updated 16 October 2023

John Zorn

American composer and saxophonist born 2 September 1953 in New York.

John Zorn began studying composition when he was fourteen years old at the United Nations International School in New York. He was fascinated by composer Carl Stalling’s work on the Warner Bros. cartoon series Looney Tunes, which went on to inspire his own piece Road Runner (1986). He was also interested in the work of Charles Ives, Harry Partch, and, later on, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Igor Stravinsky — to whom he dedicated one of his first pieces, Canon to Stravinsky (1972). After high school, he attended Webster College in Saint Louis where, with the Black Artists Group and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, he took an interest in jazz and began playing saxophone.

His first composition processes testify to John Cage’s influence on his work. He focused on themes of randomness and, consequently, the relationship between improvisation and composition. At the beginning of the 1970s, Zorn wrote using a technique he related to game theory. His “game pieces” were made up of a detailed set of rules that determined who plays and when. Archery Pool, Lacross, and Cobra are examples. Some years later, he adopted a new technique he called “file card composition.” It is representative of the aesthetic found throughout his work, combining elements of collage and collision, mixing genres and influences. Zorn established lists of impressions, ideas, and sound extracts that he then assembled and arranged on paper to form a score. His references vary from contemporary music to jazz, passing through other genres such as rock, hardcore, noise, film music, metal, pop, and klezmer music. This last genre he explored in a project called Radical Jewish Culture, begun in 1995. He undertook the project with his most widely known group, Masada, whose aim was to give new life to Jewish melodies and cultural ideas that were at risk of being lost or destroyed following the Holocaust.

Zorn became well known at the end of the 1980s with the release of the disc The Big Gundown in homage to Ennio Morricone. From then on, several directors called on him to work on their films, such as Raúl Ruiz for The Golden Boat (1990). But it was in Japan, where Zorn spent almost half of his time, that he would produce the majority of his music for film.

He was dedicated to creating spaces of expression beyond music for experimental artists and was deeply invested in the idea of an artistic community. He organized festivals and concerts, creating a dozen music groups. In 1995, he founded his own label, Tzadik (“the just man” in Hebrew), which has, up to the time of writing, released over 800 recordings (on almost 150 CDs) of his work and that of other avant-garde artists. In 2003, he opened a club in Manhattan called The Stone, where his fellow musicians performed. Since 2000, his publishing house has released seven volumes of his book series Arcana, which compiles texts and interviews from the musicians who have been part of Zorn’s circle.

Zorn’s work has also been strongly inspired by pictorial art. In his compositions, he has referenced the work of Henry Darger in Chimeras (2001), Paul Gauguin in Oviri (2013), Jackson Pollock in Autumn Rhythm (2015), Agnès Martin in Blue Stratagem and Praise (2016), Hilma af Klint in Altarpiece (2017), and Remedios Varo in Star Catcher (2022), among others. In return, museums have quickly become a new terrain for him. Zorn has been invited to perform chamber pieces in front of works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Louvre. In 2016, the Guggenheim called upon Zorn for an homage to Agnès Martin.

Beyond painting, Zorn is interested in the arts in a wider sense. He is passionate about cinema and paid homage to director Jean-Luc Godard and his jump cut editing technique in the album Godard/Spillane (1986) and to Marguerite Duras in Duras: Duchamp (1997). His works Là-Bas (Down There, 2009) and À Rebours (Against Nature, 2010) are both references to novels by nineteenth-century author Joris-Karl Huysmans, while Bateau Ivre (Drunken Boat, 2011) was inspired by an Arthur Rimbaud poem and Novalis (2013) is an homage to the eighteenth-century German polymath after whom it is named. Zorn also cites influences from philosophy and theater, particularly that of Antonin Artaud, along with alchemy and mysticism, apparent in works such as Hermeticum Sacrum (2002) and Pandora’s Box (2013).

Zorn received the Cultural Achievement Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the William Schuman Prize for Composition from the University of Columbia. He was inducted into the Long Island Hall of Fame by Lou Reed in 2010 and received a grant from the MacArthur Fellow Foundation. He has received honorary doctorates from Ghent University, Purchase College, and the New England Conservatory.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2023


John Zorn ; William Duckworth, Talking Music ; Télérama ; Le Monde ; Philharmonie de Paris

Liens Internet

(liens vérifiés en septembre 2023).

Bibliographie sélective

  • John BRACKETT, John Zorn: tradition and transgression, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2008.
  • François-Xavier FÉRON, « Ecclesiastes et Psychosoma (2015) : deux manuscrits inédits de John Zorn », Circuit : musiques contemporaines, 2015, p. 75-77.
  • François-Xavier FÉRON (dir.), « Tzadik : l’esthétique discographique selon John Zorn », Circuit : musiques contemporaines, 25(3), 2015.
  • Pierre HEMPTINNE, « Reprise et revenance. Ornette Coleman revu par John Zorn », Volume !, 7 : 2; 2010, p. 143-147.
  • Claude-Marin HERBERT, « Contre le neutre : John Zorn, les game pieces et le moment “postmoderne” » , Epistrophy - Jouer Jazz / Play Jazz, 02, 2017, à lire ici.
  • Guillaume KOSMICKI, Musiques savantes : de John Zorn à la fin du monde, et après… : 1990-2015, Marseille, le Mot et le reste, 2017.
  • Maurizio PRINCIPATO, John Zorn: musicista, compositore, esploratore, Milan, Auditorium, 2011.
  • Makis SOLOMOS, « Le “cinéma auditif” de John Zorn », in Marie-Noëlle MASSON, Gilles MOUËLLIC (dir.), Musique et images, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2003, p. 199-205.
  • David TOOP, Inflamed Invisible: Collected Writings on Art and Sound 1976-2018, Londres, Goldsmiths Press, 2019.
  • John ZORN (éd.), Arcana: musicians on music, New York, Hips Road, 2000.
  • John ZORN (éd.), Arcana II: musicians on music, New York, Hips Road, 2007.
  • John ZORN (éd.), Arcana III: musicians on music, New York, Hips Road, 2008.
  • John ZORN (éd.), Arcana IV: musicians on music, New York, Hips Road, 2009.
  • John ZORN (éd.), Arcana V: music, magic and mysticism, New York, Hips Road, 2010.
  • John ZORN (éd.), Arcana VI: musicians on music, New York, Hips Road, 2012.
  • John ZORN (éd.), Arcana VII: musicians on music, New York, Hips Road, 2014.
  • « John Zorn » dans William DUCKWORTH, Talking Music. Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers, New York, Schirmer Books, 1995, p. 444-475.


Pour une discographie extensive, voir : www.johnzornresource.com


  • Mathieu AMALRIC, Zorn I (2010-2016)
  • Mathieu AMALRIC, Zorn II (2016-2018)
  • Mathieu AMALRIC, Zorn II (2018-2022)