Trembling before melody

John Zorn is not above writing hooks.

For the last hundred or so years, Western art music composers have been trained to regard melody with skepticism.

Although tonality no longer holds the stigma it once did in the 60s and 70s, composers have yet to re-embrace melody as a means of artistic expression.

Don’t even ask them what they think of film scoring — some of those composers will tell you a movie director, let alone the medium, has no place in determining their creative vision.

Raised on Bugs Bunny cartoons and Anthony Braxton records, Zorn possess none of those issues.

He can churn out a high-minded, conceptual game piece such as Cobra as easily as he can orchestrate the punk-jazz machinations of Naked City, or the klezmer-meets-Ornette Coleman aesthetic of Masada.

And film? Zorn loves it.

His Film Works series of recordings contain perhaps his most diverse work. Some scores are as thorny as his most avant-garde works, while many others are as beautiful and melodic as anything from a Hollywood composer.

Film Works IX: Trembling Before G-d was written for a documentary about gay and lesbian Hassidic Jews. Director Sandi Simcha Dubowski made only one restriction on Zorn — he had to incorporate “Idalah-Abal”, a piece originally included on another Zorn recording, Bar Kobha.

As such, Zorn took a number of Masada compositions and integrated it with original music written for the documentary. The result is one of Zorn’s most haunting, serene and beautiful scores ever.

There are moments where the music does come across as incidental, as when Zorn takes on babbling vocal duties on the exuberent “Simen Tov/Mazel Tov”, or when Jamie Saft’s organ work on “Notarikon” sounds like a rumbling thunderstorm.

“Tashlikh” almost sounds like a piece from Wayne Horvitz’s 4+1 Ensemble, while the title track comes across more as Second Viennese School exercise than as a compliment to the Masada notebook.

These disparities make it evident that the film’s subject matter is the core driving force for the music.

Yet clarinetist Chris Speed keeps things together with a mournful, subtle performance that demonstrates the poignancy of his instrument.

Limiting the ensemble for the score to clarinet, piano, organ and percussion, Film Works IX: Trembling Before G-d certainly feels like a generally cohesive work.

With each score, Zorn aims to create music that underscores the images on celluloid while standing true to itself.

Film Works IX: Trembling Before G-d keeps up with the task and sounds wonderful to boot.