It’s rare in performance for an instrument to take the spotlight over the player. But that was almost what happened on Saturday night at John Zorn’s solo organ performance – part of the Ars Nova Workshop’s New Paths Festival – in the Girard College Chapel. The evening was in equal parts a celebration of the college’s grand Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ and a concise exploration of Zorn’s broad musical language.
Simply walking into the venue set the tone for the concert. “Chapel” is far too quaint a word to describe the massive space, which features dark marble floors and huge stone columns that line the walls. Looking up from your tiny place in the endless pews, you notice the building is wedge-shaped and the ceiling is very far away – it must be 100 feet above the ground. And that’s where the organ pipes are installed, above you behind gold-leafed latticing. The combined affect of the Greek-influenced architecture, the enormous room, and then, eventually, the thunderous volume of the organ is breathtaking. But it also makes you feel small.
Even the great John Zorn – the prolific, shape-shifting downtown NYC musician – was nearly invisible throughout the performance. From the pews, all you could see was a small dot of a head peaking out from the choir area in the front of the room. But sights were beside the point once the music started.
Zorn played continuously for a little less than an hour. The arc and movements of his improvisation were easy to follow. The performance began with the sound of distant church bells and these popped up throughout the evening, acting as both a thematic anchor and a structuring element. The bells eventually gave way to a low billowing drone that slowly evolved into a biting clustered fortissimo. It sounded like Zorn was pushing air through every single pipe on the organ. You could feel the seats in the balcony rumbling.
The performance felt more and more autobiographical as it unfolded. Zorn, with each movement, seemed to put another one of his compositional interests on the table: free jazz, Classical lyricism and counterpoint, film noir, heavy drone all made appearances. And underlying it all was a deep personal spirituality. The potency of Zorn’s performance combined with the sheer power of the Chapel’s organ made for a mesmerizing experience.
It felt like being part of something ancient. For ages, people have sat in large rooms listening to musical masters play huge pipe organs. J.S. Bach is probably the most famous organ virtuoso, but the instrument dates all the way back to Ancient Greece where they were played for the gladiators.
After Zorn’s performance was over, the audience rushed the stage to see the keyboard and take in the view of the chapel from the front. From beginning to end, the evening was awe-inspiring in the oldest sense.