J-S Bach
John Zorn
John Cage


The Signature of John Zorn

[1] In Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach, Zorn de- and recontextualizes the music of this famous songwriter. Or are we already going too fast here, too inaccurate? Who is de- and recontextualizing? John Zorn? He is neither the composer (in the ordinary sense of the word) of this CD, nor is he one of the performers. How do we know it is Zorn's? 'John Zorn: executive producer' the package divulges in small letters. Is he actually involved in the recording of the material, or is this just his stamp of approval? Or both? It is unusual and odd that his name is linked to this album. Not the composer, not one of the musicians, but the executive producer. I don't know of any other example, not even in house music.

[2] I take a side road for a moment (Is there a main road? Or are there only side roads?) to show how Zorn thinks about composing. 'Whether we like it or not, the era of the composer as autonomous musical mind has just about come to an end', Zorn writes in the liner notes of Spillane. What Zorn wants to say is that artistic works, in general, and musical works, in particular, are the results of a collaboration among specialized individuals. So, the music bearing the signature 'John Zorn' (In fact, it is a countersignature ending a process and referring to a promise made once, confirmed by a signature under a contract.) is more than the work of the individual, John Zorn, alone; it is the outcome of a varying collective of individuals. His body of work is not (only) his body of work. It only exists from the moment that other musicians appropriate it, fill it in and (with that) transform it (cf. Lesage, no page number). His gamepiece, Cobra, can be regarded as another example. As a prompter, Zorn roughly determines the structure, but has no influence on what exactly is played by the performers. Moreover, the players may choose at any moment to change the direction of the piece and to alter the type of interaction. Zorn's function then is merely to pass on these changes to the rest of the performers. Cobra is thus simultaneously reproducing the composer-conductor-performer hierarchy of traditional 'classical' music and subverting that hierarchy from within the 'composition' itself.
Zorn makes a plea for a less teleological thinking in which the composer is no longer considered the dominant source of power, the causa prima in an artistic field where performers, musicians, and also intermediaries, such as critics and organizers, are just parasites. He wants to draw attention to a larger context, to a complex network of powers that interact temporarily and are connected very differently, in which music comes into being.

[3] Zorn implicitly disputes a music history that consists of nothing but a canon of famous proper names. He invites the music historian to broaden his focus. For the music historian the stress is on the analysis of a composition as the final result of a creative process that is connected with one well-known proper name. Zorn demands attention be paid to the whole production process. To sign a composition with just one name veils the complexity of the production process that underlies the realization of that musical work; it veils the non-hierarchical cooperation among various specialized individuals. Furthermore, it narrows the definition of a musical work (cf. Zorn's remarks on packaging in Restitutions, Shibboleth or Aporias). In other words, relating an oeuvre to one single name, the name of the composer, is always arbitrary and inaccurate. Besides, Zorn is not always the composer in the traditional sense of the word, i.e. the writer of a score that can then be performed as well as possible. Sometimes he is (just) the deviser of a concept, the musical designer, the planner (cf. Cobra).
However, in either case the question remains the same: if this collective is so important, why is it that only Zorn's name is linked to the final product? Why is his name on the cover in spite of the fact that he is neither the composer, nor one of the performers? In Het lijk van de componist [The Composer's Corpse], Dieter Lesage suggests a possible explanation. In his opinion, an artwork is more than just an artistic product; it is also a commodity. Regarding this, Lesage refers to Walter Benjamin's 'Fetischismus der Meistername', the fetishism of the master name. Depending on the aura of a composer, musician, or even an executive producer, 'music of' becomes 'music with' or 'music produced by'. So, the 1985 album, The Big Gundown, received the subtitle, John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone. The name and picture of this very successful composer of film music on the cover was probably quite important, at least commercially alluring. But in the year 1997, Zorn himself was obviously famous enough to link only his name to CD's on which he does not play a single note.
One could conclude that on the commodity level the proper name 'John Zorn' undergoes some changes, the principles of which the artist, John Zorn, does not seem to support (cf. Lesage, p.6-9). 'John Zorn'. Is it a trade name? Zorn is claiming the commodity, the product, as his, while acknowledging that neither he nor anyone else could make the same claim about the 'music'. Thus it does become Zorn's music in a certain way, although it is not his music: he has claimed and acquired property rights to it. And he gets the credit (the money?).

[4] One more thing. Listen to 'his' music. More than with any other artist, people who write about Zorn's music stress the eclecticism (Strickland, 1991; Gagne, 1993; Duckworth, 1995; McNeilly, 1995; Lange, 1997; Blumenfeld, 1999). 'I'm not afraid of styles; I like them all' (Duckworth, p.444) is but one possible quote that illustrates Zorn's non-exclusivism. In Great Jewish Music, I connect this incorporation and assimilation of so many musical styles to his Jewishness. In Shibboleth, Derrida, following poet Paul Celan, meditates on 'the Jew', having nothing of himself, having no identity of his own, whose identity consists of having none (cf. Shibboleth, p.62 and p.90). However, what does Zorn's (counter)signing of a CD mean? It means that he declares the musical product (and this exceeds the recorded music) his property, although he in fact admits that it is not 'his' music. His signature is, in a way, the signature of others. So what do we mean by speaking about 'Zorn's' music? Who is John Zorn? To what does this word refer if music signed with his name has no identifiable borders and no interior walls? It has no edges because it has been invaded from all sides, as well as from within, by other names, other musical powers, other musics. (What is the musical equivalent of quotation marks? What about parts that do not clearly appear as citations?) Though the word 'Zorn' may be printed on the cover of several CD's, it must name something without identifiable boundaries since the music incorporates so much outside within its inside. The parasite structure obliterates the frontiers of the texts it enters (cf. Hillis Miller, p.243). The name John Zorn means the loss of all essence, individuality, security. When a CD is, in one way or another, signed by Zorn, made his property, one can never be certain of its content; it is not closed in upon itself. It is never 'his' music. What is 'his' music? Does it exist?