Perfect Sound Forever

John Zorn and Zionism

Photo couresty of Goblin Magazine

by Bryan Preston (November 2001)

John Zorn does not compose irony. Unlike Frank Zappaís simulations of dumb rock cliches that he himself generally despised, Zorn has professed that he composes out of love for his inspirations. What if, however, one of his inspirations proved to be insidious bigotry? Does D.W. Griffithís KKK affiliations make his role in the history of film any less significant? Does Bronislaw Malinowskiís inner contempt for the Trobriand Islanders (recorded in his diaries) taint the value of his ethnographic research? Should it? Now, John Zorn is probably not a Zionist, but his music and the music of the Radical Jewish Culture Series on his Tzadik record label both fail to address another Radical Movement in Jewish Culture: Zionism. Should we expect a Radical Jewish group to address such concerns? Do composers have any political as well as artistic responsibilities, especially when they are executives of cultural movements in music? Should concerns of such responsibilities bear on our interpretations of music and other art?

The name of Zornís jazz quartet, Masada, sets into motion questions about Zornís politics. Before it became a jazz quartet in 1994, Masada was the place in what is now Israel where, the story goes, almost 1000 Jews, men, women and children committed suicide in 73 A.D. rather than be overwhelmed by an advancing Roman army. Although recently uncovered archeological evidence suggests it may not have been a mass suicide, for Jews in the 20th Century the story of Masada remains a symbol of the uncompromising courage of the Jewish people. Is every Masada performance a musical invocation of mass suicide of the original Masada? With regard to Israeli military action in U.N.-recognized Palestinian territory, what does using the name Masada for a jazz group currently mean?

The Concert

On Easter Eve, 2001 Masada played to a full house in the Ted Mann Auditorium, Minneapolis, Minnesota. In attendance, perhaps mostly University of Minnesota students and faculty, all of whom surely felt "in the know." And they were.

All the music was this: serious. No fucking around, no gimmicks, no toys, no ironic posturing, no apologizing, next to no talking. But the players often smiled uncontrollably and patted each other on the back between tunes. The cooperation and friendly respect among them would make a pretty decent model of a just society. Yes, there was division of labor -- Dave Douglas on trumpet, Joey Baron on drums, Greg Cohen on stand-up bass, John Zorn on alto sax -- where they all played separate roles, but they all fulfilled each other's basic biological and social needs. There existed no resentment for whoever was soloing, only support. In fact, they clearly demonstrated great mastery of telepathy in many sequences. Zorn flipped his hands in various ways, triggering changes in style, dynamic, etc. in the playing. Telepathy, secret hand signals, Jewish mysticism -- Masada is a magic act.

Most of the tunes were quite carefully composed jazz numbers, with improvised solos between heads. All tunes had some hidden "Sephardic" (as the promotional ads described) flavor to them. The Sephardim is the name given to Jews who settled in Spain from around biblical times until the purges of 1492. How traditional Sephardic music differs from what we know as Klezmer, I do not know. It is a distinction that other reviews have failed to make, but knowing the roots of the melodies is not a prerequisite to appreciating such beautiful music.

Just one tune Masada played that night was absolutely ludicrous: a crowd of circus freaks in a brimming snake pit running in circles while falling over each other. This tune was fast as hell and as noisy as geese. I think it was Zornís solo on this piece that consisted of non-tonal honks and squeaks. He hit and held one note that absolutely resonated the air in the room and rattled everybody's ear drums into pain, no matter how far away one was sitting; it was the kind of sound that grade school music teachers outlaw. I wonder if he tested the room out beforehand in order to find that exact wolf note. This note created a very singular experience for the entire crowd. We were all violated in the same way -- in a way that had nothing to do with "music" or subliminal messages or even psychoacoustical manipulation; we were assaulted physiologically [1]. Leave it to Zorn to insert hardcore noise anti-aesthetic into a respectable University Concert Hall setting. And this note asserted itself without any protestation from the appreciative gawkers, most of whom would have nothing to do with unmusical hardcore wackjobs yelling in a basement in order to deafen the teenagers in attendance.

