John Zorn’s Cobra
Cobra is an unpublished but recorded and frequently performed musical composition by John Zorn that was conceived as a system with very detailed rules but with no pre-conceived sequence of events, or game piece, for a group of musical improvisors and a prompter. Zorn completed Cobra on October 9,1984. The composition consists of a set of cues notated on cards, and rules corresponding to the cues that direct the players what to do. The number of players, instrumentation, and length of the piece is indeterminate. Because there is no traditional musical n otation and the players improvise, the piece may sound radically different from performance to performance.
As was commented upon in some length in a 2004 interview, Zorn has, with his own words, “deliberately chosen not to publish (or even write down) the rules” to his game pieces, being concerned with the importance of personal instruction. Despite this, photocopies circulate among musicians internationally, and there is even a clean printing of all the cue categories in a CD booklet (see recordings).
The piece proceeds as follows:
1) Players raise hands to get the prompter’s attention
2) Prompter selects a player (the prompter is free to ignore players with raised hands)
3) Selected player gives a cue corresponding to a card by pointing to a body part (mouth, nose, eye, ear, head, palm) that indicates the class of cue, and holding up the number of fingers indicating the desired cue.
4) Prompter shows the corresponding cue card to ensemble and puts the card in play, usually by giving a downbeat with the card
5) Players perform according to the rule represented by the card
6) Repeat from the top until an ending cue is given
There are classes of cues, each with an associated body part and color, for changing the ensemble, solo and duo improvisational games, “cartoon trades” for fast intercuts between players, varying one dimension (music, ensemble, or volume), live sampling, and endings. There are a total of 19 basic cues. In addition, there are “guerilla systems” with “tactics” that may disrupt the ongoing proceedings.
Right Now! John Zorn performs at least once a month at his non for profit performance space The Stone