After releasing albums on several independent US and European labels, Zorn signed with Elektra Nonesuch and attracted wide acclaim in 1985 when he released The Big Gundown with his interpretations of music composed by Ennio Morricone. This was followed by the album Spillane in 1987, and the first album by Naked City in 1990 which all attracted further worldwide attention. Zorn then recorded on the Japanese DIW and Avant labels before forming Tzadik Records in 1995, where he has been prolific, issuing several new recordings each year and releasing works by many other musicians.
Zorn established himself within the New York City downtown music movement in the early 1980s but has since composed and performed with a wide range of musicians working in diverse musical areas. By the early 1990s Zorn was working extensively in Japan, attracted by that culture's openness about borrowing and remixing ingredients from elsewhere, where he performed and recorded under the name Dekoboko Hajime, before returning to New York as a permanent base in the mid 1990's. Zorn has undertaken many tours of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East often performing at festivals with several different ensembles that display his diverse output.
After dropping out of college, and following a stint on the West Coast, Zorn moved to Manhattan and gave concerts in his apartment and other small NY venues playing saxophone and a variety of reeds, duck calls, tapes, and other instruments. He founded the Theatre of Musical Optics, a performance art collaborative, in 1975 and became a major participant in the fertile, avant-garde downtown music scene as a composer, performer and producer of music that challenges the confines of any single musical genre. Zorn later used the term 'Theatre of Musical Optics' as the publishing company for his compositions.
Zorn's first solo saxophone (and duck call) recordings were originally released in two volumes as The Classic Guide to Strategy in 1983 and 1986 on the Lumina label. Zorn's early small group improvisations are documented on Locus Solus (1983) which featured Zorn with various combinations of other improvisers including Christian Marclay, Arto Lindsay, Wayne Horvitz, Ikue Mori, and Anton Fier. Ganryu Island featured a series of duets by Zorn with Satoh Michihiro on shamisen, which received limited release on the Yukon label in 1984. Zorn has subsequently released these recordings as CDs on Tzadik making them more widely available than the original vinyl pressings.
He first released the composition 'Godard', a tribute to French film-maker Jean-Luc Godard whose jump-cut technique inspired Zorn's compositional approach, on the French tribute album The Godard Fans: Godard Ca Vous Chante? in 1986. Zorn followed this with his second major-label release Spillane in 1987 composed of three different tribute compositions. The title track featured text by Arto Lindsay set to an array of sonic film noir references, 'Two-Lane Highway' a blues-based form to highlight the guitar of Albert Collins and 'Forbidden Fruit', Zorn's tribute to a Japanese film star, performed by the Kronos Quartet. Further exploration of film noir themes were recorded for radio plays and released by Zorn as The Bribe: variations and extensions on Spillane (1998). 'Godard' and 'Spillane' were re-released as a single CD, Godard/Spillane, on Tzadik in 1999.
These pieces are described by Zorn as "file-card compositions", a method of combining composition and improvisation in which Zorn would write down a description of what he wanted on file-cards and arrange them to form the piece. Zorn described the process in 2003. "I write in moments, in disparate sound blocks, so I find it convenient to store these events on filing cards so they can be sorted and ordered with minimum effort... I worked 10 to 12 hours a day for a week, just orchestrating these file cards. It was an intense process - one I don't want to go through again."
Zorn's "file-card" method of organizing sound blocks into an overall structure largely depended on the musicians he chose, the way they interpreted what was written on the file cards, and their relationship with Zorn. "I'm not going to sit in some ivory tower and pass my scores down to the players." said Zorn, "I have to be there with them, and that's why I started playing saxophone, so that I could meet musicians. I still feel that I have to earn a player's trust before they can play my music. At the end of the day, I want players to say: this was fun - it was a lot of fucking work, and it's one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it was worth the effort."
While Zorn is often considered a jazz musician his schema is considerably broader. He stated "The term “jazz,” per se, is meaningless to me in a certain way. Musicians don’t think in terms of boxes. I know what jazz music is. I studied it. I love it. But when I sit down and make music, a lot of things come together. And sometimes it falls a little bit toward the classical side, sometimes it falls a little bit towards the jazz, sometimes it falls toward rock, sometimes it doesn’t fall anywhere, it’s just floating in limbo. But no matter which way it falls, it’s always a little bit of a freak. It doesn’t really belong anywhere. It’s something unique, it’s something different, it’s something out of my heart. It’s not connected with those traditions."
