Friday, June 22, 2007

the exceptional mr. zorn

Ted Reichmann reacts to a David Hajdu article on John Zorn in The New Republic*. Depending on the part of the web page you look at, it is called "Tzaddick" or "The breathtakingly bad John Zorn."

Hajdu best sums up his argument in this paragraph:

Zorn is an exceptional artist, without question, because he prizes and seeks exceptionalism above all. This is not to say that he is exceptionally good at his art. What he is good at--so very good as to suggest a kind of genius--is being exceptional. Unfortunately, uniqueness is not an aesthetic value; it is a term of classification. To say that Zorn is one of a kind, as he certainly is, is to ignore the larger matters of his nature as an artist and, more significantly, the nature of his work, much of which is thin and gimmicky, and some of which is elementally corrupt.
The first thing I wondered was why TNR chose "breathtakingly bad" as secondary title, rather than "exceptionally bad." Otherwise, it seems to me that Hajdu is feigning sudden surprise and indignation at things (He wears t-shirts and camouflage! He's more of a scene-builder than a virtuoso! He takes the Jewish thing too far! He's not necessarily particularly friendly to fans standing in the rain!) that have long been debated.

Hajdu presents very mixed feelings about Zorn's work. Some of his well-written descriptions make it sound wonderful, but there are a lot of put-downs, too.

Performing in a trio with piano and drums, Zorn played an improvisation of sound graffiti sprayed in bursts and flurrying splashes of accelerating propulsion. He began with a series of short modal phrases, but quickly abandoned modality and, in little time, dropped tonality altogether, screeching and cronking. Early in his career, Zorn began to develop an expansive vocabulary of extramusical sounds that he could produce with precision on the alto saxophone, often by using only the mouthpiece of the instrument, sometimes by playing the mouthpiece through a bowl of water. For a few years, he tried to devise a system to identify all the noises he could make and to notate them with hieroglyphic-like symbols, an effort along the lines of his idol Harry Partch's attempts to invent new scales and notational methods to accommodate the odd tones, microtones, and quasi-tones that emanated from the instruments that he constructed out of old light bulbs, empty liquor bottles, and driftwood. To the uninitiated, the sounds that Zorn produces may sometimes seem like assaultive noise blurted out arbitrarily. In fact, they are assaultive noise crafted with meticulous care. For this piece, Zorn employed the entire saxophone, though he blew into it so hard that the instrument rattled in his hands and appeared about to fly apart.
As Zorn explained, "What I came up with was this kind of game structure that talks about when people play and when they don't play but doesn't talk about what they do at all." Not what, but when: the content, the music itself, scarcely mattered to Zorn, who was concerned mainly with the novelty of its system of generation, a scheme not devised in service to the expression of human feelings, but brazenly indifferent, if not hostile, to them. As such, Zorn's game work was less an innovation in the creative process than a debasement of it.
That makes me think of Brian Olewnick's recent post in which he discusses the brutal beauty of the photography used on some of Zorn's covers.

The comments are kind of surreally humourous, too.

* STC provides no link, but yesterday, I was able to circumvent TNR's subscriber-only policy, by using links provided by Google. The article is also available here.