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  • Ugly Beauty: John Zorn and the Politics of Postmodern Music
  • Kevin McNeilly

I wish to look at a particular postmodern achievement, the music of composer John Zorn, in order to assess both the nature of a political praxis and to “define” the postmodern pragmatically, in the practice of art rather than only in theory. Zorn’s music does something palpable to its listeners, or at least incites them to a form of action, of awakening; it activates the listener in a manner that a great deal of conventional and commercially-produced music, when it casts itself as soother or anaesthetic, does not. But Zorn achieves this affectivity, ironically, by exploiting and exploding both convention and commercial form.

Form itself, in so far as it is tied both to social production and aesthetic convention, provides a correlative for the dialectic of the social and aesthetic spheres, and thus offers an inroad into the problem of a postmodern praxis. Music, Jacques Attali asserts, manifests by its very nature as an “instrument of understanding,” a “new theoretical form” (Noise 4). Music, that is, as Attali understands it, can provide a viable, fully realized conjunction of the theoretical and the practical, a form of theorizing which coincides with a formal practice.1 To grasp the practice of music, then, within a postmodern context, is in some sense to arrive at a theoretical position vis-a-vis the postmodern, especially—as the aesthetic delimitation of music as a sphere of cultural activity is broadened to encompass the theoretical—toward a decidedly political praxis (cf. Arac ix–x, xxx–xxxi). But where, for Attali, that broadening takes on a decidedly utopian character, the “newness” and “originality” of Zorn’s music, if we may speak in such terms, lie exactly in its self-conscious refusal to accept either the original or the new as valid categories of artistic expression, in either the compositional or the performative sphere. The politics of Zorn’s music, its affective thrust, emerges from within the formal manifestations of a parodic, technocratically-saturated postmodern musicality, and also delineates a significant political current running through postmodernism in general. In its parodies of genre and received form, as well as its antagonistic postures, Zorn’s music assumes a political force.

The most immediately audible characteristic of John Zorn’s music is its noisiness. Abrasive, loud, fast, unpleasant, disjunctive, Zorn’s musical textures are never sweet or satisfied in the conventional sense; one has only to hear the primal screams of Yamatsuka Eye on the first two recordings by Zorn’s Naked City band, the punk-jazz thrash of his Ornette Coleman tribute, Spy vs. Spy, or his slippery, choppy, clanging arrangements of works by Kurt Weill or Ennio Morricone (arrangement of Morricone’s “The Good The Bad and the Ugly”), to realize that neither a bathetic Classical prettiness nor a pretentious Romantic resolution has any place in his work, except as an antagonism. Nor does his work admit the conventions of modern and contemporary chamber music unproblematically. A work for string quartet, Forbidden Fruit, incorporates “turntables” played by Christian Marclay, in which random, distorted snatches of pre-recorded music cut across the already fragmented textures of the strings themselves. A work for chamber ensemble such as Cobra not only uses conventional orchestral instrumentation including harp, brass, woodwinds and percussion, but also incorporates electric guitar and bass, turntables, cheesy organ, and sampled sounds ranging from horse whinnies and duck calls to train whistles, telephone bells and industrial clanging. Zorn, while affirming his own position as a “classically-trained” composer, fuses the materials of the “classical” world with pop music, hardcore punk, heavy metal, jazz (free and traditional), television soundtracks, and sound effects (v. Woodward 35–6). His work is consistently eclectic, hybridized, and polysemous.

His music, in fact, comes to consist in noise itself, or rather, in the tensions between noises. As a self-declared product of the “info age,” Zorn taps into the diverse currents of sound and background emerging from the mass media—particularly television, radio and commercial recordings—that permeate contemporary life; all forms of sound, from white noise to Beethoven, from duck calls to bebop, become raw materials for the composer; musical...

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