Zorn stated that "After my record The Big Gundown came out I was convinced that a lot of soundtrack work was going to be coming my way". While Hollywood acclaim was not forthcoming he attracted the attention of many independent filmmakers. The first director to commission him was Rob Schwebber for the 1986 short White And Lazy followed by his work for Sheila McLaughlin's film, She Must Be Seeing Things (1986). In 1990 he composed the soundtrack for the Raul Ruiz film The Golden Boat. All these soundtracks appeared on Filmworks 1986-1990 along with a sixty-four second interpretation of the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which featured future members of Naked City.
Zorn's second Filmworks release documented his Music for an Untitled Film by Walter Hill (1996) which was composed for the film Trespass (1992) but replaced by a score by Ry Cooder. Filmworks III: 1990-1995 (1997) featured the first recordings by the Masada lineup for Joe Chappelle's Thieves Quartet (1993) along with early drafts for the Cynical Hysterie Hour project, duets with Marc Ribot which featured in Mei-Juin Chen's Hollywood Hotel (1994), and a series of commercial soundtracks for the advertising firm Weiden and Kennedy, including one directed by Jean-Luc Godard - a long-term Zorn inspiration. Filmworks IV: S&M + More (1997) and Filmworks V: Tears of Ecstasy (1996) both included music written for films dealing with BDSM. Filmworks VI: 1996 contains the soundtracks to three underground films produced in 1996; Dina Waxman's Anton, Mailman, Henry Hills' Mechanics Of The Brain, and Maria Beatty's The Black Glove.
Filmworks VII: Cynical Hysterie Hour re-released the themes that Zorn produced for a Japanese cartoon which had only been previously available in limited release in Japan. Zorn regained the rights to these recordings by trading a booking at The Knitting Factory to Sony executives. Filmworks VIII: 1997 features music for the documentary Port Of Last Resort (1998), which detailed the experiences of Jewish refugees who fled to Shanghai during the years preceding World War II, and the soundtrack to the underground film Latin Boys Go To Hell (1997).
Zorn's next soundtrack work did not appear until 2000 with Filmworks IX: Trembling Before G-d featuring music for an award winning documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews trying to reconcile their sexuality with their faith directed by Sandi Simcha DuBowski. The following year Filmworks X: In the Mirror of Maya Deren (2001) featured music for a documentary on the life and work of underground filmaker Maya Deren.
The year 2002 was a very productive one for Zorn's cinematic scores. Filmworks XI: Secret Lives (2002) featured the Masada String Trio performing music for Aviva Slesin’s documentary film on Jewish children hidden from the Nazis. Filmworks XII (2002) features music for three documentaries; Homecoming: Celebrating Twenty Years of Dance at PS 122, Shaolin Ulysses, a film about Shaolin Monks in America, and variations on the theme for Family Found, a documentary on outsider artist Morton Bartlett. Zorn released his third soundtrack collection of 2002 with Filmworks XIII: Invitation to a Suicide, written for a black comedy about a man selling tickets to his own suicide to save his father's life.
Zorns next two Filmworks releases featured in documentaries examining Jewish identity and antisemitism. Filmworks XIV: Hiding and Seeking (2003) provided the soundtrack a documentary about an Orthodox Jewish father attempting to alert his sons of the dangers of creating barriers between themselves and those outside their faith. Filmworks XV: Protocols of Zion (2005) featured music for a documentary about a resurgence of antisemitism in the United States in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Filmworks XVI: Workingman's Death (2005) presented themes for a documentary portraying hazardous employment undertaken in the Ukraine, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and China.
Filmworks XVII (2006) featured music for Martina Kudlacek's documentary Notes on Marie Menken intertwined with Zorn's percussive score for Beth Cataldo's portrait Ray Bandar: A Life with Skulls. Filmworks XVIII: The Treatment (2006) featured music for Oren Rudavsky's romantic comedy based around the tango music of Astor Piazolla.
