Site of Formation 1984

John Zorn Completes Cobra

Marc Hannaford

Cobra is arguably John Zorn’s most renowned composition. Although some of his ensembles and recordings, such as Naked City, Masada, The Big Gundown (1985), and Kristallnacht (1993), constitute important artifacts in any critical history of improvised music of the last fifty years, Cobra belongs in an exclusive group of canonic compositions for improvisers from this period. Most improvisers today have performed or heard it, or know of its reputation as an archetypal “game piece” that emerged from New York’s 1980s “Downtown” scene.

Zorn’s composition takes its name from a simulation game published in 1977 in the war-game magazine, Strategy & Tactics, which simulates “the Allied break-out from the Normandy peninsula in the summer of 1944, which culminated in the encirclement of some 160,000 German troops in the ‘Falaise Pocket’ ” (quoted in Brackett 2010, 44). Both the board game and musical composition provide a set of rules within which players negotiate. More specifically, one of the crucial features of Zorn’s composition is that it provides a formal structure for collective improvisation, rather than any particular musical content, such as a set of harmonies. The piece thus facilitates improvised interactions between musicians with highly contrasting backgrounds and/or aesthetics. For many improvising musicians based in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, Cobra also symbolizes the large influx of a wide variety of music, in terms of both musicians and recordings, into New York during the 1970s, because its performances and recordings usually present—even dramatize—this polystylism. More specifically, Zorn has stated that he developed game-pieces to facilitate improvised performances between musicians with contrasting backgrounds, but also to engender modes of interaction that he seldom experienced during “free” improvisation.

Cobra’s “score” lists possible “cues” that designate behaviors for ensemble members.1 Each cue engenders some change in relations between some or all members of the group. Groups of cues are color-coded and indicated by the “caller” by pointing to a requisite body part (mouth, nose, eye, ear, head, palm). The “mouth” group, for example, facilitates macro-changes in the ensemble—entrances, exits, or radical changes in style. Specific cues are indicated using fingers (“one,” “two,” “three,” etc.). Once performers register the cue, the caller uses the corresponding color-coded cue card to signal a “downbeat,” at which point the cued activity occurs.

A key aspect of any performance of Cobra that is not included in the score, however, is the selection of personnel. The ensemble should contain between ten and twenty players (Brackett 2010, 48) and Zorn has stated that, “To do this music properly, is to do it with a community of like-minded musicians and an understanding of tactics, personal dynamics, instrumentation, aesthetics and group chemistry” (quoted in Brackett 2010, 55). This emphasis on both individuality and collectivity affiliates Cobra with what George Lewis calls “Afrological systems of improvisative musicality” (Lewis 2004). The Afrological regards individual personality as a central tenet of collective activity. The Eurological, in contrast, prioritizes effacement or tightly constrained individuality, and tends to obscure improvisation behind terms such as “indeterminacy.”

Importantly, the power relation between caller and ensemble is more dynamic than the traditional one between conductor and orchestra. The instructions listed under “guerrilla systems” on the score indicate ways that players can undermine the caller’s cues. 

Performers mark themselves as “guerrillas” by donning a headband. Guerrillas may ignore the caller’s cues, operate autonomously, and employ various “tactics.” They may also graduate to “squad leader” by nominating two players (“spotters”) to join his or her insurrection. The group then operates as a team to “impose” modes of playing on the rest of the group, essentially taking over the entire ensemble. Finally, a “spy” can dissolve guerrilla operations by covertly performing a “cut-throat” gesture to the caller.

Thus, although the caller functions as the default mediator for cues, other improvisers may undermine the caller’s authority. I suggest that this ambivalence emerges from the interaction between Afrological systems and the figure of the conductor—the Afrological’s emphasis on individualism and improvised, real-time interaction implicates the caller/conductor in the real-time negotiations of the ensemble.2

This description risks idealizing the democratic and egalitarian aspects of the work. In performances of Cobra that I have both participated in and witnessed, the caller often falls into Eurological logics of control and authorship, guerilla behaviors notwithstanding. Furthermore, Zorn augmented the aura around the work and his status as “Composer” through his extended refusal to publish the score (the score was eventually published in 1991 in the academic journal Neue Zeitschrift für Musik). Both of these
factors shift the work towards the Eurological. Although Zorn cites his commitment to oral traditions as justification for this reticence to publish the score (Zorn 2005), the lack of publicly available explanatory material in the wake of commercially released recordings (see below for a discography) generated substantial interest regarding the work’s notation and structure. This lack installed Zorn as the authoritative source for information on the work, a stance further emphasized by his disdain for “unauthorized” performances. As such, Zorn’s commitment to orality paradoxically magnifies his authority as Cobra’s fountainhead. I therefore argue that Cobra sits between Lewis’s categories of the Afrological and Eurological, rather than distinctly in either zone.

