Tzadik Records did a giant cull of their catalogue off of YouTube a few months ago, so the studio recording of John Zorn’s composition Hu Die is no longer available outside of its official CD release (and whatever Wild West torrent downloady programs the kids are using these days), but since I still have a hand-crank computer with a little slot for CDs and DVDs, I continue to listen to it just as much as when I first heard it some twenty years ago. It holds a special place for me among all the sorta-movie-related music I’ve heard, because of how it generates a sensation of cinema—exactly like having watched a movie—without requiring any direct visual stimulus or references. Though the title does refer to a film star, and the impressionism of the spoken text has some imagery that could be envisioned as cinema, the visual elements are all peripheral to that heavy-duty I-just-watched-a-movie feeling that the piece leaves you with. I haven’t experienced much other music that behaves this way, apart from some musique concrète and, I guess, soundtracks to movies or episodes of TV shows I haven’t seen, or that weren’t made, or that were made but ended up using a different soundtrack.

The composition is the second in a series of five game pieces Zorn created from 1985 to 1990 dedicated to East Asian film actresses. Hu Die was the first superstar of Chinese film, known in America in the 1920s and ’30s as “Butterfly Wu.” In the course of her four-decade career, Hu Die starred in more than 30 films, including the 27-hour-long serial Burning of the Red Lotus Temple which kickstarted the martial arts film craze (though no copies of the film’s many feature-length parts are believed to have survived); and Twin Sisters, the film often cited as the greatest of the early Chinese talkies (online here, albeit without any subtitles).

Though I had no idea when listening to Zorn’s Hu Die what rules determine the game piece—that is, what’s improvised and what’s composed, apart from Arto Lindsay’s text, translated into Chinese by Ruby Chang—it was interesting to listen and try to decipher which elements were consistent between the album version (on New Traditions in East Asian Bar Bands [Tzadik, 1997], where it’s performed by guitarists Bill Frisell and Fred Frith with the narrator Zhang Jinglin) and the two live versions of the piece that the music venue Roulette recently posted: two performances from the same night, 9 pm and 11 pm on April 8, 1988, performed by Frith and Frisell with the narrator Vivian Wong. By the sound, it seemed like the scales and certain rhythmic and timbral textures were predetermined, as was the use of silence to divide sections. But it remained hard to tell the nature of the game that Frith and Frisell were playing.

…UNTIL NOW. That is, since listening to “A Visit with John Zorn,” a radio discussion with Charles Amirkhanian on June 19, 1987. From about 32 minutes in, Zorn talks through the structure of the game: an introduction, followed by 6 spoken stories separated by 5 instrumental interludes, and then an epilogue. “The music goes through the cycle of fifths, with a chord played at the beginning of each story, and they work rhythmically with a certain tempo that’s decided then, and a series of scales that I give them, for two minutes,” Zorn sez. “Modulate to the next chord. Then there’s a more free instrumental interlude where they can use noises for one minute. Then there’s another two-minute story that goes to the next chord in the circle of fifths, to the next… And that’s the way the piece is structured.” Whereupon Amirkhanian plays the opening of what might be the earliest recording of the piece, featuring the same guitar parts that ultimately make it onto the album but a different narrator than on either the album or the Roulette live performances, the text’s translator Ruby Chang.

In the course of analyzing Zorn’s most played game piece, written in 1984 (two years before Hu Die), John Brackett, in “Some Notes on John Zorn’s Cobra” (2010), writes a bit about the development of all Zorn’s game pieces, as well as Zorn’s research into war games and strategy guides—but it’s the bonus round that takes the cake: the score, so to speak, of Cobra is reproduced on p. 49, which gives a sense of what’s composed, what’s improvised, and what’s decided by the conductor/prompter at that stage of Zorn’s game piece cycle. Furthermore, on that same Amirkhanian radio show, at around 21 min. 30 sec., Zorn narrates what’s occurring in a recorded performance of Cobra beat by beat. And Part 1 of Derek Bailey’s four-part TV documentary series On the Edge, up in full on YouTube, shows two performances at Cobra’s first album recording.

John Zorn with Ennio Morricone

Set of Cobra Cards

2009 Performance of Cobra

Anyway, with all that hard data now available and easily accessible, I have to admit I’m still not sure there’s any explanation for why the album version of Hu Die feels so uniquely cinematic, even more so for me than some of Zorn’s soundtracks for actual films, or his directly film-inspired file card compositions like SpillaneGodardForbidden Fruit, or The Big Gundown Morricone covers. I guess that some of it’s Seigen Ono’s luscious studio mix, combining Kramer’s recordings of the guitar tracks in 1986 with Ono’s recording of the narration tracks in 1990; and some of it’s the close-mic’ing of the Chinese narration, with Zhang Jinglin’s breathy vocal qualities approximating the movie camera’s use of close-up, set against Frith and Frisell’s pentatonic evocation of Asian musical landscapes in their existential duel for electric guitars.

Still, I know there’s some other quality I can’t quite put my finger on. Like a forgotten film, or one you think you may have watched while drifting in and out of sleep, there’s stray images and atmospheres that linger, and whatever doesn’t slip away seems to quietly construct itself into sequences maybe half-imagined and too rarefied to grasp. Is that all just in my head? Or have you seen it too?

Michael Tencer

Michael Tencer

Purveyor of fine reading material printed on soft paper