John Zorn's 2009 album Femina is a tribute to a variety of women named in the CD insert -- singers, dancers, novelists, poets, painters, sculptors, photographers, playwrights, musicians, actresses, scientists, filmmakers, theologians, mystics, anthropologists, and philosophers -- some historical and some mythological, some well known and some obscure (and some even infamous), from numerous modern and ancient cultures. The diversity in the list can be seen as a metaphor for the nature of Zorn's composition, which is constructed of many strongly characterized but disparate and apparently unrelated elements; each taken individually is intriguing in itself, and taken as a whole, the wildly variegated work has a surprising and appealing integrality. For the structure of the piece, Zorn returned to the working method he used for earlier works like Spillane, his "file card technique," in which he writes musical ideas on file cards, arranges them into a musically meaningful order, and then fleshes out the ideas and orchestrates them, some with detailed specificity, and some leaving many decisions up to the performers. The fact that there are 52 women on the list, 52 pages in the accompanying booklet of images by Kiki Smith, and a total of 48 images in the booklet, two on the insert cards, and two on the outside of the CD cover, leads to speculation that 52 may hold numerological significance for the composer, and may also be reflected in the number of discrete music events assembled here.
The music is among Zorn's most immediately engaging. It still consists of the juxtaposition of brief, sometimes jarringly disjunct musical ideas that has been a characteristic of much of his work, but while there are still some grindingly dissonant sections, the tone is predominantly lyrical. The fragments are longer, so his typically jumpy juxtapositions are slowed down to a pace that gives the listener a chance to comfortably settle into a mood before being yanked into a startlingly contrasting sound world. Sometime a single idea is extended for more than a minute, an almost unheard-of length for Zorn, and the slower pace contributes to the gentle tone of the piece. Several sections, such as the last episode on track three, a serene, melancholy duet for piano and violin lasting over a minute, are achingly lovely. The six performers, violinist Jennifer Choi, cellist Okkyung Lee, harpist Carol Emanuel, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, percussionist Shayna Dunkelman, with Ikue Mori on electronics, play with commitment, understanding, and an integrated sense of ensemble. The constitution of the ensemble allows Zorn to create music of exceptional timbral delicacy, and he thoroughly exploits the instruments' possibilities for producing gossamer, otherworldly sounds. Beautifully engineered, Femina is an album that reveals yet another facet of the composer's multifarious creative personality and is one that could attract new listeners to his work. Highly recommended.