[Review] | Last Man Standing, by Joshua Cohen | Harper's Magazine

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Last Man Standing

The acquisitive music of John Zorn

Discussed in this essay:

John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression, by John Brackett. Indiana University Press. 218 pages. $24.95.

Arcana: Musicians on Music, edited by John Zorn. Granary Books/Hips Road. 380 pages. $34.95.

Arcana II: Musicians on Music, edited by John Zorn. Hips Road. 298 pages. $34.95.

Arcana III: Musicians on Music, edited by John Zorn. Hips Road. 250 pages. $34.95.

Saxophonist and composer John Zorn was found dead last night in his Manhattan apartment, a victim of his own success.

Zorn rode into town on a white horse, his yarmulke flapping in the breeze. He didn’t know why he came back. He didn’t know how he’d gotten roped into another war with desperadoes. The day was hot. A gun was in his hand. 

Zorn pushed the fedora back on his head. Maybe he had a taste for death. Maybe he liked it too much to taste anything else. The day was cold. He lit a cigarette, had a pull of whiskey. Maybe the blonde in the trenchcoat was lying. Maybe she wasn’t even a blonde.

Spaceman Zorn, lieutenant first class, prepared to leave Planet East 2nd Street, bound for the Valhalla Quadrant in search of humanoid listeners for fun and profit. He radioed for clearance, and clearance he received. He closed his eyes, opened his ears, accelerated his ship deep into the black circumambience. His return would not be so peaceful.

Such parodies of pop tropes might be as close as prose can get to describing, or embodying, the deliriously acquisitive music of John Zorn. The obituary, the Western dime, the detective pulp, the space opera; not to mention their more recent incarnations on television, in movies, and on the Internet — Zorn samples, then reshapes, the equivalent chaos of the musical world, both with the improvisations of his own bands, in which he’s played alto saxophone, and in his formally notated compositions.

But we’ll stick with writing for a moment. In order to reproduce Zorn’s musical process in a piece of criticism about that process, one is thrown back not only on postmodernism, especially on the Beat-era, film-inspired cutups of William S. Burroughs, but even further into the ludic realm of surrealist parlor pastimes. To demonstrate, you can take the words of any sentence in this essay, cut them out of the page, and redistribute however you want — “and want you redistribute however” — intending the loss of sense to be literature, not senselessness.

But musical notes do not have meanings like words do. This lack of meaning has allowed Zorn to rewrite Arnold Schoenberg’s Serenade in his own Chimeras for flute, clarinet, piano, violin, cello, soprano, and percussion; it has allowed him to redo Anton Webern’s String Trio in his own string trio, Walpurgisnacht; to redo Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite in his string quartet Memento Mori; and to refashion Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître for a similar ensemble plus turntables in Elegy. These appropriations cannot be heard, however, because the pitch sequence, the musical equivalent of narrative, has been disrupted, rearranged. One would not know it without studying the scores, but Zorn’s Cat o’Nine Tails scrambles blocks of quotations from quartets by Elliott Carter, Iannis Xenakis, Schoenberg, and Berg; his Aporia for piano and orchestra appropriates, on the most fundamental technical level, the Requiem Canticles of Igor Stravinsky. 

The note “C” should not be looked up in the dictionary under “C”; the note itself signifies nothing, functioning only with regard to whatever note comes before it and whatever note comes after. Instead of literary meanings, then, musical notes have relationships. And what’s most important to the reception, to the hearing, of a musical note is that relationship, or context. These contexts are resolvable into systems, and these systems dominated Western music for centuries. In the system known as tonality — the system of Mozart, the system of Lou Reed — the scale has seven notes, with seven relationships per octave known as intervals. In the dodecaphony pioneered by Schoenberg in fin-de-siècle Vienna, all twelve notes of Western tuning were used, with twelve relationships per octave, in a system described by Schoenberg as being made of “twelve tones related only to one another.”

The primary innovation of American popular music was to transcend such relationships. Within two decades of pop music’s post–World War II ascendancy, the first generation of critics for magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone began naming, if not describing, new genres strikingly unconcerned with the interactions of tones: “hard rock,” “glam rock,” “prog rock,” “punk,” “postpunk,” “New Wave,” “No Wave,” “metal,” “heavy metal,” “death metal,” “thrash,” “hardcore,” “noise,” “skronk,” “avant-skronk.” A century after the demise of classical tonality, the local language of Western music had become a global language of styles, of sensibilities — racial, sexual, political. Before the culture of celebrity transcended mediums and every recording artist suddenly was also an actor and memoirist with a line of energy drinks and perfumes, the ancient technical systems of music would be replicated by a greater system or organizing principle — a music business in which forms of music were related to one another only by genres and anyone who transgressed a given genre was said to be, in the clichés of criticism, “pushing boundaries” or “crossing over.” 

