by carl wilson

In Cobra's Coils

Tonight, I went astray as usual trying to find the Arraymusic studio. Home of some of the city's most joyous series of improvised music, its hiddenness is both depressing reality (only an undesirable venue is affordable) and pleasant trick (to hear music both performer and listener can get lost in, head toward a room cheerily reluctant to yield up its location). It was the final night of NYC bassist Reuben Radding's visit, the occasion of a mini-festival called Interface. Radding is a shruggingly fearsome guy, cuddly to look at but, as I knew from hearing his work with TEST's Daniel Carter and others, capable of monster noise. On that count, this was the worst night to go, though I had no other choice: Rather than attacking his instrument, tonight he was mostly called upon to, first, select duos and trios out of the Toronto musicians he had been working with in the past two nights, and second to act as prompter for "Renegade Cobra," which is what it's called when John Zorn' s large-group, guided-improvisation, cut-up-jazz game Cobra is conducted by anyone but Mr. Zorn. [...]

(Which is entertainingly revealing of Zorn's character. Imagine if it had to be called "renegade monopoly" whenever you played Monopoly with anyone but its 1930 inventor, Charles Darrow -- who stole it anyway from its socialist-satirist inventor Elizabeth Magie, who created Monopoly in 1904, just as Zorn arguably stole it from various sources, but that's beyond our purvue at the moment.)

Organizer Joe Sorbara is an amiable force of nature who has been holding regular Cobra sessions the past few months, as well as his ongoing Leftover Daylight series and the Burdocks group that appeared both at the Scratch (Christian Wolff) series and Tin Tin Tin, an event with which readers of this site might be vaguely familiar.

It was the second time Joe had an out-of-town guest conduct the game. The first time, with BC's great drummer Dylan van der Schyff, it was a little frustrating too, if you hadn't been at the rest of the series - maybe there could be a bit of prompter tradeoff, so you get to see the guest play as well as conduct?

Tonight's experiment, anyway, got compellingly mixed results - which is nearly as good as complete success. Radding hails from the birthplace of Cobra and has some definite ideas about how it should be done that seemed to rattle the Cobra conventions of Toronto. My theory is that the group was way more Canadian - polite, not bold enough, and passive about building consensus - than anything his experience prepared him for.

In the first few rounds, the energy was diffuse, which is to say horrendous, to Radding's visible frustration. A between-sets coaching session in the hall found Radding working his American medicine-show charisma; it was capped with a group chant & cheer that you could hear from the studio, which was pretty funny. But it did provide at least a placebo burst of creativity and vigour to the second session.

What I liked was that all the strife resulted in the game being revealed as a game - Radding was more Dungeonmaster-like than any Cobra conductor I've yet seen, insisting the game work the way the game is meant to work, and that seemed like a step up for its fortunes in this city. His sticklerness could have been annoying, but Cobra is by nature maddeningly opaque -- an exercise in libertarian musical socialism that instead turns out to be a cryptography test for the audience. It's governed by a series of one-sided cards you can only occasionally see, with cues in code you don't know. So the conflict involved in improving the group dynamic became a drama of its own that stood in for the missing information.

I still maintain that Cobra would be much richer fun if the rules were explained even in capsule to the audience before the performance. But given the rule against that, it turns out watching Cobra partly fail is more edifying than watching it succeed, because the gears inside the game get exposed. Of course, if you are a supremely detached creature who can close your eyes and just take it as music, you won't care either way, but really, why make it a sport if it's not supposed to have spectators? On a musical level, though, there were lovely moments in the last few rounds, after most of the audience had left, especially when Radding mischeviously left performers hanging (without new cues) on their most extreme gestural moments.

It's going to be fun to watch how Toronto Cobra gains an identity and orientation of its own if Joe keeps sessions going over the next couple of years.

Among the small-ensemble groups at the start, by the way, highlights included Rob Mosher's duet with guitarist Geordie Haley, in which Mosher kept pretending he was about to play soprano sax but then kept running on the spot and jumping up and down as an impromptu invented percussion effect instead; as well as Rob Pillomen's beautiful flute work (a strong point all night, and I don't commonly like flute); and singer Melissa Stylianou's duet with Radding, which had that "telepathic" quality that's always moving in free improv. Stylianou was also witty and charming in her Cobra contributions, culminating in a fade-out on her solo in which she closed off trilling "nobody here, just me... 'Me and My Sha-a-dow...' "

The next "Interface" event is in April with Vancouver guitarist Ron Samworth.

Read More | Live Notes | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, February 28 at 2:48 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (4)


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I guess I was being rhetorical - just that Zorn gets talked about as though the kind of rules-based improv that Cobra presents is his invention, when it's present in a lot of modernist composition and other free jazz. (As you, Joe, know from playing Christian Wolff.) Cobra just codifies it and packages it in a particular way. I'd argue that's typical of Zorn's work, really, that he's kind of the Tarantino of free jazz in that sense, but I wasn't accusing him of (a) plagiarism or (b) a lack of creativity, just as I wouldn't with the Q-man.

Posted by zoilus on March 5, 2004 2:19 AM




just wanted to say thanks for the article and make a few comments...

it was indeed a great experience to have reuben with us, his personal experience playing cobra with zorn prompting during the formative years of the game tought us a lot about the rules as they are actually used in practice around the world. this cleared up a lot of confusion.

i do, indeed, hope to keep sessions of COBRA going as long as interest continues. i'm also interested in teaching new musicians how to play the game, people can contact me at if they are interested...

anyway, i was wondering about the idea that "Zorn arguably stole [cobra] from various sources". where did you get this idea from? i'd be quite interested in finding out. looking forward to the follow up article (?)...

well, thanks again
peace and good music,

ps what exactly is an "amiable force of nature" anyway? :)

Posted by joe sorbara on March 4, 2004 4:20 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson