Zorn established himself within the New York City downtown music movement in the mid-1970s performing with musicians across the sonic spectrum and developing experimental methods of composing new music. After releasing albums on several independent US and European labels, Zorn signed with Elektra Nonesuch and received wide acclaim with the release of The Big Gundown, an album reworking the compositions of Ennio Morricone. He attracted further attention worldwide with the release of Spillane in 1987, and Naked City in 1989. After spending almost a decade travelling between Japan and the US he made New York his permanent base and established his own record label, Tzadik, in the mid-1990s.
Tzadik enabled Zorn to maintain independence from the mainstream music industry and ensured the continued availability of his growing catalog of recordings, allowing him to prolifically record and release new material, issuing several new albums each year, as well as promoting the work of many other musicians. Zorn has led the hardcore bands Naked City and Painkiller, the klezmer/free jazz-influenced quartet Masada, composed over 600 pieces as part of the Masada Songbooks that have been performed by an array of groups, composed concert music for classical ensembles and orchestras, and produced music for opera, sound installations, film and documentary. Zorn has undertaken many tours of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, often performing at festivals with many other musicians and ensembles that perform his diverse output.
Zorn's compositions cross many genres and he has stated "All the various styles are organically connected to one another. I'm an additive person—the entire storehouse of my knowledge informs everything I do. People are so obsessed with the surface that they can't see the connections, but they are there." For Zorn "Composing is more than just imagining music—it's knowing how to communicate it to musicians. And you don't give an improviser music that's completely written out, or ask a classical musician to improvise. I'm interested in speaking to musicians in their own languages, on their own terms, and in bringing out the best in what they do. To challenge them and excite them."
John Zorn was born in New York City and learned piano, guitar and flute as a child. His family had diverse musical tastes: his mother, Vera (née Studenski, 1918–1999), listened to classical and world music, his father, Henry Zorn (1913–1992), was interested in jazz, French chansons, and country music, and his older brother collected doo-wop, and 1950s rock and roll records. He attended the United Nations International School from kindergarten to high school associating with school friends from many different cultures. Zorn spent his teenage years exploring classical music, film music, and, "listening to The Doors and playing bass in a surf band." Zorn acquired an interest in experimental and avant-garde music after buying a record by Mauricio Kagel in 1968 at the age of fifteen. He taught himself orchestration and counterpoint by transcribing scores and studied composition under Leonardo Balada.
Zorn started playing the saxophone after discovering Anthony Braxton's album For Alto (1969) when he was studying composition at Webster College (now Webster University) in St. Louis, Missouri, where he attended classes taught by Oliver Lake. While still at Webster, Zorn incorporated elements of free jazz, avant-garde and experimental music, film scores, performance art and the cartoon scores of Carl Stalling into his first recordings which were later released as First Recordings 1973 (1995).
Zorn dropped out of college and, following a stint on the West Coast, moved to Manhattan where he gave concerts in his apartment and other small NY venues, playing saxophone and a variety of reeds, duck calls, tapes, and other instruments. Zorn immersed himself in the underground art scene, assisting Jack Smith with his performances and attending plays by Richard Foreman. He founded a performance art project called the Theatre of Musical Optics in 1975 and became a major participant in the downtown music scene as a composer, performer, and producer of music that challenged the confines of any single musical genre.