A highlight, but it is not as if the performance was a vehicle by which that horrific note rode. Rather, our Easter baskets came a few hours early this year and they all contained an egg-sized earwig with menacing pincers, among the dignified religious idols and yummy gummi bears. (Oddly enough, this Easter present came from a quartet whose members do not celebrate Easter themselves.) The jazz was unrelentingly exquisite. The melodies were unpretentious, lyrical and always "able to be understood by the layman." Without compromising beauty.

Douglas and Zorn usually played separate parts for the melodies. The solos, especially Zorn's, were often greatly timbral without sounding alien. Meanwhile, great leeway was given to Baron, who played many solos with great power, mixing up styles up and down without getting sloppy or obvious. And Cohen never looked bored or confused like most bass players; he played with more subtlety and less volume than the other players. Thrum thrum thrum.

The harmonies were made up of curious Mid-Eastern scales that were kind of a tease since no simulated gypsy/Klezmer music or whatever was ever unleashed in full force for us to bask in its EXOTICITY. Masada made the foreign familiar, the folk-Jewish into Ornette Coleman-American. No postmodernist-multiculturalism nonsense present here.

Serious Music, Serious Identity

Masadaís no-whistles-no-bells presentation suggests to me that Zorn is truly inspired: music takes precedence over affecting a Jewish identity. Or have I been duped? Zornís central role in organizing "Radical Jewish Culture" performances and CD release projects does point to an identity-driven mindset at work. Such projects, the Masada quartet included, indicate that Zorn is quite serious about being Radical and being Jewish.

Cartoonist Harvey Pekarís conversations with Zorn about Masada, depicted in a short comics series, reveal that Zorn formed Masada, in part, so that he could play jazz without being accused of "ripping off" African-American musicians. The other musicians in the band are Jewish and have all contributed greatly to the Radical Jewish Series of CD's. Thus, we have Zorn reinterpreting jazz as Jewish, mirroring the genealogical homogeneity of the original be-bop groups as well as of the groups formed by the be-boppersí free jazz younger brothers. However, the difference remains: Zornís is a contrived grouping, Jewish players hand-picked out of an extremely diverse community of players, while the be-bop players lived in, and performed in, segregated communities. What does it mean to form an all-Jewish jazz group? Why is forming an all-Jewish jazz group important?

The stark black bordered with silver font booklet art accompanying the Tzadik CD releases signifies Zornís solemn attitude toward music. It seems that for him, music is sacred: a way of reality separate from quotidian existence; the mood of a recitation of the Kaddish. Zornís distressing composition Kristallnacht [1] was inspired by "the Crystal Night," November 9th and 10th, 1938 ( -- the first nights of open Nazi violence against Jews in German cities. In the program notes of Zornfest (during which this piece was performed) Zorn writes of Kristallnacht:

Dealing with this subject matter was a very intimidating thing. It was not just something I wanted to do, it was something I felt I had to do. I just thank YHVH I was able to find musicians like these to work with. This piece deals with the Jewish experience before, during and after the Holocaust, taking us right up to today; here in NYC. (We are Gariin -- the new settlement.)
Source: WNUR
The goal: to revitalize and solidify Jewish Culture in New York City while operating in the sphere of radical new music. Along with the subject matter of many of Zornís compositions, his gratitude to YHVH confirms the gravity of his inspiration.

Radical Politics & Artistic Freedom

Since Zorn labels his (and othersí) music under the banner of Radical Jewish Culture, how can we avoid concluding that such a banner includes some sort of political perspective? If this is so, what is Zornís relationship to Zionism? Shouldnít it be the obligation of any sensible radical Jewish group to voice opposition to the continuing oppression of the Palestinian people by the (U.S.-backed) racist Israeli government? (For a fact-filled article about the U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian conflict, check out: ) In posing these questions to the center of Zorn interest online, the Zorn-list, the informed responses to my question consisted of: (1) Zorn has been inspired by Ahad Ha-amís Cultural Zionism, which is not the same as the political variant that the Israeli government currently uses as a rationale to colonize Palestinian territory. (2) No, we have no reason to expect a professed radical movement in music to include politically-oriented material. Such an expectation would be, the argument goes, limiting to free musical thought, even authoritarian to demand such. In order for this article to continue, I will have to first adequately respond to these two disqualifications of my Zorn-Pol discussion.

