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Book Review: John Zorn: Tradition And Transgression by John Brackett

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As a fan of the “downtown” New York music scene, I was very interested to read the first full-length biography of John Zorn: Tradition And Transgression by John Brackett. Zorn’s prolific output, controversial album art, and undeniable impact boded well for a fascinating story.

That book remains to be written, for Tradition And Transgression is not it. This book is an extremely scholarly study of Zorn’s music, written by a professor of music.  One has to wonder what percentage of Zorn’s audience actually have a degree in music theory. I do not, and for this admitted fan, Tradition And Transgression was a tough read at times.

The book starts off promisingly enough. The first chapter, “From The Fantastic To The Dangerously Real” discusses some of the controversial artwork Zorn has utilized on his recordings. Violent images of Sado-Masochism, and disturbing Japanese Manga stills have drawn the ire of critics, which is unsurprising. By reprinting some of the pictures, and quoting those offended by the images, Brackett illuminates the discussion quite effectively. He also refrains from editorializing on the situation, leaving the reader to decide for themselves the merits of each side.

Besides the Introduction, Epilogue, and extensive notes and discography, Tradition and Transgression consists of four extended essays. The remaining three are serious music theory discussions. I do not consider myself a “dummy” by any means, and even play a little guitar. But these essays left me lost in a world that seemed very far removed from the seedy downtown New York milieu that spawned the music in the first place.

“Magick And Mysticism in Zorn’s Recent Works” is a provocative title for the second chapter. And the manner in which Zorn utilizes ideas from HP Lovecraft to Aleister Crowley to numerology in his music is a curious subject. Brackett’s correlation of the music to the occult influences is enlightening as well. Again, it is when he gets down to the minutia of the notes and theories of the music that my eyes began to glaze.

Chapter three is titled “Tradition, Gifts, and Musical Homages,” and is very useful in discussing Zorn’s influences, many of whom are not musicians at all. The fourth and final chapter, “Continuing The Spiral: Aporias And The Prisms Of Tradition” wraps things up with an extensive deconstruction of Zorn’s Aporias.

Having recently read Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography Of Sonic Youth, my expectations for Tradition And Transgression were somewhat unfair. I had hoped to get to know the personality of the artist behind such revolutionary works as Naked City, The Big Gundown, and Elegy. What I got was the music itself, pure and simple. As a text on Zorn’s music alone, Tradition And Transgression is outstanding.  I just wanted to get to know him a bit as well.

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About Greg Barbrick