Zorn's early major compositions included several game pieces described as "complex systems harnessing improvisers in flexible compositional formats". These compositions "involved strict rules, role playing, prompters with flashcards, all in the name of melding structure and improvisation in a seamless fashion". Zorn's game pieces were often titled after sports, and include Track & Field (1974), Baseball (1976), Lacrosse (1976), Dominoes (1977), Curling (1977), Golf (1977), Hockey (1978), Cricket (1978), Fencing (1978), Pool (1979), and Archery (1979), several of which were recorded and originally released on Eugene Chadbourne's Parachute label, becoming the first albums under Zorn's leadership. His most enduring game piece is Cobra, composed in 1984 and first released on album in 1987 and in subsequent versions in 1992, 1994 and 2002, and revisited in performance many times. In the early 1980s Zorn was heavily engaged in improvised performance which included "blowing duck calls in buckets of water at fringe venues" as both a solo performer and with other like-minded artists. Zorn's first solo saxophone (and duck call) recordings were originally released in two volumes as The Classic Guide to Strategy in 1983 and 1986 on the Lumina label. Zorn's early small group improvisations are documented on Locus Solus (1983) which featured Zorn with various combinations of other improvisers including Christian Marclay, Arto Lindsay, Wayne Horvitz, Ikue Mori, and Anton Fier. Ganryu Island featured a series of duets by Zorn with Michihiro Sato on shamisen, which received limited release on the Yukon label in 1984. Zorn has subsequently released these recordings as CDs on Tzadik making them more widely available than the original vinyl pressings.
Zorn's breakthrough recording was 1985's widely acclaimed The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone, where Zorn offered radical arrangements of themes from The Big Gundown (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984), that incorporated elements of traditional Japanese music, soul jazz, and other diverse musical genres. The Big Gundown was endorsed by Morricone, who is quoted as saying: "This is a record that has fresh, good and intelligent ideas. It is realization on a high level, a work done by a maestro with great science-fantasy and creativity ... Many people have done versions of my pieces, but no one has done them like this".
Zorn followed this with his second major-label release Spillane in 1987, which included performances by Albert Collins and the Kronos Quartet, and the extended title track, one of Zorn's file-card compositions, which featured text by Arto Lindsay set to an array of sonic film noir references. This method of combining composition and improvisation involved Zorn writing descriptions or ideas on file-cards and arranging them to form the piece. Zorn described the process in 2003: "I write in moments, in disparate sound blocks, so I find it convenient to store these events on filing cards so they can be sorted and ordered with minimum effort. Pacing is essential. If you move too fast, people tend to stop hearing the individual moments as complete in themselves and more as elements of a sort of cloud effect ... I worked 10 to 12 hours a day for a week, just orchestrating these file cards. It was an intense process." Zorn's file-card method of organizing sound blocks into an overall structure largely depended on the musicians he chose, the way they interpreted what was written on the file cards, and their relationship with Zorn. "I'm not going to sit in some ivory tower and pass my scores down to the players." said Zorn, "I have to be there with them, and that's why I started playing saxophone, so that I could meet musicians. I still feel that I have to earn a player's trust before they can play my music. At the end of the day, I want players to say: this was fun—it was a lot of fucking work, and it's one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it was worth the effort."
Two other critically acclaimed releases on Nonesuch followed; Spy vs Spy in 1989, and Naked City in 1990, before Zorn left the label.
Beginning in 1986 Zorn participated in several projects focused on the compositions of modern jazz musicians which highlighted his unique saxophone style. These included Voodoo (1986) by the Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, and Spy vs Spy (1989) featuring hardcore punk-informed interpretations of Ornette Coleman's music with Tim Berne. News for Lulu (1988) and More News for Lulu (1992) featured Zorn, Bill Frisell and George Lewis performing compositions by Kenny Dorham, Sonny Clark, Freddie Redd, and Hank Mobley. He performed on two recordings by organist Big John Patton and recorded alongside Lee Konitz, who Zorn has described as "one of my all-time heroes".
While Zorn is often labelled a jazz musician his schema is considerably broader. He stated: "The term 'jazz', per se, is meaningless to me in a certain way. Musicians don't think in terms of boxes. I know what jazz music is. I studied it. I love it. But when I sit down and make music, a lot of things come together. And sometimes it falls a little bit toward the classical side, sometimes it falls a little bit towards the jazz, sometimes it falls toward rock, sometimes it doesn't fall anywhere, it's just floating in limbo. But no matter which way it falls, it's always a little bit of a freak. It doesn't really belong anywhere. It's something unique, it's something different, it's something out of my heart. It's not connected with those traditions." "But the music is not jazz music, it's not classical music, it's not rock music. It's a new kind of music ... So I feel like that created a deep misunderstanding in what this music is. People started judging this new music with the standards of jazz, with the definitions of what jazz is and isn't, because stories about it appeared in jazz magazines. And now I'll do a gig at the Marciac Jazz Festival and I'll get offstage and Wynton Marsalis will say, 'That's not jazz.' And I'll say, 'You're right! But this is the only gig I've got, man. Give me another festival and I'll play there.'"
