Elegy is a studio album by John Zorn first released in 1992 in Japan. It was recorded in 1991 at Different Fur Studios in San Francisco and mixed at East Side Sound in New York City. It was released on Eva Records. It is 29 minutes and 22 seconds long and features four tracks, each named after a colour: Blue, Yellow, Pink, and Black.
Zorn dedicated the album to the French writer and activist Jean Genet: the album is also known as ‘Elegy for Jean Genet’. Genet wrote erotic works that dealt with taboo subjects such as sadomasochism and crime; he also explored philosophical topics such as existentialism. Zorn was particularly inspired by Genet’s only film, the short Un chant d’amour—though directed in 1950, the short was banned for many years due to its explicit portrayal of homosexuality. In the booklet accompanying the CD, Zorn describes how the picture changed his life forever. The film’s structure and themes, as well as its accompanying soundtrack all evidently inspired the music of Elegy.
Zorn writes that Elegy ‘is a fragile world of shadows, an underground where erotic perversion, flowers, and crime coexist’.
Elegy is a work of chamber music. The notes to the twentieth-anniversary edition describe it as a ‘cinematic masterpiece’. Indeed, Elegy seems to create a set of highly immersive sonic atmospheres, soundscapes reminiscent of haunted nurseries or eerie, abandoned toy shops.
The work could make a fitting soundtrack to a horror film or the background ambiance of the midnight telling of a Halloween story. In terms of genre, this suite of pieces combines modern classical, rock, and free improvisation. Its use of dissonance, lack of much rhythmic structure and its minimalism is reminiscent of Morton Feldman and Sofia Gubaidulina. Zorn’s file-card method is partly responsible for the sudden jumps in style heard here and familiar from many of his other opuses. Yet the overall atmosphere is ominous rather than shocking. Though there are some harder, more chaotic sections, it’s a shadowy, eye-of-the-storm kind of fear which is kindled throughout. The rather uneven track lengths add to the sense of uneasy disequilibrium for the listener.
Eerie minimalism is interrupted by a blast of chaos led by David Shea’s turntables, followed by the all-encompassing roar of a gong. Choral vocals follow that sound not unlike those on György Ligeti’s Atmosphères, before curious playing on the vibes twinkle this first track to a finish.
The twentieth-century classical feel of this very short track jars with Shea’s reversed sound effects. An annunciatory gong blast is played atop by pizzicato strings.
Pink starts in a much livelier manner, with a sonic chaos that sounds like a gunfight in a toyshop. Pizzicato is given full rein here. The track features Patton’s layered vocals and heavy, haunted breathing before he fires off on all cylinders with trademark guttural choking. Sound effects of doors slamming, matches being lit and smoke being blown add to the nightmare. Arabesque vocals and a soundscape like a digging site and a bustling bazaar are reminiscent of the opening of The Exorcist (1973). Zorn’s sudden alterations in genre and tempo are on display here. Soft, muted drumming is followed by a sampled old guitar record. In what is a fractally varied track, almost operatic soprano vocals feature next to sounds like an eerie gamelan chime and Patton grunting like a crocodile.
This shorter composition closes the album with a gong and thunderous sound effects. Patton gets his monster on and sets the stage for dramatic choral singing. Varied sound work including a sampled dog barking is followed by Patton at his most whispery as Black leaves the listener very much in the dark.
Zorn does not feature as an instrumentalist on Elegy. Instead, he devised the four pieces using his ‘file card’ method of composition-improvisation—meaning that Zorn writes down his concepts and feelings, in this case, inspired by the writings of Jean Genet, onto file cards and then records the musicians interpreting these ideas in sound. Zorn also produced the album. Barbara Chaffe plays alto flute and bass flute. David Abel plays viola. Scummy, also known as Trey Spruance, provides guitar. David Shea is on the turntables. They are joined by Mike Patton on vocals and William Winant does percussion. It was digitally edited by Scott Hull. Sound effects were provided by David Slusser. Matt Murman worked as an assistant engineer and Joe Ferla mixed the album. Howard Johnston was recording engineer. It was mastered by Bob Ludwig.
The album cover was designed by Tomoyo T.L. It shows a red rose, seductively opened to the viewer; the erotic connotations are obvious. Lisa Wells provided the typography here. The twentieth-anniversary edition contains a new, expanded booklet designed by a regular collaborator with Zorn Heung-Heung ‘Chippy’ Chin, which features the reminiscences, photographs, and testimonies of the musicians who recorded Elegy together in 1991.
Blake Butler at All Music calls Elegy a ‘smeared blossoming testament to the off-color and highly obtuse genius of John Zorn’. He recommends the album for those who are already fans of Zorn or vocalist Mike Patton. He points to its guest artists, many of them are staples of San Francisco’s avant-garde music scene, as the highlight of the work.
Reverie at prog rock site Prog Archives awards the album a somewhat tepid 3.18 out of 5. This reviewer felt that Elegy is not an essential Zorn album—appealing, perhaps, to long-time Zorn fans, it too much lacks substance to appeal to newcomers.