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John ZORN (b. 1953) Book of Angels Vol. 30: Leonard
Garth Knox (viola, viola d’amore)
The Saltarello Trio (Agnès Vesterman (cello), Sylvain Lemêtre (percussion), Julia Robert (viola, viola d’amore))
rec. July 2016, Cesaré CNCM Studio, Reims, France TZADIK TZ8350 [48:13]
American composer and musician John Zorn’s amazingly prolific activities have covered genres including jazz, rock, hardcore, classical, surf, metal, klezmer, and improvised music. Zorn established the Tzadik label in 1995, and it has become the carrier for numerous composers of experimental music including Alvin Curran. With barely any documentation with this CD I did some hunting online and found out about Zorn’s ‘Masada’ group, an ensemble with rotating personnel, and “as much a ‘songbook’ as anything else, comprising more than 500 relatively brief compositions. Each song is written in accordance with a number of rules, including the maximum number of staves, modes or scales that are used, and the fact that the songs must be playable by any small group of instruments.”
This 30th volume of the ‘Book of Angels’ is marked ‘Garth Knox and the Saltarello Trio play Masada Book Two.’ The Book of Angels is a project that started in 2003 and has involved numerous musicians, but in this case it is the experience of contemporary music specialist Garth Knox of the Arditti Quartet and others, together with the Saltarello Trio, that brings new interpretations of these pieces to light.
Anyone fearing something fiercely avant-garde can in this case be put at ease. The blurb promises that the musicians “capture [in beautiful medieval-tinged arrangements] the folk song quality of Zorn’s compositions with a lovely and intimate ensemble of strings and percussion,” and this is indeed the case. There is a klezmer feel to many of the melodies, and there is a plangent, melancholy mood to the sound as a whole. The viola has a deeper sonority to the violin while still projecting plenty of colourful harmonics, and the blend between the ‘alto’ upper voice(s) and cello creates quite a warm balance. Percussion is used with subtle skill, and even where the rhythmic dance element comes to the fore as in Kmiel this is done with a great deal of air in the sound, the music driven by pizzicato cello notes and a groovy syncopation.
Magical effects are created when the instruments unite, and some delicate percussion effects play a special role in this. A single stroke on a chime or singing bowl can heighten a moment, and there are some exotic sounds such as the [glissandi] in Hatach which make one prick up one's ears. These are arrangements and performances that are both enjoyable and filled with expressive depth, sometimes fragile and tender, sometimes more about physical movement and a kind of deeply felt joy, but all with a kind of timeless humanity which is very compelling indeed.
I have to admit being pleasantly surprised by this initially somewhat mysterious CD. I’ve known and admired John Zorn’s work since my student days, but have to admit to being a latecomer to this whole Masada thing. As this is the first review on these pages of a project now on its 30th and penultimate volume, we at MWI also have to hold up our hands and admit to being late adopters – though, I don’t know, maybe we just weren’t sent review copies. Either way, this is the kind of release that makes me want to find out what the other 29 volumes have been like, and I’m glad to have had this sublimely poetic introduction to what would appear to be a highly fertile source of intriguing new music. The recordings are excellent, capturing every nuance of the performances and creating the perfect atmosphere for this music. The lack of documentation with the CD is a minus point, but the design provokes interest and invites inquiry – job done.