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John Zorn - The String Quartets CD (album) cover


John Zorn



3.07 | 8 ratings

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Anthony H.
Prog Reviewer
3 stars John Zorn: The String Quartets [1999]

Rating: 5/10

As the title suggests, The String Quartets is a collection of string quartets by American avant-garde composer John Zorn. When Zorn gets two violins, a viola, and a cello together, those who are uninitiated may be tempted to think that he is attempting to make more conventional music; after all, this is the most standard instrumental lineup for classical chamber music. However, anybody familiar with Zorn knows that this is not the case, even before listening to the album. Zorn can make a triangle sound avant-garde. These four compositions are dissonant descents into sculptured atonality and brooding minimalism. This is a pretentious description, but music like this lends itself to such pomposity. However, that doesn't mean that it's good. These four pieces show a lot of promise, but they end up getting bogged down in useless experimentalism. The result is an overlong album with many dull passages.

"Cat O'Nine Tails" is an intentionally schizophrenic composition. It jumps from melodious harmony to jarring dissonance and back again without a moment's thought. However, it does manage to maintain coherency, which is a feat that many Zorn pieces fail miserably at. "The Dead Man" is divided into thirteen short sections. Any sense of cohesion that "Cat O'Nine Tails" possessed is completely eliminated here. Basically, this piece is twelve minutes of string-instrument sodomy. It's atonal and jarring, but I have no problem with such things. Rather, this piece fails because it's boring, plain and simple. The 30-minute "Momento Mori" is one of Zorn's longest classical compositions. It features that awful stop-start style of composition that Zorn so unfortunately embraces. This piece sounds like a thousand miniature compositions jammed into a sprawling half-hour. There are a few good moments, but most of it is bogged down in pointless noise and overextended minimalistic passages. "Kol Nidre" is a gorgeous piece that saves the album from mediocrity. It uses slow and drawn-out sequences to create beautiful melodic textures.

The String Quartets is a frustrating listen because it could have been so much better than it is. Zorn's compositional strengths are clear here; he is able to morph instrumental sounds to suit his vision, and he has a unique talent for creating musical atmosphere. However, his weaknesses are also made abundantly apparent on this release. These weaknesses are not necessarily compositional; Zorn is a phenomenal composer. Rather, they relate to Zorn's musical vision itself. He is so intent on creating avant-garde music that he allows the musical coherency of his pieces fall by the wayside. This is why this album is frustrating; pieces like "Kol Nidre" are fantastic, but other pieces like "Momento Mori" are needlessly long and dull. It didn't have to be this way, however, because Zorn has the musical prowess to create consistently engaging compositions. This not a bad album, but it had the potential to have been thousands of times better. As it is, however, this is an unessential collection of contemporary chamber music.

Anthony H. | 3/5 |


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