John Zorn
John Cage
J-S Bach


The Death of the Composer

[1] What is composing? What does it mean to be a composer? How different is it from arranging, orchestrating or performing? Strange questions, perhaps. We have dictionaries at our disposal. For example, The Oxford English Dictionary: An inexhaustible enumeration just for making clear the (alleged) differences. To compose: to put together (parts or elements) so as to make up a whole. To compose music: to invent and put into proper form; to set to music. To arrange: to adapt (a composition) for instruments or voices for which it was not originally written; to place things in some order. To perform: to complete, to finish (an action, a work, a process); to execute (a piece of work, literary or artistic); to execute formally a piece of music. According to these definitions, composing, arranging, and performing seem to be clearly distinguished activities. Also, with respect to chronology: composing precedes arranging and performing. Maybe we could even say that performing in particular is a mere supplement to composing. Each composition has a lack: it needs a performance to appear. A performance is required for a composition to be audible. A performance is an exteriority, an outside to the composition's inside, a necessary evil because it can never represent the composition exactly. On one hand, in every performance, in every interpretation something is lost - cf. how composers such as Pierre Boulez, Brian Ferneyhough and Frank Zappa in his later years sometimes notate their music (or, in the case of Zappa, play it by himself on the synclavier) in order to avoid too much freedom for interpretation, i.e. do the work wrong, misinterpret it. But it is impossible to control everything; it is impossible for a performance to function as a transparent and a neutral medium. On the other hand, and precisely because of the last argument, in every performance there is something added as well, things that the composer cannot control, cannot avoid, did not think of (cf. Supplement).

[2] Zorn reduces the distinction between composing and arranging. Let's take as a starting point 'Once Upon A Time In The West' from The Big Gundown, Zorn's tribute to Ennio Morricone. In an interview Zorn comments: 'Arranging is more than just saying this instrument does this, and that instrument does that. It's several things. It's knowing, for starters, what an instrumentalist can do, and putting him in a context that's gonna make him shine. In the Morricone record [The Big Gundown, MC], deciding who did what was more than just deciding this should be two guitars; it was deciding that I wanted this to be [Robert] Quine and Jody Harris because they're two people who have worked together, developed a certain rapport. So it's a matter of players and personalities'. What is Zorn doing when he is arranging, assuming that The Big Gundown consists of arrangements of Morricone's music, something we could seriously question? He is not only connecting two electric guitars to perform a version of 'Once Upon A Time In The West'. He is bringing together, uniting, placing together, two guitar players to transform this tune into a harrowing, dissonant sound-scape in which now and then fragments of the original appear. To connect, to bring together, to unite, to place together. To put together this ensemble. Other words for that word we should actually avoid here: to compose. Zorn's arranging turns out to be (also) a form of composing.
Should we say that Zorn (re)arranged 'Once Upon A Time in The West'? Should we say - to return to Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach - that Fred Frith arranged 'Trains And Boat And Planes' (Play music)? (On (D)(R)econtextualization  you can find a more extensive reflection on this composition.) Arranging - to play the same tune with other instruments? This is not what is happening there. Frith isn't just playing 'Trains And Boat And Planes' (Play music) on electric guitar with distortion and electronic organ supported by electronic beats instead of smooth female voices, acoustic strings and modest percussion. He seems to quote Bacharach's tune, but not within another musical text. He is not playing the whole tune, but enlarges and pulls out some parts while leaving out others. (What happens when certain word-fragments are underlined in a citation? Is it still a case of 'citing', of 'using', of 'mentioning'? Derrida asks himself in Limited Inc.) He changes the entire structure of the song so that the same song turns into an other, which is at the same time, the same. Better said, it is an in-between that does not oscillate between the same and the other, but a transversal moment that sweeps one and the other away. Frith's arrangement is a composition. His composition is an arrangement ('I urge you to search out the original versions'). The more traditional and hierarchical distinction between the 'original' and the 'arrangement' is displaced by Frith. And by Zorn. In the liner notes, Zorn speaks of 'approaches' instead of interpretations or arrangements. An approach. That means a difference and a deferral at the same time in order to remain an approach. Infinitely. Différance. I would like to call 'Trains And Boat And Planes' (Play music) a deconstruction in music of Bacharach's song. Deconstruction does not escape from the language of the passages that it cites. It is of the same nature as that which it works against. However, deconstruction is not only a parasite; it is also a parricide. It feeds itself with the host-music and kills it at the same time. It suggests the demolition of the helpless music (cf. Hillis Miller, p.251). Killing. Demolishing. Yes. But as we know deconstruction is not only destructive (cf. Deconstruction - an Affirmative Strategy of Transformation) . Deconstruction keeps its host alive as well. Alive. An elixer of life. Construction and transformation. As opposed to preservation.

[3] A composer of classical music in the conventional sense writes down a score that can basically be performed by any musician. The composer, John Zorn, not only writes down a score. (Sometimes, as in Cobra, it is an indeterminate score, so the piece assumes the character of its performers. Sometimes Zorn describes his composer role as that of an organizer or director who sets up rules so that the people in the band have to make decisions, have to communicate. Composing turns out to be something more, something other than 'setting to music'. Zorn is not in control of 'his' music, he does not own it. Once written down, once in the hands of other musicians, he can no longer master it: 'I have a general conception of the framework, and what belongs in the frame stays, what does not belong does not get written down. And the frame is constantly changing ... The frame starts to stretch. It's my job as a composer not to get in the way of the growth of a piece. But I have a responsibility to ensure its integrity, to make sure it doesn't stretch so far that it's not the piece it was intended to be' ... But it is not about expression: 'I'm not trying to express myself, I'm trying to create expressive music ... I've created a certain body of work. Each piece has a life of its own and exists and gives new life to other pieces and to other musicians ... I try to create these children that go out and do their own thing. And best luck of them'.) He also puts together the ensemble that is performing his music and he considers this an essential part of composing. This means that to Zorn, making music becomes more than just playing a score - a performance of his work which could easily be replaced by another performance, by other musicians. Maybe more so than other composers, Zorn is aware of the fact that every interpreter lends his own signature to a performance, making this performance irreplaceable by any other. And he draws a conclusion from this. Zorn - as arranger, composer, sometimes performer (roles that often overlap) - puts together a palette of sounds he wants to hear from the singular ways in which several musicians who are known to him handle their instrument(s). He uses the Shibboleth, the friend's word. A musical password. Inclusion. The sign of belonging, belonging to his musical community. The musicians who are admitted can pronounce this Shibboleth; they speak the same musical languages. They are thus allowed to cross the threshold where others have to stay outside. Shibboleth as a judgment of exclusion.
Not everyone can perform his music since 'his' music is always already the result of a collaboration with select others. These others are chosen by him because of the mark they leave on 'his' music while performing it. Zorn's music is 'his' music to the extent that it is expropriated by the others, i.e. that it becomes, at the same time, the music of the others. 'His' music only becomes into being afterwards, at the moment it is performed. So it is not the score that keeps Zorn's music for future generations; it is the recording first of all (cf. Lesage, p.27-8).