John Zorn
J-S Bach
John Cage


Positions II

[1] Two justifications for this page on the institutional world around Zorn and his music. Two justifications for writing around music. Just in case.
(1) In The Truth In Painting, Derrida talks about the frame, the surrounds of the artwork, its fringes: discourses, the market, the institutional frameworks, everyplace where one legislates on the right to produce art by marking the limit, the limit between art and non-art. Of course, talking about the surrounds of an artwork means talking about something that is external to art. External and, thereby, marginal, peripheral because the work of art is (at) the center. At the same time, however, these frames are often essential to the works of art. It is here that the decision is made as to whether or not an object or an (acoustic) event can be called a work of art; here, the boundary is drawn between art and non-art. So, in fact, it is the frame, the discourse, the institution that can be called the artworld, that 'produces' the art, that sets something off as art. Thus, the frame can be considered central; for without it, art is not art. The artworld is an essential supplement to works of art.
(2) In almost all of Zorn's interviews, he talks about his experiences with record companies, about the politics and economics of the music industry, about the difficulties he used to have distributing his music, about how his work is classified (for instance, in record shops), about the wages he could or could not pay his fellow musicians, about record covers and liner notes, about the intentions of his work, in short: about the surrounds of his music. (And let's not forget that the interview itself is part of the fringe of the work of art.) Apparently these subjects are important and they supply a need that (his) music alone cannot fulfill. Sometimes, it is even difficult to consider these surrounds external to Zorn's works as is the case with the record covers: 'With me, the packaging is essential - that is my artwork, making records', Zorn says (Gagne, p.531) (cf. Restitutions, Shibboleth or Aporias) .

[2] Enough now. Time to come to the main point of this page. Time to introduce some remarks by sociologist and musician Howard Becker in order to clarify Zorn's position in the contemporary world of music. Why? Because Zorn seems to be an illustrative example of what Becker describes as an absolute prerequisite of success when talking about an innovative artist: the crucial importance of organizational development to artistic change. In other words, Zorn represents the possibility that successful innovators can create around themselves the apparatus of an art world (cf. Becker, p.300-1). (Just how innovative Zorn is, is not my concern here. Becker distinguishes between continuous and revolutionary innovations, but, elaborating on the two, he comes to the conclusion that the distinction he first proposed is not so clear. Neither of them changes every pattern of convention-mediated, cooperative activity. Furthermore, a change may be revolutionary for some involved in the existing system, but not for others (cf. Becker, 301-8). Becker seems to dismantle his own analytically constructed opposition by saying that the one is always permeated by the other. A form of auto-deconstruction?)
And in the year 2000, John Zorn is successful. 'Zorn was able to rise to the top of the 'Downtown Crowd', a group of musicians playing in ever shifting bands and improvisational circles' (Cuthbert, p.2). 'He is a lightning rod for new music talent in New York' (Jones, p.143). But his fame is not restricted to New York, nor to the USA. 'Zorn became a central figure in the realm of free improvisation, networking with musicians at first throughout the East Village, and eventually throughout the world' (Gagne, p.509). (Zorn as a central figure is also illustrated in Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach, the CD that bears his name although he does not play a single note on it.) He is an esteemed guest at important international music festivals; his records sell worldwide and his compositions are performed all over the (western) world. ('Even my father looks at me now like a success.') And he is fairly famous not only in the inner circle of modern jazz and avantgarde enthusiasts. His versatile oeuvre has made him well-known in the (alternative) pop circuit and in the world of contemporary composed music as well. Famous string quartets and orchestras play his works in concert halls in which Beethoven and Schubert are usually performed.
It all started differently, laboriously, and not very promising when Zorn came (back) to New York in 1974. 'I started promoting my own concerts. I'd just go to a coffee shop and say, 'Hey, can I play here on Friday?' And they'd go, 'Well, yeah, why not?' I'd make my own posters and put them around ... No one would come to my gigs, but I just loved the opportunity to be able to play, and to compose and then perform it'. He gave performances in his own appartment for two people, he received miserable reviews until the 1980's, and was not making any money with his music (cf. Duckworth, p.457-9).

