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John Zorn - Chimeras

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Artist: John Zorn

Album: Chimeras

Label: Tzadik

Review date: May. 15, 2003

Of Brains and Manners

If necessity is the mother of invention, systematic constraint is its stern, insufficiently-respected daddy. Proust said that poets often fashion their best work under the tyranny of rhyme, and most good composers would say something similar.

French novelist Gorges Perec knew this when he wrote A Void, a tale of puzzles, insomnia and social instability that had it all save the letter “e.” I can enumerate my French vocab on my hands and feet, and at least all the words on my fingers contain e’s, so my copy of A Void is Gilbert Adair’s translation, rendered in an English that is also devoid of e’s. I’m not sure which man’s labor amazes me more.

Of course, Perec keeps a lot of people busy.

Edgy jazzman and Asiaporn enthusiast John Zorn counts himself as another one of GP’s admirers in the liner notes to Chimeras, a spare, haunting continuum inspired by the “lipogram,” a literary work formed around the exclusion of a particular letter of the alphabet. Perec may have hipped Zorn to this conceit, but both artists are digging their fingers into an old tradition. The first known lipogram, Zorn explains, dates to Century Six and consists of 26 chapters, the first eschewing “a,” the second “b” and so on. Chimeras breaks into twelve movements, each of which ignores one of the pitches in Schoenberg’s first tone row, from E flat to B flat.

Swell, you say. Is Chimeras worth hearing to anyone who isn’t a student of such linguo-mathematical hooey?

Maybe it has something to do with lipogrammatical constraints, and maybe it doesn’t. But Chimeras maintains the sort of air of sinister anticipation most similar works sound too damn antsy to linger in. Assorted players (strings, woodwinds, keys and minimal percussion) wander in and out. A few spring forward at short notice, but never get too far inside your ear canal. It crafts an awareness of its center, but never drives straight toward it, preferring to dance gingerly around its edges like most thoughts and conversations.

The piece coalesces during movement eleven – which brings the ensemble together for some fleeting catharsis – then runs for cover again without quite explaining itself.

The only constant is singer Ilana Davidson’s wordless trill, which loosely compares to Meredith Monk’s but doesn’t presume as much. Davidson has the clear power to monopolize, but nevertheless admirably chooses to work in concert.

It must be noted that Chimeras holds little for those who need to rock, because, unlike, say, The Big Gundown, Chimeras sure as hell can’t be listened to like a rock album. Nevertheless, Chimeras is something of greater potential value to the ever-petulant Mr. Bungle geek, as it realizes beauty through arbitrary self-discipline.

By Emerson Dameron

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