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John Zorn - Kristallnacht CD (album) cover


John Zorn


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4 stars As I sit down to write this review, I really find myself at a total loss for words. I'm really not sure exactly how I feel about this album. It's dark, stirring, and poignant, and yet it's also incredibly difficult. John Zorn is one of the most important American avant-garde composers (though he's not necessarily prog), and this is a great effort, but I just don't know how to accurately express the wide range of emotions this album makes me feel. It can move me to tears one instant and make me tear my hair out in frustration the next. It can reach my soul with its beauty and then turn around and leave me feeling only disgust and dirtiness. And even then, there's still much more to it.

For this album to touch you as deeply as it touched me, you need some background information. John Zorn is Jewish, as you might expect from the title of the album (and of several other of his albums) and from the title of his record label, Tzadik (a Hebrew word that forms the root of the word for charity, tzedakah). Kristallnacht itself is a German word for "night of the broken glass," and is the name given to the night when Nazis broke into the homes of Jews and beat them, and took baseball bats and broke the windows of Jewish-owned shops (often stealing from them in the process), and set fire to synagogues across Germany. This, in essence, began the Holocaust, one of the worst genocides known, in which two thirds (6 million) of the world's nine million Jews were slaughtered ruthlessly. It is this that this album captures so perfectly and breathtakingly.

As for the music itself, this album is quite possibly the densest and most challenging album I have ever faced. Shtetl (Ghetto Life), the opening track, gives no indication of what's to come, a soft jazzy piece with some traditional Jewish music influences added in, moving and highly expressive. For those who don't know Yiddish, shtetls were basically slums, ghettos, if you will, in which Jews were forced to live, shut off from the core of German society. After Shtetl (Ghetto Life) ends, however, John Zorn presents the most difficult piece of music I know by leaps and bounds. The first seven minutes of Never Again are simply noise, and the last five aren't much better. There is no melody, and there seems to be little structure. It is impossible to digest. And yet, Zorn makes it work, somehow. He manages to make this cacophony moving, even more moving than Shtetl (Ghetto Life) was.

The rest of the album is no easier to listen to, nor is it any less moving. I do not know anything else by John Zorn, so I have no ruler to measure this by, but all I can say is that, with Kristallnacht, Zorn delivers. I cannot say that I like this album, because that would be untrue. I would never listen to this album for entertainment, it's just not that kind of album. This is an album I put on very rarely, to remind myself that it is up to me, up to all of us, to make sure that there really is truth in the "never again" prophecy. With the current genocide in Darfur, my hopes are not high. I do not mean to sound pretentious, but this truly isn't an album to be enjoyed. It is an album to be heard, to be taken to heart. It is meant to disturb you, to make you think. Approach this album with extreme caution. I give it four stars because it is extremely effective at what it does and because it has great personal significance to me, but I cannot recommend it to everyone by any means.

Report this review (#114023)
Posted Friday, March 2, 2007 | Review Permalink
Eclectic Prog Team
1 stars One way progressive bands act progressive is by depicting historical or literary scenes through music. Yes did a phenomenal job musically portraying a battle in "The Gates of Delirium," but they did so through appropriate timbres, tones, dynamics, and most importantly, genuine compositional ideas. Then some artists, like John Zorn, provide a more literal interpretation of their setting. Kristallnacht, or "The Night of Broken Glass" was an anti-Jewish pogrom in Germany and Austria, occurring on November 9th and 10th in 1938. Over two-hundred synagogues were destroyed, and almost a hundred Jews were murdered, but one of the most historically poignant aspects of those two horrible days involved the destruction of Jewish shops and storefronts, hence the name of the event. So, rather than craft movingly bitter pieces of actual music, Zorn decided to treat listeners to things like eleven minutes of the sound of glass breaking. Heavy-handed symbolism aside, there is one real amazing moment on this album, and I would be unfair if I ignored it: "Gahelet (Embers)" stands out as a gorgeous piece, and probably one of the most masterful works I've ever heard in the genre. On the one hand, the album at times does a fine job creating a genuine Yiddish feel or showing the loneliness, despair, bitterness, and hope that was part of being Jewish in the first half of the twentieth century. On the other hand, parts of this album could do its own glass-breaking- I'm sorry, but I have no use for noise or for ensembles full of members who play their instruments independently of one another and call it music. Perhaps the point is to make the listener feel the pain the Jewish victims felt, but frankly that strikes me as cruel. "Shtetl (Ghetto Life)" Lone brass wails in an inconsolable way. Adding context is the enraged and repeated rants of Nazi Germans. Squealing violin, a simple bass, and a not unpleasant trumpet dominates the rest of the piece.

