Where does one start in analyzing the career of John Zorn? The avant-garde composer and saxophone player is among music’s most daring and productive artists, yet very few serious studies of his work have been attempted. Dissecting his work is like peeling back the layers of some sacred esoteric text. Speculating on its meanings and motives requires a level of skill and knowledge that rivals the man himself, and the work, densely layered and replete with references is a challenge to even the most learned musical and cultural scholars. It threatens to expose the observer’s shortcomings, and one must be willing to risk being consumed by the dark, cabalistic world Zorn has created around his art.
That the first full-length investigation of Zorn would emerge from Salt Lake City, the cultural antipode of the composer’s downtown New York City domain, may be initially surprising. Perhaps such a degree of distance is necessary to engage such a large and forbidding topic properly. Author John Brackett, an assistant professor of music at the University of Utah, is not daunted by this colossal subject and his passion for Zorn’s work is evident throughout his remarkably insightful John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression. Brackett has attained a significant level of involvement from Zorn himself, and the book includes segments from their conversations as well as previously unseen sketches, notes, and documents relating to the composer’s work. For die-hard followers, the book is an invitation into the inner sanctum.
It should be noted, however, that John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression is not a casual or narrative examination of the subject. In fact, it is a highly academic, focused collection of feature-length essays that take on specific elements of Zorn’s mystique: the tension between fantasy and reality in Zorn’s artwork, the presence of mysticism and “magick” themes in his compositions, and his reconciliation of both his transgressive inclinations and his proclivity to honor his influences. While much of the book is cultural critique, there are long passages that invoke music theory that will be quite tedious to readers who can’t tell a diminished ninth from a hole in the ground. Brackett does not present a unified or chronological path through Zorn’s career, rather, his intention is to highlight consistent and recurring threads that appear through Zorn’s catalogue and link them conceptually. The book is not about John Zorn the man, but about John Zorn the composer, and should be approached with that in mind.
The first essay, “From the Fantastic to the Dangerously Real: Reading John Zorn’s Artwork,” is the most accessible, dealing with the frequent use of transgressive imagery on Zorn’s releases, specifically those used on the Naked City albums Torture Garden and Leng Tch’e. These images, taken from Japanese erotic manga comics, underground sadomasochistic films, and depictions of war-time atrocities, have sparked a serious debate about Zorn’s intentions in pairing these provocative images with his largely instrumental music. By implementing such strong imagery, which often involves the subjugation or marginalization of women (particularly Asian women), Zorn has drawn fire from critics for exploitation. Brackett does not try to counter such arguments, necessarily, but does provide another perspective in which the use of such images does not simply represent the actions depicted within them, but serves as a metaphor for the subversion of normalcy that Zorn will be undertaking with Naked City. It’s a sticky subject, one that pits the assumed intentions of the producer with the perceived reactions of the consumer, and highlights the power and danger in art’s subjectivity, one person’s fantasy being another person’s reality, each having different yet equally valid takes on the matter. Brackett avoids coming to his own conclusion, so as not to pollute what he believes is the intrinsic subjectivity of the art’s use in Zorn’s work, though such an action seems to implicitly favor Zorn’s metaphorical perspective. Nevertheless, the essay is a thought provoking analysis that demonstrates Brackett’s critical chops.
The remaining essays chart Zorn’s maddeningly diverse influences, from the occult magick of Aleister Crowley and filmmaker Kenneth Anger, to Gnostic and Kabbala mysticism and demonology, and the music of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Brackett primarily focuses on the idea of “the gift,” and artistic gift-giving as a means of unifying artists across disciplines and through time. He uses this approach to reconcile the seeming conflict of the book’s title, the idea that John Zorn is at once a transgressive artist and an artist who exists as part of a musical tradition. The former would seem to preclude the latter, but Brackett believes that the tradition Zorn is a part of is the tradition of transgressions, that while his music always aims to shatter existing modes of musical form and thought, he is doing so as an apostle of similarly transgressive artists who preceded him. He does not replicate their work, per se, or seek to exist only within the boundary they pushed. Zorn honors them by pushing their boundaries even further.
John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression is by no means a light read. Brackett is an academic and intellectual, and at times the book feels like a slightly distilled graduate thesis or dissertation. It is peppered with philosophical and theoretical tidbits from Marcel Mauss, Jacque Derrida, and George Bataille, figures that either played a role in Zorn’s construction of his work or Brackett’s understanding of it. While it may seem overloaded with such references at times, the complex, hyper-textual nature of Zorn’s work cannot be approached with simple tools. It must be taken apart with only the most powerful and most precise weapons at our disposal, and Brackett is willing to use them.