John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression

Tom Greenland By

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John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression
John Brackett
Hardcover; 248 pages
ISBN: 0253220254
Indiana University Press

Coming to grips with the prolific and ungainly output of composer/improviser/sonic scavenger John Zorn is a Herculean task. In John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression, the first book-length treatment of this pivotal Downtown icon, scholar John Brackett moves away from the clichéd interpretation of Zorn as a postmodernist (with all the term's implications of disjuncture, pastiche and collapse of narrative and stylistic unity) to offer a more nuanced interpretation, one that considers his role as historian and caretaker of earlier artworks. Zorn's process—his "musical poetics"—Brackett suggests, is more profitably viewed as a "tradition of transgression," defined not by a desire to resist or destroy dominant institutionalized aesthetics but rather to work within these constraints to expose their limitations, an approach that "zeroes in on and exploits the spaces or 'blind spots' deemed impermissible, unacceptable and unrecognizable." (p. 88) Zorn's transgressive side is explored in the first half of the book: Chapter 1 uses Georges Bataille's ideas of homogeneous and heterogeneous as well as cultural constructs of fantasy vs. reality to examine the shocking album art from Zorn's Naked City period; Chapter 2 investigates his use of occult philosophies as compositional tools, giving detailed musical analyses of "Necronomicon" (written for string quartet) and "IAO" (an album-length suite dedicated to Aleister Crowley and occult filmmaker Kenneth Anger)—ironically concluding that such works ultimately defy analysis. The second half of the book makes the case for Zorn the traditionalist, beginning with a discussion of Marcel Mauss' theory of gifts and gift-giving, arguing that Zorn's homages to and appropriations of his artistic heroes are best viewed not as derivative borrowings but rather as creative "elaborations" that will in turn influence future artists. Chapter 3 depicts the films of Maya Deren and the sculptures of Joseph Cornell as inspirations for Zorn's In the Very Eye of Night, while Chapter 4 shows how Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles provided the specific pitch material for Aporias.


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