Playing John Zorn’s Cobra is akin to playing Monopoly with an ogre: the rules apply until your opponent, gristly hands snapping the board in two, decides they don’t. There is no sheet music, no conductor, no requisite number of players, no instrumentation. A cherished staple of experimental music, Cobra is a game piece—a genre that Zorn in part originated—in which players improvise according to rules that can change at anyone's whim. Watch Zorn lead a Cobra rehearsal in the clip below from Derek Bailey's 1992 documentary On the Edge: Improvisation in Music.
In a 2013 interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Zorn explained the circumstances under which he works: in the East Village apartment where he has now resided for over 40 years, he sits cross-legged on his childhood rocking chair, at his childhood desk, and writes. A fixture of New York’s 1980s downtown music scene, Zorn, now 63, evolved over the course of his varied career from enfant terrible to celebrated father of a musical strain — inspired by experimental improvisation, jazz and klezmer, among other genres — born of his rambunctious refusal to work like anybody else. Cobra, which is among his most famous creations, is documented on a few pages of instructions that Zorn, intending to keep the piece an oral tradition that musicians would pass down, has refused to publish. The instructions are easily sought on the Internet, but his intentions have survived in spirit; musicians have continued to spread the word about and perform Cobra, often giving the rules a personal touch.
Zorn, who is also a saxophonist and founder of the avant-garde and experimental record label Tzadik, wrote Cobra in 1984, inspired by the World War II simulation game of the same name. Cobra's instructions draw from war vernacular: leading the group is a “squad leader” who can make use of “guerrilla systems,” among which are “tactics” and “operations” influencing the music's tempo and style. At any point, players may inform the squad leader which events they want to initiate through gestures made by touching one to four fingers to any of six body parts (mouth, nose, eye, ear, head, and palm). For instance: two fingers by the player's lips means that everyone else drops out while the player takes a solo; one finger by the player's ear means that the people currently playing must change their style radically. The squad leader chooses which of the players' gestures to follow and holds up a color-coded card indicating the event.
While anyone can participate in Cobra, Zorn has emphasized that organizers should ensure good group chemistry for the piece to succeed. In an interview published in the compendium Soundpieces 2, Zorn said: “You want to pick someone not just because they can play well, but because they have a good sense of humor, or they get along with the guy across the room; because they believe in democracy, or because they don’t believe in it; because they want to subvert the shit or because they just want to sit back and do what they’re told; because they have a lot of compositional ideas (and maybe play awful) but they’re going to make good calls. There’s a lot of reasons to call someone into the band in a game piece.”
Cobra gives the player certain constraints, but resists limits. All sounds—all sounds—are permissible. Gameplay proceeds for as long as the players like. You don’t need an instrument; the voice is plenty. Cobra works as well in a concert hall as it does in a living room, crowded with bewildered friends. As much fun as the audience is having, the players usually seem to be having more.
Below check out a more recent performance of Zorn's game piece Cobra featuring the NEC Cobra Ensemble led by Anthony Coleman.