- John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression
Is John Zorn a postmodernist? Having achieved fame in New York's downtown music scene of the 1980s just as the term postmodernism was entering the vocabulary of music writers, the dynamic saxophonist-composer arrived with impeccable timing and, to the eyes of many, the credentials to match. Exhibiting a seemingly carefree approach to historical allusion and a willfully fractured compositional voice, participating in an astounding array of collaborative projects (an experimental hardcore band here, a klezmer-infused avant-garde jazz combo there), and challenging timeworn distinctions between high and low culture throughout his body of work, Zorn appeared to "rise from the dust" of a crumbling modernism whose categories, orthodoxies, and arguments no longer seemed to matter. Yet aspects of his work have always rested uneasily with the postmodern label, especially when the term itself was stripped of nuance; and nuance wasn't always a quality found in abundance in the fractious critical response to Zorn's noisy ascension to new-music stardom. So it happens that, a quarter-century since his breakthrough Nonesuch album The Big Gundown, this giant of experimental music has become the subject of a monograph aspiring to challenge the conventional wisdom. Among its many revelations, John Brackett's John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression shows us a composer intent on unifying his works through a variety of subtle, and often audibly concealed, mechanisms—the sort of cerebral tinkerer who would, for example, construct a multimovement work around veiled allusions to Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maître and then talk about how "organic" the piece is, how much "sense" it makes (xiv). Upon reaching his epilogue, Brackett confesses that "in many respects, the image that has emerged in this book is that of Zorn as traditionalist or—dare I say it—as modernist" (156).
It shouldn't diminish the author's accomplishment in achieving that feat to note that he isn't the first to take the "Zorn-as-modernist" tack. In his columns for the Village Voice during the late 1980s, critic Kyle Gann depicted Zorn's improvisational game pieces as representing a throwback to the decades-old work of European radicals like Stockhausen and Kagel. Worse still, by looking backward to a time when abrasively dissonant, discontinuous music could earn easy accolades for its perceived sophistication, Zorn was seen by many as having retreated from the achievements of the minimalists and their successors, musicians whose supposed détente with consonance, tonality, and a steady beat had heralded the true arrival of postmodernism in music. Within a few years, however, the same work that struck Gann as modernism redux would be celebrated by others as the epitome of musical postmodernism, the very sound of Derridean différance. If Brackett's book demonstrates anything, it's that the specific aspects of Zorn's work we choose to place under the microscope, and the historical context we bring in tow, will affect to a considerable degree the diagnosis we offer.
Thankfully, the author isn't out to pick sides in the conflict by reducing Zorn [End Page 514] to a stereotype, but rather to complicate facile representations of his music. If his Zorn is indeed a postmodernist, he's one whose work echoes in Andreas Huyssen's characterization of American postmodernism's "search for tradition combined with an attempt at recuperation" (160). Zorn's own mission, Brackett concludes, is a seemingly paradoxical "revitalization/restoration of the avantgarde" (161), a project enacted through a mapping of that tradition's hidden recesses and unexplored alleyways. This plays out musically through the sense of "associative unity" (xiv) he establishes in his compositions by alluding to the artists of his private avant-garde pantheon. The fact that some of these names might sit uncomfortably beside the others in our own minds (Olivier Messiaen/Marlene Dietrich?) serves only to underscore Brackett's point: Zorn's juxtaposition of references can urge us to reconsider certain artists in the context of others, forming...