Pro: There’s an ensemble in Milwaukee playing John Zorn’s Cobra—twice so far, but hopefully many more times. Con: I didn’t know about it until the day of the second installment (last night). It took place at Woodland Pattern Book Center, five blocks from my house. Clearly I am not as in-touch with my community as I ought to be.
In my defense, the notion that some locals could be playing Zorn material without it being widely known is lame. Zorn has been so integral to my musical world for so long, I forget he's actually a niche guy. Recently I've come to realize that he's probably the single most crucial living musician to the kinds of music I love the most. It took ages to get to that point, but now he's like Beefheart in my mind: The deeper you delve into an obsession with his music, the more you hear him as his own genre. Only with Zorn, I worked backwards, starting with Mr. Bungle and branching out in every possible direction, with all roads eventually leading back to Zorn.
Sadly, the only way one could ever experience enough John Zorn music to fully understand it would be to be John Zorn, or possibly, by forsaking all other genres and living in New York. I can't do any of those things. The existence of an opportunity to see Cobra in this town, though, is truly exciting to me. As I brace for the potential discovery of all the other amazing stuff I've been missing out on, let me just briefly tell you about last night's event.
I've listened to a few recordings of Cobra, from 1996 and '98, played by—you guessed it—Mr. Bungle, along with other Zorn minions. Five of Zorn's two billion official releases are also recordings of Cobra; perhaps I'll track them down some day. It's referred to as a game piece: spontaneous improvisation based on a complex equation of rules and guidelines, conducted silently (in this case by Nick Weckman) with the use of hand signals and cue cards. I've thus far resisted the temptation to seek out and study the particulars of these rules, and I wouldn't bore you with words about them anyway. I think it's more rewarding to figure it out as you go along. I suspect if you're not intrigued after reading this, you wouldn't be interested. But then I do have a somewhat cynical view of people's tendencies to appreciate unusual things, so.
Normally I prefer to take in improvisational music with my eyes closed, but that would've been stupid in this case. Watching these eleven musicians gesticulate and do unorthodox things to their instruments and put on and remove hats is a huge part of the fun. However, there wasn't a single musician I wasn't individually impressed by on a purely musical level. It was often primal, very random, but a hack could never cut it in a situation like this, and each person in this ensemble made me go wow at some point or other. Particularly fascinating were the vocals by Joni Clare; not knowing how specific Zorn's instructions may be, I can only say that she pulled off a lot of Mike Patton-esque contortions with a similar combination of imagination and undeniable singing talent.
There's a peculiar energy about a performance in which the players are as excited to see what happens as the audience is—possibly even more excited. The glee is infectious. This is the type of scenario to which no clichés about avant-garde solemnity apply. Even the aloofest skeptic would've had a smile on his or her face throughout this; humor is in fact integral to it. As the musicians cycled through two sets, each consisting of a handful of separate takes on the piece, they seemed to grow increasingly comfortable within the format. I think the secret is in knowing where you want to be at the moment when the motif changes; as that cue card hits the table, you aim for either peak intensity or synchronicity, and then to transition as naturally as possible into the next instruction. Of course, it's unavoidably jarring at times, and things can change so rapidly that it's sometimes impossible to keep up, never mind focus on your instrument and your conductor at the same time. I could only marvel at how smoothly things actually seemed to go.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but within the chaos, snatches of sublime music emerged from time to time, and it would be foolish to think of these as accidents. At no point did the performance become tedious, nor anywhere near boring, but as intellectual as the concept might seem, the product is far more emotional than cerebral. I confess that I'm looking forward to seeing a band with fewer than ten members one of these days soon, but I really, really hope The Prematurely Air-Conditioned Art Collective keeps this Cobra series going for a while.