For the past three decades, John Zorn has led a ragtag avant-garde in rebellion against this new music theory and against the late aggression of reckless celebrity; his theater of war has been the streets of Downtown New York. John Brackett’s Tradition and Transgression, the first book about Zorn’s music, has just been published, and its considered evaluation of a rambunctious career appears toward the end of the publication run of Zorn’s own Arcana series — a projected set of five books written by nearly a hundred underground musicians, and edited/published by Zorn himself, intended to fill the vacuum of critical silence that surrounds them and their work.

The record company boardrooms are located floors above the grittiest asphalt and blocks north, too, in Midtown Manhattan: Warner Music Group at Rockefeller Center, EMI at 150 Fifth Avenue, Sony/BMG Music Entertainment at 550 Madison Avenue, Universal Music Group at 1755 Broadway, near Carnegie Hall (these companies are known as the Big Four; the Big Five included an independent BMG, bought by Sony in 2004; the Big Six also included Polygram, bought by Universal in 1998). But Manhattan’s music is south, and began south, where the city itself began — “Downtown,” a subjectively delimited district that spawned the music known even outside of New York as “Downtown Music.” 

Accounting for what makes Downtown “Downtown” can easily bring us deep into the past — to before World War II, when the neighborhood’s lofts had not yet been converted from sweatshop factories and warehouses affiliated with Manhattan’s port, and the white ethnic immigrants who worked there had not yet moved out to the suburbs. This Downtown was a bustling city-in-itself, whose culture — whose diversity, set between radically political Union Square and moneyed Wall Street — was distinct from that of the rest of New York. Artistically, however, Zorn’s Downtown can be said to have begun in earnest with the movement known as Fluxus, a concatenation of plastic artists, poets, and musicians centered around George Maciunas, whose 1963 manifesto announced that his group would “Promote living art, anti-art, promote NON ART REALITY to be fully grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals.” Early Fluxus concerts were held at 112 Chambers Street, in a loft occupied by Yoko Ono half a decade before she met John Lennon and, later, moved Uptown to the plush fixtures of The Dakota. (Regular audience members included Marcel Duchamp and the inventor of the silent concert, John Cage.) It was the intermedia and collaborative community spirit of Fluxus — its “living art” — united with its subversively accidental perspectives — “anti-art” — that found its most explicit expression with Zorn, whose interests assimilate a scene of hundreds into the praxis of a single musician.  

Fluxus performances of the music of La Monte Young (whose composition $50 featured him getting paid $50) and Terry Riley (whose In C featured the note “C” repeated indefinitely) were taken as models by two younger musicians who drove taxis and ran a moving company together: Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Their performances of a minimalist, partially notated, partially improvised music closed the gap between Downtown’s experimentation and classical music culture, which lived at Lincoln Center, an arts complex opened in the mid-1960s, many subway stops Uptown, where the grid dominates and decorum reigns supreme. Glass’s and Reich’s own ensembles — The Philip Glass Ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, each dedicated to presenting the work of their respective composer-conductor — were influential for Zorn, who would perform his own music live with his bands, Naked City and Masada particularly. As for performance venues, Downtown’s “Lincoln Center” was diffuse: The Kitchen, opened in 1971, was a major Downtown stage — among the first in an unheated, and un-air-conditioned, line that involved The Experimental Intermedia Foundation, Roulette, The Alternative Museum, Dia Art Foundation, and Artists Space, and continued through the opening of The Knitting Factory in 1987, Tonic in 1998, and Zorn’s club, The Stone, in 2005, located on 2nd Street and Avenue C in a former Chinese restaurant. 

Obviously, throughout this period a more official culture kept on keeping on. The #1 album of 1976 was Frampton Comes Alive; disco’s ball cast its shadow across city dance floors; while Uptown, for the formal-dress folks, it was Mozart and Beethoven as usual. When the 1980s arrived, representing for majority America a homogenization of culture at the end of the Cold War, Downtown proved the infamous exception: genre distinctions, in the mean streets, were meaningless, as a mess of the loudest, angriest music imaginable rose up amid the squalor, IV-drug addiction, and AIDS suffering of the New York of Mayor Ed Koch. The conversion of New York from cacophonous wasteland to yuppie functionality began with Rudolph Giuliani, who as a young federal prosecutor led a landmark police action in 1984 that cleared Tompkins Square Park — Zorn’s immediate neighborhood — of its narcotics trade. By the time Giuliani became mayor ten years later, “gentrification” was not just a buzzword they taught at university but a program that expanded New York University, while spattering Downtown with luxury boutiques. 

