John Zorn

John Zorn : Tradition and Transgression

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John Zorn is one of the most prolific and active American composers/performers working today. He has been a fixture of New York's "Downtown Scene" since the mid-70s as a tireless proponent of avant-garde and experimental music. Despite the acclaim and respect he has achieved in America and abroad, very little attention has been paid to Zorn by musicologists or music theorists. Author John Brackett suggests that the reason for the relative paucity of writing on Zorn's music and musical thought has to do with the difficulties and challenges they present both for listeners and scholars. Zorn's musical language-an amalgam of seemingly incongruous techniques, sounds, styles, and genres-creates complex and sometimes confusing listening experiences that are difficult to categorize in terms of overarching thematic or narrative design. Brackett offers a number of perspectives for understanding Zorn's music and musical practices, while challenging certain assumptions that limit the ways in which contemporary music is typically addressed.show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 248 pages
  • 166 x 232 x 18mm | 439.98g
  • Indiana University Press
  • Bloomington, IN, United States
  • English
  • 28 b&w photos, 46 figures
  • 0253220254
  • 9780253220257
  • 555,384

Review quote

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 uber 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 apercus. 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, Bookforum, Dec/Jan 2009 "... [Brackett's] passion for Zorn's work is evident throughout his remarkably insightful [book]. Brackett has attained a significant level of involvement from Zorn himself, and the book includes segments from their conversations as well as previously unseen sketches, notes, and documents relating to the composer's work. For die-hard followers, the book is an invitation into the inner sanctum." -PopMatters "Brackett offers a number of perspectives for understandign Zorn's music and musical practices, while challenging certain assumptions that limit the ways in which contemporary music is typically addressed." -www.avantmusicnews.com, January 26, 2009 "... Brackett does a thorough job of addressing the various complexities and contradictions found in Zorn's body of work. The author provides a well-grounded starting point for exploring Zorn's output..." -Choice, May 2009 "...scholar John Brackett moves away from the cliched interpretation of Zorn as a postmodernist... to offer a more nuanced interpretation, one that considers his role as historian and caretaker of earlier artworks." -AllAboutJazz-New York, June 2009 "A historically situated set of analyses is just what John Zorn deserves as a major artist of our time. The present volume will be important in furthering an understanding of his work." -George Lewis, Columbia University "Brackett's groundbreaking book... confronts Zorn's contradictory modes of expression that couple the aesthetics of Stravinsky, Boulez, Duchamp and Godard with the transgressive sexuality and violence of Bataille, Genet and Maruo, brilliantly demonstrating how these powerful dualities of thought-real yet fantastic, pleasing yet horrifying-synergize to make Zorn's compositional voice unique and seminal in the 21st century." -Severine Neff, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill "Brackett's groundbreaking book... confronts Zorn's contradictory modes of expression... brilliantly demonstrating how these powerful dualities of thought-real yet fantastic, pleasing yet horrifying-synergize to make Zorn's compositional voice unique and seminal in the 21st century." -Severine Neff, Mainly Music Meandering, November 3 2008 "Though his book plumbs depths of theory and esoteric cultural history that may interest only the most hardcore Zorn and experimental-art fans, those very depths make it an invaluable guide to the aesthetic methods and motivations of an artist who pays homage to the old as he seeks to make it new." -Bloom Magazine "Brackett has made an indispensible contribution to scholarship a subject that deserves many more important books, and he has set the bar high for future authors." -Notes, December 2009 "[T]he book is a heady brew of fascinating ideas, analyses, conjectures, and unifying theories, which presents some masterful strategies for the 'game of analysis' to which Zorn challenges all comers." -Critical Studies in Improvisation, Vol. 5, No. 1 "As the first book of scholarship on this multifaceted artist, John Zorn... accomplishes a great deal and should initiate a new and more serious phase in Zorn's treatment at the hands of academic authors." -American Music, Winter 2010show more

About John Brackett

John Brackett lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.show more

Table of contents

ContentsForeword by John ZornAcknowledgmentsIntroduction1. From the Fantastic to the Dangerously Real: Reading John Zorn's Artwork2. Magick and Mysticism in Zorn's Recent Works3. Tradition, Gifts, and Zorn's Musical Homages4. Continuing the Spiral: Aporias and the Prisms of TraditionEpilogueDiscography/FilmographyNotesBibliographyIndexshow more

Rating details

30 ratings
3.46 out of 5 stars
5 17% (5)
4 30% (9)
3 43% (13)
2 3% (1)
1 7% (2)
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