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John Zorn - Hen to Pan CD (album) cover


John Zorn



3.44 | 5 ratings

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4 stars The album "Hen to Pan" belongs in John Zorn's "21st Century Classical Music" series, so, if you are looking for extreme music on this one, you won't find it. To understand Zorn's discography, you have to understand that it encompasses many different series, sub-projects and groupings, so in that respect, it is much different than many of the other artists in the Archives, and thus, it can also be quite confusing. Without some background on each album, you can never know what you are getting into, which is why, up front, I wanted to mention that this belongs in the classical music department, even though it is still quite avant garde.

In this episode of John Zorn's discography, we get some chamber-style music that consists of two cellos, piano, violin and drums. But, this is quite different from what you expect from chamber music from the baroque, classical and romantic periods. Rather, it's from the 21st century, so it's going to be progressive as far as classical music is concerned. Most will consider it chaotic and noisy. However, knowing a bit about what is going on here will maybe make things a little easier to understand.

First, the basics. Throughout these 5 tracks on this album, only one performer remains constant on all tracks, and that is cellist Jay Campbell. This is the person that Zorn wanted to focus on this album, as he was considered to soon be a "new music superstar" according to a blurb from the Tzadik label. The music on this album is dark and somewhat difficult for the layman to listen to, and, unlike much popular music, will take time and insight to really appreciate. The music hearkens back to Zorn's earlier chamber music, except here it is much more aggressive.

The album has three versions of the composition "Ouroboros" which above all else, is a work written for two cellos. It starts off with the Trio Version 1 which features not only Campbell on cello, but also Michael Nicolas, who will be the 2nd cellist on all three versions of "Ouroboros". The third person in this trio is Tyshawn Sorey on drums, who plays on both "trio" versions featured on the album. For those that don't know, the ouroboros is an ancient symbol that depicts a serpent eating its own tail. Just because there are three versions here doesn't mean the music is a complete repeat of something you've already heard. Much like Zappa's classical music, and much of 21st century neo-classical music for that matter, the performers have a lot of freedom as long as they play within a certain range, style or dynamic. So getting 3 versions of "Ouroboros" might not be as redundant as you might think. The 3 versions make up tracks 1, 3 and 5, 1 and 3 bookend the album with both trio versions, while track 3 is the duo version with only the two cellos, no drums.

The sound of the first trio version begins without warning, instantly with the cellists sawing away at the high notes of their instruments and the drums frantically pushing them forward. However, the sections are dynamic, ranging from pianissimo to double forte without any regard to convention. Some places are quite fast and dramatic while other places are pensive and quiet. This is chamber music on steroids. The 2nd track is "Occams Razor" which features Campbell's cello accompanied by Steve Gosling on piano. This track is formed in the style of a canon of sorts, not quite as chaotic, but with some very fast passages where the cello and piano play together almost impossibly, note for note, only to separate off on their own interesting tangents, sometimes going quite wild and other times pensive and sort of a dissonant pastoral which can be just as unsettling as the louder sections. It's definitely a different feel from the previous track, but the timing is at 9 minutes, just like the previous track. The 2nd version of "Ouroboros" comes next, this time as the duo version, only the two cellists, Campbell and Nicolas, without drums this time. It's interesting to hear the two cellos playing against each other, especially when one plays high notes and the other plays pizzicato low notes. It's almost more argumentative sounding but also playful at times without the drums and some sections have a lot of percussive sound to the playing (especially the picking parts). The mutilated melody fragmentations seem to stand out a lot more too.

The 4th track is called "The Aristos" (subtitled "Ten Metaphysical Ambiguities for Violin, Cello and Piano"). You get Campbell on cello and Gosling on piano again, but this time joined by Chris Otto on violin. This is basically what it says it is, 10 strange shorter works together on one track that adds up to over 13 minutes. These short works are separated by space and the style of each is quite different from each other, so it's fairly easy to discern one from another. There's plenty of dynamic variety on this track, feeling like moods. The last track is the second trio version of "Ouroboros". This seems to me to be a lot more peppy and playful with some noticeable variations. However, many of the differences might not be apparent right away, but will come after listening more often.

Granted, I understand that this type of music might not be for everyone. However, the performances are amazing and very technically difficult. The music also becomes more appealing the more you listen to it. Those that don't like neo- classical styles will probably have a hard time with it, but I can attest that the music is quite entertaining, colorful and enjoyable. Also, the production is perfect, with each instrumental line equally mixed. Although it may seem like noise to some, this music is quite complex and not easy to compose, so how Zorn can continually put out complex music and record it to be able to put out several albums a year is beyond me. Yet, everything he does has a lot of quality and complexity, it's like it is second nature to him. Anyway, this is quite an excellent album for the style of music that it is, yet even though it is progressive and avant garde, it is classical, so I can't say it's a progressive rock masterpiece, even though it is a neo-classical masterpiece. 4 stars.

TCat | 4/5 |


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