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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 10 Millennium's End
Richard Taruskin

Even composers who do not actually (or always) use the new machines write in a manner that vividly reflects their influence. John Zorn (b. 1953) has been touted by the New Grove Dictionary as “an archetypal example of the composer in the media age.”67 Putting it more bluntly, he writes that “I've got an incredibly short attention span,” and that his music is meant for listeners who, like him, grew up with television.

In some sense, it is true that my music is ideal for people who are impatient, because it is jam-packed with information that is changing very fast …. You've got to realize that speed is taking over the world. Look at the kids growing up with computers and video games—which are ten times faster than the pinball machines we used to play. There's an essential something that young musicians have, something you can lose touch with as you get older …. It's a whole new way of thinking, of living. And we've got to keep up with it. I'll probably die trying.68

Maybe it is not quite that new; Zorn's pronouncements are not that different from the ones that filled Futurist manifestos nearly a hundred years ago. If they had our technology, the Futurists would surely have lived as fast as we do. But the point is that we do have the technology and can realize some old dreams. Zorn's perfervid paragraph comes from the notes that accompany Spillane (1986), a much-discussed collage balanced on the cusp between improvisation and composition, live performance and sample patchwork, that seemed determined to take eclecticism to its limit.

Zorn first made his name as the leader of an improvising band that dazzled audiences with its ability to shift styles in midstream (or midphrase), and a range of reference that recognized no boundaries, incorporating Josquin des Prez, TV jingles, Indian ragas, and every type of American pop. His self-proclaimed models were the soundtracks that accompanied the animated cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Road Runner) that children his age imbibed in great quantities on TV. These cartoon scores were composed of studio-recorded snippets that were spliced and intercut to follow the breakneck antics on the screen. Another source of inspiration was commercial novelty bands like the one led by Spike Jones (1911–65), who began by incorporating unusual percussion instruments into his arrangements of pop standards and proceeded from there into a boundless world of wacky sound effects. The first big hit scored by Spike Jones and His City Slickers—Der Fuehrer's Face (1942), in which the familiar Nazi salute (“Heil!”) was accompanied throughout by a Bronx cheer (or “raspberry”)—originally accompanied a Walt Disney war-propaganda cartoon. Zorn's band became proficient in the use of raucous sound effects—screams, whistles, gunshots, explosions—that punctuated the music and served as signals to the players for sudden changes of tempo and texture.

While no short-range “structural” coherence could be detected in a Zorn composition—that was in a way the whole point—his performances made sense as accompaniments to a vividly implied scenario. Just as Spike Jones affectionately spoofed tender love ballads, the twenty-five-minute Spillane (named after Mickey Spillane, whose Mike Hammer detective novels were the basis for many popular Hollywood low-budget or “B” movies) parodies the soundtrack of a manically condensed “gumshoe” mystery, mixing screams, police dogs and sirens, jazz combos, “fade” and “dissolve” effects using synthesizers, muttering voices adding atmosphere to instrumental solos, and so on. The CD version subjects the music to further “cinematic” manipulation, treating the live performance sounds like raw material for sampling and intercutting, just as studio sound editors treat the music of an actual soundtrack.

Such an ambitious work could no longer be achieved with the required precision through actual on-the-spot improvisation, so Zorn began organizing his work with the use of file cards containing directions for the performers. “I give the musicians the music for the section that we'll be working on,” he told an interviewer:

We'd rehearse it, get it perfect, and then record it onto tape. Then I'd give them the music for the second section of the piece. Bit by bit we'd build it up. An additive process, with the musicians concentrating on the details of one section at a time, but relatively blind, as far as where the piece is going. Like a director in film, only I would have the overall perspective. We'd roll the tape back, listen to the previous section recorded, and then just where they're supposed to come in, I'd cue them and they'd begin performing. It's like a series of short live performances put directly onto tape. No splices, no splices ever. Everything just put right into place on tape using A-B sets of tracks so that you never actually cut into the previous performance. Sections literally overlapped, with the reverb of the previous section dying behind the beginning of the following one.69

When his recordings began attracting the attention of “legitimate” performing groups (including the inevitable commission from Kronos Quartet), he made as little compromise as possible with traditional notation and the kinds of forms it enabled (or imposed). Cat o’ Nine Tails (1988), the Kronos score, consisted of sixty “moments” (borrowing a term from Stockhausen) on file cards that covered a typical Zorn “mishmash” (his word), ranging from allusions to the standard repertoire to cartoon noises to “random” effects. Some were fully notated. At other times, the musicians are told something like “between this written piece and that written piece, you have six seconds to fool around with col legno [drawing the wood of the bow across the strings].”70 But even when unwritten, this was composed rather than improvised music; the initiative belonged at all times to the composer, who planned each “random” effect in advance.

The music remained a sort of soundtrack; but its resolute nonlinearity reminded many critics of the cutting techniques employed on “Music Television” (MTV), where (reversing the traditional procedure) visual accompaniments were added to music tracks to allow for their exposure on TV. These supersophisticated treatments suggested to many artists that the much-decried short attention span of the TV or video-game generation was not a dulling of wits but more probably the opposite. The ever-faster pace of media impressions had greatly speeded the process of comprehension. Concepts of linear logic and “organic” wholeness that had previously dominated musical esthetics were called into question. Indeed, as the epigraph from Jonathan Kramer at the top of this chapter confirms, listening (or, more generally, perceptual) habits fostered by the age of remote-controlled tuners and car radios eventually, and inevitably, affected the way in which music was composed. Zorn's is perhaps the most consummate manifestation, but it is far from an isolated or negligible one.