Named after a 1945 book of graphic black and white photographs by Weegee the band performed an aggressive mix of "soundtrack themes, bluesy hard bop, speedy hardcore rock, squealing free jazz [and] metallic funk". Zorn has stated that "Naked City stated with rhythm and blues/Spillane type things then went into this hard-core thing... because I was living in Japan and experiencing a lot of alienation and rejection... My interest in hard-core also spurred the urge to write shorter and shorter pieces.
Naked City followed the release of their self-titled album with Torture Garden a collection of 42 'hardcore miniatures'; intense brief compositions often lasting less than a minute, in 1989. Some of these tracks had featured on Naked City and others would resurface on the bands next full-length release, Grand Guignol (1992), which also included performances of works by Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin, Orlande de Lassus, Charles Ives, and Olivier Messiaen. The band's third album, Heretic (1992), featured more of these short improvisations produced for the soundtrack of an underground S/M film Jeux des Dames Cruelles. The band released a second EP, Leng Tch'e, in 1992 featuring a single composition which lasted just over half an hour. Radio was released in 1993, was the first Naked City album composed solely by Zorn, and featured tracks drawing on a wide range of musical influences including Charles Mingus, Little Feat, Ruins, Booker T. and the M.G.'s, Colin Wilson, Albert King, Chuck Brown, Orchestra Baobab, the Accüsed, the Meters, Tony Williams' Lifetime, Anton Webern, Sammy Cahn, Frank Sinatra, Morton Feldman, Igor Stravinsky, the Melvins, Beatmasters, Septic Death, Abe Schwartz, Ivo Papasov, Naftule Brandwein, Repulsion, Led Zeppelin, Bernard Herrmann, Santana, Extreme Noise Terror, Conway Twitty, Siege, Ornette Coleman, Corrosion of Conformity, Massacre, Quincy Jones, Sam Fuller, Funkadelic, Carcass, Liberace, Jan Hammer, Eddie Blackwell, Charlie Haden, Mick Harris, Carole King, Red Garland, Boredoms, Jerry Reed, SPK and Roger Williams in addition to Zorn's previously identified touchstones. The final recording from the band Absinthe (1993) featured a blend of ambient noise styled compositions with tracks titled after the works of Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire and other figures in the fin de siècle Decadent movement, and a dedication to Oliver Messiaen. Zorn disbanded Naked City after this release but briefly reformed the band for a European tour in 2003.
Zorn also formed Painkiller with Bill Laswell on bass and Mick Harris on drums in 1991. Painkiller's first two releases Guts of a Virgin (1991) and Buried Secrets (1992) also featured short grindcore and free jazz inspired compositions. They released their first live album, Rituals: Live in Japan on the Japanese Toys Factory label in 1993 followed by the double CD Execution Ground (1994) which featured longer dub and ambient styled pieces. A second live album Talisman: Live in Nagoya was released in 2002 and the band was featured on Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 12 (2005) with Hamid Drake replacing Harris on drums and guest vocalist Mike Patton.
Both bands attracted worldwide interest, particularly in Japan, where Zorn had relocated following a three-month residency in Tokyo. Zorn collaborated with, and produced, numerous Japanese 'noise' artists including Merzbow, Otomo Yoshihide, Melt Banana and frequent collaborator Yamatsuka Eye. Many of these artists have now released albums on Tzadik and some regularly travel to New York to perform.
Releases from both bands were criticized for their graphic album covers. The cover of the eponymous album by Naked City used the Weegee photograph 'Corpse with Revolver C.A. 1940' which shows a gangland killing as did their later live album. Zorn left Electra Nonesuch after the company's response to the artwork for Naked City's Grand Guignol releasing the remaining Naked City albums on a Japanese-based label, Avant. The Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence protested against Zorn because they believed that the images used in the graphic design of Naked City's Torture Garden and Leng Tch'e portrayed degrading images of Asian people. To avoid problems, Zorn removed the original albums from retail sale and later replaced the artwork with new packaging titled Black Box. Painkiller's Guts of a Virgin EP was banned in the UK after customs seized and destroyed the first shipment for violating the Obscene Publications Act. Execution Ground was also released with the original cover photograph of a lynching removed. Zorn later re-released the Naked City and Painkiller albums as box sets with restored artwork after forming his own record label.
