Give Now

Night Lights Classic Jazz

John Zorn: Tradition And Transgression

A new book takes an in-depth look at the sources and inspirations behind the music of avant-garde artist John Zorn.

Zorn

Photo:

"John Zorn: Tradition and Transgressions" by John Brackett

As a nod to this week’s John Zorn Night Lights program, here’s a brief review of a recent book about his music.

The Review

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.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

View all posts by this author »

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from Night Lights Classic Jazz:

Support For Indiana Public Media From

About Night Lights

Search Night Lights

where to hear night lights

This Week On Afterglow

Duet: Doris Day and Andre Previn

Doris Day Andre Previn Duet

Doris Day is a celebrated American movie icon—but there’s much more to her legacy than PILLOW TALK.

Read more »

Afterglow is WFIU's weekly program of jazz and American popular song hosted by David Brent Johnson.

More from Afterglow »