John Zorn's Cobra game piece has enjoyed quite a life of its own since this, its original recording, from 1985-1986. Zorn developed several similar pieces, but Cobra would see renditions by various ensembles with varying instrumentation, with the composer at the helm and without, and would become something of a staple for undergraduate musicians exploring improvisational strategies. One of the central sources for the conception behind this piece, oddly enough, was the Avalon Hill game company, which created strategic simulation games involving arcane sets of rules, dice rolls, etc., in an effort to approximate, for example, war planning and theory. Zorn, a games aficionado with an affinity for elastic rules systems, developed a unique, expansive, and highly flexible series of prompts and rules, taught and distributed them to many of the downtown New York City musicians of the early '80s, and staged numerous highly entertaining performances of the ensuing "conflicts." At such an event, inevitably more viscerally enjoyable than a recording of same, Zorn would hold up cards with symbols, usually choosing certain small combinations of players. These symbols could instruct, among many other things, that the musicians improvise in a certain style (surf guitar, free noise, punk, etc.) and/or could delimit the duration, volume, and so on. He would thus spontaneously organize a composition that, for all its apparent anarchy, was actually following a relatively strict set of assumptions. The kicker was that the players could counteract his commands, forming ad hoc blocs, cooperate or betray said blocs, form alliances "against" other players, etc. As an audience member, one saw a wonderful display of real-time politics combined with art creation, and the result was often spectacular. Unfortunately, an enormous amount is sacrificed when Cobra is encountered as only an aural document (here, one live session and one in the studio). The kernels of collective sound tend to appear arbitrary, any strategic rationale necessarily going unseen. Listened to at home, one hears a series of sonic postcards, enjoyable or otherwise on their own but bearing little obvious relationship to what came before or after. One can certainly appreciate the music in just that manner, as a random, Cage-ian series of musical fragments, but one is left with the nagging (and correct) sense of something crucial being missed. As a document in Zorn's career, Cobra is essential. As a purely musical experience, it is, quite unfortunately, less so.
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AllMusic Review by Brian Olewnick
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2