The range of my catalog is quite wide, containing an almost unprecedented variety of works for different ensembles and musicians in a myriad of styles—classical, jazz, rock, improvisation and all the aggregates in between. Although at times the pieces are large in scope, my preference is to work small: short concentrated pieces written for intimate chamber units where musicians can relate, express, communicate, hear and be heard. For me, music is about people, not spectacle.
Many of my favorite artists worked small: Klee, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Celan, Joseph Cornell, Heraclitus, Cioran, Wittgenstein, Borges, Webern and Varèse all produced beautiful, kaleidoscopic works of great focus filled with meticulous detail and a magical intensity. These are profoundly deep worlds filled with humanity, imagination, mystery and an artistic integrity that easily overpowers the largest Hollywood blockbuster. When I am lost, confused or depressed this is where I turn to find meaning and spiritual healing.
The 300 pieces that make up the Bagatelles are some of the most abstract music in my catalog and are similar to the 613 compositions in the three books of Masada material but devoid of any particular cultural or extra-musical subtext. Written in a whirlwind of creative activity from March to May of 2015, these short, concentrated pieces are jam packed with musical information and are designed to provide a platform for the creative improviser—to inspire them to play their very best. Creating short form works that have the power and depth to inspire, engage and challenge an improviser is a unique art that I have always had a great appreciation, affinity and affection for. Balance is paramount in their composition—too much material and the player’s individual voice can be stifled, not enough and the piece falls flat. Distinguished by an intricate lyricism and filled with tuplets of varying groupings and unusual intervallic relationships, the language of this particular book of music is largely (but not exclusively) atonal. The pieces are complex, quirky and can be performed by a variety of ensembles and musicians as the instrumentation is left open.
One of the motivations in composing the Bagatelles was to bring my classical language to the improvising musicians of the Downtown scene. Born in the 20th century and now thriving in the 21st, this is a community that has developed a new kind of musicianship and has mastered an unprecedented range of skills. They can improvise, swing, shred, make noise, arrange, organize and can also read highly complex notation. They have great focus, discipline, imagination and most important of all, share a deep curiosity, a love of challenge and have truly open minds. This book of music is a direct result of the healthy inspirational dynamic that can exist between composer and performer.
The twenty ensembles performing in the Skirball concerts feature a wildly diverse group of musicians coming from a wide variety of backgrounds and demographics. It is truly a pleasure to compose music that fully engages the talents of these remarkable musicians and a dream come true to see such a solid, dedicated, creative crew of musicians bring the music to life. It is also particularly satisfying to present so many great musicians on one stage—all unique individualists working together as a team in the best tradition of community to realize a single compositional vision. They perform this music with love, virtuosity, imagination and passion, and it is my sincere hope that the Bagatelles will continue to inspire and interest further generations of musicians who will be able to connect with this unusual book of music with a similar intensity.
John Zorn, NYC, 2017