John Zorn
J-S Bach
John Cage


Zorn, Noise, Cage, Pop

[1] In (D)(R)econtextualization, I subsume Zorn (with some strong marginal notes) under the musical avant-garde, but not an avant-garde which is opposed to popular culture. In 'Ugly Beauty', Kevin McNeilly starts the other way round: he examines the ambiguous position Zorn holds with regard to popular culture. On one hand, this could be explained as a confirmation of the non-localizable position Zorn occupies. On the other hand, McNeilly's essay opens up new perspectives on Zorn's music. Both possibilities justify a closer reading of his work.
According to McNeilly, Zorn is working within the context of popular culture and a mass consumer-oriented audience, but disrupts and upsets them at the same time. He is both exploiting and exploding (popular) musical conventions and the commercial forms connected with them. For Zorn, exploding these conventions often means using noise, abrasive, disjunctive, deafening sounds, McNeilly writes. In other words, he is exploiting the achievements of punk, hardcore, and heavy metal. But unlike musicians who operate in these relatively autonomous, and with that, innocuous worlds, Zorn brings noise into the realm of more innocent types of music such as country and surf music. He simulates the attributes of popular culture; he is perfectly willing to maintain the trappings of popular musical culture. However, he arranges those reiterations of musical styles in a disturbing and confrontational manner, for instance, in his collage and montage compositions where different styles are put alongside each other. The noise that Zorn inserts neither cuts across nor undoes these styles; rather, noise becomes a style in itself, another form of sound to be appropriated.

[2] This can be heard very well in the compositions that Zorn wrote for his band, Naked City. Trademark: musical blocks without a traditional development, a musical structure involving a lot of  juxtaposition and discontinuity. 'The biggest influences I had were Stravinsky, who worked in block forms; Ives, who was also interested in weird juxtapositions and discontinuity in a certain way; and what came off the tube, which I was brought up on ... The music is put together in a very - 'picaresque' is an interesting word - I would use maybe 'filmic' way, montage. It's made of separate moments that I compose completely regardless of the next, and then I pull them, cull them, together. It's put together in a style that causes questions to be asked, rather than answered ... So it's put together in blocks and moves from one thing to the other really quickly, and draws upon many elements or traditions' (Strickland, p.127-8). In another interview, he further mentions the influence of film and cartoon soundtracks.
Naked City uses all kinds of musical styles, often interspersed with blocks of noisy improvisational statements. Listen, for instance, to 'Snagglepuss' (Play music) (a Hanna-Barbera cartoon figure) from the CD, Naked City. Within the first minute of hearing this tune, the listener is flung to and fro between a funky riff, rock and roll, Webern-like piano sounds, and mainstream jazz; musical blocks that are continually interrupted and separated by noise sections, free jam and loose sounds, bleeps, growls, and roars. Another example from the same album: Zorn's version of 'The James Bond Theme' is, from the beginning, defiled and thwarted with a howling electric guitar, an organ and a saxophone. After just a short time of more than one and a half minutes, the theme explodes into shards of hardcore punk aggression, a noisy bridge before the theme reappears. In 'Den of Sins', the roles seem to be inverted. An undertow of violent sound and the wildest barrages of noise form a base in which a funky theme then joins in for seven seconds. Here, the tempered music is used as raw material on the same level as any other noise.
This disjunctive form of composition in 'non-sequitur' blocks distinguishes Zorn's music from noise (and/or noise compositions) per se. Noise becomes musical material just like melody, harmony, rhythm, and quotations (literal and stylistic). It is given a clear position within a musical framework.