[3] What is the source of his current success? His great musical talent? His ability to create new musical forms and to obscure musical boundaries? Of course, his musical and compositional skills have influenced his reputation. Becker, however, disputes - or at least puts into perspective - this highly individualistic theory of art made by specially gifted people who create works of exceptional beauty. According to Becker, this theory arises in times and places and under social conditions that emphasize the individual over the collective and needs some reconsideration. 'The theory of reputation says that reputations are based on works. But, in fact, the reputations of artists, works, and the rest result from the collective activity of art worlds' (Becker, p.360). Becker mentions the influence of critics, aestheticians, historians, scholars, editors, and participants in the distribution system. (Introducing the notion of an art world gives rise to as many questions as it offers solutions. Becker is aware of that himself, but avoids a discussion by falling back on his pragmatic position. In this way, he tries to prevent questions about the boundary of an art world. Which people and which activities can still or already be considered part of an art world and which do not (yet or any longer) belong to it? In much the same way, he avoids a definition of art. But how can we speak about an art world when we do not first know what art is? By what does one recognize an art world or works of art if one does not have a sort of preconception of the essence of art? Again, questions about the problem of inside and outside arise and although I put these remarks in parentheses - putting them on an outside as it were, but an outside which is on the inside at the same time - they should resonate throughout this text.)
What applies to reputation, also applies to art in general. The main point Becker wants to emphasize is that all artistic work involves the collective activities of a number of people. Every art rests on an extensive division of labor and the artist works in the center of a network of cooperating people, all of whose work is essential to the final outcome. (This is not the place for in depth questioning of Becker's idea of the artist as the center of an art world. I confine myself to refer to the remarks made in the first justification: what is considered marginal can become central and vice versa.) Producing works of art requires elaborate cooperation among specialized people. So, works of art are not the products of individuals, artists who possess a rare and special gift. Rather, they are joint products of all the people who cooperate in an art world of which the artists are (only) a sub-group (cf. Becker, p.1-39).
In The Signature of John Zorn and at the end of The Death of the Composer I indicate more emphatically Zorn's regard for his work as the outcome of varying collectives of individuals (cf. also the liner notes of Spillane). To Zorn, the hierarchical difference between the actual Genius and his assistants seems to dissapear. Perhaps the idea of a genius still exists for Zorn, but it exists in the plural: he emphasizes that his fellow musicians are geniuses, too. Instead of analyzing the oeuvre as the final result of a creative process connected with one proper name, Zorn asks musicologists and music theorists to pay attention to the whole production process. The signature with which an oeuvre is supplied conceals the complexity of the production process underlying this oeuvre (cf. Lesage, p.4-6).

[4] I return to my question: What is the source of Zorn's current success?
According to Becker, success, reputation and recognition depend to a great extent on an artist's ability (and probably a certain amount of luck and coincidences) to create a (new) art world around himself or his artistic product. Artistic changes succeed when 'their originators mobilize some or all of the members of the relevant art world to cooperate in the new activities their vision of the medium requires ... Their success depends on the degree to which their proponents can mobilize the support of others ... Innovators who command the cooperation of everyone needed for the activities the innovation requires have an art world at their disposal, whether they take over existing institutions or simply create an entire new network' (Becker, p.308-10). Becker goes on to describe in broad and general terms how such a new network can come into existence. 'Experimenting groups cluster locally because they communicate largely face-to-face, hearing or seeing each other's work … In addition to experimenting with new possibilities, the pioneers also begin to construct the rudiments of an art world - networks of suppliers, distribution facilities, and collegial groups in which aesthetic questions can be argued, standards proposed, and work evaluated' (Becker, p.320). Little by little, the informal circuit professionalizes (Becker mentions, as an example of this professionalization, the development of stable contractual arrangements for performances) and becomes more familiar over a larger area (for example, through performances in other parts of the country and through the distribution of recorded material). New and professional business and distribution arrangements help a small, local art world, one in which a circle of cooperation does not go beyond the face-to-face interaction, to spread over a larger territory.

