If you could see the world premiere of a major new John Zorn suite for free, would you make the shlep up to 116th St.? A whole lot of people did that last week to watch pianist Steven Gosling navigate the thorny harmonies, Messiaenic poignancy and vast dynamic expanse of the composer’s 18 Studies from the Later Sketchbooks of JMW Turner.
For obvious reasons, Turner’s sketches aren’t exhibited frequently since they rarely if ever hint at the epic proportions of his oil paintings. Zorn’s suite matched the raw, translucent essence of those works while occasionally reaching for epic grandeur as well. There were innumerable moments where it gave Gosling a real workout, yet its central themes were strikingly straightforward:.
An enigmatically clustering lefthand motif and variations, plaintive belltones that strongly evoked Messiaen and Mompou, and grittily intricate caterpillar-tractor interweave contrasted with moments of pure freakout. It wasn’t clear whether that was simply Gosling blooping and blipping on his own, or whether Zorn had actually bothered to write all that down.
Considering how rigorous and sometimes abrasive Zorn’s work is, he doesn’t get enough credit for his sense of humor, and this piece had some devastatingly funny moments. The first was a simple, repetitive chord with a descending and then rising bass, a cliche that’s been used ad nauseum over the years by singer-songwriters and emos. Zorn employed it as a stepping-off point for some increasingly sardonic riffage. The second was a surreal, hammering, chattering series of close harmonies, a crowd of twistoids who wouldn’t shut up and grew increasingly sinister.
Those moments weren’t even the most difficult ones. Gosling faced the greatest challenges of the evening with Zorn’s long sequence of righthand suspended chords where the inner notes shifted around like a three-card monte dealer on meth, and managed to pull them off with stunningly clear articulation. The incessant stylistic shifts, between quasi Second Viennese School acidity, moodily opaque minimalism and crazed, hyperactive kitten-on-the-keys moments weren’t easy to shift between either, but Gosling made it all seem contiguous, no easy feat.
The Miller Theatre has long been one of Manhattan’s focal points for some of the most interesting and invigorating developments in new music. Director Melissa Smey, who described herself this particular night as the “president of the John Zorn fan club,” was hip to both Missy Mazzoli and Anna Thorvaldsdottir before they were all the rage, but she also brings in plenty of longstanding pillars of the avant garde for her ongoing “composer portrait” series. The next one, on Sept 25 at 8 PM features Anthony Braxton music played by the Jack Quartet and indie classical chamber group Either/Or. You can get in for $20, at least as of today.