Monday, June 25, 2007

games of strategy

Briefly, there is a fair bit of buzz this week online about critical sniping aimed at the NYC "downtown scene", namely this piece by David Hajdu parsing John Zorn, and this one complaining about the Vision Festival. (Of course, he left before the Melford set, the one I most wanted to hear myself) Darcy's reviews of the first two nights of Vision are here and here.

But back to Zorn. First, Hajdu is no slouch; he wrote the very well regarded bio of Strayhorn Lush Life. That doesn't make him a avant expert, but it tells me he know something about music, and jazz, and... I respectfully, emphatically disagree with Ted Riechman's take. I don't think Hajdu is saying Zorn is a fraud at all. In fact, I agree with many of the points he makes; Zorn's success is due as much to his grander vision, marketing savvy and breathtaking ability to assemble great units of musicians as it is his abilities as a saxophonist and/or composer. (Shades of Miles Davis, or the arguments about Miles, though frankly I think Miles was a much better, more expressive trumpeter than Zorn an alto player- see below)

Full disclosure: I have little to no knowledge of Zorn's large scale compositions, so I can't really comment on them, or his place on either the current scene or in the larger historical picture. I can comment on the many times I got to see Zorn in New York- with Masada and the Masada String Group, running Cobra, solo and in exceedingly strange duos with various artists including Marc Ribot and Ravi Coltrane. As a player, I think Hajdu's descriptorof Zorn is often apt:

"To the uninitiated, the sounds that Zorn produces may sometimes seem like assaultive noise blurted out arbitrarily. In fact, they are assaultive noise crafted with meticulous care"
I would say it this way: Zorn's range as a player is tremendous, unique, interesting, and often frustratingly monochromatic.

Later in the article, Hajdu hits what I think is the more important, and wider point:

"Zorn is an exceptional artist, without question, because he prizes and seeks exceptionalism above all. This is not to say that he is exceptionally good at his art. What he is good at--so very good as to suggest a kind of genius--is being exceptional. Unfortunately, uniqueness is not an aesthetic value; it is a term of classification. To say that Zorn is one of a kind, as he certainly is, is to ignore the larger matters of his nature as an artist and, more significantly, the nature of his work, much of which is thin and gimmicky, and some of which is elementally corrupt. "

I think the last sentence is FAR too harsh, (and there's a lot of Zorn I don't like). But there is an inherent self contradiction in the music and figure of John Zorn, much of the music going on this week at Vision Fest, and the avant-garde in general. It is very susceptible, in the mind of its artists and its audience, to the fallacy that suffering in the name of art, especially obscure art, is noble and worthy for suffering's own sake. That somehow the art is justifiable specifically because it's obscure, or difficult. (And as Hajdu notes, in Zorn's case this becomes increasingly paradoxical as he wins more and larger grants, commissions and acclaims.) To me, this is almost as silly as measuring music's value by it's place on the Billboard chart.

In reading about and listening to folks who I consider visionaries of the avant-jazz scene- Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, and Roscoe Mitchell offhand- I see and hear none of the exceptionalism that Zorn revels in. Marvel at Ornette's recent elliptical Grammy acceptance speech. Quite a ways from "Eat Shit Jazz Snob", now, isn't it? In Roscoe's recent talk at NEC in Boston he mentioned how much of the AACM's early work in Chicago was audience building- finding or inventing venues, concerts and programs for the music they were creating, meeting the audience halfway without diluting the music or its mission. (As Soundslope reports regularly, this work goes on to this day) In many ways, with his label, his club, and his concert and record series, I suppose Zorn does this too. He's just so damn insufferable about it.

The last time I was at the Vision Festival was in '01, when it was still on St. Mark's Place. I don't remember too much, good or bad. I do remember Kidd Jordan was playing, and for someone to be playing so much horn, with such a huge sound at his age and (apparent) frailty was amazing all by itself. (Brian O. shows the same wonder towards some of this year's older musicians; good news indeed) But too often I felt that the music was (as Zorn often is) strange for the sake of being strange, following templates more obscure, but not that far from, a re-bop group muscling its way through "Countdown". (More on this on some forthcoming posts about aesthetics, listening and interaction)

Finally, I am firmly of the opinion that when it comes to discussion and criticism of music, there are no sacred cows. I don't want the above to be read as "hating on" Zorn or Vision; I admire John Zorn greatly, like a lot of his music, and was delighted to hear that the got the MacArthur grant. (And equally delighted by Stephen Colbert's skewering of it) I don't think Hajdu is knocking him down for the sake of knocking him down; this is a serious person taking him seriously, and coming to some harsh conclusions. And at a time when left of center music in many genres is hurting in New York and all over the country, the breadth, scope and apparent box office success of this years Vision Festival is cause for celebration. Serious music deserves serious discussion, even when it's cantankerous.

That wasn't so brief now, was it? But I did get to use the word cantankerous. More later...

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