Re-territorializing the Los Angeles John Zorn Marathon

“This is absurd,” I overheard a security guard mutter. Her statement was understandable given the amount of people crammed into a Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) gallery to listen to a performance of John Zorn’s “The Gnostic Preludes.” Hundreds of listeners sat on the floor, filling the space between paintings and sculptures as if the patrons of a hipster bar in Silverlake had been evacuated into the gallery and decided to take a seat—more long beards, heavy metal t-shirts, studded belts, and tattoos than I’m accustomed to seeing at a museum. Zorn was there and, cautioning the congregants to respect the artworks around them, seemed delighted. I attended all of the May 2nd John Zorn Marathon organized by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP). Like many critics of Zorn’s oeuvre, I found the ten works performed at LACMA and the later sets at UCLA’s Royce Hall to be difficult, if not impossible, to parse. Such resistance to description, for me, raises questions about the role of the composer’s authorial voice and identity as expressed via musical composition and performance in the postmodern world. To that end, I offer my thoughts regarding the marathon (organized in deference to Zorn’s 60th birth-year), through the lenses of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of music as mode of territorialization, Postmodern theory, and of course my own artistic and theoretical proclivities. 

First, a consideration of identity as related to a composer’s work, cultural situatedness, and the role of music in the development of the subject via Deleuze and Guattari. In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that artistry is not a uniquely human activity, but is an outgrowth of practices occuring in the animal kingdom. Human music, like the “music” of other animals, is an activity by which we construct milieus from chaos and thereby perform our identities. As I understand it in the Deleuze/Guattari model, this takes place by first staking out a milieu from surrounding chaos (the milieu of all milieus) by way of performing a recognizable eventing1 which, eventually, signifies a territory. The rhythms and melodies of musical practices, like placards in a physical space, present/event the artist’s works while simultaneously signifying the composer’s identity and territory: “The territory is first of all the critical distance between two beings of the same species: Mark your distance….Don’t anybody touch me, I growl if anyone enters my territory, I put up placards.”2 Territories are, then, not things, but acts which demarcate spaces of influence by rhythmic performance of difference which are separated from the surrounding milieus or chaos. These aforementioned “placards”, in the case of musical phenomena, are musical performances. Or, in the case of composers, compositions which, in their presentation, signify (or perform) the composer’s musical territory while simultaneously signifying (or performing) the composer’s subjectivity. 

Zorn’s stylistic promiscuity, perhaps counterintuitively,  can also be read through Deleuze and Guattari, as they suggest that a territory must borrow from other milieus: “it bites into them, seizes them bodily. . . It is built from aspects or portions of milieus.”3 A territory, then, transcodes other milieus (musical traditions, in this case) and stakes out a sphere of influence and performance of self in potentially recombinant ways. In these terms, I suggest that Zorn uses his plurality of styles to transcode and de-territorialize/re-territorialize established musical styles, dissolving the binary between high and low culture and the notion of the artist’s voice as a consistent and self-same identity. Zorn’s performance of identity understood this way is recognizable as an eventing of Jean-François Lyotard’s “incredulity toward metanarratives”; it gives voice to difference, presents micro-narratives, and may thus be read as distinctly Postmodern. Zorn shows the boundaries of his territory to be recognizable by gleeful appropriation of genres; his consistent inconsistency.

Zorn’s consistent inconsistency exemplifies the aspect of Postmodern theory concerned with the decentering and disintegration of subjectivity. Musicologist Susan McClary discusses Zorn’s penchant for mid-performance genre switching (e.g., in Naked City) and narrative pastiche (as in works like Spillane) in Conventional Wisdom: “The disintegrated subject so decried by Modernist theorists of Postmodernism (e.g., Baudrillard and Jameson) here flaunts itself without apology. This is hellzapoppin’ nihilism at its best, reveling in the rubble of Western civilization without regrets.”4 She goes on to note, though, that to a listener armed with clues regarding themes in Zorn’s work (film noir, jazz performance modalities, modernist compositional techniques, Radical Jewish Culture, etc.) the works can become intelligible. Keeping in mind McClary’s prompt to look for clues, I’ll move on to a consideration of the actual musical performances from the marathon. Beginning at 10am and running until almost 1am (with breaks, of course), the marathon consisted of almost nine hours of music. With so many performances to consider, I’ll restrict my comments here to those about which I have the most to say in the interest of brevity.