Zorn has written music for documentaries, underground films, television advertisements and cartoons which were released in his Filmworks series on the Tzadik label. Some of these film scores are jazz-influenced, others classical, and most feature ensembles consisting of rotating combinations of downtown musicians. Zorn has often used his cinematic and television commissions to experiment with line-ups and forms that would become more established parts of his musical canon. Zorn only agrees to composing for film on the condition he retains all rights to any music produced and ensures that all musicians participating in his soundtrack work are appropriately remunerated.
Zorn stated that "After my record The Big Gundown came out I was convinced that a lot of soundtrack work was going to be coming my way". While interest from Hollywood was not forthcoming he attracted the attention of many independent filmmakers. The first director to commission him was Rob Schwebber for the 1986 short White and Lazy followed by his work for Sheila McLaughlin's film, She Must Be Seeing Things (1986) and in 1990, he composed the soundtrack for the Raúl Ruiz film The Golden Boat. Zorn did attract the interest of filmmaker Walter Hill who contracted him to compose music for a film to be called Looters. The film was finally released in 1992 as Trespass (1992) featuring a score by Ry Cooder. Although Zorn's score was not used in the final release he used the commission he received for composing to establish his own record label, Tzadik, and released Filmworks II: Music for an Untitled Film by Walter Hill in 1995.
Zorn produced a series of commercial soundtracks for the advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy, including one directed by Jean-Luc Godard—a long-term Zorn inspiration. Filmworks VII: Cynical Hysterie Hour re-released the themes that Zorn produced for a Japanese cartoon which had only been previously available in limited release in Japan. Zorn regained the rights to these recordings by trading a booking at the Knitting Factory to Sony executives.
Zorn often used his film work to introduce new groups or experiment with new compositional methods; Filmworks 1986–1990 (1991) featured a sixty-four second interpretation of the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly which links his Morricone tribute to the musicians who would become Naked City; Filmworks III: 1990–1995 (1997) featured the first recordings by the Masada lineup produced for Joe Chappelle's independent feature Thieves Quartet; Filmworks XI: Secret Lives featured the Masada String Trio; and Filmworks XXII: The Last Supper highlighted Zorn's growing interest in composing for vocal groups.
From the mid-1990s Zorn composed film music only for projects which he found personally interesting or of artistic merit. These included underground films dealing with BDSM and LGBT culture, documentaries exploring the Jewish experience, and films about outsider artists . On occasion Zorn would produce soundtracks for productions with more mainstream appeal such as 2002's Filmworks XIII: Invitation to a Suicide, written for a black comedy about a man selling tickets to his own suicide to save his father's life, Filmworks XVI: Workingman's Death (2005) for a documentary portraying hazardous employment undertaken in developing countries, Filmworks XVIII: The Treatment (2006) for Oren Rudavsky's romantic comedy based on the tango music of Astor Piazzolla., and Filmworks XIX: The Rain Horse (2008) for a Russian animated short film.
In 2013, after releasing 25 volumes in his Filmworks Series, Zorn announced that he would no longer be releasing music for film.
Zorn established Naked City in 1988 as a "compositional workshop" to test the limitations of a rock band format. Featuring Zorn on saxophone, Bill Frisell (guitars), Fred Frith (bass), Wayne Horvitz (keyboards), Joey Baron (drums), and occasional vocals from Yamatsuka Eye (and later Mike Patton), Naked City incorporated Zorn's appreciation of hardcore bands like Agnostic Front and grindcore bands like Napalm Death with his other influences and experimented with compositional form and cover versions.
