01 July 2009

John Zorn: Post-modernist Dilettante OR Modernist Avantgardist?

Was reading the John Zorn book by John Brackett and was impressed with the insights and overall writing of the author and, illuminated, for me a deeper understanding of this great composer. My relationship with Zorn (on discs, of course) went back all the way to the mid 1990s when I bought his first Naked City album. Zorn together with his excellent band of who's who in the New York Downtown scene plus Fred Frith (ex-Henry Cow and guitar extraordinaire par excellence) basically altered part of my perception of what music was supposed to mean. A blitzrieg of diverse styles and genres within minutes, seconds even for some tracks, the album is full of surprises and shock by turn. But I felt distant towards it, as even though Zorn and co. played some of the grindcore/thrash like passages brilliantly and heavy as hell but somehow the overall vibe felt measured, and even calculated. Of course, I did not know much about him and his background then (that was before the age of the Internet).

Over the years, I bought more and more albums by him/his projects: Painkillers, Masada, Spy Vs. Spy, his more academic compositions, etc. and I grew to appreciate him more. Zorn seems to me (confirmed by Brackett's book) to be a proselytiser of avantgarde and transgressive music and as well as a traditionalist in the avantgarde tradition (thus the title of Brackett's book, Tradition and Trangression). Zorn regularly pays tribute to musicians and composers, film makers and actors, writers and artists and anyone who has been pushing the envelope of their arts in his music: Naked City and Painkillers as tribute bands to his love for thrash/grindcore/death metal, Masada for his Jewish roots but his love for Ornette Coleman (Spy Vs Spy too) as well and list goes on.

He dabbles, yes, but he goes deep and he knows his roots and history and he, in his sometimes oblique ways, follows a fine line of tradition which is at times obscure but forward-looking, shocking to the mainstream but necessary for the progress of the arts. Hence, he is not a postmodernist dilettante like what most critics think he is: he is one of the key nodes of the great modernist/avantgarde genealogy who is able to survive in this postmodernist age with his keen sense of the current socio-political contexts and his awareness of the need to show us the links between the various art forms and genres without flexing the postmodernist pose.

Go here to find out more about John Zorn:
John Zorn Bio

Check this out for his releases and others on his record label:

1 comment:

cheng tju said...

Caught Masada in NYC in 2000. Memorable. Was back in 2006 and managed to attend a John Zorn-curated Japanese nosie fest at the Jewish Centre. The guy is prolific.

Also do check out Harvey Pekar's story on John Zorn and Masada in old isues of American Splendor.