Music

John Zorn Is Rolling The Stone From Avenue C To The New School

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On a rainy Wednesday, John Zorn sat on a sofa alongside Richard Kessler. The two talked like old friends, which they are. Zorn, the celebrated composer and musician, and Kessler, the executive dean for performing arts at the New School who is also dean of the university’s Mannes School of Music, are now also partners in a venture that may alter Manhattan’s musical landscape and its relationship with higher education.

The Stone, the tiny but influential performance space that Zorn founded in 2005 to present experimental and avant-garde music, will become a fixture of the New School’s College of Performing Arts, taking up residence in the New School’s Glass Box Theater on West 13th St. Beginning in March 2018, when the old club closes, The Stone at the New School, as it will be called, will present concerts at 8:30pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays. (From June through February, while the current club winds down, Zorn has programmed weekend shows at the Glass Box.)

In a physical sense, the move seems radical — from an unmarked windowless former Chinese restaurant at the far end of the East Village to a sleek climate-controlled space featuring a glass wall facing a busy Greenwich Village street. “Nothing else will change,” Zorn said. He will continue as artistic director of the nonprofit venue, with musicians doing all the curating and volunteers providing support. Artists will continue to receive all revenue from tickets, which will remain priced at $20. The seating capacity — 74 —will stay the same. “And our aesthetic will not alter one bit,” Zorn said.

For Zorn, the move isn’t one of need, his club’s lease wasn’t up. “It was simply time for a change,” he said. For the New School, the Stone’s presence will be “nothing short of transformative,” Kessler said. “We need this community. We need these artists and we need this ethos.”

The weekend Stone at the New School performances beginning in June reveal the sweet spot between genres and styles on which Zorn’s world has always focused, and engages familiar communities that interlock through distinguished composer-musicians: these include trumpeters Wadada Leo Smith and Dave Douglas, saxophonist Steve Coleman, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, guitarist Marc Ribot and violinist Laurie Anderson.

The new partnership was formalized with a one-page contract composed by Zorn. It draws on intertwined histories. As a young trombonist, Kessler recalled being drawn to Zorn’s Naked City project. Zorn recalled formative experiences at the New School, such as Joseph Beuys’s 1974 Public Dialogue. Kessler described the Stone as one way to rekindle to the New School’s tradition of working with experimental artists, such as John Cage and Henry Cowell, who stand among Zorn’s early influences.

As the two men sat in Kessler’s office beneath a large framed print of a Thomas Hart Benton portrait of David Mannes, the conductor and co-founder of the Mannes School of Music, Kessler invoked Zorn as heir to Mannes’ mission of pursuing beauty, giving freely and enabling fellow artists. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

How did your partnership begin?

Kessler: When I started here, John asked, “How can I help?” He was interested in connecting the school to more progressive music, and to new ways of doing things. I said, “How about teaching?” But John wasn’t going to join anyone’s faculty. Still, he had an idea.

Zorn: Seven years ago I began doing workshops at the Stone on Sunday afternoons. An incredible lineup of artists spoke, Laurie Anderson to Joe Lovano, Ikue Mori to Marc Ribot. I didn’t continue it because not enough people showed up. I was shocked. I put it aside. I wanted to bring those workshops here, which has grown into The Stone Workshops at The New School. We’ve been doing it since 2012.

Kessler: The first one was John and Terry Riley. Just yesterday, we had one by Wadada Leo Smith. These artists have helped me think about how the school should change, what we truly can do. And I began to look closely at what John does—not just musically, but how he builds communities. I began to think: How can I bring that philosophy here?

John, why did you want to leave the East Village space?

Zorn: There’s no negative or sinister backstory about gentrification. Last summer I walked into the Stone, which remains a magical space. And I thought it was time for a change. I thought we needed something better. I went through a variety of options. And I may follow through on all of them. Some are already happening, like the Stone commission series at National Sawdust. I’m talking with the gallery owner Adam Boxer, about starting a club with a bar. But the New School seemed a very special opportunity.

Kessler: John sent me an email: “What do you think about moving the Stone to the New School?” I thought, “Hell yeah.” When I first told my fellow deans, they looked at me like I was crazy. I said, “Wait a second: This is unlike any venue you can imagine. We need this community. We need these artists, and we need this ethos—about helping each other, about generosity, about protecting and supporting each other as artists.” It wasn’t until John came in here that they got it.

Zorn: Right here — me and 12 deans.

Kessler: I was uptight about it. John’s not known for meeting with boards. But he killed. He had them eating out of his hand. My fellow deans said, “We must have this.”

So it was an easy institutional marriage?

Zorn: When Richard told me we have to get lawyers on this I thought, forget it. Finally, he said, “John why don’t you write a contract?” I took 20 minutes, wrote a one-page thing, clean as a whistle. One important point in there was that John Zorn will not be paid a penny for this.

Kessler: And the club will not pay rent. We’re so used to our dealings with external partners being transactional. They don’t become part of you. This is a true partnership. We all finally got it when John said, “I’m giving this to you. Own it.” The idea wasn’t that we’re providing a space, it was that we could work together with John and his network to grow what he’d built, and that we would benefit from it and do good for the worlds of these musicians and our students.

How will the New School benefit?

Kessler: Well, for one thing simply by having these great and dynamic artists around, some that will end up on the faculty. Also, once the paying audience for a performance is seated, students can claim any remaining seats for free. But there are much, much bigger dimensions. The New School’s history in the performing arts is formed to a large degree by early days, when experimental artists defined it—John Cage, Henry Cowell. This helps us return to that ideal. When John and I use the term “transformative,” there’s no hyperbole. We believe it.

For the Stone, this is quite a shift from an East Village room with no sign out front, isn’t it?

Zorn: That was just my aesthetic. Keeping things underground, keeping them hard to find was a way of protecting the artist and the music, and putting the audience through a certain vetting process where they have to actually make an effort to find the place. I like that process, that sense of discovery. The Stone has a website, but we never ran an advertisement.

Is the Stone now coming up from the underground?

Zorn: Yes, and here’s why: In the climate we now exist in — in this political, economic and social climate — it’s time for artists to step up and make a statement. My response is to create work more passionately and more prolifically than ever before. And maybe that needs to involve a more visible space. This a more trafficked area, with a glass wall where people walking by can look in, a block from the subway. It’s more available, and that can be a good thing.

If the Stone’s artists are making a statement, what is it?

Zorn: It’s that we’re alive and well, and still pushing. It’s that risky, adventurous, experimental music and work can exist in an environment like this—as long as someone like Richard Kessler is the dean. I’ve said many times that everything I do—whether it’s at the Met Museum or the Guggenheim—is made possible because of people. This is possible because Richard and I have a serious connection. The Stone is possible because of personal connections between musicians.

Kessler: That statement applies to this school, too. It’s the power of having an artist-centric space where musicians are given the freedom to play what they want. Artists are interfered with more than people realize in all forms of performance. There’s a lot of manipulation of what artists can and can’t do. John has created a safe protected space for artists to play what they want, and for people to come hear them. People will sense that freedom to speak as they wish.

We want to encourage our students to think that way. The artists who come to the Stone are highly original, not derivative, people who are also highly entrepreneurial and part of a big family, a big network. It’s going to send a big message to this school—to both faculty and students—about what the world of art can be like.

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