John Zorn
By: Douglas Wolk | Categories: HiLo Heroes

John Zorn conducting Hip Hop Cobra, July 2000

John Zorn conducting Hip Hop Cobra, July 2000

JOHN ZORN (born 1953) has been the nexus of the musical avant-garde in New York for a couple of decades — an unbelievably prolific composer and performer and curator and label-dude whose early look-how-eclectic-I-am tendencies quickly resolved into depth and breadth of vision. The jewel of his enormous oeuvre, though, is “Cobra,” one of his early “game pieces” — which is to say that you perform or watch a performance of it as you would a spectator sport, rather than a composition. It’s a 1984 set of rules for a dozen musicians to improvise under the direction of a prompter who has a role somewhere between “conductor” and “dungeon master”; headbands, urgent gestures, and rapidly shifting alliances are involved. The complete rules to “Cobra” have never officially been published — part of the fun is that they’re passed hand-to-hand among musicians. The game’s durability probably has something to do with its relentless Zorniness: it’s never the same twice and totally dependent on the specific musicians playing it, and it changes shape faster than the dueling wizards in The Sword in the Stone.

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Douglas Wolk, author of Reading Comics and Live at the Apollo, is an arts critic and comics writer in Portland, Oregon. His new book is Judge Dredd: Mega-City Two, with artist Ulises Farinas. Twitter: @douglaswolk