John Zorn at the Art Institute of Chicago

John Zorn brought his experimental music to resonate with visual art at the Art Institute of Chicago through 12 performances throughout the day. Sunday, September 9, I joined for the afternoon portion of the marathon day of performances. The performances were spread throughout the museum alternating floors and wings making it so getting to the next performance was almost a race in itself.

Ensembles positioned themselves in front of visual artworks as a pairing. The were 11 different ensembles showcasing the breadth of Zorn’s music, including the American Brass Quintet, JACK Quartet, guitarists, cellists, vocalists, percussionists, and Zorn himself. The composer has executed similar events in New York and Europe, but this was an exciting opportunity for Chicago.

John Zorn on the alto saxophone at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
John Zorn at a performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The composer’s presence added to the performance. His casual dress and demeanor welcomed audience members. He made his way through the crowded galleries to introduce the pieces and encouraged the audience to put away distractions to be in the moment with the music. He had an ease of speaking which made the event seem incredibly special. When Zorn introducedZeitgehöft played by Chris Otto (violin) and Jay Campbell (cello), the work became even richer when he told that he wrote it after a root canal. Though there was some connection to the visual artworks, particularly of Paul Klee, the story of the piece did more to activate and engage the audience.

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American Brass Quintet after their performance in front of the Chagall Windows

Audience-wise, there was an interesting juxtaposition between the people who had come to the museum for specifically the event and the tourists who found themselves in the midst of it. In some ways, an art museum is not a very daring place for contemporary music. Both can fall into a category of “high art” and the people that participate in either typically are already actively engaged with art. This “art club” seemed to have been present for the Zorn performances specifically rushing to and from each performance and staying attentive throughout. On the other hand, other museum goers passed through curious about what was happening, but often were tentative to stay through the performance or to seek out the next one. The Art Institute of Chicago is a major tourist destination often voted best museum on tripadvisor. In this way, vacationers break with the model of the exclusive “art club” when they are visiting another place they become more likely to engage with cultural institutions in the place they are visiting than in the places they live. I just wonder what the performance would have been like if it was in a community center or even the cultural center across the street with free admission. Would this type of music have been more accessible to new audiences in another setting?


Except for the improvisations, the music and art were mostly paired as independently created works. I wondered, what would a visual art piece inspired by John Zorn’s music look like?

Much of Zorn’s classical music is dedicated to artists of various genres including composers, novelists, and visual artists. He can be highly referential and draws inspiration from multi-disciplinary sources.

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I created my piece inspired by Zorn’s Duras: Duchamp album. He was inspired by FrenchImage result for zorn duras duchamp novelist Marguerite Duras, composer Olivier Messiaen, and artist Marcel Duchamp. I also referenced the album art. with the hand and the black coloring. I chose the bird in reference to Messiaen’s bird call studies that sound similar in the piano lines in Zorn’s piece.

Artistically, it’s nowhere near the level of the Art Institute. But conceptually, it is approaching the composition in a unique visual way.

John Zorn’s event at the Art Institute of Chicago posed opportunity for interdisciplinary conversation.

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