Named after a 1945 book of graphic black and white photographs by Weegee the band performed an aggressive mix of "soundtrack themes, bluesy hard bop, speedy hardcore rock, squealing free jazz [and] metallic funk". Zorn stated that "Naked City started with rhythm and blues/Spillane type things then went into this hard-core thing ... because I was living in Japan and experiencing a lot of alienation and rejection ... My interest in hard-core also spurred the urge to write shorter and shorter pieces." This approach culminated in a string of "hardcore miniatures", intense brief compositions often lasting less than a minute, 42 of which were featured on the EP, Torture Garden (1989). Some of these tracks had also featured on the band's debut Naked City and others would resurface on the band's next full-length release, Grand Guignol (1992), which also included performances of works by Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin, Orlande de Lassus, Charles Ives, and Olivier Messiaen. The band's third album, Heretic (1992), featured more of these short improvisations produced for the soundtrack of an underground S/M film Jeux des Dames Cruelles. The band released a second EP, Leng Tch'e, in 1992 featuring a single composition which lasted just over half an hour. Radio, released in 1993, was the first Naked City album composed solely by Zorn, and featured tracks crediting a wide range of musical influences. The final recording from the band Absinthe (1993) featured a blend of ambient noise styled compositions with tracks titled after the works of Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire and other figures in the fin de siècle Decadent movement, and a dedication to Olivier Messiaen. Zorn disbanded Naked City after this release but briefly reformed the band for a European tour in 2003.
Zorn also formed Painkiller with Bill Laswell on bass and Mick Harris on drums in 1991. Painkiller's first two releases, Guts of a Virgin (1991) and Buried Secrets (1992), also featured short grindcore and free jazz-inspired compositions. They released their first live album, Rituals: Live in Japan, in 1993, followed by the double CD Execution Ground (1994), which featured longer dub and ambient-styled pieces. A second live album, Talisman: Live in Nagoya, was released in 2002 and the band was featured on Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 12 (2005) with Hamid Drake replacing Harris on drums and guest vocalist Mike Patton. Both bands attracted worldwide interest, particularly in Japan, where Zorn had relocated following a three-month residency in Tokyo.
Zorn continued his interest in hardcore improvisations with the release of Hemophiliac in 2002, with Mike Patton and Ikue Mori, a double CD set signed by the performers and limited to 2,500 copies which soon became a highly sought-after collectors item. The trio also released a live recording as part of Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration Series.
In 2006 Zorn formed the hardcore voice/bass/drums trio of Mike Patton, Trevor Dunn, and Joey Baron which became known as the Moonchild Trio. That year two albums of Zorn's compositions performed by the trio were released: Moonchild: Songs Without Words and Astronome. A third album with the trio, but also featuring Zorn, Ikue Mori, Jamie Saft and chorus, Six Litanies for Heliogabalus, was released in 2007. Their fourth release The Crucible appeared in 2008 followed by Ipsissimus, both of which featured Marc Ribot, in 2010 and Templars: In Sacred Blood, which added John Medeski, in 2012.
John Zorn has established a diverse repertoire of music written for chamber music and orchestral settings. As Zorn's interest in Naked City waned he "started hearing classical music in [his] head again." Zorn commenced working on compositions that drew on chamber music arrangements of strings, percussion and electronic instruments. Elegy, a suite dedicated to Jean Genet, was released in 1992. This was followed by Kristallnacht recorded in November 1992, his premiere work of radical Jewish culture, featuring seven compositions reflecting the Night of Broken Glass in late 1938 where Jews were targets of violence and destruction in Germany and Austria.
