As a nod to this week’s John Zorn Night Lights program, here’s a brief review of a recent book about his music.
When it comes to art, there’s nothing as traditional as the avant-garde. In his recent Indiana University Press book, John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression, author John Brackett examines the role that cultural histories play in the work of a modern composer and performer.
Zorn, who won a MacArthur genius grant worth a cool $500,000 a couple of years ago (also earning him the parodistic scorn of late-night TV satirist Steven Colbert, who famously offered up a skronky, squawking imitation of Zorn playing the saxophone) is not exactly a household name, but he’s undoubtedly one of the better-known avant-garde musicians in America. Prolific, restless, and provocative, he draws upon jazz, classical, rock, and a host of other influences for music that’s by turns bracing and beautiful (not to mention polarizing: I was once at a party where the host insisted on playing Zorn for his guests, proclaiming “This is music that makes you think!” to which one of the guests retorted, “Yes, it makes me think I’d rather be listening to something else!”).
A Wealth Of Influences
Torture, gift exchange, Japanese manga and pornography, magic and mysticism all factor into Brackett’s analysis of Zorn’s music, which Brackett believes rests upon a “tradition of transgression.” His complex and rigorous critique of Zorn’s music reveals compelling and sometimes very technical connections between the composer’s intellectual sources and inspirations and his art. Brackett makes a persuasive case that Zorn is as much a modernist as he is a postmodernist, citing not only his use of history and tradition, but his affinity for structure and unity as well.
“Zorn’s project,” Brackett concludes, “is a revitalization/restoration of the avant-garde.” 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.
This review originally appeared in Bloom Magazine.