[5] An exciting book for a young boy? Maybe, but it is also Becker's sociological description of the development of jazz music in the USA. And it seems befitting to describe Zorn's career (and that of his fellow musicians from the Downtown scene) as well. (The parentheses are used because it is Zorn who attracts most attention. He appears to be the center of the network, an idea that Zorn confirms in an interview. 'Question: We live in a time when the music press encourages either that kind of adulation, or else a total denial of a composer. The scene is constantly being reduced to a few heroes and heavies, who's in and who's out, in order to sell newspapers and magazines - that is, if anyone gets written about at all'. Zorn's answer: 'Yes. It's a shame when they pick out one or two people from a whole generation of musicians to turn into gods. It happened with Reich and Glass; it happened with Cage. God forbid it should happen to me, but of all those musicians - Elliott [Sharp] and Wayne [Horvitz], Anthony Coleman or Chadbourne - I'm the one that keeps getting the play, and it's not fair. I come from a pool of musicians that collaborated, that shared ideas ... I think it is important for people who find themselves in the public eye to try to diffuse some of the attention to other places, and give support back into the community that nurtured them in the first place. It's a responsability I became very aware of years ago when the press started jumping on me in the mid 1980's' (Gagne, p.517-8, my italics). Analogously, Becker points to the possibility that one locale may become dominant, while the others model themselves on its example.)
I do not think that Zorn created a whole new art world. However, I would like to call him one of the most important originators of a new subworld within the Downtown scene of New York, a subworld that now receives worldwide recognition. To elaborate on this, let's concentrate on four keywords: The scene, clubs, record companies, and a book.

[6] The Scene. By the mid-1970's, when Zorn moves to New York, he finds a city where it is both hard to find musicians with whom to play and a place in which to perform his music. 'So, starting from where I dropped out I just said, 'Okay, I'm going to meet people, write, perform my music, and play wherever I can play'. I played on the street for years. And I had met musicians on the West Coast who eventually gravitated to New York, and we began working together. But in 1974, '75, '76, there were maybe two people I could play with [Polly Bradfield and Eugene Chadbourne, MC], so I booked trio pieces', Zorn recalls (Duckworth, p.457). And he continues: 'That was at the beginning. And then Tom Cora and then Toshinori Kondo and then Bob Ostertag and then Ned Rothenberg - bit by bit, people came together from all over the country and gravitated to New York and somehow got involved in the maelstrom of the downtown improvisers. That was what we were back then; even more so now ... I really feel I created a small society: a way of working. People fit into it - they like it - they have time off and then they're called to perform' (Gagne, p.514-6 and Duckworth, p.459). A quick glance at the enormous list of musicians with whom Zorn worked over the years gives the impression that he manages a kind of database or runs a temp agency. In the ever changing line-up of performers (that at times does not include Zorn), musicians from this network collaborate in very diverse musical projects. Zorn seems to satisfy Becker's description of a successful new art world: 'The history of art deals with innovators and innovations that won organizational victories ... mobilizing enough people to cooperate in regular ways that sustained and furthered their idea' (Becker, p.301).

