Musical Chess: “Cobra” and John Zorn’s Game Pieces

While we will never come up with a universally accepted description of what separates art from the rest of reality, we can make some easy guesses about it—namely, that art, in one way or another, derives its meaning and beauty from structure. The quadrivium—one of the oldest examples of pedagogy in Western thought—includes music as one of its pillars because of art’s importance and reliance on these aforementioned elements; after all music is quite literally math in motion. Any sound, from the buzz of a crowd to the slap of a bass guitar to the clinks and clangs of machinery, can be said to have a certain pitch and be a certain length of time, and can therefore be considered to be privy to certain rules, even if we have made up said rules. But, as with any rule or law, it cannot exist without offenders to truly define it. A society without murder wouldn’t need (nor could even comprehend) a law barring its use. (If you want to get simpler, it’s yin and yang—one part cannot exist without the other.) This, however, is where improvisation comes into the conversation of music, as it completes the circle. The serpent is now metaphorically biting its own tail.