Astronome is a studio album by John Zorn which was released on October 17, 2006. It is the second in a series of his albums featuring the ‘Moonchild trio’ of Joey Baron, Trevor Dunn and Mike Patton on drums, bass and vocals respectively. It is preceded by the album Moonchild: Songs Without Words, and unlike that earlier album, Astronome is not an improvised ‘game piece’ devised by Zorn but a thoroughly composed work. Once again Zorn does not feature on the album. It was recorded at Orange Music and released on Zorn’s own label Tzadik.
The album is 44 minutes long and comprises three lengthy compositions, called ‘acts’. Each act is divided into ‘scenes’—seven altogether. Billed by Tzadik as an ‘intense and mysterious tale of magic and alchemy’, Zorn has conceived the piece as a pocket opera or a sonic play. Listeners are left to imagine the details of the narrative indicated by the cryptic scene titles—‘A Secluded Clearing in the Woods’, ‘A Medieval Laboratory’, ‘A Barren Plain at Midnight’, for example.
Once again this album is dedicated to Zorn’s beloved figures of 19th and 20th-century avant-garde culture, French-born composer Edgard Varèse, dramatist Antonin Artaud and British magician and spiritualist Aleister Crowley. The title ‘Astronome’ hints at a collaboration of the same name between Varèse and Artaud which was begun but never finished; in line with his occult interests, Zorn attempts to bring that experiment back in spirit with this album.
On the question of genre, Astronome is hard to pin down. While some would regard it as a work of hardcore free jazz, the album is composed rather than improvised and, furthermore, doesn’t swing. Astronome might better be regarded as genre-transcending, extending and then breaking the form of rock, classical, jazz and free improvisation.
American playwright and avante-garde theatre pioneer Richard Foreman used all three acts of Astronome as the score an opera titled “A Night at the Opera”.
The opera was performed at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater at St. Mark’s Church, East Village, New York, USA, from the 5th of February to the 5th of April 2009.
Act One: A Secluded Clearing in the Woods; A Single Bed in a Small Room; The Innermost Chapel of a Secret Temple 14:34
Fearsome cymbal rolls and pounding bass chords get this album off to a thrashing start as Mike Patton comes in with a war cry followed by his trademark preverbal babbling. A slower section with a dark, foreboding atmosphere follows. Patton growls with deep incantations here that sound like they are being intoned in an occult language.
In a sparser section, a creepy bass-line is overlaid with light cymbal work from Baron while Patton frenziedly chuckles in a high register before shocking listeners with his gagging and choking. At times he achieves an astonishing effect, creating a demonic sound like a human voice in reverse.
Patton uses the full range of his vocal abilities on this album; likewise, the three compositions contain a great deal of variety, avoiding some of the monotony for which Songs Without Words was criticised.
Act Two: A Medieval Laboratory; In the Magick Circle
This middle act is the longest and begins with a broiling build-up of tension before a steady, even relaxing bassline is accompanied by the unsettling gargling noises of a deranged Patton. That is followed by a heavier, metallic section. Listeners certainly feel they are in a ‘Laboratory’ of musical experimentation if nonetheless a fearlessly modern rather than a medieval one.
Scene two, ‘In the Magick Circle’ brings a change in tone, with a remarkably slow approach, all surreptitious cymbals and murmuring bassline that plays us out to the finish. The listener gains a breathing space from this part, which echoes the atmosphere of a secluded and hushed circle of ritual observants.
Act Three: A Barren Plain at Midnight; An Unnamed Location
After the breathing space at the close of Act Two, Act Three returns to a strong, violent sound. Yet the spiritual chaos still comes across as precise and organised, as throughout. There are some slower, quieter parts here too, however.
At about five minutes in, we are treated to a steady, drone-like bass-line with accompanying foreboding drum rolls as Patton enters his falsetto and sings airily without consonants. He follows this with Gollum-like execrations. The sonic atmosphere here is that of searchlights moving across the face of an alien moon—appropriately this scene is titled ‘An Unnamed Location’.An aggressive section follows and Zorn’s experimental ‘opera’ is brought to a sudden halt with a scream from Patton. The listener is left perhaps shocked and bewildered, if not a little changed by the experience.Duration: 12:44
Unhelpfully perhaps, Thom Jurek at All Music comments that Astronome ‘cannot be explained or even commented upon with conventional written-language technology’ which may align with Artaud’s view of written language. Though he helpfully offers some musings on it anyway: ‘This music is violent, spacious, full of shocks and surprises and an intensity beyond what one is used to listening to, even from this composer’. He calls it a ‘masterpiece’.
The Sputnik website is similarly full of praise for Astronome, emphasising that whilst it can seem crazy and all over the place, it’s a tightly composed and rigorously structured work that gets the right balance of both soft and heavy elements.
Zorn is credited as producer, arranger, composer, and conductor and is responsible for the album’s concept. Robert Musso worked as an engineer, James Dellatacoma as the assistant engineer. It was mastered by Scott Hull and mixed by Bill Laswell. Kazunori Sugiyama worked as an associate producer and audio producer.
The album photography was by Scott Izbine. Again Heung-Heung “Chippy” Chin provides the distinctive cover art.