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!
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • 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.