John Zorn
Deconstruction
J-S Bach
Education
John Cage
Outwork










×

Restitutions, Shibboleth or Aporias

'The general Verstimmung [the word means both 'disgruntlement' and 'out of tune', MC]  is the possibility of an other tone, or the tone of an other to interrupt a familiar music at any time ... The Verstimmung, if one thus calls this derailment from now on, the sudden change of a tone like a change of mood, is the disorder or the nonsense of the destination (Bestimmung)' (D'un ton apocalyptique adopté naguère en philosophie, p.67-8, my translation).

I want to emphasise that these are different stories of Western culture, that there is no one story, and certainly not one that is the true story. In a sense they are all true, and in reading them across and against each other we can discern a multiplicity of determinations and subject positions (Game, p.66).

John Zorn and Marcel Cobussen

[1] Deconstruction within music. Deconstruction at work in the compositions of John Cage and in the project of Gerd Zacher (cf. The Gift of Silence and Specters of Bach). At work. But never mentioned (by them). Neither is Derrida. Which is not the same, as is made clear in Deconstruction In Music. With regard to the music of John Zorn, I found only one reference to deconstruction. On a poster for Naked City (Zorn's band with Fred Frith, Bill Frisell, Joey Baron, and Wayne Horvitz) used in 1989 for premier performances, one can read the types of music that are going to be poured upon the public: blues, Ennio Morricone compositions, solo, duo, and trio improvisations, and 'hardcore and surf music deconstructions' (Dorf, p.44). It is not further explained (of course not). It can leave the reader puzzled, curious or indifferent. Perhaps readers acquainted with deconstruction can think of possible connections. What is striking is the plural, deconstructions. There is more than one. Which is true. But deconstruction is always already a multiplicity of voices; speaking with one voice it is no longer deconstruction.
Occasionally, the word turns up in reviews. Mostly it is used as an equivalent to that other difficult to define word, postmodernism. Musicians and composers, in talking about their work, hardly, if at all, express themselves in terms of deconstruction.
And what about Derrida? Is he mentioned? Do musicians or composers know him or his work? There is at least one pop band (in fact it's only the lead singer of the band) that can be considered a kind of fan: Scritti Politti's lead singer, Green, dedicated a song to Derrida. DJ Spooky refers to him in one of his reflective essays that is infused with the spirit of post-structuralism. And then there is also this band called Deconstruction.
And Zorn? Can one find clear traces of Derrida in his work? I think I've found two, but I am not sure about either of them. In 1997, Zorn composed the chamber music, Shibboleth, for string trio, clavichord and percussion. Shibboleth, the password used by the Israelites in order to distinguish themselves from the hostile Ephraimites who could not correctly pronounce the word. It's the word by which Jews are distinguished from non-Jews. It confirms the 'being Jewish' of the Jew. A friendship word. A password. And the title of a book by Derrida.
In 1998, Zorn released the CD Aporias. Requia For Piano And Orchestra. On the back cover are three short texts. One is signed by Zorn and printed in block letters: 'An aporia is an impossible passage, and Aporias, part piano concerto/part requiem, is about those mysteries and spiritual passages separating life from death. The piece is subtitled Requia For Piano And Orchestra, but these requia are not for any particular artist or groups of artists; they are dedicated to all artists and to the indomitable spirit of creativity itself - the spark that refuses to die'. Another text comes from the aristocratic Roman elegist, Sextus Propertius, and is capitalized: 'SUNT ALIQUID MANES LETUM NON OMNIS FINIT LURIDAQUE EVICTOS EFFUGIT UMBRA ROGOS'. It is the opening sentence of the seventh poem in the fourth book of his Elegies, a sometimes macabre poem in which death and eroticism are connected. A translation in italics is added: 'Spirits do exist: death does not end all things and so the pale ghost, victorious, escapes the flames'. The specter as a revenant. The spark that refuses to die.
But it all begins with the other citation. But why am I calling it a citation? Nothing proves it is one. There are no quotation marks. It is not signed. Neither by Zorn, nor by Propertius. Here it is: 'Is it possible to say our lives, or my death? Can death be a plural ... is death even possible?' Whose text is this? To whom does it belong? Who is the owner? Strange questions in the realm of deconstruction where a text is always considered an orphan (I'll return to this). Nevertheless. It's in italics. Does this mean that it is a translation just like the Propertius citation? If it is, then the original language is lacking. Why this mystification? I can only guess. Zorn composed Aporias (or parts of it) in 1994. Derrida published the English version of Aporias in 1993. I quote (and for once I do this in italics as it is after all a translation): 'Is my death possible? ... If death (...) names the very irreplaceability of absolute singularity (no one can die in my place or in the place of the other), then all the examples in the world can precisely illustrate this singularity. Everyone's death, the death of all those who can say 'my death' is irreplaceable' (Aporias, p.21-2). The key problems are the same, but not exactly the same; not the same words. So it is not a citation. Not from Derrida. It seems like a rewriting of Derrida's sentences, although he is not mentioned. The return of a specter which is always already a transformation. The text is a spark (a mark) that refuses to die. It stays behind when the author is already gone (dead?).
Aporias. This may be what music philosopher Jerrold Levinson means by allusive titles, titles that refer to other works, other artists, other cultural utterances (cf. Levinson, p.174). But we are never sure about this.

