John Cage
John Zorn
J-S Bach


Zorn's Pharmacy

Zorn's pharmacy contains, among other things, Painkiller, Absinthe, and 'Brain Scan'. But I am not sure if they can cure a tumor. On this page, I compare Zorn's CD Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach, and especially Fred Frith's version of 'Trains And Boats And Planes', to a tumor. But perhaps this is a benign tumor, also beneficial to the organism on which it grows, even a pharmakon.

[1] Elsewhere on this site, I elaborate on Zorn as a parasite or saprophyte (see: Saprophyte), or compare his projects to a part of the female body (see: Hymen). The (obscure) boundary between inside and outside is constantly at the forefront. In thinking and writing around or beside his music, another connotation comes to mind. A tumor, an abnormal or morbid swelling or enlargement on the inside of a living organism, an excrescence caused by the autonomous growth of the organic tissue. It manifests itself under the influence of pathogens or injuries and can be separated into two different phenomena. Hyperplasia is an excessive cell-formation or cell division, an abnormal multiplication of the cellular elements. Hypertrophy is the excessive growth or development of cells and the enlargement of a part or organ produced by excessive nutrition.
A tumor acts like a housebreaker threatening some internal purity and security. In this sense, Zorn's music works like a tumor. Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach works like a tumor. 'Trains And Boats And Planes' (Play music) works like a tumor.

[2] Why this attention to biological terms, sometimes or almost invisible things present, but present as an outside on the inside of the human body? Let's say it is because references to physical, bodily elements, for example, the morbid illustrations of Maruo Suehiro that embellish many of his CD covers, have supplemented much of Zorn's music. The cover of Naked City shows a face distorted with pain, a hand reaching the left side of a face where a red tornado has blown away the ear. (Or, is it an external tumor caused by hyperplasia coming from the inside?) One cannot tell by looking at the picture whether or not this red thing belongs to the body, whether it is on the inside or the outside of it. (The same holds true for the Chinese or the Japanese characters painted on the head and the hand - tattoos maybe. Do they belong to the body or not?) Some song titles, for example, are manifestations of Zorn's preoccupation with the openings of the human body, places (or non-places because an opening, in fact, takes no place) where the outside is on the inside and where the inside can touch the outside. 'Rectal Mucus', Zorn's contribution to Absolut CD #2 - The Japanese Perspective, 'Sweat, Sperm + Blood' and 'Copraphagist Rituals' in the CD, Heretic. Jeux des dames cruelles, 'Igneous Ejaculation' in Naked City. Returning to my introductory remarks on tumors, one can find more explicit references to brain damages in Rituals. Live in Japan ('Abscesses') and in Filmworks VI ('Mechanics Of The Brain', and especially, 'Brain Scan').

[3] His almost excessive attention to pain and suffering ('The Ways Of Pain', 'Victims Of Torture', 'Asylum', the album, Torture Garden, and in more than one sense, 'Never Again' in Kristallnacht) seems to regain a sense of balance in some of the medicine Zorn offers. Painkiller. The promising name of a band in which he plays. And indeed, in a certain sense this band acts like a painkiller. The hard core and trash rock - amply present in the CD's and in live shows - can have anesthetic or narcotic effects. I don't know if the cure is worse then the pain here. But let's look at it from another perspective. Painkiller widens the margins of the most dense rock and jazz by its eclectic approach. Zorn does a healthy job (Zorn as pharmakeus), changing the rusty costumes, injecting them with his revitalizing sap like a modernizing medicine. Painkiller acts like a purifying tumor, growing on the inside of a sick organism, breaking it open, enabling a contact with the outside. Like a tumor, Painkiller is located on the inside without really belonging to it. But even if it is external, it affects and infects rock and jazz music in its very inside using its power of maleficent penetration. Maleficent. Threatening. Disturbing. However, it is also a cure, beneficent and revitalizing.
Zorn's pharmacy contains one more medicine, absinthe. One can either eat it or drink it. But be careful. The plant, absinthe (wormwood, artemisia) may drive one to madness when ingested in excess. And the same is true of the brandy that is based on oil of wormwood and the bitter chemical, absinthe. Excessive indulgence destroys body and mind and can lead to epileptic paroxysms (cramps). Chronic absinthism, a serious and well-known disease, resembles alcoholism. For that reason, distillation of absinthe is forbidden in many countries.
Absinthe (track 5: 'Artemisia Absinthium') is the ambiguous name of a CD by Zorn's band, Naked City: a fairly sweet liqueur and a dangerous drug at the same time. Listening to Absinthe is more an intoxicating than disturbing experience. Those who know the preceding Naked City albums will certainly be surprised. No sharp and short tunes in which different styles alternate at high-speed, but long-drawn-out sound-scapes without clear melodies. Only 'Artemisia Absinthium' strikes a note of warning. Here, the noise is very blatantly present; loud, harrowing, disquieting. Too much listening will contaminate you or turn you into an addict.