Zorn was quoted in 1998 as saying "Sometimes I get the feeling that people just don't see me as a composer, but it's what I've always been since I was eight years old ... I've always thought of myself as a composer, but the world has had a hard time looking at me as a composer because a lot of what I compose is controversial." The establishment of Tzadik allowed him to release many compositions which he had been written over the previous two decades for classical ensembles. Zorn's earliest released "classical" composition (for five flutes), "Christabel" (1972) first appeared on Angelus Novus in 1998. Zorn credits the composition of his 1988 piece for string quartet "Cat O' Nine Tails", commissioned and originally released by the Kronos Quartet (Short Stories), to awakening him to the possibilities of writing for classical musicians. This composition was featured on The String Quartets (1999) and Cartoon S/M (2000) along with variations on "Kol Nidre", inspired by the Jewish prayer of atonement which was written at the same time as (but not part of) the first Masada Book. Aporias: Requia for Piano and Orchestra (1998) was Zorn's first full-scale orchestral release featuring pianist Stephen Drury, the Hungarian Radio Children's Choir and the American Composers Orchestra conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.
Much of Zorn's classical work is dedicated or inspired by artists who have influenced his world view; Duras: Duchamp (1997) contains tributes to Marguerite Duras and Olivier Messiaen.; Songs from the Hermetic Theatre (2001) features compositions dedicated to Harry Smith, Joseph Beuys, and Maya Deren.; Madness, Love and Mysticism (2001) featured "Le Mômo", inspired by Antonin Artaud and "Untitled", dedicated to Joseph Cornell.; and Chimeras (2001) was based on Arnold Schoenberg's atonal composition "Pierrot Lunaire". Several of Zorn's later concert works drew inspiration from mysticism and the works of Aleister Crowley in particular; Magick (2004) featured a group called the Crowley Quartet. A 2009 performance of the albums centerpiece, "Necronomicon", was described as "... frenetic vortexes of violent, abrasive motion, separated by eerily becalmed, suspenseful sections with moody, even prayerful melodies. The music is sensational and evocative, but never arbitrary; you always sense a guiding hand behind the mayhem".
Later works expanded to include vocal and operatic works; Mysterium released in 2005 featured "Frammenti del Sappho" for female chorus; Rituals (2005) featured Zorn's opera composed for the Bayreuth Opera Festival in 1998; and "La Machine de l'Être" composed in 2000, premiered at the New York City Opera in 2011, and recorded for the 2012 album Music and Its Double.
Zorn's concert works have been performed all over the world and he has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic, Brooklyn Philharmonic and BBC Radio 3.
The experience of composing Kristallnacht prompted Zorn to explore his Jewish heritage and examine methods of composing using the Phrygian dominant scale. Zorn set himself the task of writing 100 compositions within a year embracing klezmer styles with his other influences. Within three years, the number of compositions had grown to 200 and became known as the first Masada Book. Zorn explained:
The project for Masada was to create something positive in the Jewish tradition something that maybe takes the idea of Jewish music into the 21st century the way jazz developed from the teens and 1920s into the '40s, the '50s, the '60s and on ... My initial idea was to write a hundred tunes. And then I ended up writing over 200 for the first book and then performed it countless time for years.
The initial fruits of this compositional approach were ten albums by Masada appearing on the Japanese DIW label from 1994. Masada (later referred to as "acoustic" Masada) was an Ornette Coleman-inspired quartet with Zorn (alto saxophone), Joey Baron (drums), Dave Douglas (trumpet), and Greg Cohen (bass) that performed jazz-styled compositions based on Sephardic scales and rhythms. The original Masada albums were titled after the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabet – Alef, Beit, Gimel, Dalet, Hei, Vav, Zayin, Het, Tet and Yod – and contained compositions with Hebrew titles. Further releases by Masada consisted of live performances of the band recorded in Jerusalem, Taipei, Middleheim, Seville and in New York at the Knitting Factory and at Tonic and as a DVD, and a double CD of unreleased studio recordings, Sanhedrin 1994–1997 (2005). The quartet also released a live recording as part of Zorn's 50th Birthday Celebration Series.