CBGB, the punk club that debuted The Ramones, was shuttered in 2006 and is now a men’s fashion store selling $130 T-shirts and $800 pants. The Knitting Factory and Tonic, two clubs whose schedules Zorn frequently curated, were forced to close due to rent increases. Downtown jazz clubs now cater almost exclusively to European and Asian tourists who pay inflated prices to sip watery alcohol and not smoke in the most storied bastions of American music. In November 2008, Christie’s held its inaugural auction of punk memorabilia. A Patti Smith poem sold for $375; a poster advertising a concert by Television, signed by Richard Hell, “realized” a price of $313. In December 2008, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex NYC opened Downtown. Its collection boasts the ultimate readymade relic: a urinal from CBGB. 

John Zorn’s career is a parallel street to Downtown’s decline — one-way, but in the opposite direction. He was born in Queens, on September 2, 1953, making him a Virgo, making him ingenious but petty, gifted in languages and attracted to foreign cultures; that his moon is in Cancer makes him both likable and overly sensitive; all of this might make him the sort of person who believes in astrology. Zorn has always existed on this knife edge: he is earnest but defensive, a wiseass and skeptic but also a mystic, a magus.

These opposites collided on the corner of 175th Street and Jewel Avenue in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens. Zorn’s subway, his umbilicus to Manhattan, was the F train, which brought in the bridge & tunnelers for their weekend doses of kulcha. Flushing was Jewish; the Zorn family was Jewish; but John, the youngest of two, was sent to a church’s Sunday school, and the family celebrated Christmas (Zorn’s mother was an education professor at NYU; his father, who emigrated from Ukraine at age six, a hairdresser). After graduating from the United Nations High School, Zorn went on to Webster College in St. Louis, where he studied music for three semesters. The piano, guitar, bass guitar, flute, and clarinet he’d tinkered with as a teenager were gradually supplanted by the saxophone, and, after a float to the West Coast, Zorn returned to New York in 1975, ensconcing himself in the Colonnades Building on Lafayette Street. The apartment he slept in by day moonlighted as The Theater of Musical Optics, a prime setting for concerts of improvised music whose attendance seldom exceeded four.

Zorn’s next decade was spent composing improvisational frameworks on blackboards and index cards, while personalizing an approach to his instrument, negotiating between the black vernacular of jazz “sax” and the wild, extended techniques of contemporarily classical woodwinds. In 1985, Zorn signed with the label Nonesuch and recorded The Big Gundown, his eclectic arrangements of the music that Ennio Morricone wrote for director Sergio Leone’s 1960s Spaghetti Westerns. A recording of Spillane followed, Zorn’s noirish homage to the Mike Hammer detective novels.

But in 1987, at the height of success, a restless Zorn moved to Tokyo and proceeded to split his time between New York and Japan until the mid-1990s. At the time, his chief project was the band Naked City — named after the 1958 TV show, itself named after the 1948 film — featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, Fred Frith on bass guitar, and Joey Baron on drums. (Frisell has since emerged as a significant guitarist of Americana music.) Although he learned to speak Japanese and played a troublemaker role in Tokyo’s musical underground, Zorn has spoken in interviews about his alienation from artistically inclusive but socially hierarchical Japanese culture. Apparently, this disaffection, along with the death of his father, returned him to New York, and to Judaism, homecomings that informed “Radical Jewish Culture” — a movement that marked a retaking of Downtown aesthetics, and their intermingling with Downtown ethnicity, by the secularly Jewish generation born in America after the war.

Two projects emerged from Zorn’s relocation: his 1993 founding of Masada, an acoustic quartet named after the Judean mountain where, in 73 a.d., an army of Jews martyred themselves instead of surrendering to the Romans; and the 1995 founding of Zorn’s record label, Tzadik, which is a Hebrew word meaning “righteous.” During this time, Zorn also collaborated with a number of hardcore musicians, including the quartet Blind Idiot God and Faith No More vocalist Mike Patton. Subsequently, definitive marks of Uptown approval began arriving for Zorn’s compositions: a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” in 2006, and Columbia University’s William Schuman Award, in 2007. With The Stone programming six nights a week and Tzadik releasing almost fifty albums per year, many of its owner’s own music, Zorn has become Downtown’s premier impresario, a DIY success story and a simultaneous vindication and betrayal of anti-establishmentarianism.