[2] Where do these preliminary remarks take us? I don't know. I cannot control their dissemination. However, this quest is not an attempt to legitimize my main subject, deconstruction in music. Enumerating as many places as possible where deconstruction and music are brought together - either by composers and musicians or by critics and musicologists - cannot be the justification for my project. It is neither the beginning of an elucidation or explanation of Zorn's work. No overall interpretation. Let's leave enigmas intact.
These opening sentences can be a possible passage, a threshold to a door which is already ajar. For instance, an opening to some moments of transgression. Intermusical: the connecting of several more or less separate musical worlds or people working within these worlds. I will call this de- and recontextualization. The confrontation of several musical styles in the Naked City compositions can be regarded as a temporary and rudimentary example. But soon others will appear. Intertextual: music's nomadic possibilities to attach itself to, and become part of, 'extra-musical' formations. In this section of the site much attention will be paid to Jewishness.
It is also an opening to discuss the inside and outside of a musical work. To think about supplements. Parerga. For example, titles, liner notes, texts and pictures on the cover of a CD. Do these belong to the musical work or are they 'hors d'oeuvre', outside of the work? Every philosophical discourse on art is centered on the question of how to distinguish between the internal and external elements of an artwork, Derrida writes in The Truth In Painting. And it is always a problem. Among others things while parerga have a thickness, which separates them not only from the integral inside, from the ergon, but also from the outside, from the space and place in which a musical work is situated (notated, performed), from the whole institutional field in which the work is produced. (But what is the ergon of a musical work exactly? The score? The sounds? Both? Which sounds? All the sounds heard (or made) during a performance, or only the notated ones? And when there is no notation? Difficulties arise.) The title, the liner notes and the cover illustrations stand out against two 'sides', but with respect to each of those sides, they merge into the other. With respect to the musical work they gradually merge into the background. In this case, the parergon installs an internal boundary. However, it also installs an external boundary. With respect to the general background (the institutional field, abstract ánd concrete), the parergon merges into the work that stands out against this background (cf. The Truth In Painting, p.61). Neither simply outside, nor simply inside. Sometimes or in some way detached, but at the same time very difficult to detach. Why? Because a parergon is not simply a surplus, Derrida explains; it is there because the inside is lacking. It seems as though the parergon comes as an extra, exterior to the proper field (the musical sound 'itself'). However, this exteriority intervenes in the inside only to the extent that there is a lack in the interior of the ergon. Apparently, the inside needs these additives, these supplements. Jerrold Levinson argues that a title can be thought of as part of a musical work, even as part of a work's structure, partly because the music 'itself' is not a fine enough type to properly possess the work's representational properties (cf. Levinson, p.161. I will not elaborate on the problem of representation here.) And John Zorn says in an interview: 'Every piece on Torture Garden, for example, has some kind of subtext to it; a story that is being told ... The titles help with that too, they give the pieces a cultural resonance, something that can get thinking patterns going, which someone can identify with or not identify with or get pissed about. My record covers are involved in this, too. You try to create a package that really tells a story and says something within a larger context than just the abstract world of sound or pitches' (Gagne, p.526). Evidently, the covers, the titles and the liner notes, convey something the music cannot convey by itself. It is lacking and without this lack, the ergon would have no need of a parergon.

