John Zorn

FilmWorks XX: Sholem Aleichem

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The 20th volume in John Zorn's massive Film Works documentation project (begun in 1992), centers on director Joe Dorman's documentary about the legendary writer Sholem Aleichem, whose character-driven short stories the musical Fiddler on the Roof was loosely based upon. The director approached Zorn in May of 2008, yet he managed to write and record the score by the end of June. His chosen collaborators for the venture are the Masada String Trio (cellist Erik Friedlander, violinist Mark Feldman, and bassist Greg Cohen), accompanied by Rob Burger on accordion and harpist Carol Emanuel. The MST first played together on 1996's monumental Bar Kokhba. Burger is also a current regular in the Zorn stable, and Emanuel, who took part in early projects such as Spillane, The Bribe, Godard, and Cobra (as well the composer's woefully short-lived and undocumented Dorothy Ashby project).

Musically, this project, for being centered on the folk themes from Eastern European Jewry, dating as early as the 18th century, is also wonderfully modern and diverse. Burger's taut, deep-pulsing chords as well as Cohen's basslines underscore Zorn's very rhythmic approach. Emanuel's harp is used as both a textural and melodic element in the score and it fills out the middle of this body of players wonderfully. The use of improvisation here is kept to a minimum perhaps, but then, it is used in terms of counterpoint, and especially in articulating motifs in the space of rhythmic shifts and shapes -- there are many complex ones here. Hence, the dynamic range of the music in these cues is wide-ranging, almost intimidating, but Zorn's lyric sense is so keenly developed; though the listener might drop in and out of the score numerous times, she is always brought back by Zorn's elegant use of harmonic structure. Singling out any particular cue over another is pointless: the recording of the score, which no doubt differs widely from what is used in the film, is of a piece that in this case, anyway, cannot be separated -- despite the fact that everything here feels as if its roots are in songs rather than in grand concepts. The music here is accessible, evocative, and yes, as is almost always the case for Zorn, thoroughly engaging.

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