[3] McNeilly discusses the difference between Zorn and John Cage's attitude to noise. I will follow his line of reasoning, but with some modifications, adjustments, extensions or reductions. For Cage, noise is the other of music, an other that has the same status as a parergon, not simply outside music, and not easily detached from it. At once separated from music and part of every musical experience, on the outside and on the inside simultaneously. Noise threatens music, and it threatens the inside of music ceaselessly when one does not accept these extraneous and non-intended sounds that are always there. The hierarchical opposition between noise and music is deconstructed in Cage's work. First (not necessarily in any chronological order), noise is admitted into the realm of music. Then the situation is reversed: conventional musical sounds appear in surroundings determined by noise. So, in his work the hierarchical order between noise and music disappears. And then, this conceptual order is overturned and displaced: his work consists of a certain - often minimal - organization of sound in which music is just some (special) kind of noise among other noises. A deconstruction of the border between noise and music. But also an emancipation of noise, of non-intended sounds, of sounds that are usually excluded from music (cf. Cage and Noise) .
When we consider Zorn as working with noise, we can establish a shift of emphasis. Zorn does not wish to dispense with the trappings of 'music itself' and its many styles. He is not so much aiming for an emancipation of noise; at least, this is not his political goal. For him, noise is not simply haphazard sounds or natural sounds, the audible background that encroaches on a composition. Rather, Zorn treats noise as a usable musical style among many other musical styles, another form of sound to be appropriated. Zorn's use of noise consists not in the dismantling or disabling of music by noise, but in the stream of cross-talk between noise and other musical styles. Cage's compositions force the listener to move away from the conventions of traditional music. For Zorn, noise is not so much the other of music, noise is already part of the musical world. It is reproduced on a compositional level. Zorn's noise manifests itself in two distinct, though contiguous forms: collective free improvisations within clearly defined limits and imitations of existing noise music. Both, however, are intentional and structured, and with that, different from Cage's approach. Cage obliterates the creative will by using chance operations, while Zorn adopts the creative powers of both composer and performer ('I don't appreciate his [Cage's, MC] chance approach - that is the antithesis of what I'm trying to do. I'm interested in decision making; he's interested in giving the decision making up to chance, and I think that's a cop-out') (cf. also The Signature of John Zorn). And where Cage's collocated noises (intended and non-intended) meld together into a more or less unified soundscape (listen, for example, to Waiting (Play music), Zorn's block structures collide with each other and threaten to come apart from within (cf. McNeilly, p.5).

[4] Exploiting and exploding popular musical conventions. Zorn's music never attempts to abandon its generic or conventional musical ties. His work is never quite unrecognizable or alien to an accustomed listener. Rather, those ties are exploited and disjointed to the point of throwing such a listener off balance while still remaining recognizable. The listener who knows her or his pop-culture has her expectations jolted, scattered, smashed and dis-arranged. This music relocates her or his aesthetic perspective to a moveable feast of possibilities. Zorn thwarts her or his musical expectations; he de-familiarizes the listener. Anticipated elements are absent or transformed. In this way, his music motivates the listener to act; it activates the listener. This is the purport of the story that McNeilly confronts us with. And I agree, although I would avoid speaking about Zorn's music in such general terms. This alleged effect is much less apparent, for example, when listening to his Masada or Bar Kokhba projects. However, here I want to delve more deeply into an apparently logical conclusion that McNeilly draws from these reflections, a conclusion I do not want to subscribe to without question. According to McNeilly, Zorn uses and abuses the 'old' order, the status quo of popular culture, in order to shock the listener to an awareness of her/his/its corroded conditions. By going against convention, Zorn makes the listener aware of her or his norms. His noise politicizes the aural environment. I want to point out this subtle shift in position from listener to composer. McNeilly leads us to believe that it is Zorn's purpose to provoke the listener. Without a doubt, that is what happens to many people who are introduced to his music for the first time. And, of course Zorn, will smile meaningfully. But I wonder if this is a purpose, rather than a consequence of his music. Previously – in following up on McNeilly's comments – I wrote on the difference between Cage and Zorn and here I could establish yet another difference (and different from McNeilly as well). For Cage, bringing noise into the realm of music is (also) a political provocation, an attack on the establishment and on the conventions of the music world. For Zorn, the insertion of noise serves, first of all, a musical purpose. The possible de-familiarization is at best an effect of this purpose. 'The point of [Naked City] was not to confuse people ... although a lot of people think it was ... For me, it was about writing; it was about having a machine that could play back anything that I came up with', Zorn says emphatically (Gagne, p.533, my italics).

[5] Perhaps Zorn's de- and re-territorialization of musical styles has the effect of dismantling a musical history and categorization (although you can only debate these categories when you've first accepted them). Maybe (probably) it alters how people tend to listen. But Zorn does not seem to be that interested in the effects that his music has on an audience. The listeners 'don't even have to like it'. He is primarily interested in his music ('Instead of dealing with pitches, I deal with phrases, shapes, genres, quotations, gestures') and in his musicians. The music must be challenging and attractive to them. 'When they talk about that 'Serious Fun' shit, I think they've got it completely ass-backwards: They're talking about the musicians up there being serious, and the audience having fun. Forget it. I think the musicians should be having fun, and the audience should be taking it seriously. That's really what my music is about in a lot of ways' (Gagne, p.526).
Perhaps with this relatively minor attention to his public, Zorn relates more to the classical avant-garde than to the popular culture, although, at least according to McNeilly, his music moves within the economies of consumption and repetition that characterize the mass media and the mass-market at work within that popular culture (cf. (D)(R)econtextualization). Does Zorn belong to both worlds? Or none of them? Or are the borderlines between avant-garde and popular culture beginning to disappear?