Author/researcher John Brackett notes that Cobra incorporates structural elements from many of Zorn’s previous game pieces, such as Klarina (his first, in 1974), Lacrosse (1976), Fencing (1978), Pool (1979), and Archery (1979). Zorn’s 1978 piece Fencing, for example, juxtaposes and overlaps contrasting and identifiable musical genres and is included as a guerrilla operation in Cobra, prompting players to commandeer the group by cuing recognizable and contrasting musical genres, creating a music-stylistic collage.

This intertextual aspect of Cobra casts it as part of a process of interrogation, exploration, and modification, rather than an isolated flash of inspiration. Describing the piece as part of a process is particularly important in a journal issue whose central theme is “change.” An uncritical interpretation of this theme, particularly in relation to renowned works like Cobra, risks reinforcing a view of the history of music that elevates a narrow set of “great” works and composers and tends to reify history into distinct, remarkable moments and dissociates those events from quotidian, and often grueling, artistic practices, as well as larger complexes of actors and artifacts. 

Another productive point of view, however, connects Cobra to a larger network of composers and pieces. Zorn cites maverick composers such as John Cage, Edgard Varèse, and Karlheinz Stockhausen as inspirations. Stockhausen’s piece, Plus-Minus (1963, rev. 1974) offers a set of instructions, both symbolic and literal, for musical elaboration. The score comprises seven pages each of graphic symbols and musical materials on staff notation, and thirty-five rules for musical elaboration. Crucially, Stockhausen’s graphic symbols offer the realizer of the piece considerable choice as to the character of the generated musical material. Like Cobra, Plus-Minus does not specify instrumentation, and the choice of instrumentation can have an immense effect on the realization of the music (Fox 2000, 19).

Unlike Cobra, however, Plus-Minus sits firmly within the Eurological realm. The final word in the full title of the piece—Plus-Minus, 2 × 7 Seiten für Ausarbeitung—refers to a mode of working out, similar to an engineer working from a set of plans. Stockhausen’s score thus emphasizes the scientific working out of musical possibilities, rather than the real-time negotiation of collective, emergent relations between idiosyncratic personalities. Put differently, Stockhausen’s score only affords multiple realizations by choosing between alternate, clearly delineated paths. Cobra, in contrast, engenders a labyrinth of intra-ensemble relations that morphs as the performance unfolds.

A closer point of reference for Cobra comes from the large body of work produced by collectives such as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) of Chicago and the Black Artists Collective (BAG) of St. Louis (Lewis 2008, Looker 2004). Musicians from both collectives lived in New York City when Zorn began composing game pieces, suggesting that he was surrounded by musicians with a rich history of exploring and negotiating polystylism, intertextuality, and liminal spaces between improvisation and composition. He has, in fact, mentioned the influence of both collectives on his work (Brackett 2010, 61).

One might consider resonances between Cobra and the landmark recordings by the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC), one of the AACM’s flagship ensembles, from the late 1960s and 1970s, such as Message to Our Folks (1969), A Jackson in Your House (1969), and Live at Mandel Hall (1974). As Paul Steinbeck indicates in his excellent book, Message to Our Folks : The Art Ensemble of Chicago (Steinbeck 2017), the group is known for its nimble allusions to various musical styles and genres, as well as its incorporation of performative elements from non-musical domains, such as theater (83). Heard alongside (or as a predecessor to) Zorn’s work, the AEC’s frequent and abrupt shifts in musical genre anticipate the polystylism embodied in works such as Fencing and Cobra. AEC performances generally also explore a liminal space between “free” improvisation and composition, and the intra-ensemble musical interactions in AEC performances sound very similar to those in recorded versions of Cobra. Finally, similar resonances are also apparent between Cobra and other AACM and BAG members, such as Anthony Braxton, Amina Claudine Myers, and Julius Hemphill.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to fully explore the sonic and aesthetic resonances between Cobra and the work of AACM and BAG members. I also do not wish to reduce Zorn (and Cobra) to his influences. I argue, however, that exploring these avenues would enrich our sonic and historical understanding of the network of experimental improviser/composers operating in and around New York City as Zorn was formulating the ideas that would eventually become Cobra.

John Zorn Completes Cobra