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‘Mystery Is Everything’: John Zorn Makes Music for Agnes Martin

John Zorn performing "Praise" (2016), with William Winant and Carol Emanuel, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's 2016 International Gala. DAVID X PRUTTING/BFA.COM

John Zorn performing Praise (2016), with William Winant and Carol Emanuel, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s 2016 International Gala.


Quietude might be better suited than music for the art of Agnes Martin, but as the post-punks used to say: silence is a rhythm too. Certainly it is in the realm of Martin’s lines and grids, where hushed demarcations of empty space suggest so much, and in the context of her decades-long career, which was guided by a muted devotion to repetition, repetition, repetition.

How best, then, to write music in tribute to paintings so disquieting and spare? In the case of John Zorn, the composer of Martin-inspired works that will be performed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York on December 1 and 2, one strategy involved flipping the script. “In some cases it’s effective to shoot the arrow,” Zorn said of gamely inverting relations between aim and result, “and then draw the bull’s eye.”


John Zorn.


The storied downtown musician was explaining (as much as explain might be the word) the process behind two compositions on Redbird, an album released 11 years ago that he described as “inspired by and dedicated to” Martin’s art. One of the compositions, “Dark River,” for four slowly rumbling bass drums, figures into a Guggenheim program that will also include two new pieces written for the museum’s momentous Martin survey (on view, after stints in London, Düsseldorf, and Los Angeles, through January 11, 2017).

For Zorn, communion with Martin’s art started early, when he first saw her work around the age of 16 at the Museum of Modern Art. He found himself “blown away,” he said in an email interview, “by its profound humanity—the handmade quality and subtle sense of detail where the ‘mistakes’ or ‘imperfections’ are what make it glow, what make it perfect.”

Nearly 30 years later, he worked his way toward his first tribute by a surprising route: a series of hypnotic chords he originally intended to use for a soundtrack to an erotic lesbian film by Maria Beatty. Somehow they worked better, he found, in the service of another piece, eventually titled “Redbird” (after a 1964 painting by Martin that takes that title as two words instead of one). “It grew to what it is in an organic way, spontaneously, and afterwards the formal nature of the structure seemed to evoke Agnes’s world,” Zorn said.

Installation view of the 2016 Agnes Martin retrospective at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. DAVID HEALD/©SOLOMON R. GUGGENHEIM FOUNDATION

Installation view of the 2016 Agnes Martin retrospective at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.


“Redbird” is solemn and spare—for harp, violin, cello, percussion—and like little else in Zorn’s oeuvre, which tends toward antic free-jazz and avant-garde combustibility. Reference points include Morton Feldman and Giacinto Scelsi—minimalist composers for whom patience and restraint were key.

Martin herself favored less spectral sounds (Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was held especially dear), but music was, in any case, monumental in her thinking about art. In jottings in a notebook reproduced in her dealer Arne Glimcher’s reverential tome Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances (Phaidon), the artist wrote, “Art work that is completely abstract—free from any expression of the environment—is like music and can be responded to in the same way. Our response to line and tone and color is the same as our response to sounds. And like music abstract art is thematic. It holds meaning for us that is beyond expression in words.”

In other writing, cited in Nancy Princenthal’s biography Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames & Hudson), Martin described music as “the most abstract and the most effective [form of art]. We make about four times as much response to sound as we do to what we see.”

Asked about that proposed differential between the effects of music and painting, Zorn concurred—with reservations. “I agree completely, but we live in what is predominantly a visual society,” he said. “Even concert reviews often address what was seen over what was heard. This is part of what separates musicians from the world at large—and why we are often so misunderstood.” (To that, he added an addendum: “Being understood is greatly overrated! Being misunderstood allows for even greater freedom of thought and action.”)

Others have responded musically to Martin’s art, such as Dickie Landry, the 1970s-era New York fixture who was a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble and a close compatriot of Robert Wilson, Keith Sonnier, and Gordon Matta-Clark, among others. In a 1972 video piece titled Quad Suite (Six Vibrations for Agnes Martin), Landry—in an intermedia work created at the Kitchen—summoned Martin’s evocative formalism with the sound and vision of a hand strumming strings, in close-up with quadrophonic sound. “I remember looking at the guitar,” Landry said about his inspiration, “and it looked like Agnes Martin.”

Dickie Landry, Quad Suite (Six Vibrations for Agnes Martin), still, 1972. COURTESY THE ARTIST

Dickie Landry, Quad Suite (Six Vibrations for Agnes Martin), still, 1972.


For Zorn, channeling Martin’s work draws on transmissions that can be formalistic or free. “For me, all methods are accepted and can be accessed in the creative process,” he said. “Sometimes one thinks things through in a mathematical or philosophical manner. Sometimes one feels one’s way. Both methods embrace mystery—mystery is everything.”

“Praise,” one of the new compositions to be performed at the Guggenheim, initially came to Zorn in a dream as a piece for harp, to which he added an array of what he called “articulations, colors, and effects.” In a preview performance two weeks ago at the Guggenheim International Gala—in front of a well-heeled crowd that included Anna Wintour and Valentino Garavani—Zorn performed it in camo pants, hiking shoes, and a baggy T-shirt. Harp predominated, played in spacious patterns by Carol Emanuel, with earthy and abstract elements of accentuation: bowed cymbals and oddly elegant birdcalls by William Winant, as well as miniaturized percussion and electronic soundings by Zorn himself. The music was ethereal and formidable, lasting and fleeting by turns.

Afterward, the composer was happy—or at least pleased. In answers to questions the next day, he addressed interconnections between his music and Martin’s privileging of love and insularity. “All my work is emotional, often cathartic,” he said. “Community is essential to my musical poetic.” But so too is solitude: “Another connection is the importance placed upon integrity, freedom, and independence—remaining separate from the streams of society and fashion and being insulated from any influences that may corrupt the work,” he said.

Asked what he sees when he looks most intently at Martin’s art, Zorn began his reply with a question. “Does one ‘see’ water lilies when one looks at a Monet? They are there, just as the grid is sometimes there, but I don’t think that’s at all the point—that’s just a platform, the same way a musical composition is a platform.”

He continued: “I don’t see grids when I look at her work. I see love. I see transcendence. I see purity. I see infinity.”

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