Thursday, November 13, 2008

Creating chaos

A mixed review, but any serious attempt to give Zorn's enormous body of work some context is always welcome.
With all these ingredients, Zorn whips up a frenetic froth of sound, although every once in a while he calms down into lyricism. The effect is sometimes ebullient and amusing, though Zorn’s all-purpose anger insists on priority. It all sounds anarchic on a first listen, for good or ill, and Brackett labors mightily to impose some sort of order on this chaos. Although his musical discussions are more descriptive than deeply analytic—the nonmusical ones are better—Brackett shows us how Zorn uses numerological symbolism, as did Bach, Mahler, and the twelve-tonalists. (Music and mathematics lie close, and lots of composers have embedded number secrets in their scores.) Compressed chunks of others’ scores often act as jumping-off places for Zorn’s own compositions, providing historical reference points and skeins of unity, at least on paper. The sonic equivalent of film montage is another favored device.

The trouble is that Zorn himself has said, “My concern is not so much how things sound, as with how things work.” In other words, he loves the process of creating intricate scores that sound like maniacs improvising on the fly. In that limited sense, he’s like an abstruse academic modernist composer, as in the old distinction between “ear music” you can listen to and “eye music” best appreciated through a close reading of the notes. But by any reasonable criterion—and despite Brackett’s deliberate obfuscation of the fact—Zorn is a postmodernist, even the king of the New York postmodernist hill. People like or dislike his music for its jumpy flow, its wild clashes of style, its passion and humor, its hair-trigger virtuosity in conception and performance.

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