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  Kristallnacht 

  (Tonic) 


Tonic September 23, 2003
   review by Phil Zampino
  2003-10-06

Kristallnacht was "the night of broken glass," November 9, 1938, when German troops unleashed a wave of pogroms against Germany's Jews.  In a matter of hours they destroyed thousands of synagogues, Jewish businesses and homes. Kristallnacht takes its name from the smashed windows of Jewish storefronts throughout Germany, and is generally considered the start of the Jewish holocaust.  It was a brutal act of terror and opression that stands in the memory of the Jewish people.

John Zorn credits the writing of this piece as one of many ways he began his particular Jewish odyssey, and much of the radical jewish culture that is associated with him and his Tzadik label begins around this period. Zorn doesn't perform this piece often, perhaps most recently ten years ago at his 40th birthday celebration at the Knitting Factory. His reticence to present this work is understandable as it's a gut wrenching, terrifying work, physically and emotionally demanding.  It also requires a Jewish ensemble of musicians, this evening faithfully reassembled from the 1992 recording with Mark Feldman on violin, Marc Ribot on guitar, David Krackuaer on reeds, Anthony Coleman on keyboard and sampler, Mark Dresser on bass, William Winant on percussion and Frank London on trumpet, with Zorn conducting.

The premier of this piece at the Knitting Factory in 1992 was an experience this writer will not soon forget. The room was blackened, all chairs and tables had been removed and the crowd stood sweating and shoved together as though they were in a cattle car on their way to a concentration camp. The presentation at Tonic was somewhat less physically intense. The audience was asked to stand due to the full house, and the lights and air were shut off as Coleman's recording of a train began its long journey, but with windows admitting dim light and in a more spacious room the claustrophobic sense was lessened, allowing more focus on the music.

The work is structured in seven movements, but in essence there are three major stylistic shifts in the piece.  Much of the piece was generated through the use of Gematria, or Jewish Numberology, in conjunction with pitch matrices derived from moments of Arnold Schoenberg's incomplete opera Moses and Aaron.  It is an eclectic mix of compositional techniques and musical styles that make it a continuously interesting and sometimes frightening listening experience.  

The first major section, after the long train sample, was a meditative and emotional piece using sephardic melodies. The piece was intensely beautiful, Frank London starting on solo trumpet, and then passing the melody from player to player.  David Krackauer in particular sent shivers down the spine with his smearing clarinet lines.  This became a symphony of anguished and crying voices against flagellating rhythms as the players joined together, while Coleman played samples of German voices overshadowing anger. The piece shifted to a macabre dance, a mocking piece still affected by harsh overdubbed voices, fading with a recording of Marlene Dietrich's mournful Jewish torch song, "Lili Marlene."

The second section, "Never Again," is the violent core of Kristallnacht.  Most players inserted earplugs as Zorn began cranking up a tone generator that is described in the notes to the CD release as containing "high frequencey extremes at the limits of human hearing & beyond, which may cause nausea, headaches & ringing in the ear."  This reporter can vouch for the last.  The piece is a shattering and disturbing reflection, disruptive and demanding.  Ribot and Coleman generated sheets of noise, and the players occassionally stamped their feet in uneven rhythms.  Feldman scraped at his violin, the music transitioned to static and devotional songs, against which belligerent overdubbed voices were heard.  Coleman worked inside the grand piano in abstracted progressions until the music quickly cut back to its harsh attack, Ribot skronking on his guitar using a ring of keys as a pick.  The movement continued in this manner for quite some time, a series of hesitations and horrors.

The third section is made of several shorter pieces, generally more reflective and using identifiably 20th century classical techniques mixed with klezmer and ethnic melodies.  It started with a twilight calm, Dresser crinkling a large piece of paper (perhaps intended to convey the sound of walking on broken glass) as the music introduced a painfully tender mood.  Feldman played sweetly as Winant gently intoned gongs.  This was followed by a briefer wall of sound with samples of argumentative voices.  The various sections oscillated between this sense of beauty and panic.  The stylistic elements of the piece were as fascinating as the cohesiveness of the composition.  Zorn's ability to accommodate such a wealth of ideas is incredible, and the player's abilities to jump emotionally and instrumentally was impressive. The composition ended with Ribot playing a driving attack, Zorn gesturing for more, more.  Krackauer moved to a large bass drum, and Frank London joined Winant on percussion as the final movement "Gariin (Nucleus-The New Settlement)" devolved into a rhythmic exposition, an uneasy ending to an uncomfortable, important work.





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