Zorn recorded Hemophiliac in 2002 with Mike Patton and Ikue Mori which continued his interest in hardcore improvisations. The first release from this trio was a double CD set which was signed by the performers. Limited to 2,500 copies this album soon became a highly sought after collectors item. The trio also released a live recording as part of Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration Series.
In 2006 Zorn formed the hardcore voice/bass/drums trio of Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn, and Joey Baron which became known as the Moonchild Trio. That year two albums of Zorn's compositions performed by the trio were released: Moonchild: Songs Without Words and Astronome. A third album with the trio, but also featuring Zorn, Ikue Mori, Jamie Saft and chorus, Six Litanies for Heliogabalus, was released in 2007.
Zorn was quoted in 1998 as saying "Sometimes I get the feeling that people just don't see me as a composer, but it's what I've always been since I was eight years old... I've always thought of myself as a composer, but the world has had a hard time looking at me as a composer because a lot of what I compose is controversial. The establishment of Tzadik allowed Zorn to release many compositions which he had written, over the previous two decades, for classical ensembles. Zorn's earliest released 'classical' composition (for five flutes), 'Christabel' was written in 1972 and first appeared on Angelus Novus in 1998. Redbird (containing new compositions for bass drums and a harp/viola/cello/percussion quartet inspired by Agnes Martin) and The Book of Heads (35 etudes for solo guitar written in 1978 for Eugene Chadbourne and realised by Marc Ribot) were released in 1995 as part of Tzadiks Composer Series. Zorn credits the composition of his 1988 piece for string quartet "Cat O' Nine Tails", commissioned and originally released by the Kronos Quartet, to awakening him to the possibilities of writing for classical musicians. This composition was featured on String Quartets (1999) and Cartoon/S&M (2000) along with variations on "Kol Nidre", inspired by the Jewish prayer of atonement which was written at the same time as (but not part of) the first Masada book. Duras: Duchamp (1997) consists of two 'tribute' compositions, the first dedicated to Marguerite Duras has four movements lasting roughly thirty-four minutes influenced by the composition of Oliver Messiaen, the second "69 Paroxyms for Marcel Duchamp" lasts just over thirteen minutes. Aporias: Requia for Piano and Orchestra (1998) was Zorn's first full-scale orchestral release featuring pianist Stephen Drury, the Hungarian Radio Children's Choir and the American Composers Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.
Songs from the Hermetic Theatre (2001) featured four experimental compositions; "American Magus", was Zorn's first piece of electronic music dedicated to Harry Smith; "BeuysBlock", a meditation on the work of Joseph Beuys; "In the Very Eye of Night", a tribute to Maya Deren; and "The Nerve Net", Zorn's first piece of computer music. Madness, Love and Mysticism (2001) featured "Le Mômo", inspired by Antonin Artaud, performed by Stephen Drury (piano) and Jennifer Choi (violin); "Untitled", dedicated to Joseph Cornell, a cello solo for Erik Friedlander; and "Amour Fou" featuring the trio. Chimeras (2003) was inspired by Arnold Schoenberg's atonal composition "Pierrot Lunaire".
Several of Zorn's later concert works drew inspiration from mysticism and the works of Aleister Crowley in particular. Magick (2004) featured the Crowley Quartet on "Necronomicon: for string quartet" and "Sortelage" written for two bass clarinets. Mysterium released in 2005 featured "Orphée" performed by a sextet of flute, viola, harp, harpsichord and electronics; "Frammenti Del Sappho" for female chorus; and "Wulpurgisnacht" for string trio. Rituals (2005) featured Zorn’s five movement opera for mezzo soprano and ten instruments composed for the Bayreuth Opera Festival in 1998. From Silence to Sorcery (2007) features three compositions; "Goetia" consists of eight variations for solo violin performed by Jennifer Choi; "Gris-Gris" is composition for thirteen tuned drums performed by William Winant; and "Shibboleth" is a tribute to Paul Celan scored for clavichord, strings and percussion.
