John Zorn releases more albums in a year than some musicians do in a career. Pondering the quantity of his output, it's hard not to recall Steve Martin's response to the productivity of Leonardo da Vinci: "That's why I took up juggling."
Figuratively speaking, Zorn is a juggler too-of styles, of concepts. So far, his 2012 discography includes five albums, ranging from the sparklingly beautiful (The Gnostic Preludes, featuring harp, bells, and vibes) to the abrasively harsh (Templars: In Sacred Blood, featuring the maniacal vocals of the ex-Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton).
The most arresting, however, partly because it combines the best elements of the others, is Nosferatu, a soundtrack to Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, released to mark the centennial of Stoker's death. Five of the songs are titled after the novel's characters ("Mina," "Van Helsing," "Lucy," "Jonathan Harker," "Renfield"), the other 11 after various plot elements ("Death Ship," "Fatal Sunrise," "Hypnosis," and the like).
Yes, having read the novel makes it easier to appreciate Zorn's music. But, more to the point, from the most mysterious-sounding cut ("Hypnosis") to the most frenzied one ("The Battle of Good and Evil"), the music is fascinating enough to induce even those without a taste for gothic horror to read the novel on which it's based.
And Dracula deserves to be read. Due primarily to its various film incarnations, it tends to be one of those literary works that people think they know because they've experienced it secondhand.
But no amount of secondhand exposure can recreate the pleasure deriving from reading Stoker's skillful use of various first-person perspectives (journal entries, letters) to advance the plot or the sense that, rather than glamorize evil, Stoker actually intended with Dracula to valorize heroic-even Christian-goodness.
Zorn is at his best in successfully transmuting Stoker's intentions into music with the songs based on the novel's two main female characters, "Lucy" and "Mina." On the one hand, the two young women share not only beauty and vulnerability but also a close friendship. So it makes sense that Zorn's pieces should utilize similar-sounding, euphonious combinations of piano and vibraphone. That Zorn also somehow manages to evoke and contrast, ever so subtly, Mina's depth with Lucy's relative superficiality is no mean artistic achievement.
On the lighter side of the literary-pop ledger is the latest release by the rapper MC Lars, The Edgar Allan Poe EP (Horris). Unlike the Alan Parsons Project and Lou Reed, the Poe-inspired recordings of whom were intended to reflect their source material's "mystery and imagination," Lars goes for clever and, surprisingly, the gambit pays off.
"Hip hop?" he asks at the outset of "Anabel Lee R.I.P. (2012)." "Nah, this is lit. hop." And he isn't kidding. "Flow like Poe," set to Pachelbel's Canon, even teaches the basics of poetic terminology. "An iamb is two syllables, unstressed stressed," he raps, eventually touching on the other feet, meters, and sound terms before he's done.
But there's more to the EP than Schoolhouse Rock. In "Lenore (IMiss You)," "Mr. Raven," "(Rock) The Bells," and "The Tell-Tale <3," Lars retells the tales you'd expect. But he also weaves in details of Poe's biography when the need arises.
The best news is that Lars' raps are clean. The second best: They're funny. The 15-second "The Abridged Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket" begins "This is the abridged Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket."
"A man on a whaling ship ends up in Antarctica, / it's a good book, you should read it" is how it ends.