In 1996 Zorn released Bar Kokhba featuring Masada compositions recorded by a rotating group of musicians. Two ensembles arose from this album; the Masada String Trio, composed of Greg Cohen (bass), Mark Feldman (violin), and Erik Friedlander (cello); and the Bar Kokhba Sextet which added Marc Ribot (guitar), Cyro Baptista (percussion), and Joey Baron (drums), both of which were featured on 1998's The Circle Maker. The Masada String Trio were also featured on Zorn's Filmworks series, as part of his 50th Birthday Celebration, and released two albums as part of the Book of Angels project, Azazal and Haborym. In 2003 Zorn formed Electric Masada, a band featuring Zorn, Baptista, Baron, and Ribot, along with Trevor Dunn on bass, Ikue Mori on electronics, Jamie Saft on keyboards and Kenny Wollesen on drums releasing their debut live album from Zorn's 50th Birthday Concert series and a double live CD recorded in 2004.
A Tenth Anniversary Series of Masada recordings was released by Zorn beginning in 2003. The series featured five albums of Masada themes including Masada Guitars by Marc Ribot/Bill Frisell/Tim Sparks, Masada Recital by Mark Feldman & Sylvie Courvoisier, Masada Rock by Rashanim and two albums featuring various artists—Voices in the Wilderness and The Unknown Masada.
In 2004, Zorn began composing the second Masada Book, The Book of Angels, resulting in an additional 300 compositions. Zorn explained:
After 10 years of performing the first book, I thought "Maybe it'd be nice to write some more tunes." And I wrote 300 more tunes. When I started writing those it was "Let's see if I can write a hundred songs in a month this time." I've been working on these scales and playing these tunes all this time. In the back of my head somewhere are lodged all kinds of new ideas. Let's see if I can come up with 100 tunes in a month instead of in a year. So in the first month, I popped out a hundred tunes; the second month, another hundred; in the third month, a third 100 tunes. I had no idea that was going to happen.
He has released twenty volumes of Masada Book Two compositions all performed by other artists. Recordings by the Jamie Saft Trio, Masada String Trio, Mark Feldman & Sylvie Courvoisier, Koby Israelite, The Cracow Klezmer Band, Uri Caine, Marc Ribot, Erik Friedlander, Secret Chiefs 3, Bar Kokhba Sextet, Medeski, Martin and Wood, the Masada Quintet, the vocal group Mycale, The Dreamers, the Ben Goldberg Quartet, a second album by the Masada String Trio, Banquet of the Spirits, David Krakauer, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, and Pat Metheny have been released in this series. The titles of many Masada Book Two compositions are derived from demonology and Judeo-Christian mythology.
The Masada quartet performed at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in March 2007 for what were billed as their final concerts. Zorn reformed the band as a sextet with Uri Caine and Cyro Baptista in 2009 saying:
I felt like we kind of hit a plateau a little bit with it in 2007 and I said, "Well, maybe the quartet is really done. Maybe we've accomplished what we can accomplish. Maybe it's time to put this to bed." And then I was asked by the Marciac Jazz Festival to put together a slightly larger group. They asked me what if I added a couple of people to Masada and I said, "I can't add anybody to the quartet. The quartet is the quartet, that's what we do." But then I thought, "Well, if I was going to add someone I would probably ask Uri and Cyro." So we tried it at Marciac and it was unbelievable. We didn't even have any rehearsal time. I just passed the charts out and said, "OK, just watch me because I'll be conducting. Let's just do it." And it was one of those magical clicks on the bandstand that sometimes happens. So yeah, this band is taking off again. After 15 years of doing this music, we can still find new things.
Zorn's Masada compositions and associated ensembles have become a central focus of many concerts and festivals and he has established regular 'Masada Marathons' that feature various bands and musicians performing music from the Masada Books.
Zorn released one of his most popular albums, The Gift, in 2001, which surprised many with its relaxed blend of surf, exotica and world music. On February 29, 2008, at St Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn, Zorn premiered The Dreamers which saw a return to the gentle compositions first featured on The Gift and established the band of the same name. The Dreamers released their second album O'o in 2009, an album of Zorn's Book of Angels compositions in 2010, and a Christmas album in 2011.
