A Modernist by Any Other Name

I noticed John Brackett’s new book about John Zorn at Barnes and Noble the other day. I didn’t have time to look through it, but here’s what Alan Licht had to say about it, as quoted on Amazon.com:

“Brackett’s first move is to loosen Zorn from the moorings of postmodernism and that most critical assessments of his work attach him to. For Brackett, Zorn is as much modernist as postmodernist…Rather than rehash the postmodern critical blather about ‘channel surfing’ and borrowed materials from high and low culture that is so often used to describe Zorn’s techniques, Brackett emphasises the unity that Zorn strives for in his pieces between seemingly opposing elements, carefully crafting a proper flow and balance. He sees Zorn as a composer who is pushing the boundaries rather than defining them, which is where the transgression of the title comes in.”-Alan Licht, The Wire, March 2009 

This is, in essence, what I’ve been saying about Zorn for 20 years, to the dismay of a lot of Downtowners. Zorn’s big early influences in the classical world were Kagel and Stockhausen, and he’s been more easily incorporated into the classical narrative than most Downtowners because he’s less radical than others (those who are redefining the boundaries?), because rather than revolting against modernism, he gave it a thick new layer of hipness by incorporating improvisation and a wider range of quotation. Glad to see that Licht, and apparently Brackett, are getting it right and setting the record straight.

Another new book just out is John Luther Adams’s The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music, a comprehensive set of essays about the eponymous sound installation I’ve written about at some length. It’s wonderful to finally see books out about composers of my generation. We all publish compact discs, which seem to disappear into the “long tail,” but there’s something about books that announces that the music is now being taken seriously, worthy of study.


  1. says

    I know very little Zorn, and every time I hear his work I think “this guy is suppposed to be a downtowner? It sounds pretty much like high modernism trying too hard to be cool.” and then I figure either I’m listening to the wrong pieces or I just don’t know what I’m talking about. Nice to have confirmation that I’m perhaps not totally crazy.

  2. says

    It sounds pretty much like high modernism trying too hard to be cool

    I don’t disagree that Zorn — like an awful lot of avant-garde jazzers over the past 30 some-odd years — is fundamentally a modernist by inclination and temperament. (Hell, not just jazzers — you could say the same thing about the No Wave movement.) But Zorn’s output is also extremely diverse and I don’t think everything he does fits comfortably within the modernist agenda — like Masada, for starters.
    The other thing is that actual high modernists always seem uncomfortable at how visceral avant-jazz gets. They respect the commitment to thorniness but tend to become suspicious whenever a sustained groove threatens to emerge. Are Downtown avant-jazzers still modernists even if the high church authorities don’t really consider them part of the flock?
    KG replies: Good point about modernism’s distrust of physicality. But I can’t say I’ve usually found Zorn’s music very physical. I concede that he’s diverse in this, and other, respects.

  3. says

    Just more confirmation that you can’t stick Zorn in a box! Throughout his long and diverse career, he has purposefully touched on every genre. I think that as soon as someone tries to pin a label on him, he goes out of his way to disprove such a title.
    That’s why I love him!

  4. says

    “It’s wonderful to finally see books out about composers of my generation.”
    It makes me glad that you wrote this. Congrats on reaching that realm, post-classicists! But there is so much more going on than this, in a way, for good reason. I think the time that passes ever grows important of history.