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  • Some Notes on John Zorn's Cobra
  • John Brackett (bio)

The year 2009 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Zorn's celebrated game piece for improvisers, Cobra. Without a doubt, Cobra is Zorn's most popular and well-known composition and one that has enjoyed remarkable success and innumerable performances all over the world since its premiere in late 1984 at the New York City club, Roulette. Some noteworthy performances of Cobra include those played by a group of jazz journalists and critics, an all-women performance, and a hip-hop version as well!1 At the same time, Cobra is routinely played by students in colleges and universities all over the world, ensuring that the work will continue to grow and evolve in the years to come. In addition to being fun to perform, Cobra is fun for audiences as they watch the performers wave their hands wildly to get each other's attention and then quickly perform a series of seemingly disconnected and disjointed sounds.

Zorn's Cobra takes its name from a simulation game originally published in 1977 by the popular war-game magazine Strategy & Tactics.2 As shown in figure 1 (the cover of the Strategy and Tactics issue that included Cobra), the game is subtitled "Patton's 1944 Summer Offensive in France." According to the introduction to the rules, "Cobra is a regimental division/divisional scale simulation of the Allied break-out from the Normandy peninsula in the summer of 1944, which culminated in the encirclement of some 160,000 German troops in the 'Falaise Pocket.'"3 The rules—spread out over eight, tricolumned pages—describe permissible moves and strategies available to the various British, American, [End Page 44] and German infantry, air, and tank (Panzer) divisions and units who fought in this decisive European battle. An eleven-page military-historical overview of the battle by John Prados (complete with detailed maps describing the position of various forces at different points in the summer campaign) can be used as an aid to players who wish to recreate as closely as possible the actual maneuvers by the Allied and German forces during Operation Cobra.4 Cobra was so popular with gamers that an expanded version was released by TSR—the gaming company best known for publishing and producing Dungeons & Dragons—in 1984, the same year that Zorn was creating his musical version of Cobra (the box cover of the TSR version is reproduced in fig. 2).5

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Figure 1.

Cover of Strategy & Tactics magazine (November/December 1977).

For many players, the game Cobra remains one of the most popular World War II–simulation games ever produced. Similarly, the game piece Cobra has become Zorn's most recognizable piece of music. In fact, it could be argued that Cobra has become the defining piece of music associated with the "Downtown scene" of New York's Lower East Side. Howard Mandel has compared Cobra to Terry Riley's In C and has remarked that if "Cobra is not Zorn's greatest lasting achievement, it is [a] [End Page 45] wondrously original work. Through it, and by constantly touring Europe and establishing himself in Japan, Zorn came to represent Lower East Siders' audacity, and their utter resistance to the imposition of musical limits."6 Cobra's stature as the representative piece of the Downtown scene came about quickly. Writing only ten years after its premiere, jazz journalist Peter Watrous urged concertgoers to attend a performance of Cobra at the Knitting Factory, his reason being "it's a good way to find out what the early 1980s [in New York] were about."7

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Figure 2.

Box cover of the TSR version of Cobra (1984).

As a way of celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Cobra, the present article will consider the work from a number of perspectives. The first part will describe how the musical game is "played." Next, I will consider the type of community imagined by Zorn in his game pieces in general and Cobra in particular followed by a consideration of the commercially available recorded versions of Cobra. Finally, I will situate...


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