[7] The clubs. After Zorn's rough start, things improved slightly. 'We were finding places to play on our own. We were working in our own little clubs, putting out our own little posters up, and developing our own audience. And it was a very exciting time. Clubs would come and go within a few months', says Zorn (Duckworth, p.459). Clubs would come and go within a few months. This changed in 1987, when three men (Michael Dorf, Louis Spitzer, and Bob Appel) founded the Knitting Factory. In Knitting Music. A Five-Year History of the Knitting Factory Dorf recalls: 'The NY music scene, from jazz to rock, was desperate at this time for a new venue'. Downtown musician Elliott Sharp confirms this: 'Before the Knitting Factory there was this huge well of musicians with no venue for their musical extremes. It gave them a means of dissemination' (Dorf, p.10 and p.66).
Dorf, coming from Wisconsin, neither knew much about jazz and improvised music, nor did he know the musicians of the Downtown scene. Through an advertisement, he came into contact with Wayne Horvitz who introduced him to others on the scene. By April 1987, Dorf was booking every single night, mostly improvisationists or artists in a jazz vein who needed work. Zorn, in a 1987 article from The New York Times: 'Michael came along just at the right time. The Lower East Side downtown scene had been starving for a place for a year. After 10 years, we were finally getting our due in the press, and people were paying attention to us. But the Knitting Factory helped us take that extra step into the limelight' (Dorf, p.17-8). And in a 1989 issue of the New York Magazine: 'Those guys were really great; you could say, 'I want to play something I'm working on tonight', and they'd say, 'Sure, we'll do a midnight set ... The Knitting Factory reinvoked the music scene in New York. We fed it and it fed us, and it became bigger than both of us' (Dorf, p.59). We fed it and it fed us. Musical innovations and a new organizational initiative came to fertilize each other. 'Innovations begin as, and continue to incorporate, changes in an artistic vision or idea. But their success depends on the degree to which their proponents can mobilize the support of others' (Becker, p.309-10).
'New business and distribution arrangements help the growing art world spread over a larger territory. This involves the sale of finished work, for object-producing arts, and the development of stable contractual arrangements for performances', Becker writes (Becker, p.325). Something similar happened to the Knitting Factory scene. Dorf booked a series of concerts at Lincoln Center with a rather large budget. (From The New York Times, 'The Knitting Factory Goes Uptown' and 'It's a chance to take this music and put it in the mainstream media and give the larger population access to it, to experience it, which, given the mostly underground nature of the scene, is a welcome opportunity'.)  Attention from Holland led to the 'Knitting Factory Festival' during the 'Jazz Marathon' held in Groningen, The Netherlands in 1988, in which about thirty Downtown musicians collaborated; the Japanese press and music industry started watching them closely. And as a continuation of the success in The Netherlands, Dorf was able to arrange a European tour in 1990.
In 2000, the Knitting Factory opened a branch in San Francisco. (It already had, for a number of years, a branch in Amsterdam exclusively for the sale of records.) (Note: Becker does not write about arguments and quarrels that can cause a split in an art world. In 2000, John Lurie of The Lounge Lizards, a band that often played in the Knitting Factory, sent a letter to The New Times LA Music Editor. In it, he decries 'the injustices commited by the notorious Michael Dorf and the hideous Knitting Factory'. Lurie accuses Dorf, in no uncertain terms, of getting rich at the expense of a lot of musicians. He continues, 'In New York getting screwed is known as getting Dorfed ... Dorf is Frod backwards'. Zorn, who remarkably enough almost never mentions the Knitting Factory during his interviews, had also been avoiding this club for a couple of years. ('I was unhappy about the way things were progressing at the Knitting Factory. I felt that musicians were being mistreated'.) 'We fed it and it fed us'. The past perfect. Both seem to be mature enough to feed themselves. Zorn helps to nurture a new inventive Lower East Side club where he can promote his music and that of his fellow musicians: Tonic).

[8] Record companies. Many musicians of the art world to which Zorn belongs, benefited by Dorf's next steps. He starts recording the shows at the Knitting Factory and succesfully tries to interest radio stations for this music. ('We had more than 200 stations carry the series in 1990', writes Dorf.) The music industry becomes interested, and, in 1989, Dorf signs a contract with A&M Records. As early as 1990, he buys back the European rights from A&M in order to license the Live at the Knitting Factory CD's to a more interested European label, Enemy Records. In 1991, the first CD on Dorf's own record label, Knitting Factory Works, is released, the first CD outside of his A&M deal. And with the financial help of his Japanese distributor, Dorf is able to expand the record company.
By the time Dorf begins exploratory talks with A&M, Zorn has already had a contract for a number of years with Elektra Nonesuch, a label that supported artists outside the mainstream. His Ennio Morricone project in 1987, commissioned by The Brooklyn Academy of Music, landed him a six-album deal with Nonesuch that released the project on LP as The Big Gundown. Although this deal means a definite breakthrough for Zorn (the Naked City album sold over 60,000), he is not very happy with his contract. He accuses Nonesuch of unwanted interference with artistic matters, i.e., the packaging (cf. Restitutions, Shibboleth or Aporias) . They had difficulties with Zorn's scandalous covers containing violent or politicized pictures and they wanted to change them. After licensing Film Works 1986-1990 for North American release in fulfillment of his contract, Zorn leaves Nonesuch and looks east to Japan. Although several subsequent CD's are released by Eva Records in Tokyo, Zorn forms his own label, Avant, in 1991. He intends for Avant to become a home to an important repertory of recordings produced with complete artistic freedom by composers that he respects, composers whose work he feels is undervalued and ignored elsewhere. In 1995, Zorn founds a new label, Tzadik. The opening lines on a flyer make it clear that Zorn still wants the same thing: 'Tzadik is dedicated to releasing the best in avant-garde and experimental music, presenting a worldwide community of contemporary musician-composers who find it difficult or impossible to release their music through more conventional channels'. In March 2000, the discography for Tzadik numbers over 150. A worldwide community. 'No one small locality, however metropolitan, can furnish a sufficient amount and variety of work to serve a national or international market. For that reason ... the organizations that distribute work begin to look everywhere for material, and thus breach the walls around the local, provincial art world', Becker writes (Becker, p.329). According to him, the development of new art worlds frequently focuses on the creation of new organizations for the distribution of work. Fully developed art worlds provide professional distribution systems.

