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  • John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression
  • Kent Underwood
John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression. By John Brackett. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. [xxv, 215 p. ISBN 9780253352347 (hardcover), $65; ISBN 9780253220257 (paperback), $24.95.] Illustrations, music examples, discography, filmography, bibliography, index.

John Zorn (1953–): composer, performer, bandleader, impresario, record executive, editor—he is all of these and more. His restless creative vision, versatility, and penchant for branching out, propelled throughout a thirty-five-year-plus career by his prodigious and indefatigable work ethic, make it extremely difficult for anyone to keep up with him or sum up his activity. Much has been written about him, the bulk of it consisting of either reviews or interviews. In the academic literature, Zorn has frequently been featured in examinations of musical postmodernism or contemporary Jewish music. Unaccountably, virtually all of our standard reference resources and survey histories of music (even the most recent ones) have freeze-framed his story in its early scenes, as though his breakthrough works such as Cobra (1984) and Spillane (1987)—all justly celebrated to be sure—could by themselves do justice to an oeuvre that has developed so explosively since then, is still expanding, and is still full of surprises. Thus this new book by John Brackett is welcome for the attention it pays to the composer’s most recent decade— and this is just one of its many virtues.

This is the first monograph devoted to John Zorn. (The publication John Zorn, ed. Walter Rovere and Carla Chiti [S. Giovanni Valdarno: Materiali Sonori, 1998] is really a program booklet accompanying a CD. It is not a biography, nor is it a comprehensive survey of his music.) What Brackett has done, with commanding skill, surety, and subtlety, is to blaze a first trail through vast, dense terrain, with his book’s introduction, four chapters, and epilogue forming thematically a sort of winding loop through the thicket and back. The author is helpfully forthright in identifying the regions yet to be explored in future books: Zorn’s game pieces; the many named bands he has led over the years (Naked City, Pain-killer, the Masada Quartet, etc.) and the designated repertoires he has developed for each of them; his structures and processes of collaboration and of composing for improvising musicians; his relationship to New York’s “downtown” scene; Zorn [End Page 316] as record mogul with Tzadik Records; the Radical Jewish Culture project.

In truth, the number of Zorn compositions Brackett has selected for in-depth treatment is not large. They are, in order of presentation: “Speedfreaks” and “Osaka Bondage” (both from the album Torture Garden, 1991), Necronomicon (2003), IAO: Music in Sacred Light (2002), “In the Very Eye of Night” (from the album Songs from the Hermetic Theater, 2001), Untitled [for Solo Cello] (1999), and two out of the ten movements from Aporias: Requia for Piano and Orchestra (1994). (Many other Zorn pieces are mentioned, but only in passing.) If there is cause for concern here that Brackett might not have enough source material to support his ambitious project, the author’s meticulous close readings are robust and up to the task. He maintains a credible balance between the micro- and macrocosmic and avoids the pitfall (as sometimes occurs in this business) of relegating the music to a set of tendentious examples that seem there only to serve a grand unified theory.

Brackett’s methodology is firmly rooted in theory yet pragmatic in choosing the right tool for the job at hand. That job, principally, is to explicate specific Zorn compositions and to connect them reciprocally to the wider world of Zorn’s musical poetics. Drawing on Stravinsky and Carl Dahlhaus, Brackett defines “poetics” as “the act of making in the field of music,” in which the “making” consists both of the composer’s inner creative processes and of the “outside forces” (systems, influences, traditions, etc.), which shape the act and are understood to be integral to the result (p. xxv). Dualities abound in this book: inward/outward, continuity/discontinuity, tradition/transgression; in Brackett’s able hands, the reciprocal interaction of dualities in Zorn’s music is a potent and fruitful motive, imparting to the book its richly...


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