John Brackett
University of Utah

  1. The harmonic “illogic” of “Speedfreaks” might give the impression of complete anarchy where all “musical rules” have been abandoned (and where we consider the rhythmic continuity as a conceit necessary for the performance). However, the formal design of this tune provides the necessary balance required by a Bataillean conception of transgression. The 32 discrete musical blocks of “Speedfreaks” is an oblique (and, perhaps, tongue-in-cheek) evocation of the 32-bar song-form common to many jazz and pop standards. In this form, each eight-measure unit typically unfolds according to the scheme AABA where each A section repeats a melodic line (that may be varied) and a harmonic progression that serves to confirm the tonic, a confirmation accomplished by the presence of a strong dominant that typically appears at the end of the first two A sections and resolves, momentarily, with the first repetition of A and, conclusively, at the end of the final A. The B section provides the form with its greatest sense of contrast. The contrast of the B section can be the result of an emphasis on a key area other than the tonic and/or, if lyrics are present, by a change in mood, perspective, or content. Like the first two A sections, the B section is harmonically open, ending with a dominant harmony.

  2. In “Speedfreaks,” remnants of the formal particulars associated with the standard 32-bar song-form can still be perceived. For example, notice that the end of the first two “A” sections (measures 8 and 16, the final measures of the first and second systems) both end with some sort of A-flat harmony – minor at the end of the first system and major at the end of the second system. The harmonic correlation between these two formal junctures might be conceived as insignificant (especially if we focus on the specific melodic/stylistic material heard at these moments) if not for the fact that the opening of the “B” section (beginning of the third system) starts on E-flat, a harmony which could be understood as functioning as the dominant often heard in more traditional AABA formats. The return to the final “A” is preceded not by its dominant (E-flat) but by its tritone substitution (where we could hear the C#-G tritone pairing as substituting for a more traditional D-flat-G pairing that would be included with an E-flat 7 chord). Finally Zorn seems to suggest a return to A-flat at the end of “Speedfreaks” with the E-flat sonority played by the keyboard in the penultimate block. The expected A-flat never materializes, however, and is replaced, instead, by short “chirping” sounds on Zorn’s sax and Joey Baron’s hi-hat fills. It appears that, with “Speedfreaks,” Zorn treats the generic harmonic aspect of the AABA form as a sort of template that can be manipulated and reconfigured. Still, however, it is this formal constraint (and the harmonies that assist in defining this particular form) that reigns in and guides the overall design of “Speedfreaks” and, in a way, provides the limits or formal prohibitions that the musical surface tries to – but ultimately cannot – break through.

  3. Example 2: Click to enlarge
    A second tune I would like to consider is “Osaka Bondage,” a tune that has been described in some detail by Ellie Hisama (Hisama, “John Zorn” 79-80). Hisama describes “Osaka Bondage,” a tune comprised of noise, thrash/hardcore, and jazz blocks, as a mimetic representation of Torture Garden’s cover art where the “dismemberment of the sonic body is related to the dismemberment of the actual bodies depicted on the CD covers.” Hisama describes “Osaka Bondage” in the following way:
    The sound blocks [of “Osaka Bondage”] proceed from screaming to guitar to sax solo to screaming that evolves into grunting and synthesized lounge music. Some sound blocks are laid out along a common time metric grid, most notably the sections of screaming but also the bass onto which is layered drums and then guitar. Zorn’s saxophone solo, played in his characteristic free improvised style, breaks the metric regularity into chaos; the last block of screaming, which is not in the regular 4/4 meter, is boxed between two blocks of the laid-back, easy-listening style of lounge music that serves as an ironic commentary on the musically transgressive thrash portions of the work. The interspersing of the screaming with smoother styles makes the recurrence of the screams less predictable and subsequently more disturbing. (Hisama, “John Zorn” 79)
    I have reproduced many of the sections Hisama highlights in Example 2.

    Audio Example 2: Naked City, “Osaka Bondage” from Torture Garden (1989) by John Zorn

  4. While there certainly are deviations from a standard 4/4 metric scheme in “Osaka Bondage” (see, for example, the alternating 3/4 and 4/4 measures beginning at 0:33 and, later, between the 0:43-0:50 span), it is not true, as Hisama suggests, that any sort of metric regularity is abandoned. Even in the opening noise section (0:00-0:14) drummer Joey Baron can be heard quickly clicking his sticks establishing/clarifying a continuous 16th-note pulse that underlies the entire tune. I do not wish to dwell on this point but, instead, consider Hisama’s portrayal of the thrash and jazz elements that interact within this tune.

  5. The jazz, or “lounge,” sections of “Osaka Bondage” are heard beginning slightly after the 0:43 second mark (a little more than halfway through the tune) and at the end, commencing at 1:09. These two sections comprise approximately twelve seconds of the tune’s overall length of 1:14. In contrast to these jazz/lounge sections, musical moments that can be described as “hardcore” or “thrash” rock form the bulk of the musical material of “Osaka Bondage:” from 0:15 to 0:42 and again from 0:50 to 1:08. At the same time, these sections project a relatively consistent harmonic center: D. This pitch center is embellished in typical thrash-core fashion with its tritone (A-flat) and lowered scale-degree 2 (E-flat) and emphasized by the fact that both guitars are tuned down a whole-step so as to accommodate this tonal center.