"Never Again" I'm surprised anybody would listen to this. It is no exaggeration when I say that this is almost eleven minutes of what is practically white noise. Turn on a television with no reception and crank up the volume- there we are. Well, not quite- the TV lacks that constant, ear-piercing frequency. It's unfortunate when the occasional near-silence is the best part of the track. When will I next listen to this piece? I think the title gives a reliable hint.

"Gahelet (Embers)" This is by far the most interesting piece on the album, bathed in minimalism, as it were. It strikes me as sad and lonely, like the defeated Jews who surveyed the damage of their property and livelihood after two days of trials.

"Tikkun (Rectification)" This is a livelier violin piece that uses more rapid notes, giving it an upbeat Yiddish flavor, but it soon devolves into rambling.

"Tzfia (Looking Ahead)" This "work" (I'm struggling to find an appropriate word, so I use that term very loosely) involves occasional blasts of noise, in which a saxophone blares like an enraged elephant, or a noisy guitar goes all over the place. The quieter moments are not all that interesting, but at least are not unpleasant. The senseless guitar solo, laced with irate noise, is pure balderdash.

"Barzel (Iron Fist)" Here is another barrage of inane and painful noise.

"Gariin (Nucleus-The New Settlement)" This undirected track sounds like a band is practicing their instruments individually, perhaps tuning and warming up, before the real show is to begin. Sadly, it's the performance.

Report this review (#258873)
Posted Friday, January 1, 2010 | Review Permalink
Conor Fynes
3 stars 'Kristallnacht' - John Zorn (5/10)

John Zorn is a man whose work is no stranger to controversy and explicit content. My first experience with him was with Naked City's 'Leng T'che', a plodding interpretation of a particularly inhuman form of Chinese execution. With that precedent, it does not come as a big surprise to me that Zorn would take on one of the greatest human tragedies of all time and attempt to express it musically, that of course being the Holocaust. Plenty could be said about the implications of making an album of such a horrific event, although I think that the powerful subject matter would have great potential to make for some very dark music. Zorn's avant-classical explorations here certainly negate any feeling of cheer a listener may have going into it, 'Kristallnacht' passes me as being aimless and only partially effective in conveying the deep tragedy that Zorn has chosen to exploit here.

'Kristallnacht' comes down to a few experiments with noise, and a collection of minimalistic chamber music compositions, rooted in Jewish traditional music. 'Shtetl (Ghetto Life)' brings the listener into this sad story with a very recognizable Klezmer theme. This is infused with jazz, and later some dark chamber music, led on by violins, which are a central part of this album. From this track alone, a listener gets arguably the best sample of around half of the album's material; being the more conventional string-led music. These pieces have the timbre of classical music and the intimate nuances of jazz, although they usually feel aimless and lacking much of a memorable angle to them. All the same, the way Zorn orchestrates the violins is intelligent and admirable, and makes for some thoughtfully dark listening.

Now, I enjoyed 'Leng T'che', and would not consider myself to be an inherent opponent of noise, or any challenging 'fringe' music that is thrown at me. However, like all avant-garde music for me, the test of quality generally relies on how it ages with further listening, and how much depth and subtlety there is to appreciate. 'Never Again' is the cornerstone track on the album, and most likely to be the piece that John Zorn afficionados will remember this album for. Barring the fact that it is a comparatively long eleven minute stretch that dwarfs most else on the album, the central idea of 'Never Again' is to sample and loop the shattering of broken glass, and loop it to the point of being noise. It's this sort of superficial interpretation of 'Kristallnacht' that wounds my appreciation for what Zorn is doing here. Instead of taking his genius and getting the feeling across musically, he resorts to a very literal approach of the content, and not one that is at all pleasing to listen to. There are some somewhat 'subtle' sounds of piano and strings in the background amidst the constant glass-breaking, and even an interlude where the listener is granted some much- wanted silence. All the same, the track utterly lacks the power that it should have, and the monotonous noisy clink reminds me more of a fly buzzing in my ear than a moving tribute to the lives lost during the Holocaust.

'Kristallnacht' is split between these contrasts of noisiness and minimalism, and to be honest, neither are particularly inviting. The chamber music is pleasant and interesting at points, but as a whole, this work feels like something of a let down to its core material. It is experimental, but inconsistent in its visible thoughtfulness, and while not a complete failure, I may have hoped for a little more from Zorn.

Report this review (#544630)
Posted Friday, October 7, 2011 | Review Permalink

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