(1) In the liner notes to Zornís Masada CD releases, he cites Ahad Ha-am, the late 19th Century Jewish activist and essayist, as a prime inspiration. Ahad Ha-am took issue with his contemporary Theodor Herzlís fervor for political Zionism (the immediate founding of a Jewish state in Palestine) as a hasty and misguided plan of action. Ha-am posed "the Jewish Question" as a cultural problem rather than a political problem. For Ha-am a Jewish state can only grow properly if the Jewish Diaspora is first progressively unified spiritually, morally and culturally:

In a word: Chibbath Zion [i.e. Cultural Zionism], no less than ĎZionism,í wants a Jewish State and believes in the possibility of the establishment of a Jewish State in the future. But while ĎZionismí looks to the Jewish State to provide a remedy for poverty, complete tranquillity [sic] and national glory, Chibbath Zion knows that our State will not give us all these things until Ďuniversal Righteousness is enthroned and holds sway over nations and Statesí: and it looks to a Jewish State to provide only a Ďsecure refugeí for Judaism and a cultural bond of unity for our nation. Zionism, therefore, begins its work with political propaganda; Chibbath Zion begins with national culture, because only through the national culture and for its sake can a Jewish State be established in such a way as to correspond with the will and the needs of the Jewish people. "The Jewish State and Jewish Problem"
Thus, Ha-amís opposition to Herzlís pro-state zeal was one of degrees. On the one hand, we cannot fault Ha-am for not predicting the Israeli governmentís colonization of already-occupied land (though we have to politely ignore the fact there existed little discussion about the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish peoples already residing in the zoning of Israel). On the other hand, post-1948 Cultural Zionists, who profess to concern themselves with the moral condition of the Jewish people, ought not have too much trouble pointing out the moral shortcomings of the politically Zionist Israeli government and military.

(2) And just what does all of this have to do with John Zorn, a composer operating three thousand miles away from the Mideast conflict? Zorn instigated the Radical Jewish Culture series of CD releases and live performances. The resulting music covers an extreme breadth of style and execution, but each piece relates to a reinterpretation of some theme in Jewish culture. However, none of these recordings betray any concrete political perspective. None mention Israeli oppression of the Palestinian population which is carried out in the name of Judaism. (Admittedly, I havenít heard the whole series, but conversations on the Zorn-list confirmed the non-political nature of all of the releases.) Political Zionism refuses to distinguish between Judaism and nationalism, so why shouldnít the Radical Jewish opposition do the same? "Silence is consent" as the hardcore folk say: an equation that critiques everyday political apathy as well as John Cageís elimination of decisive composition.

Before the intense commodification of creativity that took place in the 20th Century, music (other than that of aristocratic Europe) was not such a specialized field of activity. "Traditional" folk forms all over the world pre-date any intellectual or actualized separation of life into discrete fields: kinship was bound up with spirituality; spirituality with ritual; ritual with politics; politics with kinship, etc. . . Explicit politics and other "impolite" topics all but disappeared from art in the industrial 20th Century cultures. Never before had the economy been in such complete control of music (and, hence, culture). In a word: goodbye to regional musical forms, goodbye to topically relevant music. It is an enlightening exercise to compare the American popular music of the 1920s with the rural blues and folk field recordings made during the same decade.

That is why we should demand that some sort of political discourse be part of perceived radical music and, ideally, all music. Music/culture and power/politics are inseparable; dividing these phenomena into separate spheres only serves as an endorsement of the current human predicament.

Radical Non-Political Music for the Masses

The following is the only comment by John Zorn directly about his political views that I have encountered:

