SAN FRANCISCO — Like Watson and Crick, or Jekyll and Hyde, scientists often make breakthroughs when they collaborate. On Monday night, the stage at The Chapel became a laboratory where three of music’s most celebrated experimenters successfully extracted and mutated DNA before a sold-out crowd. Renowned minimalist composer Terry Riley and avant-garde composer, filmmaker and musician Laurie Anderson joined saxophonist, composer and experimental music legend, John Zorn to celebrate his 65th birthday in the fifth of seven performances over Labor Day weekend featuring everybody from John Medeski to Faith No More frontman Mike Patton.
Monday’s sold-out matinee show began when the three musicians emerged onto a stage crowded with gear. There was John Zorn, looking like he was in the middle of a weekend fixer-upper project, dressed in cargo pants, hiking boots and a short sleeved T-shirt. Terry Riley wore an oversized and flowing gray outfit with a red felt hat. Laurie Anderson appeared monochromatically, with gray hair and a gray frock. The trio eased into a droning and slightly discordant composition that soon became a launching pad for frenetic bursts of notes from each musician. The music grew more complex and chaotic, with Anderson stabbing the audience with shards of processed electric violin noise.
The song reached a frantic crescendo as Zorn’s wailing sounded like a saxophone store being thrown down a flight of stairs, before slowing down and growing quieter. The three musicians found each other again as the song drew to a conclusion like a traffic accident involving several van loads of cats. Or, the audience could just as easily have heard the ripples and dappled sunlight on the surface of a fast moving stream; it’s all about expectations. Without standard musical elements like rhythm and melody, the audience is deprived the luxury of familiarity, and confronted instead by an endlessly changing sonic landscape that resists mapping and opens portals to strange new landscapes.
After the first piece, which lasted about 15 minutes, the trio paused for only a moment before Zorn began wailing like a bird in a blender and Riley conjured a synthesized bass sound from an iPad atop his Steinway grand piano. Anderson created discordant sheets of processed sound, and they were off once again, chasing each other through tangled mazes of slithery notes.
Zorn motioned to Riley to begin the the trio’s third piece of the evening. Looking a bit like Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, the 81-year-old composer who revolutionized minimalist music with his seminal 1964 album, In C, obliged. His acrobatics on the keyboard consisted of everything from angular fragments from blues riffs in 12/8 time to rhythmic pulses resembling the piano work of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Zorn and Anderson nodded along as Riley held a long musical conversation with himself. Eventually the three friends joined in, finishing each other’s musical sentences.
Three quarters of the way through the hour-long set, Laurie Anderson spoke to the crowd, first wishing John Zorn a happy birthday, and then telling a story about the way New York felt oddly silent the day after the 2016 election. Anderson said that Yoko Ono, when asked by press for her feelings that day, had screamed for a solid minute. Anderson then asked the crowd to “think of North Korea, or the melting polar ice caps, or the latest Tweets” and to scream for 10 seconds. The resulting blood-curdling scream from the audience provided some much-needed catharsis.
Mid-scream, the band launched into another piece, this one darker, sparser, and more ominous. Anderson voiced an off-kilter melody with the signature sound of her electrified violin. The dirge quickened in pace and became more complex, like a snowball rolling over the audience.
The trio traded off leading roles as the set came to a close: Riley soloing, then John Zorn and finally Anderson, who coaxed a spastic herd of notes from her violin before the trio resumed the piece’s frenetic outro.
The trio returned for an encore and performed a final piece that began with Terry Riley’s discordant jazz chords on the piano before the band launched a sonic exploration that rounded the far side of the solar system in just 10 minutes.
The sonic alchemy of these three musicians proved a worthy tribute to Zorn, who has collaborated with, produced and inspired a who’s who of experimental musicians for almost 50 years.
Follow writer David Gill at Twitter.com/songotaku.