In 1992, John Zorn curated the Avant subsidiary of the DIW label and released several Naked City recordings on the label as well as many other albums featuring Zorn affiliated musicians including Derek Bailey, Buckethead, Eugene Chadbourne, Dave Douglas, Erik Friedlander, Wayne Horvitz, Ikue Mori, Bobby Previte, Zeena Parkins and Marc Ribot.
In 1995, in co-operation with jazz producer Kazunori Sugiyama, Zorn established the Tzadik label to ensure the availability of his catalogue and promote other musicians. Tzadik is "dedicated to releasing the best in avant garde and experimental music, presenting a worldwide community of musician-composers who find it difficult or impossible to release their music through conventional channels" and has established a diverse catalogue featuring hundreds of artists and different musical styles.
The label's releases are divided into series:The Archival Series features Zorn's recordings exclusively, including re-releases of several albums that appeared on other labels, Zorn's film work, and recordings from 1973 onwards;
The 50th Birthday Celebration Series is 11 live albums recorded in September 2003 at Tonic as part of the month-long concert retrospective of Zorn's work;
The Composer Series features Zorn's music for "classical" ensembles along with work by many other contemporary composers;
The Radical Jewish Culture Series features contemporary Jewish musicians;
The New Japan Series covers Japanese underground music;
The Film Music Series features soundtracks by other musicians (Zorn's Filmworks recordings are featured in the Archival Series);
The Oracle Series promotes women in experimental music;
The Key Series presents notable avant-garde musicians and projects;
The Lunatic Fringe Series releases music and musicians operating outside of the broad categories offered by other series; and
The Spotlight Series promotes new bands and musical projects of young musicians;
Tzadik also releases special edition CDs, DVDs, books and T-shirts. Since 1998, the designs of Tzadik releases have been created by graphic artist Heung-Heung "Chippy" Chin.
In September 2003 Zorn celebrated his 50th birthday with a month-long series of performances at Tonic in New York, repeating an event he had begun a decade earlier at the Knitting Factory. He conceptualized the month into several different aspects of his musical output. Zorn's bands performed on the weekends, classical ensembles were featured on Sundays, Zorn performed improvisations with other musicians on Mondays, featured his extended compositions on Tuesdays and a retrospective of game pieces on Wednesdays. Twelve live albums were released on his 50th Birthday Celebration Series which featured performances by the Masada String Trio, Milford Graves & John Zorn, Locus Solus, Electric Masada, Fred Frith & John Zorn, Hemophiliac, Masada, Susie Ibrarra, Wadada Leo Smith & John Zorn, John Zorn solo, Yamataka Eye & John Zorn, Bar Kokhba Sextet and Painkiller.
Zorn's 60th Birthday Celebrations encompassed concerts across the globe from festival appearances to unique events in art galleries and unusual venues across 2013 and into 2014. The first concerts under the [email protected] banner were performed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in April 2013. This was followed by performances at the Museum of Modern Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The European leg of [email protected] commenced at the Barbican Theatre in London in July 2013. Festival appearances in Belgium, Poland, Spain and Germany followed soon after. These were followed by concerts in Victoriaville, Canada. Returning to New York City other concert appearances occurred at Alice Tully Hall and Lincoln Centre. Zorn undertook another of his celebrated Masada Marathons at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in August. Further New York City concerts in September included performances of music for film at the Anthology Film Archives, classical works and "Cobra" at the Miller Theatre, a day-long concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a performance of improvised duets with Ryuichi Sakamoto. In October the International Contemporary Ensemble performed a retrospective of Zorn's classical music at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
Zorn's earliest New York performances occurred at small artist-run performance spaces including his own apartment. As his profile grew he became associated with several Lower East Side alternative venues such as the Knitting Factory and Tonic. On Friday April 13, 2007, Zorn played the final night at Tonic before it closed due to financial pressures.