Zorn’s first compositional innovations were evident with his Game Pieces, structured improvisations in which the composer acted as conductor, cuing musicians through gestures and signs (including doffed baseball caps and holding up a prearranged number of fingers). Happily, maximally, Zorn used improvisation to challenge his composing amid the rise of his city’s best improvisers — the denizens of Naked City and Masada, and such peers as pianist-composer Uri Caine, guitarist-composers Marc Ribot and Elliot Sharp, and conductor-cornetist Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris. These were perhaps the most consummate musicians of the century, hyphenated performer-composers who could not only read music but also make up better versions of it on the spot. Although once established as the first-call saxophonist of this scene that was, on street level, ten scenes or more, each with its own subgroups and ephemeral cults, Zorn again improvised a dance on the outer rings of counterintuition: at the turn of the last century, he relinquished his reeds, abandoning nightly performance to focus on composing. 

From the beginning, Zorn’s compositional systems were always his own, not just personal but hermetic. Just as his Game Pieces rewrote avant-garde aesthetics through a new skill set, Zorn’s take on popular music was belated yet total. Naked City audaciously defined the popular as a certain intensity or energy, and proceeded to gather under that heated, insatiable rubric of Zorn’s private invention a host of related sonics: blues, jazz, cartoon music via Warner Bros. composer Carl Stalling (Looney Tunes) and MGM composer Scott Bradley (Tom and Jerry), both kinds of cowboy music (country and western), and all those old/new varieties of rocks and metals. Throughout this madcap amassing of repertoire that could be played only by ensembles of close friends and neighbors, Zorn was also composing scores for export and for traditional reproduction — thoroughly notated pieces orchestrated for classical instrumentation. 

There has not yet been a complete catalogue made of Zorn’s compositions, or a compiled discography, and such a task can seem beyond even the most enamored biographer. Since there are over a hundred albums, and thousands of compositions (Masada alone boasts a book of 613 “tunes,” reflecting the number of mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah), it might be better to just account for their highlights with one of Zorn’s signature forms, the list: there are the soloist showcases (Aporias and Contes de Fées, a de facto violin concerto); five string quartets (Cat o’Nine Tails, Memento Mori, Kol Nidre, The Dead Man, Necronomicon); chamber music (Amour Fou for piano trio, Le Mômo for violin and piano); solo music, whose extremes are exemplified by the antic Carny for piano and the stridencies of Goetia for violin; vocal music, notably Rituals, for mezzo-soprano with “wind machines, wooden gears, gravedigging, bull roarers, bird squeakers”; and then there’s the film music, including soundtracks for television commercials by David Cronenberg and Jean-Luc Godard, Japanese animations, a documentary about Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, and a gay porno entitled Latin Boys Go to Hell.

Zorn, then, is the most we can ask of a modern artist: prolific. In an age of excess, the more excessive the artist, the more important he seems. In an earlier age, when composers accepted musical systems without question, creating their works within not only a single system but also a single style, Zorn might have been accused of exploitation, of thinking too big with too little.

This accusation would still ring true if Zorn were actually a creator, or foremost a creator, a composer in the olden mode: pen-and-piano, five-lines-to-a-staff. But he’s not. He’s something newer — an artist as browser, as curator, an amasser of references, a filcher of licks and riffs, a relentlessly curious collector of kitsch.

Here would be the place for the diligent writer to perform an Internet search for “collecting,” then to collect those results into a paragraph, copy-’n’-pasting quotations from (in alphabetical order) journalist Joseph Alsop, philosopher Jean Baudrillard, and Walter Benjamin. That German Jew was the first to consider seriously the activities of the Collector, whom he established as an emblematic urban personality, flâneuring through a rush hour’s undifferentiated mass in desperate search of only one thing — whatever other people miss. This person used to be Benjamin himself, and it used to be Marcel Proust, who collated and rewrote easily ignored, easily forgotten observations and overheard remarks into a novel that provided the deepest possible literary engagement with the surface reality of his time. But when, through technology, that reality became overwhelming in its stimuli, this person — this, as Saul Bellow would have put it, “first-class noticer” — went from being a participant or social commentator to a sort of attending trashman, a searcher through the detritus that an accelerant culture had left behind. The refined collector of the bourgeois nineteenth century was to be recycled as me, as you, and, iconically, as disposophobic Zorn.