[3] What is on the inside of a musical work, what stays external? This is not only a philosophical problem, but it is, in fact, also the main issue of controversy between Zorn and his record company of that time, Nonesuch. Nonesuch wanted to have a say on the covers of several of Zorn's CD's. The idea behind this could (somewhat speculatively) be formulated as follows: Zorn takes care of the music, the record company takes care of distribution and sales (cf. Gagne, p.531). His CD's will sell better if the cover is not too controversial. For that reason, Nonesuch wanted to collaborate on the covers. Perhaps - why not give it some credit -  it did not mean to influence Zorn's artistic creativity. After all, covers are exterior to the musical work. They only come beside, in addition to the ergon. They're not really a part of it.
Zorn had a different opinion. He considers cover art an essential part of his work: 'I told them [the record company, MC] that I would not put out a Naked City record without Maruo Suehiro's [the artist who made the cover drawings, MC] participation; that he was integral to the packaging of Naked City in the way that Yamatsuka Eye [he does the vocal parts, MC] is integral to the band ... With me, the packaging is essential - that is my artwork, making records' (Gagne, p.531-2). Another reaction to Nonesuch: 'If you don't understand what's happening with the covers, then you don't understand what's happening with the music because they're both coming from the same place' (Gagne, p.531). According to Zorn, the covers are part of his artistic product and the cover designer is as important as a member of the band. The parergon is an essential part of the ergon, the inside. It is on the inside.
Where is the boundary drawn? Is it possible to draw a clear border? Where does it begin? Where does it end? What is its internal limit? Its external limit? Depending upon the point of view, shape and color are added to what I called an internal or an external boundary, while the other boundary is unavoidably effaced at the same time. If we want to maintain the field of tension, however, then all that we are left with is the aporia: a parergon, a cover design or title is (n)either on the inside (n)or on the outside. It undermines the opposites, inside vs. outside, intrinsic vs. extrinsic, essential vs. accidental, etc. The idea to consider the parergon merely as an external and subordinate supplement can only sustain itself when the complexity, the plurality, of the parergon is ignored. (Titles, covers, and liner notes also have the dual function of closing up and opening up. For instance, they demarcate a musical work from other works. But at the same time, within the same move, they present and introduce the musical work.)
I am not at all interested in judging who is right or wrong, Zorn or Nonesuch. It is not about outlining new borders or maintaining old ones. It is not about subverting any border at all, just like that. 'Deconstruction must neither reframe, nor dream of the pure absence of the frame' (The Truth In Painting, p.73). Perhaps, it is only about a sensitivity to an insoluble situation of instability, of undecidability.

[4] Something on the structure of this section of the site. It has something to do with Zorn's composition, Spillane, named for the author of the Mike Hammer detective books and movies, Mickey Spillane. With Spillane, Zorn starts a composing method he calls file-card composition. After much fieldwork (viewing the films, reading the books: 'Spillane is the distillation of all the books. Each section relates to an adventure in the picaresque detective novel'), Zorn begins by making lists of impressions, ideas and snippets of sound, some of which are later transferred to file cards as individual events. These file cards become the actual score. In the recording studio, he slowly builds the piece, section by section (cf. Duckworth, p.445). The result is a series of musical blocks without a traditional development. It is a musical structure or montage involving much juxtapositioning and discontinuity, a mixture of different musical styles, Zorn's own contributions as well as quotations from pre-existing music (for instance, he uses the theme from Route 66 as a kind of icon symbolizing the detective world). Listening to Spillane means listening to jazz, blues, film music, spoken parts, and rhythm and blues within a few minutes.
This section on Zorn can be regarded as a kind of file-card composition, too. Although it mainly revolves around one project, Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach, it has a block structure as well, a montage of different texts that, taken together, should form a kaleidoscopic picture of John Zorn and the deconstructions at work within his music.

[5] Positions I and Positions II are sociological explorations of Zorn's position in the music world of New York and of his opportunity to create a new art world around himself. In a way, Zorn, Noise, Cage, Pop is also about Zorn's musical position. This page focuses on the idea that Zorn stands simultaneously inside and outside the popular culture. This is supported on the basis of Zorn's use of noise as opposed to Cage's. While listening to and analyzing Zorn's music, the problem of inside and outside is constantly returning. (Zorn himself is also aware of this. In many interviews he talks about the different musical languages he speaks which make it difficult to stereotype him.) In Hymen, I connect the deconstruction of this oppositional pair in Zorn's music to Derrida's ideas about inside and outside regarding hymen. In my opinion, the songs in Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach can be called hymen, (n)either on the inside (n)or on the outside of Bacharach's originals. In Zorn's Pharmacy, I liken these inside/outside problems to a tumor, assuming Zorn's fondness for physical damages that is evidenced in many of his song titles and on many of his CD covers.
In (D)(R)econtextualization, I explain how Zorn takes the music of Burt Bacharach out of its 'normal' or 'original' context and places it within several others. Perhaps the most important new context is revealed by the title of the project, Great Jewish Music. On the Great Jewish Music page I expand upon the Jewishness of Zorn's music. What does it mean to call his music Jewish and how Jewish are Bacharach's compositions? In Burt Bacharach and John Zorn I concentrate on a more deconstructive musicological reading of several of Bacharach's songs and Zorn's versions of them.
Zorn comments as such upon Bacharach's tunes. In that sense, Zorn can be regarded as a parasite taking advantage of already existing music. In Saprophyte, I take another standpoint: Zorn is also contributing to his host, Bacharach, and he is creating something new, as well.
Up to this point I have been regarding Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach as a project of John Zorn. And it is his project. However, he is not playing one note on either of these two CD's. This raises the question of what it means to speak about 'his' music. In The Signature of  John Zorn and The Death of the Composer, I  expand upon such questions as: What is composing? What does it mean to be a composer? How clear is the distinction between composing and arranging? What is the meaning of the proper name above a composition? Is it thereby the composer's property? Is he the only producer?
Inside and outside. Either inside or outside. Neither inside nor outside. John Zorn. Great Jewish Music. Burt Bacharach. Undecidability in music.