Zorn was the principal force in establishing The Stone in 2005, an avant-garde performance space in New York's Alphabet City which supports itself solely on donations and the sale of limited edition CDs, giving all door revenues directly to the performers. Zorn holds the title of artistic director and regularly performs 'Improvisation Nights'. Zorn feels that "The Stone is a unique space and is different from Tonic, the Knitting Factory, and most of the other venues we have played at as there is no bar... so there is NO pressure to pack the house with an audience that drinks, and what night you perform has nothing to do with your power to draw a crowd or what kind of music you might play". On January 10, 2008, Zorn performed with Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson at a special benefit night at The Stone which was also released on The Stone: Issue Three on CD.
In 2000 Zorn edited the book Arcana: Musicians on Music featuring interviews, essays, and commentaries by musicians including Anthony Coleman, Peter Garland, David Mahler, Bill Frisell, Gerry Hemingway, George Lewis, Fred Frith, Eyvind Kang, Mike Patton and Elliott Sharp, on the compositional process. Zorn released the second volume of Arcana: Musicians on Music in the summer of 2007. According to the preface by Zorn, "This second installment of what will be a continuing series of books presenting radical, cutting-edge ideas about music is made, like the initial volume, out of necessity." The second volume contains essays by more than 30 musicians including Annie Gosfield, Trey Spruance, Zeena Parkins, Steve Coleman, Marina Rosenfeld, Carla Kihlstedt, David Douglas, Bill Laswell, Trevor Dunn, and Jewlia Eisenberg. In October 2008, a third volume of the Arcana series was released containing essays by Wadada Leo Smith, Frank London, Greg Cohen, Sean Lennon and Jamie Saft. Volume IV was released in September 2009, including essays by Derek Bailey, Nels Cline, Chris Cutler, Paul Dresher, Kenneth Gaburo, Shelley Hirsch, Wayne Horvitz, Vijay Iyer, Gordon Mumma, Matana Roberts, Katherine Supove and Carolyn Yarnell. Volume V has been released in July 2010, subtitled Musicians on Music, Magic & Mysticism. Volume VI was published in 2012 with articles by Claire Chase, John Corigliano, Alan Gilbert, Hilary Hahn, David Lang, Tobias Picker, Gyan Riley, Jen Shyu, Julia Woolfe, Kenny Wollesen, Charles Wuorinen and others.
In 2001 John Zorn received the Jewish Cultural Award in Performing Arts from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. In 2006 Zorn was named a MacArthur Fellow. In 2007, he was the recipient of Columbia University's School of the Arts William Schuman Award, an honor given "to recognize the lifetime achievement of an American composer whose works have been widely performed and generally acknowledged to be of lasting significance." In 2011 Zorn was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame by Lou Reed, and was awarded the Magister Artium Gandensis, an honorary degree from the University of Ghent. In 2014 he received honorary doctorates from The State University of New York and the New England Conservatory of Music.Money (1985), a "manic collage film" by Henry Hills on "the early days of "language poetry" and the downtown improvised music scene."
Put More Blood Into the Music (1987), documentary by George Atlas on New York avant garde music, aired Sunday March 12, 1989 as episode 292 of The South Bank Show.
Step Across the Border (1990), documentary on Fred Frith.
A Bookshelf on Top of the Sky: 12 Stories About John Zorn (Tzadik, 2004), film portrait by Claudia Heuermann.
Masada Live at Tonic 1999 (2004), concert film.
Celestial Subway Lines / Salvaging Noise (2005), experimental documentary by Ken Jacobs with soundtrack by Zorn and Ikue Mori.
Sabbath in Paradise (Tzadik, 2007), documentary by Claudia Heuermann on Jewish musical culture in New York's avant garde Jazz scene in the 1990s.
Astronome: A Night at the Opera (2010), an opera by Richard Foreman, music by John Zorn.