[4] Both Painkiller and Absinthe can be considered a pharmakon, the possibility of both remedy and dangerous drug. Zorn's music plays within these two opposing values, within the unity of the same signifier. (Could we say that Zorn's music plays a game analogous to Derrida's reading strategies?) The remedy is disturbing in itself, it is never simply beneficial. The beneficial virtue of a pharmakon does not prevent it from hurting. (Listen to the noisy music of Painkiller.) It partakes of both good and ill, of the agreeable and disagreeable (the purifying, but almost painful experience of listening to 'Artemisia Absinthium'). But with Painkiller the pharmakon seems a helpful remedy, whereas it is harmful, while in Absinthe, it is initially offered as harmful, whereas it is beneficial.
However, both Painkiller and Absinthe, presented as a kind of poison within the rock and jazz world, are transformed into means of deliverance, cathartic powers, antidotes. Music, installing itself inside of a (sick, old, but) living organism to distort its well-known language in order to resuscitate it by introducing something new. A pharmakon, added and attached like a musical parasite.

[5] Deconstruction: the concentration on passages in which the subject (the author) no longer has control of the (musical) text, places in which the text can transgress it's own laws. (And doesn't Zorn, as well as Derrida, show that this is always possible?) The desire for unity in a text forces both author and listener (reader, interpreter) to keep a certain balance, for example, between a possible meaning and its externalization. Deconstruction undermines this by pointing to the places where a text can lose its balance, primarily by playing with and blowing up the externalizations.
'Trains And Boats And Planes' (Play music), this meticulous constructed A-A-B-A scheme, 48 bars equally divided into 4 parts of 12 bars, loses its balance in Fred Frith's version in Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach. Frith plays only two of the twelve bars of the A part, but he continually repeats them (hyperplasia), instrumentally, so one gets the impression of listening to a (too) long stretched intro. (If we could call this a horizontal stretch, there is a vertical stretch as well. The second part, the characteristic third under the main melody, has changed into a fourth above the melody (hypertrophy), thereby establishing a great harmonic vagueness.) While the A part fades out, the B part fades in and is repeated six (!) times. During the sixth fading recurrence, the A part fades in again, thus giving the suggestion of some sort of A-A-B-A scheme. Frith, however, inserts the melody of the bridge on top of the melodic part of A, thereby turning the melody of the A part into the accompaniment pattern of the B part (though without any hierarchical order). Furthermore, the strict division between A and B (realized in two distinct melodic lines and two different keys, B flat and G minor, respectively - although one could question just how different in fact these two keys are) is removed (aufgehoben). No longer opposites, but one wrapped up in the other.
Frith does not maintain the classical A-A-B-A scheme. His version does not neatly consist of 4 times 12 bars. He is playing with the musical elements, omitting some parts while blowing up others so that some parts rise above or project beyond the general level or surface (taking our departure from the original).
Blowing up. Distending. Hyperplasia. Results: swelling, an increase of bulk, new growth of tissue. A kind of synonym for a tumor. A kind of synonym for deconstruction. A kind of synonym for Frith's 'Trains And Boats And Planes' (Play music).