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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

As for the question of Jewish musicians being outsiders, Zorn said, “The Jewish experience has been the ‘outsider’ experience — we have always been that, in every society. The musician — especially the musician working in new areas — is also an ‘outsider.’ Combine the ‘Jewish as outsider’ with the ‘musician as outsider’ and you get the ultimate ‘outside’ experience. This has been my burden — and my blessing.”

“The fact that I have finally been recognized by the Jewish community [in 2001 Zorn received the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in Performing Arts] was a very important step, and not because of the acknowledging of a serious musician who is making a contribution, but as sending a message to the ‘insider’ community about those on the ‘outside’ — the Jew and the musician — who represent the creative riches in the community that the community doesn’t know about and needs to know about.

“There are many gateways into the Jewish experience. As a creative artist, I say that it is about process — the process of creating something that resonates Jewishly. The necessity of being able to recite the Torah forward and backward is not necessary for the work of creative artists. For me it’s about the process and about learning and questioning along the way. To play with Jewish scales and modes in new ways, to compose about Kristallnacht, to ask the question of what is — and what isn’t — Jewish music: These are the resonances that work for me, and for other musicians who are working in the Jewish experience.

“What’s interesting to me about the future of the Jewish community is that anything can happen. We are always changing, and yet always rooted. Some roots are not as deep as others, but the flowers are just as beautiful, and their aromas are as sweet — only different. No one flower is better than the other. Embrace all the aspects of Judaism — that’s what I try to do in my art.

“I don’t want to get mystical, but you have to have some sort of messianic belief in yourself, in your Jewishness, for your music to work. One of the beauties of Jewish thought is abstraction. What is Jewish music? It’s the same as ‘What is Jewishness’? It’s a concrete, yet very abstract, question. Many answers, and I believe in every one of the answers. The analysis is ultimately sterile; the answer is someplace else, in the question itself.”

Jerome Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, has published four books on Jewish public affairs and history.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.