John Zorn

FilmWorks IX: Trembling Before G-D

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John Zorn's Film Works is a continuing series of releases documenting the composer and saxophonist's soundtrack work over the past 15 years. That said, this ninth volume marks a departure in both documentation and in the composer's direction. In sharp contrast to the other releases in the Film Works series, which are all composites of soundtracks to numerous short films and/or cartoons, Trembling Before G-D is Zorn's first feature-length soundtrack and the only work included here. Trembling Before G-D is a documentary about "Hasidim and Orthodox Jews who come out as gays and lesbians and the ways in which they negotiate their sexuality and identity in religious communities. Shot over five years in Israel, Brooklyn, London, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco, in English with Hebrew and Yiddish, it is a work of global implications...." The film's producers Sandi Simcha Dubowski and Marc Smolowitz contacted Zorn after hearing his Bar Kokhba project. And while Zorn wanted to compose an entirely new score, the one track they insisted on keeping -- which sets the tone for the entire work -- is the organ/clarinet track "Idalah-Abal," played gorgeously by Jamie Saft on organ and Chris Speed on clarinet. Zorn rose to this challenge by employing unusual (at least for him) elements in composing this soundtrack. The rest of the score was written using only the clarinet and organ by the aforementioned players, with some piano and Cyro Baptista's percussion featured on two tracks recorded later. The story of the recording of this work and the making of the film is documented thoroughly by both Zorn and, separately, by Dubowski in the extensive -- and, in typical fashion, beautifully printed -- liner notes. The title theme sounds at first like a Chris Speed clarinet solo, playing a variation on a Yiddish folk song (it's not). Upon closer listening, one can hear Saft's organ droning, ever so quietly, creating the tension that Speed's playing needs to carry the theme home not only as a lonely voice, but as a melody that is repeated in various pieces throughout the score. Next is the score's only solo piano piece, "Mahshav," played by Saft. Again, an understated folk melody is augmented by extended minor chords (and with a small passage from Scriabin slipped through the melody). It is gorgeous, full of melancholy and dignity, almost processional in its pace and power.

Through certainly present in the first two pieces, it would have been tough to hear Zorn's signature without considerable familiarity with his work. But once the first bars of "Tashlikh" are heard, his compositional trademarks come fully to light. Here Saft's repetitive organ hypnotically weaves with Speed's entwined clarinet, swaying and bending its way through with its own lines only to be accented and pushed forward into a lilting, loping solitary line by Baptista's hand drumming. As trancelike as it is, the piece ends almost as quickly as it begins. From here on, Zorn shows in spades his consummate skill as a composer and musician. His cues are understated, with the exception of "Simen Tov/Mazel Tov" where the composer sings with a verve that creates an atmosphere of celebration. And this understatement, too, is becoming more apparent in Zorn's work as a whole. While it's true that he is still capable of shattering the nerves and bringing down the rafters with either humor or rage, he has continually channeled his passion to fit his project. As a result, this soundtrack is perhaps his most passionate work. It is very easy to hear the care and concern -- the precision -- put not only into the compositions themselves, but also into the execution of the pieces by these amazing musicians (and also into the mixing of the pristine sound). Trembling Before G-D is a high-water mark. Not for John Zorn, because he sets new ones for himself each and every time he releases something, but for other composers, particularly those of film soundtracks. Without the images, Zorn has given us a work of solemn beauty, a work that uses silence and tradition even as it reinvents the places in which they inhabit. Certainly this is his most "accessible" music, whatever that means, but it is also -- simultaneously -- sacred music, secular music, and American classical music of the highest order.

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