[9] The book. Arcana. Musicians on Music. Edited by John Zorn and with the contribution of 29 musicians/composers. Arcana: mysteries, secrets. From the title it is impossible to deduce whether or not this book is meant to veil or unveil some mysteries. But in the preface Zorn writes that it should provide a 'helpful insight into the artists' inner mind', more direct than a manipulated interview.
How well this title is chosen. In alchemy tradition, arcanum means a secret medicine (a pharmakon?), an elixer of life, a tonic (!). Maybe it is primarily a medicine for Zorn, who writes in order to rid his system of the disappointment he feels about the lack of an intelligent analysis of the music produced by the Downtown scene. 'This is almost entirely unprecedented for an artistic movement of such scope and involving as many important figures as it does' (Zorn, p.v). Through Arcana, with this pharmakon, he is able to use writing to flush the frustration out of his system. 'This book exists to correct an unfortunate injustice, the incredible lack of insightful critical writing about a significant generation of the best and most important work of the past two decades' (Zorn, However, within the context of this page, Arcana, seen as an elixer, is perhaps more important. An elixer of life is supposed to extend life. It gives new life to someone or something. ('Putting it together was not a 'labor of love', but an act of necessity', writes Zorn.) Arcana is probably not a real resuscitation, but a new way, another way to create and define the musical subworld in which Zorn works. In his commentary on the book jacket, Steve Reich recommends the book because it maps the 'historical sociobiology of the Downtown music scene'. Not on a musical level, nor on a distributional level, but this time on a discursive level, Zorn is able to attract a group of sympathizers, and, in this way he consolidates and reconfirms the existence of (t)his art world. Although Zorn emphasizes the impossibility of classifying or categorizing the music of the Downtown scene, and although he stresses the differences between the works of the musicians concerned, Arcana works as a kind of Shibboleth - a sign of belonging and association, but along with that, also a sign of exclusion and discrimination - thereby marking the (indefinite) borderlines of an art world, thereby defining that art world. With his book, Zorn strengthens the bonds of this musical community, (re)creating a group with its own standards, expectations and conventions, in which individual members will account for the course of their own activities: the other members constitute the 'reference group'. Here, Zorn puts himself in the position of an aesthetician as Becker describes: 'Aestheticians (or whoever does the job) provide the rationale by which art works justify their existence and distinctiveness, and thus, their claim to support. Art and artists can exist without such a rationale, but have more trouble when others dispute their rights to do so ... A coherent and defensible aesthetic helps to stabilize values and thus to regularize practice' (Becker, p.164 and p.134).

[10] Creating an (international) community of musicians, a continually expanding network of collaborating musicians. Providing professional distribution channels to bring this music out into the limelight (places to perform and record companies to release CD's). Legitimizing the artistic choices made by the Downtown scene in a discursive discourse which helps to stabilize its values and thus to regularize its practice. Zorn can be regarded as an successful innovator who was able to create around himself the apparatus of what could be called a new music subworld.