Positioned in front of Rembrandt’s “The Raising of Lazarus,” the young and remarkably adept JACK Quartet performed “The Alchemist” (2011). Already a capacity crowd by 11am, this work evinced extended string techniques and Zorn’s serialistic proclivities, punctuated by blocks5 of tonality. The musical works and the listening crowd were already, in the Deleuzian sense, performing difference at LACMA; staking out a new territory, and transcoding the space from a “Holy of Holies”6 of quiet reflection into a social space for musical signification. Zorn sat on the floor at the string quartet’s feet seemingly quite pleased with their performance, though he did quickly offer them notes after the performance (in between yelling at a man standing too close, attempting to overhear, “Hey man, look out! That’s a Rembrandt!”)

The JACK Quartet performs Zorn's "The Alchemist" in front of Rembrandt's "The Raising of Lazarus" still early in the day. Photo by the author.

Later, we moved spatially, temporally, and stylistically to hear one of my favorite pieces of the marathon, “Zeitgehöft” (roughly translatable as “Timestead”) (2013), a string duo performed by members of JACK Quartet. The performance took place in front of Kurt Schwitters’ “Construction for Noble Ladies” (1919) and across from the Paul Klee “Untitled” (1929). Offering clues into the work’s inspiration as well as his own process, Zorn shared an anecdote. Reminded of Schoenberg’s string trio Opus 45, itself written after a near-death experience, Zorn set out to write a string duo representative of his recent experience of undergoing a dental procedure without anesthesia. The piece was also influenced by a collection of German-language poetry of the same name by poet and Holocaust survivor, Paul Celan. The angst manifest by this piece, performed in front of a work by an artist who often represented the machinations of war (Schwitters), influenced by a string trio written by a composer forced to flee Germany after the rise of national socialism and furthermore referencing a near death experience (Schoenberg), and named after the works of a Holocaust survivor (Celan), is far from subtle. The polysemy and compounded signification of all of these references was almost overwhelming in light of the remarkable performance by Christopher Otto (violin) and Kevin McFarland (cello). As Paul Ricoeur suggests, speaking of the strands of meaning present in artworks, the poverty of language, and the primacy of experience: “There is in the work the capacity to make all these aspects ever denser, to intensify them in condensing them. And in speaking of this we can only distribute the polysemy along the different and diverging axes of language. The work alone gathers them together.”7 “Zeitgehöft” was painful, mechanical, textured, crying; it was remarkably powerful. 

Changing tone and modality yet again, the crowd followed Zorn to a gallery featuring, among other modernist masterworks, Jackson Pollock’s “Black and White Number 20” and Mark Rothko’s “White Center” for a series of  improvisations by Zorn (alto saxophone) and Dave Lombardo (drum set). Characteristically bombastic and musical, Zorn’s extended saxophone techniques of altissimo, multiphonics, circular breathing, and vocalization were complemented by Lombardo’s energy and wit. Adept improvisers, the two generously followed one another’s musical queues, acted by turns as leader and accompanist, and created a sensitive and cohesive mutual voice. 

About five hours later and a few miles west, Abraxas, Secret Chiefs 3, and Zorn’s own Bladerunner trio were lined up to perform, respectively: Psychomagia, Masada Book Two, and a series of improvisations at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Both Abraxas and Secret Chiefs 3, longtime musical collaborators with Zorn, performed his music with great technical prowess and aplomb. Bladerunner delivered the skronk, violence, and power expected of his free-improvisational work. But the most intimate performance of the day was Zorn’s solo midnight improvisation on the Skinner organ. Looking rather small on the darkened stage, Zorn drove the organ as if he were test-driving a new car: flipping switches, pushing and pulling stops. Sometimes bombastic, but certainly not virtuosic, The Hermetic Organ was intimate, honest, and raw. 

Zorn improvising "The Hermetic Organ" on Royce Hall's Skinner Organ. Photo by the author.

