Watching the pianist Stephen Gosling perform a world premiere by John Zorn from a position onstage, close to the piano bench, felt decadent when it happened on Tuesday evening, at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. But there also was a practical advantage: Seated at close range, with Gosling’s hands and the keyboard in full view, it was easy to peer over his shoulder at the scores on his stand. If you couldn’t make out every note, you certainly could see how patterns on the page translated into the gauzy chords, violent clusters, frantic scrambles, and intricate hand crossings Gosling produced.
Not that attempting to “read” the composition in question, 18 Studies from the Later Sketchbooks of JMW Turner (1841-1845), was foolproof. A friend and I exchanged looks of amused horror when Gosling laid out the four densely notated pages of the fifteenth piece in the 18-part cycle, only to sigh with relief when the music began at a glacial pace. But in fact, the tempo would accelerate sharply, slow down, and race again. Gosling played an independent rhythmic loop with each hand, and the patterns never lined up entirely. (He had explained this in an email, beforehand.) Treacherous, then—but not in the most obvious way.
I can’t say with certainty when it was that Gosling – a brilliant, incisive pianist long active in New York City’s new-music community, and familiar to a wider constituency through his work with the New York Philharmonic, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Orpheus, and so on – joined Zorn’s ever-extending musical community. Whenever it was, the connection was fortuitous: Gosling has become an invaluable exponent of Zorn’s compositions, both as a chamber player and as a soloist. Their compatibility was demonstrated anew when Gosling presented the world premiere of 18 Studies during the first casual “pop-up” concert of the new Miller season—which explains the seating arrangement.
One of the great joys of following Zorn’s career is watching the evolution of his relationships with the musicians he pulls into his circle—and his work as a composer of classical concert works absolutely falls within his collaborative practice. In early encounters, you hear how a given interpreter responds to Zorn, one of music’s most inquisitive, omnivorous, and accomplished minds. Then comes the fun of sensing the bond growing more familiar, and hearing new pieces tailored specifically to suit an individual player’s prowess and proclivities.
Gosling’s affinity for this music is evident in a string of recordings on Tzadik, Zorn’s record label. Encomia, newly released in August, illustrates Gosling’s technical assurance and insight in a collection of elaborate, characterful solo pieces, and in an eruptive duo with the violinist Christopher Otto. The pianist turned heads at the 2019 Ojai Music Festival with his virtuoso work in two substantial Zorn programs. One, available for streaming on YouTube, found him working with members of the JACK Quartet; in the other, Gosling and Barbara Hannigan, the astonishing soprano, gave the U.S. premiere of Zorn’s Jumalattaret, a sublime composition they’ll repeat in a sold-out recital at the Park Avenue Armory in New York on Oct. 15. (Encomia will be on that program, as well.)
All of that served as prelude to Tuesday’s event. In an interview conducted prior to the concert for publication by National Sawdust Log later this month, Miller Theatre executive director Melissa Smey cited intimate experiences at the defunct downtown music space Tonic and Zorn’s own venue, The Stone – closed in its original location, but continued at The New School and elsewhere – as having inspired Miller’s series: casual events presented free of charge, with audience members seated onstage around the performers.
Smey and Miller Theatre now certainly number among Zorn’s collaborative tribe, as well – Zorn has been the focus of no fewer than eight Composer Portrait programs over the 20-year history of that series – and Tuesday’s concert was adjusted to prepare for added demand. Audience members (and journalists) surrounded the piano on just three sides; the instrument was moved downstage, and many more listeners, Zorn included, grabbed spots in the theater’s customary seating area.
Whether each section of 18 Studies corresponded to a specific image by J.M.W. Turner – a British Romantic painter whose mature oils and watercolors pushed painting into new extremes of formal innovation and unorthodox expressiveness, anticipating impressionism – was not revealed. But the range of styles, moods, and techniques Zorn packed into his cycle suited the variety and passion of Turner’s work.
Assembled, the collection of “images and impressions” (so states the work’s subtitle) also offers, in just under an hour, a compact yet far-flung catalog of Zorn’s compositional inclinations. Opening with rippling, roiling ascents dotted with emphatic jabs (No. 1), the composition proceeded through some episodes reminiscent of Zorn’s classic file-card strategies, writhing, snapping, and frolicking with cartoon-logic unpredictability (Nos. 2 and 6), and others grounded in odd-metered patterns, whether sweet and seductive or stark and obsessive (Nos. 3, 9, and 10).
No. 4 had a breezy sway and twirl akin to Zorn’s simplest, most beguiling creations, like sophisticated film music; No. 5 offered a melancholy procession of chords, without melodic elaboration. No. 7 was dominated with anxious trills, like Messiaen’s birds weaponized by Alfred Hitchcock—speaking of whom, perhaps vertigo is best word to describe the dizzying swoops and concluding tumble of No. 8.
Sharp contrast was evident everywhere: both within a given movement – the brittle outbursts that broke up the otherwise contemplative mood of No 11, for instance – and from one movement to the next, as when the stop-start momentum and hammering attacks of No. 12 give way to the tense, eerie reserve of No. 13, and the muscular swirl and brusquely shifting accents of No. 14. After the deceptive, fleeting repose of sorts in the aforementioned No. 15 comes one more episode of dervish spinning (No. 16), another of spare, juddering sobriety (No. 17), and a last antic barrage of torrents and stabs, ending with a defiantly impudent flourish like a thumbed nose (No. 18).
Classic Zorn, and Gosling took it all in stride, in the end basking in a well-earned ovation. Tasked with music that quite likely demanded contact with every key on the instrument, along with a couple of quick dives under the lid, Gosling responded with brilliance, assurance, and the kind of insight that comes with close collaboration, long experience, and trust. Those qualities, more than anything else, amount to a common thread running through the myriad modes of expression Zorn has favored, as well as those he continues to invent.
Stephen Gosling performs music by John Zorn in a sold-out recital with Barbara Hannigan at the Park Avenue Armory on Oct. 15; armoryonpark.org
Steve Smith is the editor of National Sawdust Log and director of publications for National Sawdust. He also contributes to The New Yorker, and worked previously as a freelance reporter and critic for The New York Times, and as a staff editor for the Boston Globe and Time Out New York.
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