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):