The initial releases featuring this compositional approach were ten albums by Masada appearing on the Japanese DIW label from 1994. Masada (later referred to as 'acoustic' Masada) was an Ornette Coleman-inspired quartet with Zorn on saxophone, Joey Baron (drums), Dave Douglas (trumpet), and Greg Cohen (bass) that performed jazz-styled compositions based on Sephardic scales and rhythms. The original Masada albums were titled after the first ten letters of the Hebrew Alphabet; Alef, Beit, Gimel, Dalet, Hei, Vav, Zayin, Het, Tet and Yod and contained compositions with Hebrew titles. Further releases by Masada consisted of live performances of the band recorded in Jerusalem, Taipei, Middleheim, Seville and in New York at the Knitting Factory and at Tonic and as a DVD, and a double CD of unreleased studio recordings, Sanhedrin 1994-1997 (2005). The Masada quartet performed at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in March 2007 for what were billed as their final concerts.
The Masada Book has been performed by many different ensembles and musicians. The Masada String Trio composed of Greg Cohen (bass), Mark Feldman (violin), and Erik Friedlander (cello) regularly performs and records Zorn's Masada pieces. This group, with the addition of Marc Ribot (guitar), Cyro Baptista (percussion), and Joey Baron (drums) also perform as the Bar Kohkba Sextet. Electric Masada, the most recent regular Masada ensemble usually features Zorn, Baptista, Baron, and Ribot, along with Trevor Dunn (bass), Ikue Mori (electronics), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Kenny Wollesen (drums).
A Tenth Anniversary Series of Masada recordings was released by Zorn beginning in 2003. The series featured five albums of Masada themes including Masada Guitars by Marc Ribot/Bill Frisell/Tim Sparks, Masada Recital by Mark Feldman & Sylvie Courvoisier, Masada Rock by Rashanim and two albums featuring various artists - Voices in the Wilderness and The Unknown Masada.
In 2004 Zorn began composing the second Masada Book - 'The Book of Angels' resulting in an additional 300 compositions. He has released several albums of Masada Book Two compositions performed by various combinations of musicians. The titles of many Masada Book Two compositions are derived from demonology and Judeo-Christian mythology.
In 1995, in co-operation with jazz producer Kazunori Sugiyama, Zorn established the Tzadik label to ensure availability of his catalogue and promote experimental musicians. He is inspired by other artists and different musical styles, particularly those working in improvised music. Zorn has a special attraction to underground artists and musical styles that are extremely loud, wild, or creative. Tzadik has established a diverse catalogue reflecting Zorn's range of musical influences and influence. The Tzadik website describes the label as "...dedicated to releasing the best in avant garde and experimental music, presenting a worldwide community of musician-composers who find it difficult or impossible to release their music through conventional channels".
The label's releases are divided into series:
Tzadik also releases special edition CDs, DVDs, books and T-shirts. Since 1998 the designs of Tzadik releases have been created by graphic artist Heung-Heung "Chippy" Chin.
In 2000 Zorn edited the book Arcana: Musicians on Music featuring interviews, essays, and commentaries by musicians including Anthony Coleman, Peter Garland, David Mahler, Bill Frisell, Gerry Hemingway, George Lewis, Fred Frith, Eyvind Kang, Mike Patton and Elliott Sharp, on the compositional process. Zorn released the second volume of Arcana: Musicians on Music in the Summer of 2007. According to the preface by Zorn, "This second installment of what will be a continuing series of books presenting radical, cutting-edge ideas about music is made, like the initial volume, out of necessity.” The second volume contains essays by more than 30 musicians including Annie Gosfield, Trey Spruance, Zeena Parkins, Steve Coleman, Marina Rosenfeld, Carla Kihlstedt, David Douglas, Bill Laswell, Trevor Dunn, and Jewlia Eisenberg. In October of 2008, a third volume of the Arcana series was released containing essays by Wadada Leo Smith, Frank London, Greg Cohen, and Jamie Saft.
The character of Stephen Colbert from the TV show The Colbert Report mocked the MacArthur Foundation's award of the Genius Grant to Zorn. Colbert used a 10-second dissonant excerpt from the 50th Birthday Celebration Series and compared it to his naïve blowing into a saxophone, pleading, "Genius Grant please!