The most common criticism leveled against experimental music by the less open-minded usually comes down to something like “this isn’t even music; it’s just noise.” For some, this is the most damning thing you can say about an artist’s work: You attempted to make art, but this does not even register as art to me. But how is one to discuss the merits of a piece of music when its creator flatly admits that during the creative process he “eventually stopped caring if what I was making was even music”?
This question has been nagging me ever since I took on the fool’s errand of reviewing Ma Turner’s ZOZ, an LP of 13 abbreviated pieces culled from eight hours' worth of, err, music (we’ll call it that for the sake of simplicity) found on the original ZOZ Collection's 12 cassettes. Those tapes, in turn, were pieced together from a year of nightly recording sessions in which Ma would lose himself to the meditative process of creating sound for sound's sake, sometimes not even bothering to listen to the playback while overdubbing new sounds over the old, simply letting his intuition and the physical joy of repetitive movement guide his creation.
That joy manifests itself as divine on cyclical opener “Christ In A Garden”, which is one of the few pieces of evidence we’re given that Turner truly is capable of writing a gorgeous and moving “song” if he so chooses. After repeat listens, “Christ” feels like a thematic, if not sonic summation of the record as a whole: seeking transcendence through the creative process, ripping your ego from its shell for a scant few hours at a time in order to weave yourself fully into the fabric of the void that won’t stop calling your name.
While the music itself can be seen as a sort of meditative diary, ZOZ is patently not meant to soundtrack your meditation sesh. Believe me, I tried. Whenever I felt as though I was approaching that holy emptiness, losing myself to Turner’s secondhand hypnosis, something like the deep rumbling of planes overhead in “Rash Harvest”, or a swarm of bees in “On Clock Sniper” would take over the mix and jolt me back to the earthly realm. The otherworldly undulations remind: “Stay grounded.”
The closest that Turner comes to exploring terrestrial sentiments comes on “I Love To See You Brother”, another simple acoustic guitar “song” in the vein of “Christ” amid the warped, looping phrases of unknown origin that sandwich it. The title suggests a distinct subject, an individual, but given Turner’s belief in “a shared ‘power source’ amongst all living things,” the titular “Brother” could very well have its definition expanded to include all of creation.
In the end, that’s what you get when you give ZOZ a spin: all of creation. A critic’s job, ultimately, is to determine what an artist intended to do, and then decide whether or not they succeeded. But stripped of its mythology, ZOZ is impenetrable, which befits an uncompromising portrait of a prolific artist seeking a spark of the divine in foreign territory. In that sense it wholly exceeds the promises laid out by its statement of intent. You are not invited to join Ma Turner as he disappears into the Zoz, but you’re welcome, and encouraged, to take pictures from the sidelines.