So, where was Zorn in all of this? I don’t mean literally (he was usually sitting on the floor in front of the performers), I mean, how can we know Zorn’s humanity, musical project, and socio-cultural positioning by the varied pieces played back to back in a purposefully symbolically charged environment? Though I referred to Zorn as a postmodern artist above, the more I think about the music I heard during the marathon, the less the term seems to apply. Though the term  “postmodern” captures Zorn’s voracious borrowing from genres and subversion of high/low binaries,8 it fails to capture the cohesive identity that appears after a prolonged exposure to his work. This isn’t a compositional fingerprint the way some composers are sometimes considered (i.e., Bach apotheosized the order of all creation in his counterpoint, Beethoven relayed his eroticism, expansiveness and angst, Strauss was the waltz king, etc.) Rather, Zorn’s identity seems caught up in his attraction to the Other. In fact, this appropriation and representation of Other-ness may in fact perform a sort of meta-identity. Could his re-territorialization of cultural space, his biting off of whatever is relevant to him in the chaos (remember - Deleuzian chaos - the fecund milieu of all milieus) of the postmodern world be an act of artistic re-integration? As McClary notes regarding the clues available to a listener situated in the postmodern world, these pieces can make “a kind of sense well established within late twentieth-century culture.”9 The referents we need to follow Zorn through his maze of influences are littering the pop landscape for all to see. Perhaps by his work he is creating recombinant postmodern experiences for himself and his listeners; super-gluing dis-integrated cultural phenomena back together in strange but recognizable configurations. This is the artistic identity that emerges after the CAP marathon: not a disintegrated subject lacking personal identity, but a deeply informed maven of cultures engaged in reconfiguring them for his audience so they can see them—and themselves—from new and surprising angles. The security guard was right, it is sometimes absurd. But rather than plodding through what could be a nihilistic experience of the postmodern world, Zorn’s milieu, and the new meanings his work can evince in his territory of influence, reimagine and reconfigure this world for the better. 

  • 1. Eventing here refers to the notion that works are ontologically differentiated from objects in that they are temporal and culturally coded human constructs. Musical works in particular are necessarily temporally situated as they are experienced not instantaneously, but in their unfolding by listening subjects engaged in interpretation; constructing their own hermeneutic circles of understanding.
  • 2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 319-320.
  • 3. Ibid., 314.
  • 4. Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 146.
  • 5. I use the term “blocks” here in reference to John Brackett’s investigation of the poetics of Zorn’s compositional process wherein it is noted that he often works in a process similar to filmic montage. He sometimes “achieves coherence in his compositions by adapting, modifying, and incorporating music by other composers into his own works…”. John Bracket, John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression (Bloomington: University of Indian Press, 2008), xiv. Furthermore, Brackett suggests: “…Zorn’s preferred method of composing with ‘block structures’ exerts a strong influence on the type of unity that is operative for a particular piece. One could say, then, that the ‘block structures’ function as a way of presenting smaller musical ideas that—when taken together—produce the coherent whole” (Ibid., 172n10.)
  • 6. I refer here to the Hebrew concept of the “Holy of Holies”, that inner-most part of the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple. In this segregated space a High Priest could, once per year, be in the presence of God. There is a double significance here in relationship not only to Zorn’s professed Radical Jewish Culture “biting off” and transcoding the idea of museum space as a sort of holy resting place of artworks, themselves representative of the idea of bourgeois nineteenth-century art-religion.
  • 7. Paul Ricoeur, Critique and Conviction: Conversations with François Azouvi and Marc de Launay, trans. Kathleen Blamey (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998), 172.
  • 8. For instance, see: Ellie M. Hisami, “Postcolonialism on the Make: The Music of John Mellencamp, David Bowie, and John Zorn”, in Reading Pop: Approaches to Textual Analysis in Popular Music, ed. Richard Middleton, 329-346 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), as well as John Brackett, John Zorn: Tradition and Transgression (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2008), 173n22: “McClary problematizes the view of Zorn as the quintessential postmodern composer…As McClary points out…belief in the possibility of the whole self flies in the face of certain strains of postmodernist thought (particularly some poststructuralist varieties).”
  • 9. Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 146.
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