And as his music became more ambitious and widely recognized, the composer began, despite his protestations and affectations, to be treated as an adult. No longer regarded as a throwback to the irresponsible naïveté of a Spike Jones, he was held more accountable for the contents of his product. It was in some ways a painful compliment. In the early 1990s, appearances by Zorn's band were picketed in Los Angeles by Asian-American women offended by his stereotypical depiction of a Japanese love slave in “Forbidden Fruit” (1987) and the cover art on some of his more recent CDs, especially Torture Garden (1990), which showed Asian women being subjected to sexual abuse.

These protests came at a time when several avant-garde artists were under intemperate attack by members of the United States Congress who disapproved of the disbursement of tax revenues, through the National Endowment for the Arts, to recipients whose art embodied controversial or (to them) offensive messages. The situation was complicated by the widespread perception that these attacks were directed more at the Endowment itself than at the artists, who were being used, in effect, as scapegoats to justify an otherwise indefensible political posture. Zorn at first defended himself as if he were under a comparable attack, asserting his right to free expression and portraying his critics as censors. “You're really not able to step back and analyze what you're doing,” he told an interviewer in 1992:

I really try to just follow my instincts, whether it pisses off people who are trying to be politically correct, or who are concerned with a certain musical tradition. That cannot concern me; I can't think about trying to censor my work. I've got to follow through wherever my crazy mind takes me. Artists stand on the outside of society. I think that's an important point: I see the artist as someone who stands on the outside; they create their own rules in a lot of ways and shouldn't try to be socially responsible; being irresponsible is the very point of their existence. That's what makes that person able to comment on what's going on around them, because they aren't restricted by the censors or the powers that be—or in the case of what's happening in the arena today, the Big Brother that used to be watching in the ’60s is now your next-door neighbor ….

I'm figuring a lot of shit out, drawing my moral line, and saying, “Fuck you. I don't need this. I've got to follow my artistic vision, whether you think that it's repulsive or anti-women or anti-Asian or whatever. I have to follow it through.71

Despite the postmodernity of his media, Zorn was expressing a typically modernist bravado. Yet eventually, at the urging of the Nonesuch record firm (with which he later broke), he agreed at least to repackage the offending CDs and issued a somewhat grudging apology: “As an artist you can't please everyone. If I took all their criticism to heart I'd never create anything. I don't want to make it harder for Asians in this country; I'm on their side. But frankly, I don't think my records are doing that.”72 Under commercial pressure, an intransigent artist was forced or shamed into a compromise with public decency. From the modernist perspective, that had to count as a defeat.

But Susan McClary, writing as a postmodernist, gave the outcome of the collision between Zorn, his label, and his public an interestingly optimistic interpretation, seeing public indignation as distinctly preferable to the public indifference that had, in the century following Baudelaire, typically greeted modern “art” music, at least in the democratic West. “If art music has been spared such scrutiny for several decades,” she comments, “it is in large part because so little was at stake for either composer or audience.”73 She argues further that the far greater public scrutiny, and occasional outcry, that contemporary popular culture attracts—even though its “level of transgression” is often far tamer than Zorn's open embrace of sadism—is evidence of popular culture's greater creative vitality, or at least its greater pertinence to issues that truly matter to most people.

To maintain this position may be to underestimate how much the issue of creative freedom truly matters to artists. The geopolitical polarization engendered by the cold war made that freedom—or, more precisely, that perception of freedom—an issue worth the sacrifice of public relevance to many artists in the West, who saw totalitarian regimentation as, if not the only alternative, then at least the one that needed to be most vigilantly resisted, whatever the social cost. That was indeed a heavy stake for composers, if not for audiences.

But if that is true, then McClary's optimism is not misplaced. If anything, it is even more cheering to note the coincidence of postmodern esthetics, which embrace exchange and communication between artist and public and all the attendant risks, and the end of the cold war with its hardening influence on cultural attitudes. The year 1989, which saw the fall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the opening of the Berlin Wall, may in the end have been as great a watershed for Euro-American art as it has been for Euro-American politics. Polarizing attitudes that once held artists on both sides of the Iron Curtain captive have been deconstructed, perhaps permanently, by the march of events on the eve of the twenty-first century.

In the West, it may no longer be quite so necessary for artists to maintain belief in “the irreconcilable nature of the esthetic and the social worlds,” to quote the German cultural critic Jürgen Habermas, voicing a creed that goes back long before the cold war, to the wellsprings of Romanticism. Yet John Zorn, who practically paraphrased Habermas in some of the vulgar remarks quoted above, turned right around and told an interviewer that “I'm at the point now where maybe I can make somebody cry with music; that's been a dream all my life.”74 The contradiction, the seesaw between social alienation and social communion, was as old as Romanticism itself. Postmodernism seems to have encouraged communion to reassert its rights.


(67) Peter Niklas Wilson, “Zorn, John,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XXVII (2nd ed.), p. 869.

(68) John Zorn, liner note to Spillane (1987); quoted in Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), p. 146.

(69) Gagne, Soundpieces 2, pp. 519–20.

(70) Gagne, Soundpieces 2, p. 525.

(71) Gagne, Soundpieces 2, pp. 530–31.

(72) Quoted in McClary, Conventional Wisdom, p. 150.

(73) McClary, Conventional Wisdom, pp. 150–51.

(74) Gagne, Soundpieces 2, p. 534.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 May. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010014.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Millennium's End. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010014.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Millennium's End." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-010014.xml