Cowell, Garland, Zorn on the Web

Composer Adam Baratz, whom I’ve long corresponded with via Sequenza 21, and finally met this last month, has alerted me to two online texts well worth reading. One is the speech given by Peter Garland at the 1997 Henry Cowell centennial conference, which is posted at Other Minds. The passage in question is one in which Peter talks about Cowell’s early piano pieces, and in which he, in one fell swoop, justifies even Cowell’s simpler works as radical, outlines the philosophy underlying Peter’s own gorgeous music, and demonstrates the derivation of his aesthetic from Cowell’s. Of the early piano pieces, he says,

I think their simplicity is their strength, and the reason for their continued freshness. In this regard they share something with modern-day pop songs, in that relatively little information is conveyed, so that communication is immediate and right there on the surface. Many of the pieces have very simple, modal melodies, so the harmonic language is likewise very basic. I don’t really take Cowell’s justification of the tone cluster as the incorporation of the major and minor seconds into our harmonic/ melodic language along some sort of musical evolutionary line too seriously. Okay — sure, fine. What blows me away about these pieces is that by compressing the interval relationships so tightly, they virtually cease to exist as such. So you are sidestepping the harmonic implications of the concept of interval, and what you are left with is: pure RESONANCE. That is the glory, the originality, the freshness of these pieces. By reducing melody and harmony to a background function, that of the simplest framework possible, one is affirming music not so much as a question of relationships, but rather of pure sounding and resonance. That is very radical, to me.
One does not need to use tone clusters necessarily to achieve this effect. By severely limiting melodic and harmonic movement and by emphasis on repetition, the same effect can be achieved.

(Adam uses this as a personal motto for his own music.) I was present for the speech, but didn’t remember this resounding passage. All I remember is that for 30 minutes Peter harangued us that none of us understood the real Henry Cowell – and that afterward we gave him a rousing standing ovation of several minutes’ duration.

The other text just appeared this week in The New Republic, David Hadju’s “The Breathtakingly Bad John Zorn,” and as many of us don’t subscribe to that journal, someone has finally posted the piece here. Rather than live up to its ferocious title, I find the piece rather even-handed, and I must say I find its conclusion about his music well-put:

Zorn is an exceptional artist, without question, because he prizes and seeks exceptionalism above all. This is not to say that he is exceptionally good at his art. What he is good at–so very good as to suggest a kind of genius–is being exceptional. Unfortunately, uniqueness is not an aesthetic value; it is a term of classification. To say that Zorn is one of a kind, as he certainly is, is to ignore the larger matters of his nature as an artist and, more significantly, the nature of his work, much of which is thin and gimmicky, and some of which is elementally corrupt.

Through his fiercely individualistic modes of working, Zorn deters attention to the work itself. He is obsessed with processes and systems, and he is often cavalier about their results….

The first music I heard by Zorn was Archery, in 1981, which sounded to me like Mauricio Kagel – whom I later learned had been an early influence on Zorn. The second was The Big Gundown, which appeared on Nonesuch in 1986, and which I found clever, genre-busting, and attractive. I’ve been waiting 21 years to hear something else of his I liked nearly as well.


  1. Dan Schmidt says

    I imagine you’ve heard the first Naked City record, since that’s probably his most well-known work, but it still blows me away 15 years later. Seeing that band perform live was incredible.
    I like his Masada output but it’s nothing I would go out of my way to press on people (as I would Naked City).

  2. zeke says

    Hey Kyle,
    It was nice to run into you yesterday… I mean give you a pound of shrimp. Good to hear that all is well.
    Thanks for pointing me to Hadju’s article on John Zorn. I have come into contact with Zorn a few times. So far, he has hit on my girlfriend, told the audience to cheer more (he made a surprise appearance), and yelled at me and some fellow cigarette smokers “to get off the fucking sidewalk” and get back to our designated smoking area in front of Webster Hall. Which brings me to my next point: Hadju should have made it clearer that the problem with John Zorn is that he is a royal asshole. His music is just icing on that cake.

  3. says

    I’m not a Zorn fan, but Hadju’s piece struck me as so “off” that I feel inpsired to give Zorn another chance.
    Hadju’s offhand diss of Satie — hey, Satie’s great! Satie’s acolytes did work better than his own? Who? Unless you count Debussy as an acolyte (and I wouldn’t), I don’t see it, much as I enjoy a lot of music by Les Six. “Socrate” is a unique marvel — which has influenced you, too, Kyle! And though I do love your recent choral setting of the Cummings poem, I wouldn’t say your piece exceed Satie! (Stands next to it admirably, sure; and it’s not sheer imitation either.)
    Hadju’s dismissal of the Game pieces as a “debasement” of “the creative process” is deeply anti-intellectual and would by corollary have to include Cage’s aleatory music and the whole Conceptual Art movement. How is a “game” a debasement? Zorn is precisely playing the “game” of western art-history’s premium on innovation. I agree that “innovation” is not the most important role of art — which is why I like that Zorn called them games! — but innovation is itself a mode of “the creative process” — one that is highly regarded by the culture at large, popular as well as academic.
    And, finally, Jewish people get to claim Bacharach’s music as Jewish music not only because Bacharach is Jewish, but also because the Tin Pan Alley tradition of which Bacharach is one of the last avatars was largely dominated by Jews and had roots in Jewish vaudeville and klezmer. You can hear the klezmer roots clinging to a number of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin compositions (including “Rhapsody in Blue”), and while I’ve never noted echoes of klezmer strains in Bacharach’s tunes, it would not surprise me to find out they are there.
    I really liked Hadju’s Billy Strayhorn bio and was eager to read his take on Zorn, but this missed a lot.
    KG replies: I think the line that won me over was “cavalier about the results.”

  4. Al says

    I’ll always treasure John Zorn for the influence he had on Mr. Bungle’s first album. Best. Album. Ever

  5. Tony Nassar says

    I’ve seen Naked City live three times, and Masada twice, and have enjoyed all those performances, but there’s no questions that I enjoyed the Naked City performances in part *because* they aestheticized a kind of hipster antisocialism that’s endemic on the downtown scene. It helped that I was 29 at the time. As far as Masada goes, I don’t get tired of that sort of modal jazz, esp. when played by such excellent musicians, but nobody’s saying their work is epochal.

  6. Tom Duff says

    Zorn is anything but cavalier about the results of his work, especially the game pieces. Anyone who has learned any of them from him will tell you that he cares very much about the results. NB: I’m not speaking from personal experience (I wish!) but several friends who’ve played with him have made this point.

    Zorn and Hadju obviously disagree fundamentally on the nature of music and the composer’s role in it. That’s OK, it happens all the time — I (mostly) don’t get La Monte Young, for example. The part I don’t understand is where Hadju’s hostile tone comes from.
    KG replies: Well… one’s opinions derive from one’s experiences. The Downtown improviser I knew best once told me he played a terrible gig with Zorn, that completely flopped. Afterward he was down, and Zorn asked him what was wrong. “We played terribly out there.” “So what?,” he said Zorn replied. “It’s only improvisation.”