Four Benefits for Japan: A Conversation with John Zorn

Here is a much more effective and fun way to donate to the Japan earthquake relief cause than sending a bunch of text messages: a series of upcoming benefits organized by John Zorn. The first has sold out, it looks like (on Sunday March 27 at Columbia’s Miller Theater), where Sonic Youth, Yoko Ono, Cibo Matto, Marc Ribot and a bunch more are performing. At that benefit and at least three more to follow, 100% of the money will be going to the Japan Society’s Earthquake Relief Fund. For-real charity + free radical music = good deal all around, right? Last night, The Awl emailed back and forth with the very busy sounding organizer and host of the events, John Zorn, who started off by telling us:

as i am still organizing the benefit concert at abrons art center i dont have as much time as i would like to give you
forgive me if i remain brief here

It wasn’t all that brief.

Zorn also has a one-act, opera-ish thing—La Machine de l’Être—making its world stage premiere run at New York City Opera next week.

The Awl: First things first. You mentioned that “the tragedy and devastation is really overwhelming,” and so I was wondering: Are the folks you know in Japan all safe and accounted for?

John Zorn: everyone in japan is concerned about the tragedies as they are unfolding, from the south in kansai to tokyo where most of my friends are, into sendai, where a close musician friend’s aunt was lost, across to hokkaido and beyond—
many personal stories but none i am at liberty to share here

The Awl: You organized this great roster. How quickly did the whole thing come about? Who was your first call?

Zorn: i put this event at miller theater, the event at japan society on april 9th (see below) and the 2 events a abrons art center together (below) in about 24 hours
still finalizing the abrons event as we wait for a few confirmations from some important artists and bands
the calls were pretty easy—everyone agreed immediately!
the only reason someone may not be appearing is because they were not available, out of town on tour!
so many wanted to participate i will try to organize more benefits later on in april

APRIL 9 at JAPAN SOCIETY
PHILIP GLASS & HAL WILLNER
LOU REED, LAURIE ANDERSON & JOHN ZORN
RYUICHI SAKAMOTO SOLO
BILL LASWELL WITH GIGI

APRIL 8 at ABRONS ART CENTER

THURSTON MOORE
MILFORD GRAVES
JOHN ZORN
MARK FELDMAN & SYLVIE COURVOISIER
ELLIOTT SHARP
IKUE MORI
JAMIE SAFT AND NEW ZION TRIO
MIYA MASAOKA
AYA NISHINA
GYAN RILEY
MASADA STRING TRIO
NED ROTHENBERG
ERIK FRIEDLANDER
MATTHEW SHIPP
ALHAMBRA TRIO WITH ROB BURGER
SEX MOB
JG THIRLWELL’S MANOREXIA
ELYSIAN FIELDS
BUKE AND GASS
VINICIUS CANTUARIA
JESSE HARRIS
other names pending

The Awl: Is this the first time you and Yoko Ono will be sharing a bill? If so: any chance you’ll improvise together?

Zorn: masada shared a bill on summerstage with yoko ono and cibo matto maybe 9 years ago
we jammed a bit back then at the end and it was a BLAST—no idea what might happen on the 27th!
certainly there will be some surprises!

The Awl: When did you first travel to Japan? To what extent were you already aware of the depth of the avant-garde tradition there before you went? Or, put another way: how much was still left for you to discover once you arrived?

Zorn: this is a long question
was way into japanese art, literature, film, music and theatre from my teens—in the 60s
first went there in 1985 or so
kept an apartment there in KOENJI (tokyo) til 1995
played with SO MANY artists is hard to keep track
i remember seeing a trio of yoshida tatsuya, yamataka eye and null called i believe GEBA GEBA that really was amazing
hooked up with EYE that very night and we have been tight ever since!
the scene there was and still is incredibly diverse and creative
amazing energy and imagination!!

The Awl: It’s funny how some way-out recordings—such as Coltrane’s “Live in Japan” box set—were first issued in Japan as though they were no big commercial risk. Maybe it’s because music on the fringe feels as though it’s so aggressively marginalized in the U.S., but I’m curious how you see Japan’s relationship, as a country, to its own musical avant-garde.

Zorn: its just as hard for the avant garde in japan as it is for the avant garde here
but the integrity, creativity and tenacity they have is inspiring
they do what they do with no compromise, and very little outside support

The Awl: Can I ask you for your Top 10 list, regarding extreme/experimental/noise/improv albums by Japanese artists?

Zorn: cant do the top ten but here is a list of some of my favorite musicians!!!
asakawa maki
sato masaru
yamataka eye
yoshimi
haino keiji
makigami koichi
yoshida tatsuya
katsui yuji
seiichi yamamoto
takahashi yuji
ryuichi sakamoto
akiko yano
hosono haruomi
toshinori kondo
ohta hiromi
aoyama michi
kitajma saburo
takemitsu toru
otomo yoshihide

The Awl: In addition to this benefit, you have a one-act, wordless operatic piece making its world stage premiere at New York City Opera. How have rehearsals been going? Anything you can say about how they’re staging a monodrama with no words?

Zorn: michael counts’ staging of my monodrama is a complete KNOCKOUT
70 people on stage, wild costumes, people flying thru the air, pyroechnics, animations of artaud drawings, and the AMAZING voice of Finnish soprano, Anu Komsi—
its going to be OUT THERE

and dont forget the masada marathon at new york city opera on march 30
its perhaps the biggest concert i’ver ever done in NYC
12 masada bands in one night!
each play 15 minutes
Two 90 minute sets with one intermission.
featuring:
Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Dave Douglas, John Medeski, Secret Chiefs 3, Greg Cohen, Joey Baron, Cyro Baptista, Kenny Wollesen, Jamie Saft, Erik Friedlander, Mark Feldman, Sylvie Courvoisier, Trevor Dunn and many others.
Masada Quartet
Sylvie Courvoisier & Mark Feldman
Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits
Mycale
Medeski, Martin and Dunn
Bar Kokhba
Secret Chiefs 3
Masada String Trio
Uri Caine solo
The Dreamers
Erik Friedlander solo
Electric Masada

The Awl: Thanks for talking to us!

Zorn: it needs to be done
we all want to help any way we can
its very inspiring to know that musicians can help by playing music!

And now: A BONUS AWL LISTICLE WITHOUT COMMENTARY:

The 10 Best Albums from the “New Japan” Series on John Zorn’s Label, Tzadik Records, If You Would Like to Explore

10. Ni Hao! – “Gorgeous”
9. Purple Trap – “Decided… Already The Motionless Heart Of Tranquility, Tangling The Prayer Called ‘I'”
8. Derek and the Ruins – “Saisoro”
7. Yoshida Tatsuya + Satoko Fujii – “Erans”
6. Yamataka Eye + John Zorn – “Naninani II”
5. Haino Keiji + Yoshida Tatsuya – “New Rap”
4. Ayuo + Ohta Hiromi – “Red Moon”
3. Sajjanu – “Pechiku!!”
2. Seiichi Yamamoto – “Nu Frequency”
1. Afrirampo – “Kore Ga Mayaku Da”



Seth Colter Walls is The Awl's chief correspondent for the difficult arts. He has a Tumblr and a dayjob both!