Reviews — From the May 2009 issue

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.

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