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February 25, 2010

Mobtown Modern takes a chance on John Zorn's 'Cobra'

Back when he was writing for the New York Times, Alex Ross described John Zorn's "Cobra" this way: "At once brilliant and smug, the work represents the best and the worst of the new-music movement as it stands." That was in 1993, almost a decade after Zorn created this intriguing "game piece." I wonder if Alex's reaction would be any different today. (I rather doubt it.) I had my first encounter with "Cobra," presented by the intrepid Mobtown Modern Wednesday night at Metro Gallery.

I certainly admire the brilliance of the concept. Zorn provides only a set of instructions for performers; the music itself is entirely improvised. A leader holds up cue cards, signaling assorted methods of attack, so to speak. Ensemble members can raise their hands to get the attention of the leader and permission to jump into the fray in particular ways. Players can also don a cap that gives them certain directorial privileges. It's a barely controlled form of musical anarchy -- and a little anarchy once in a while never hurts.

What emerges in the process is dependent entirely on chance and the participants -- the instruments they bring to the battle, their comfort level with improvising, their ability to react to and interact with other players. "Cobra" can't be tackled by just any old bunch of players. (Mobtown co-curator Brian Sacawa told me he had more rehearsals for this concert than anything else.) One problem with an exercise like this is that the fun of all that improv can wear off if the sounds begin to repeat themselves, something I suspect that is very difficult to avoid. And I suppose the "smug" aspect that Alex Ross may have had in mind is that the audience is expected to buy all of it as a valid, substantive artistic statement.

Let me hasten to add that I

don't have trouble buying what Mobtown dished out, since the musicians proved so adept at the "game" and, mostly, so creative in terms of a sonic arsenal. It might have been wiser to quit while they were ahead, though; by the time they played the last round, the diversity of contributions had lessened considerably.

Still, it was hard not to be caught up in the audacity of it all, the flashes of jazzy counterpoint, the chorus of honks and beeps from assorted wind instrument mouthpieces, the thumping of acoustic and electric basses, the amusing slide whistles, the bursts of percussion. (One segment ended with a cool series of aggressive, uniformly attacked notes that skirted between improv and controlled process.) And the visual component never lost its appeal -- the rapid shift of cue cards, the pointing and challenging. At its best, the concert revealed the daring premise of "Cobra" -- a war game where everyone wins, bloodlessly.

I got an email from composer/trombonist/Peabody faculty member David Fetter, who attended the concert (he never seems to miss any far-out stuff in town). He called it "some of the best chaos I've heard ... The clever meshing of a variety of styles, including classical, jazz, free improvisation, and noise, to put it simply, sparked enthusiasm in both performers and audience ... The ghost of John Cage was felt in the room."

I liked David's summing up of the personnel for "Cobra" so well I thought I'd quote it here: "Brian Sacawa brought together classical iconoclasts, such as himself, free jazz experts, and local High Zero celebrities for a skillfully organized free-for-all."

In addition to Sacawa, who alternated between leading and playing, the other cue-giver/players were saxophonist John Berndt and reed man Sam Burt. Also on the roster: John Dieker, saxophone and bass clarinet; Adam Hopkins, bass; Will Redman, drums; Joel Ciaccio, bass; Erik Spangler, turntables and electronics; Audrey Chen, cello; Dave Ballou, trumpet.

For those of you who missed "Cobra" and are curious to know what it's like, here's a clip from a performance at Dartmouth College that provides a pretty good idea of what can happen (Mobtown's version was, of course, completely different -- and, I'd say, on a more powerful level):


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:48 PM | | Comments (1)


As with all "free music," where the rules, instructions, notation, etc. & whatever have been reduced (or even eliminated!), performers can't really "rehearse" but simply learn _how_ to play. (Even the "what" isn't so important, being the end result of whichever guidelines, if any, remain.) The experience is created in real-time, and only by performing repeatedly within the guidelines (here, for example, in a "game piece") does one become more and more adept at realizing a "successful" performance/experience (no two are identical, naturally! ;^).

Performing in this manner becomes a "way of life," if you follow it long enough...

And, in a sense, works of this nature are often more enjoyable (or sheer torture, for those who don't like to improvise) to the performers themselves; an audience acts as either (a) a passive "observer" of the experience or (b) a "fan." Those who have a better understanding of the "rules" are more likely to be "fans."

Two of my favourite examples in this vein hail from Miles Davis, who was, IMHumO, a better leader than trumpeter: _Pangaea_ and _Dark Magus_. These are living, breathing masses of sound which somewhat transcend the concept of "composed music" -- honestly put, no one could actually _compose_ music of this sort. (And, of course, some people would argue whether or not this is music, but I'm firmly on the "is" side.)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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