John Zorn: "Film Works XII"

by Tom Bojko

John Zorn is not afraid of saturating the market with his film scores — nor should he be; on each new release, the composer invites us into yet another exquisite little world. “Film Works XII” presents the scores to three documentary films and the music is as varied as the films themselves.

The longest score on the album is for a documentary on a group of Shaolin monks who traveled the United States to spread their form of Buddhism through an intriguing medium — martial arts. The music is equally intriguing, most of it centering on the stately interplay of Marc Ribot on classical guitar and Min Xiao-Fen on pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute. The songs are short, simple and their themes repeat frequently. But rather than becoming monotonous, the repetitions — such as on the three funky variations of “Shaolin Bossa” — reinforce one another like a string of happy memories. On “Shaolin Dream,” Xiao-Fen’s harmonics wash over the listener in soothing waves, while “Shaolin Spirit” is an episodic romp propelled by a rock-steady bass, Ribot’s strumming and Xian-Fen plucking a melody determined to overcome all it encounters.

The next four tracks on the album span a mere seven minutes and form the soundtrack to a documentary on Morton Bartlett. Little is known about the reclusive Bartlett except that he was orphaned at 8, never married and the world was unaware of his artworks until they were discovered in his basement, after his death, in 1992. According to a review in the Village Voice of Bartlett’s posthumous show at a gallery in Manhattan, from 1935 until around 1965, Bartlett created a surrogate family of 15 half-size, alarmingly anatomically correct pubescent girl and boy dolls. Each doll was meticulously sculpted from clay, cast in plaster and painted with lifelike features. Bartlett dressed these bewigged figures in clothes of his own making, arranged them individually in sexually provocative poses and photographed them.

In his autobiographical profile for Harvard’s 1957 Anniversary Report, Bartlett wrote: “My hobby is sculpting in plaster. Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies: to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.”

The music is less creepy. In fact, it is achingly beautiful. Each track — all of them titled “Family Found” — explores the same simple musical theme in arrangements for cello and voice.

In his musical interpretation of Bartlett’s life, Zorn salvages the man’s frail humanity from the overwhelming perverseness and, in doing so, presents us with a tender — and much more comfortable — way of pondering Bartlett’s loneliness and longing for a family.

With “Film Works XII,” Zorn has expanded the universe yet again.