John Zorn Talks Music, Mysticism and the Messiah as He Turns 60

Exclusive Interview With Singular Outsider Artist

Zorn in the USA: At 60, John Zorn remains an influential voice in avant-garde music.
Heather O'Brien
Zorn in the USA: At 60, John Zorn remains an influential voice in avant-garde music.

By Jerome Chanes

Published July 31, 2013, issue of August 02, 2013.
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John Zorn’s East Village apartment is like his music: an exceptionally-concentrated, perfectl- composed space celebrating the artistic experience. Thousands of records and tapes and CDs and books, well-ordered, each tug at the visitor’s elbow for attention.

For many years, John Zorn — composer, performer, arranger, independent music distributor — has been a major voice in the musical avant-garde in America. Zorn, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday and lately has been performing in tributes to his career, has had a powerful and profound impact on contemporary music, particularly in the expression of the Jewish experience through music.

“A family member once told me that I am related to Maimonides, and in a metaphoric sense that’s true,” said Zorn. “We are in the midst of a Jewish cultural renaissance in this country; we are enjoying the greatest time since Maimonides — in fact, this is another era of‘ Maimonides.

What unites us? Whatever else is going on — and there is lots of tension and conflict in the community — we are united in the business of celebrating Jewish creativity. Jewish creativity today has a lot of depth and power and meaning because of all the dreck and schreck that we had to go through to get to where we are today.

“How do I come to my Jewishness? I was raised in a completely secular environment; it was an environment of total alienation and denial when it came to matters Jewish. My parents were brutal when it came to eliminating the past. I came to Jewishness by walking down very different paths. Some of this fertilization happened through my association with many musicians I worked with who were Jewish. But in large measure my experiences in Japan over 10 years, where I was the ‘outsider.’ I couldn’t ‘pass’ as Japanese. I was a Tokyo musician, but I was not accepted; at best I was tolerated. I was the ‘Other.’”

“My experiences as ‘outsider’ in Japan gave new meaning to my experience as a Jew. I learned that I am proud that I am a Jew — and not for the negative reasons of being an ‘outsider.’ Why would a Jew want to identify as a Jew unless there were positive values? It’s not enough in the post-Holocaust world just to cry ‘Holocaust!’”


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