With the advent of the Internet, the accumulation of dreck finally fits everyone’s budget. In an era in which culture is becoming ever more free — people expect free music in these downloading days, as concert attendance perceptibly wanes — everyone becomes his own archivist, his own immediate nostalgist. Just as Zorn pieces together with saxophone spittle the shards of pop and unpopular records, we, too, from the comfort of our living rooms, customize our lists of Top 10s and rotating Favorites; we’ve become DJs of the self, montage-makers or editors of the films that are our lives. 

But when we select and shuffle musics, we seek the entertainment to be had in comfort, whereas Zorn — working with musicians and not computers, sampling not through clicks but by transcription — is determined to entertain us through challenge. His goal seems to be the imprinting of a local sensibility on an unprecedented wealth of source material, giving both an angry finger to skyscraper corporatism and a human face to technological hegemony. This means that his music is very specific — while listening, it helps to have a sense of humor, preferably Zorn’s sense of humor — and driven by noisy outrage. This outrage is most enjoyably evinced when Naked City improvises on traditional jazz and blues forms at outlandish volumes and speedfreak tempi, imbuing the familiar chord changes of Tin Pan Alley with visceral force; or else when Masada pursues its brand of klezmer and transitions from a sort of Eastern European kitsch — a snaky synagogue melody — into a variant of “free jazz,” as the tightly spaced Oriental intervals are expanded into yelps, the disconsolate howls by which multiculturalism mourns Culture.

Essentially, Zorn’s provocative brilliance lies in this: For all that he encompasses every powerchord and emcee front, stripper swing and ragtime ostinato, he persists in turning that plenitude inward, encoding the very experience of influence. When we listen to his transformations of canonical classical music especially, we are listening to music by listening to listening, as what has to be called Zorn’s music, and nothing but Zorn’s music, reveals itself in its newness and shocking historicity. In the same way, the New York — the Downtown — that sounds through his music is not the city that is or was: it’s the city that Zorn has always required it to be.

To that end, Zorn’s Arcana reads like an attempt to ensure that we’re living not just in the same neighborhood but on the same block, on the same page. It represents a hope that our musicians, regardless of style or instrument, might once again be able to speak a common language — what would be the broadest language in musical history, still more focused than Babel’s. Arcana’s multiple volumes — three to date, with a fourth volume due this fall, and a fifth and final volume slated for 2010, surveying the writing of nonmusicians on music — amount to a public rehearsal for this revolution, impracticable but utterly committed. Its sections on two-handed cello-bowing and copyright law, interspersed with chapters on evolutionary analogies in music (“The Counterpoint of Species”) and stray thoughts on the morality of distortion (should one use a distortion “effect”? or instead push the amplifier as loud as it goes?), are reports vital to any city that has lost its avant-garde, whose underground has been outsourced not overseas but into virtual dreams.

John Brackett’s book-length study of Zornithology is a close technical rendition of this same hope of re-creation. Although never once venturing into the biographical, Tradition and Transgression does try to harmonize the occasional echoic strain of musical Downtown, if only to save the scene from the oblivion of the un-academicized and unmarketed. But nowhere among his discussions of Zorn’s interests in numerology, anime, and S&M sex does Brackett ever mention why this musical world — this Downtown that dabbled in Magick and transgressive erotics, loud clothing and hairstyles, and louder volumes — moved on; a whiz at music theory, he says nothing about politics or real estate, the record industry or MTV. The impression one gets from Brackett’s painstakingly professional analyses is that Zorn arrived late to the experimental party, then experimented himself by staying even later. Zorn came of age at the end of New York’s last musical avant-garde, when its techniques and potency were being absorbed by more popular music, leaving the die-hard avant-gardist so underground as to be basically dead. Zorn came in from the boroughs to live in a city that, the moment he settled in, started changing, and changed around him, as he remained the same — a fearless believer; not the most avant of the quickdraw advance guard but the rearmost soldier, the last man standing.

Indeed, no matter where we maintain residence, we also lately live in one great cyberspace city, a megalopolis monstrously located nowhere, or entirely inside our own heads. With this virtual rise comes the physical’s fall, and so it feels, here in New York, where I’m writing this, that there are, particularly among younger artists, no common corners anymore, no shared streets. The Internet’s disruption of New York’s socioeconomic ripple that historically located arts neighborhoods concentrically further from Midtown’s concentrated power means that Downtown could be anywhere — that the underground has, finally, moved. But where to? Brooklyn? Or www.brooklyn.com? The most notable new music after Zorn’s might be the whirring hum of the fan that cools a computer’s circuits from fevered searching.

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