of hell. That would kill me.
GROSS: Why is that your idea of hell?
ZORN: Well, I mean I want to make music.
GROSS: You could make music on the beach.
ZORN: I couldn't make music on the beach. You know, I make music in my home, and I'll tell you what my home is. My home is not just an apartment. I've been living in the same place for 38 years. My home is a device...
ZORN: ...a device for enabling creativity. A device for cutting out everything that - the chaos outside that people think is reality, that's chaos. My home is a way of insulating myself and stripping all that away so I can get into what reality is for me, which is creativity.
GROSS: So describe your home.
ZORN: Yeah. My home is a device.
GROSS: Describe it, though. What's in it that makes it a device?
ZORN: Books. Records. Art.
GROSS: Instruments? What do you have?
ZORN: I have a saxophone. But I don't, you know, pick it up unless I've got to take it to a gig. It's sitting in the corner and I don't go near it. But I have a little, a workroom that's very small, maybe it's eight feet square, something like that, seven feet square, and it's wall-to-wall books and CDs, records. And there's a small little children's that desk I've had since I was a kid. It's a Stickley original, beautiful Gustav Stickley. All my furniture is Stickley that I got from my grandparents. I have a little rocking chair that I've sat in since I was like, you know, eight years old, and I sit in the same chair at the same desk, and that's where I write music.
GROSS: Wait a minute. So you're on a child's rocking chair and a child's desk when you're composing?
GROSS: That is odd, you have to agree.
ZORN: It's - no judgments, Terry. No judgments.
GROSS: OK. Sorry.
GROSS: But, it's just, are they child-sized...
ZORN: Well I said children's...
GROSS: ...or did you just have them as a child?
ZORN: Well, I mean I don't know what you're thinking when I say children's desk. The desk is probably about three feet, you know, high. And the chair, the little rocker is maybe, you know, a foot and a half, two feet, you know. But I sit cross-legged on the rocker. I don't really have much other furniture. I sleep on the floor on a futon.
GROSS: You sleep on - oh, wow.
ZORN: Yeah. And I remember when Fred Kaplan, who wrote for The New Yorker, came into my house. He wrote a big piece in The New Yorker and I was very upset at what he wrote. I mean, I think he meant well and everybody thought it was an interesting piece. And he, when I challenged him, what he would say, hey, I made you into an interesting character, you know? I said, you know, well, basically what he was responding to is, hey, what is this nut? He has no furniture. You know, it's like, hey, his clothes are in a little cardboard box in the corner. Like, well, you know, you can say yes, that's unusual, but it's not unusual for me. This is how I live because I have my priorities straight. You could put it this way; it's like if I dressed in a monk's habit, maybe you would understand it a little bit better?
GROSS: Is that how you feel, like an ascetic who has renounced many things because - except for, in your case, music?
ZORN: Well, anything that gets in the way of creativity gets cut out. You know, I live a very, very serious existence. And if - anything that gets in the way of making music is cut out. And...
GROSS: Does that include people?
ZORN: ...that means friends...
ZORN: Absolutely, it means people. I'll tell you something about people. People are great. But there's people who you get together with and you talk and you go away feeling energized, you feel inspired. And then there's people who you talk with and you go away feeling horrible, feeling drained, feeling like you're incapable of doing anything. Those people are psychic vampires and I now stay away from them.
ZORN: Again, this is being 60; everything is very clear. I have no doubts. I know what gets in the way and I know what encourages me to do more work. I used to read reviews and I would like, I would be unable to write a note of music for months at a time because some guy I don't even know who doesn't know me didn't like my work. Now I can look at it and say, well, you didn't like it? There are many people who do.
GROSS: You've had a kind of famously combative relationship with critics over the years. Was that why, because it got to you so much?
ZORN: Because I'm very susceptible to criticism, I'm very sensitive and, you know, my parents used to say, John, you're oversensitive. And, you know, you know what I can say to them now or what I said back then, I am just the right amount of sensitivity I need to be me. And if you don't like it, take a walk.
ZORN: So yeah, I mean I have had a very combative relationship with critics because I'm very impatient with people that don't give my work the respect I feel it deserves.
GROSS: My guest is composer John Zorn. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: I want to ask you about jingles, because since you like kind of such a wide range of music and it's all on kind of equal footing for you - do you know what I mean? - that it all matters, I know you've done a lot of work in Japan and some of that work is really different from what we've heard here. I'm wondering if you've ever written jingles and I'm also wondering if there's any jingles, like TV jingles or whatever, that really stuck in your mind over the years that you really love.
ZORN: Well, yeah. One of the interesting things about jingles is the amount of time you have to deal with. Sometimes they're just 15-second spots and you need to really encapsulate something that captures someone's attention and imagination in that short amount of time. But you have to really focus and get something done. You have to say something.
It's not easy to say something in 15 or 20 seconds. It's easy to make sound for that amount of time, but to create a piece of music that has an integrity - a beginning, middle, and end - that says something, that has an impact on the listener in that amount of time, is very difficult. And I have a very great appreciation for people who write jingles.
It's a true art. And if you listen to what I call my file-card pieces - "Spillane," "Elegy," "Mount Analogue," "Kristallnacht" - a lot of those pieces - and "Godard" - a lot of those pieces exist in small soundbites. At the time in the '80s people used to use the word postmodern and this, that, and the other. What's really going on is short moments of music that really make an impact, that are ordered in a very, very specific way, sequenced in just such a way that the energy continues, the momentum continues, and you just follow from the beginning to the end for 15, 20, 30, sometimes 50 minutes of these short segments that are of varying lengths but each one exists on its own and it says something unique on its own. So the idea of jingles to me is kind of like Webern.
ZORN: It's a way of really encapsulating an incredible amount of information in a short amount of time.
GROSS: Name one of your pieces that you think really does that and we'll play it.
ZORN: You could take "Speed Freaks" by Naked City, where I think there's something like 30 or 40 different styles of music in less than a minute. Each one is one bar long.
GROSS: Oh, wow. Great. (Laughing)
ZORN: And then again - that was like a - an exercise, almost like a musical etude, the way Chopin wrote etudes, where you'd set yourself a musical parameter and then you'd try to make music with it. There was an ad - you asked if I had some favorite ads.
GROSS: Yes. Yes, yes.
ZORN: There were some ads in the '60s or maybe it was in the '70s that were - for these compilation records that were all the hit songs from the '60s or the '70s and there would be a guy talking on top of it. It would say, you know, there's this song by the Rolling Stones and by the Beatles and by the Who. And in the background you would have, like, literally one second of each song going by.
I always thought that was just the most amazing thing I ever heard as it jumped from one band to the other, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And in that one second was encapsulated that band's entire output. You'd just hear this one bar and you'd go, wow, the Beatles and everything they did. Led Zeppelin, everything they did. But also their life - everything was there, encapsulated in that one little soundbite.
And that kind of alchemical process of boiling things down to their essence is something that I think is involved in jingle writing.
GROSS: John Zorn, it's really been great to talk with you. Happy 60th. Thank you for your music.
ZORN: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Let's hear "Speed Freaks" from your band, Naked City.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPEED FREAKS")
GROSS: Wow. John Zorn turned 60 yesterday. His latest album on his record label, Tzadik, is called "Dreamachines." You'll find a link to the remaining events in the ongoing celebration "Zorn@60" on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.