[Kristallnacht] has to do with Jewish politics because it shows that evolution. One of Kristallnachtís parts is "Barzel (Iron Fist)," short but really hard, and it describes the dangers that exist in any kind of orthodox, religious fundamentalism that becomes something exclusive of a group of people that only believe in themselves. Judaism also incarnates that danger: there have been radical movements like the Jewish Defense League and other radical groups. It is the dichotomy of seeing how religion, which is supposed to be based on love, becomes hate, and those fundamentalist movements take that Ďpolitical turn.í So Kristallnacht touches a bit upon the political subject, although the work was not inspired by politics but by the most recent life of a people. Iím not interested in politics, but in people, music and knowing more about human feelings. (from Factory, Autumn Ď94; thanks to Efren del Valle for the translation!)
Providing only another trace of clarification on the subject of the politics of Radical Jewish Culture music, the monster guitarist, and frequent Zorn collaborator, Elliott Sharp has said,
I have always hated nationalism and as a Jew I always thought that Zionism was the wrong thing! It was just an excuse to allow people who didnít want Jews, to reach an accommodation with certain nationalists to create a place where, I think they were just hoping that the Arabs would finish the job that the Germans didnít, you know! To me Israel was kind of confounded that it succeeded on its own terms. And I don't say that Jews shouldn't have their own place, but if they start acting the way they do towards the Palestinians, then I say no, this is not Jewish. I always think the Jews should know better, than to act in certain ways. The nationalism thing has always bugged me and the only reason I would do a record on [Zornís] Radical Jewish series (which is the one I did with Ronny Someck [Revenge Of The Stuttering Child]) was because he is a non-Zionist, he is an Iraqi born Jew. An Israeli, but his attitude about it is outside, you know.
Taking a rather different perspective on the matter, saxophone player, composer and activist Fred Ho (who is not a Zorn collaborator) comments:
. . . John Zorn is a Zionist, I feel. John Zorn is a racist. His whole racist erotic fascination with the dismemberment of Japanese women [reference to the controversy surrounding the artwork for Zorn-project Naked City's Torture Garden album] - yíknow, heís actually had protests at his concerts by groups who do work around anti-violence against women, anti-violence against Asians. So to me his radical Jewishness is not very radical. Itís not the Jewishness of a Marx, or the Jewishness of an Emma Goldman, or of the anti-Nazi resistance fighters who took up arms against the fascists. Itís an ethnic multikulti capitalism.
Certainly, we shouldnít swallow Fred Hoís comments simply at face value, but his and Sharpís statements do point to the fact that the questions regarding the political status of Zornís Radical Jewish projects do arise among his peers.

Bitter Residues

Inarguably, Zorn is an incredible composer and musician. It is a shame that Fred Ho would not have had as good a time at the Masada concert as I did because of his opinions of Zorn. Perhaps weíve learned a lesson: it is pointless to consider music as the direct mouthpiece of the composer. Consumers of any art never fail to exhume some meaning from a piece of art that the artist never intended. If John Zorn was a Zionist like Fred Ho alleges, could we not still argue that the spontaneity and pluralism of the music of Masada, for example, envisages a better world for all of us? Lashing meaning to artist endangers those artistsí status as stupid humans so we better soon learn not to lick up every residue that clings to the non-gods who think up divine shit.

Music for Robots

That being said, could it be that the current role of art in culture and the deeds of artists are impoverished and useless? And as incredible and beautiful as Zornís music is, in the end, it is nothing but a series of statements limited within a self-circumscribed community of artists that professes to be, somehow, radical. This is politically sanitized for academic musicians and polite bourgeois only. Please take notice, however, that all this bitching about Zornís music and the Radical Jewish Culture series applies to the sorry condition of almost all new music; local hardcore and underground hip-hop scenes being a couple of notable exceptions. In this music you will find subject matter about power and current events integrated within other human topics; this was how music existed long before the commodified, self-referencing escapism we consume now.

Special Thanks goes to Stephen Fruitman and Joseph Zitt of the Zornlist for their unmitigated, yet invariably civil, disagreement with me. Comments, edification welcome, desired. []

[1] The liner notes to Kristallnacht include this warning about the second track: "Caution: ĎNever Againí contains high frequency extremes at the limits of human hearing & beyond, which may cause nausea, headache & ringing in the ears. Prolonged or repeated listening is not advisable as it may result in temporary or permanent ear damage. - The composer."

Interesting Zorn-Related Diversions:

Zornís record label.

Human rights-oriented coverage of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The active email list about Zorn and related musics.

Link to an article that includes a review of a Zorn Spy vs. Spy performance (Zornís group devoted to performing hardcore versions of Ornette Coleman compositions) by the (somewhat aghast) jazz-blues critic Francis Davis:

Oft-repeated amusing anecdote regarding Zorn, Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and Madeline Albright.

Also see our articles on Masada String Trio and Zorn's Book of Angels

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER