Dec/Jan 2009


The deep grammar of John Zorn’s music is parsed in this monograph

John Rockwell

The composer John Zorn likes to think of himself as an outsider, wallowing in paradoxes, and he’s done a terrific job of it. The musicologist John Brackett has written what is apparently the first book-length study of the man’s music, titled John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression. He’s done not quite so terrific a job, but for anyone interested in an initial foray into the thickets of complexity and contradiction enveloping Zorn and his “poetics” (a Brackettian favorite), this is a start.

It’s a tribute to Zorn, who was born in 1953, that he has remained so stubbornly unknown to the general public for so long; he’s been making his music on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for more than thirty years. Part of his problem—if it is a problem for a defiant outsider, who is seemingly willing to offend anyone who might help propel him into the mainstream—is his determined catholicity of taste. He has undertaken free improvisation, jazz, hardcore rock, noise, and classical chamber and orchestral scores. In most of his music, idioms and genres flash by with disorienting rapidity. It can be fun but wearing, too, a roller-coaster ride of composition that is a long way from symphonic form or harmonic logic in any conventional sense.

His albums and tracks pay homage to an equally dizzying number of icons, musical and otherwise, from the Schoenberg-Berg-Webern triumvirate to Stravinsky to Messiaen and Kagel to Cage and Feldman to Coleman and Dolphy to Bataille to Crowley and Lovecraft to Anger (Zorn means “anger” in German, appropriately enough, given his edgy aesthetic, but this Anger is Kenneth) to Deren to Bacon to Cornell to Spillane and Morricone. European postmodernist theoreticians and, yes, transgressives (Genet, Derrida, Foucault) stud his liner notes. Japanese erotic and sadistic manga serves as musical inspiration, as well as lurid album art, as do all manner of shadowy Kabbalists and Gnostics. It’s quite a stew.

With all these ingredients, Zorn whips up a frenetic froth of sound, although every once in a while he calms down into lyricism. The effect is sometimes ebullient and amusing, though Zorn’s all-purpose anger insists on priority. It all sounds anarchic on a first listen, for good or ill, and Brackett labors mightily to impose some sort of order on this chaos. Although his musical discussions are more descriptive than deeply analytic—the nonmusical ones are better—Brackett shows us how Zorn uses numerological symbolism, as did Bach, Mahler, and the twelve-tonalists. (Music and mathematics lie close, and lots of composers have embedded number secrets in their scores.) Compressed chunks of others’ scores often act as jumping-off places for Zorn’s own compositions, providing historical reference points and skeins of unity, at least on paper. The sonic equivalent of film montage is another favored device.

The trouble is that Zorn himself has said, “My concern is not so much how things sound, as with how things work.” In other words, he loves the process of creating intricate scores that sound like maniacs improvising on the fly. In that limited sense, he’s like an abstruse academic modernist composer, as in the old distinction between “ear music” you can listen to and “eye music” best appreciated through a close reading of the notes. But by any reasonable criterion—and despite Brackett’s deliberate obfuscation of the fact—Zorn is a postmodernist, even the king of the New York postmodernist hill. People like or dislike his music for its jumpy flow, its wild clashes of style, its passion and humor, its hair-trigger virtuosity in conception and performance.

Brackett, an assistant professor of music at the University of Utah, boasts an impressive knowledge of classical, jazz, and pop, of avant-garde theory and practice, and of literary, filmic, and visual histories. Bursting with all these references, the book reads like a doctoral dissertation blown up into a bid for tenure, yet despite his work’s flaws, Brackett probably deserves the promotion: His interests really are that broad and that deep —almost as diverse as Zorn’s.

The book’s four chapters are devoted to Zorn’s problematic erotic themes, including the sadomasochistic artwork on many of his albums from the late ’80s through the mid-’90s (especially involving the torture of Asian women); what Brackett calls “magick and mysticism” in Zorn’s more recent work; and Zorn’s nonmusical (chapter 3) and musical (chapter 4) homages. In the epilogue, Brackett tries to sum everything up but only ties himself in knots over how best to categorize Zorn (modernist? postmodernist? historical? transgressive?).

All of this is at least mildly piquant, and Brackett’s tactic of zeroing in on particular pieces works well. But he has a habit of filtering his discussions through some usually trendy, often French essayist or theorist. Thus he attempts to deconstruct and blur the straightforward moral repugnance that Ellie Hisama, Catharine MacKinnon, and other feminists feel toward Zorn’s pornographic album art, offering elaborate theories about the borders between reality (a word Brackett often puts in quotation marks) and fantasy, invoking Bataille über alles. Crowley et al. figure heavily in “magick and mysticism.” Marcel Mauss’s gift theory, in which a seemingly simple act is embedded in a complex network of social obligations, dominates Brackett’s homage chapters, though curiously he never extends the discussion to sampling (not a big part of Zorn’s more overtly compositional aesthetic, but one might have thought it worth considering). The French hover more than the Germans, no doubt because of the Frankfurt School’s snooty disdain for commercial music—not that Zorn has gotten rich from his vast output of mostly cult CDs.

John Zorn reads like a series of extended aperçus. There is no biographical information to speak of, and as Brackett readily concedes in his introduction, he slights Zorn’s work prior to the late ’80s, his improvisation, his role and skills as a saxophonist and performer, and his place in the fecund downtown-Manhattan jazz/rock/improv scene of the late ’70s and ’80s and beyond. Aside from the academic jargon, the book’s conceptual confusion supposedly mirrors Zorn’s own multivalent compositional method. But even Brackett has his doubts: “Many readers are probably wondering about the value or utility of quasi-formalistic close readings such as those presented above,” he muses at one point. Later, after his failure to take a position on Zorn’s troubling artwork, he frets that “for some readers, my position might be understood as a ‘cop-out.’” The prose is nothing if not dense, as in “Furthermore, given Lowe’s emphasis on the fictionalized ‘remembering’ or the ‘putting-back-togetherness’ of an emergent Asian American cultural identity . . .”

Yet there is much to admire here, particularly the discussions, to which Brackett repeatedly loops back, of the narrow, dangerous space between tradition and transgression. For him, Zorn doesn’t so much wish to destroy social and aesthetic norms as challenge them, although whether Zorn has thought about his own work in quite this manner—sometimes he’s more like an intellectualized Road Runner than an academic cogitator—seems doubtful. In interviews, he has sounded diffident about his undoubted intellect; after reading Brackett’s gift theorizing, it’s refreshing to find the composer himself joking about his “plagiarism” and “stealing.”

Though it’s fair to say that this book would be Greek to anyone not already interested in Zorn and his music, Brackett does successfully limn the tensions in the music of a remarkable composer. It is a testament to how far academic musicologists have ventured since the dear, unlamented years when they merely buried their noses in lute tablature, afraid to creep anywhere near the present, let alone the demotic. There’s a heady new world out there, and Brackett is part of it. If he could only match his thinking and his academically cloaked passions with a prose style equivalent to the passion and humor of his subject, he would have a book really worth reading.

John Rockwell is a former New York Times arts critic.