John Zorn

Cobra: John Zorn's Game Pieces, Vol. 2 [Tzadik]

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Written and premiered in 1984, "Cobra" is a classic in the circles of new music, having been performed innumerable times. In fact, composer and "prompter" John Zorn says in the liners that it his most-often-performed composition -- no mean feat considering his prolific output. It is no wonder, though: There is a mischievous, cartoonish quality to it that epitomizes Zorn's style but also makes for continually fascinating listening. Based on the composer's secretive "game pieces," "Cobra" is a fun-filled, mystical, blindfolded ride down a dark alley that circles back every few yards. Zorn suggests with ample reason that if he revealed all the rules of his games, some might try to reproduce the piece with lesser players and spoil its extraordinary qualities. Almost like a Talmudic tapestry, the intricate complexities are in full flower here, with constantly changing snippets, twisted sounds, swirls of ornate and not-so-ornate clusters, and shimmering beauty. Zorn knows where he is going, even if the listener does not, but that is all the fun. Each performance of the composition leads to different results, and this one, with its emphasis on the strings (guitar, violin, bass, and cello) has a chamber-like sonority at times that is shattered by -- well, almost everything imaginable. Some of the composer's clues are delineated in written descriptions -- a movement of the hand might indicate a drone, a pointing of the thumb means to stop -- but it is the remarkable selection of players under Zorn's direction that makes the difference. Improvisatory strategies are important, but no more so than the carefully set wild and ecstatic juxtapositions. You'll probably know right away whether this appeals to you, but if it does, you'll probably want to hear the other recorded versions too.

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