John Zorn Tradition and Transgression

By John Brackett
Indiana University Press

Analytical and selective, rather than critical or narrative, this volume attempts to map connective themes in John Zorn’s collective works. John Brackett, a University of Utah music professor, describes Zorn’s oeuvre as alternatively relating to tradition, transgression, or the tradition of transgression.

Some of Brackett’s insights are both accurate and provocative. All the same, this volume has several limitations. Tradition and Transgression focuses on only four works: the brutal graphic imagery which illustrates Naked City’s Torture Garden and Leng Tch’e; the currents of so-called “magick” and mysticism expressed in “Necronomicon” and IAO: Music in Sacred Light; Zorn’s musical homage to artists, such as “In the Very Eye of Night” (for film-maker Maya Deren) and “Untitled” (for sculptor Joseph Cornell); and his links to so-called serious music in scores such as Aporias.

After defining Zorn’s work as a total package, so that booklet images depicting torture, violence and S&M on Naked City CDs can’t be divorced from the music, Brackett states: “Zorn’s music …attempts to transgress the boundaries between what is …understood as discursively acceptable, irrational and logical … and what is considered irrational, unacceptable and outside of such formations,” indicating that the music and imagery together can have several meanings, depending on listeners’ interpretations.

Brackett elucidation of how the composer incorporates influences from the mystical numbers embedded in the “magick” treatises of Satanist Aleister Crowley and Kabblaistic texts is equally fascinating, if exhausting. Transcribing in miniscule detail tracks on the CDs, Brackett analyzes not only compositional strategies, bar lines, and pitches but also the space between the tracks for symbolic relationship to such occult numbers as “666”, “13” or “15”. “Zorn is interested in recovering those traditions that have … been marginalized”, he writes. The composer’s interest in so-called magick “represents an affinity for ‘traditions of (heterogeneous) transgression’.” Zorn’s transgressions thus put him in a tradition of other transgressive avant-gardists.

Brackett’s thesis about Zorn’s location in the tradition of transgression is amplified when discussing the saxophonist’s dedications. He postulates that Zorn’s work is only one point in a “continuous spiral of giving and receiving”, when the composer honors not just the dedicatees, but the influences of those artists who influenced them. “Artistic inheritance is not a burden that must be borne by later artists but is something to be celebrated and continually investigated in the creation of new works.”

This subsuming and manipulating of influences become more controversial with Brackett’s insistence on the co-relation between Zorn’s Aporias and .Igor Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles. As comparative lists, copies of Zorn’s handwritten score, extensive musical transcriptions and analysis, plus discursions into the work of painters, film theorists and writers alluded to in the composition begin to multiply, the non-specialist may find himself holding on to the argument’s thread for dear life. Zorn’s title, Brackett writes could be “an attempt …to conceal not only [its] … immediate panegyric nature … but also … Zorn’s attempt to situate himself within a certain artistic tradition … Zorn is able to place this work within his overall poetics of music and his …concerns for not only a sense of tradition, but also the insights afforded by … composing within certain…transgressive spaces.”

Brackett states his book “should try to capture the experience of listening to Zorn’s music”. If you’re someone who listens to music while timing it with a stop watch plus consulting a shelf full of scholarly volumes, mining the author’s thesis may reveal concepts that demand reflection and interpretation.

— Ken Waxman

— MusicWorks Issue #104