John Zorn

By: Douglas Wolk
September 2, 2009

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.


Each day, HILOBROW pays tribute to one of our favorite high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes on that person’s birthday. Click here for more HiLo Hero shout-outs.


HiLo Heroes, Jazz, Music