  6. Interestingly, Hisama describes these thrash sections as “musically transgressive,” and while I do not believe she is using the term in as specific a manner as I am (she does not provide any sort of clarification as to what she intends by the phrase), her description is very suggestive. Presumably, Hisama wishes to convey that – because of the emphasis on noise and screaming – these thrash sections transgress what is typically understood as “musical.”38 At the same time, she describes the lounge sections as providing some sort of “ironic commentary” on the thrash sections as if, because of the presence of clearly recognizable harmonies, clear textures, and easy-to-follow rhythmic and metric structures, the lounge sections are more palatable, more accessible, and more “musical.” However, when we consider these competing sections in more detail, we find that the thrash sections are actually more musically stable than the lounge sections. Rather than viewing the thrash sections as functioning in a transgressive manner (where the term is understood in the Bataillean sense I have been describing), it is possible to view the lounge sections as intruding upon the boundaries and limitations imposed by the thrash sections.

  7. For instance, the dissonant guitar chord at 0:43 prepares the listener for the first musical block that can be described as evoking a jazz or lounge style. While it is difficult – if not impossible – to ascribe any sort of tonal significance to this harmony, the A-sharp that sounds in the upper register (along with the E-natural immediately below) creates a strong expectation for resolution. Such a resolution occurs with the entrance of the keyboard solo as the A-sharp resolves up to B, leading us to believe that, because of our deeply-engrained knowledge and familiarity with how dissonances should be resolved in tonal contexts, B will also be established as some sort of tonal center (even momentarily). However, as the keyboard solo continues, the strong-beat arrival on the pitch B is undercut and undermined by the F-sharp minor seventh harmony that supports it. Lacking any harmonic support, the lounge section tries to incorporate music originally associated with the thrash sections, notably the rhythms and alternating metric structures heard at 0:33-0:36. Again, this ploy is unsuccessful as the concluding C-sharp minor seventh harmony (the final chord of the quarter-note triplets) resolves to the thrash section that immediately follows and its familiar D tonal center. The final jazz section beginning at 1:09 finally provides the B tonal center expected earlier, but, because it is the last musical section to occur, it is unable to fully integrate itself within or against the more stable thrash sections that dominate the tune.

  8. These two brief descriptions of “Speedfreaks” and “Osaka Bondage” have attempted to show how Bataillean notions of transgression can be perceived in Zorn’s music and not just the accompanying artwork. Without a doubt, many readers are probably wondering about the value or utility of quasi-formalistic close readings such as those presented above. Given the extremely rapid tempos, for example, do we actually hear any of the pitch/harmonic relations described above? While we might not be able to perceive exactly what is happening in these or other tunes, it is clear that Zorn is concerned with the details associated with the moment-to-moment interactions as well as the large-scale formations described above. In a conversation I had with the composer about the structure and planning of “Speedfreaks,” Zorn described how, in this and other works, “finding the proper sequence to keep the interest and flow is a delicate operation. And crucial … energy, keys, tempos, feels, instrumentation … all these parameters need to be properly balanced [and] unbalanced” (email with author, January 11, 2004).

  9. I do believe that a specific bodily reaction to Zorn’s music signals, at some level, a recognition of the transgressive qualities and processes enacted by these (and other) musical details. Such a reaction, I believe, is laughter. I am not speaking of a sardonic or derisive form of laughter (a laughter at the expense of others) or the laughter that accompanies a joke whose meaning we “get.” Instead, the type of laughter we experience is a type of nervous laughter, a laughter that signals our inability to make sense of situations and determinate meanings can no longer be grasped. This form of laughter occurs, Bataille writes, when we:
    … pass very abruptly, all of a sudden, from a world in which each thing is well qualified, in which each thing is given in its stability, generally in a stable order, to a world in which our assurance is suddenly overthrown, in which we perceive that this assurance is deceptive, and where we believed that everything was strictly anticipated, an unforeseeable and upsetting element appeared unexpectedly from the unforeseeable, that reveals to us in sum a final truth: that superficial appearances conceal a perfect lack of response to our anticipation. (Bataille, “Nonknowledge” 135)

  10. This form of laughter accompanies those moments in Zorn’s music where the unexpected and/or the musically irrational or impossible intrudes upon and disrupts our musical expectations: the extreme tempos and the stop-on-a-dime musical shifts performed by the members of Naked City or the harmonic “swervings” or deflections that often occur between successive musical moments. The laughter these and other moments evoke in the listener is, according to Bataille, the only response possible. “Laughter,” Bataille writes, “leaves behind the areas that are accessible to speech – and starting with its conditions, such a laughter is an undefinable leap. Laughter hangs suspended, it leaves you laughing in suspense … [laughter] doesn’t affirm anything, doesn’t assuage anything” (Bataille, Guilty 101).

  11. Bataillean laughter is a response to the “shock or force” that results from the play of boundaries associated with transgression. Prohibitions must remain in effect for the transgressive act or acts to have any sort effect on the experiencing subject(s). Therefore, “Laughter is a leap from possible to impossible and from impossible to possible. But it’s only a leap. To maintain this leap would be to reduce impossible to possible or the other way around” (Bataille, Guilty 101).39 Zorn’s music, the accompanying artwork, and the interaction between the two create an unstable space where we are confronted with the seemingly impossible, unthinkable, or unimaginable. This transgressive space exists only for a moment (consider the short lengths of Naked City’s tunes); yet, the effect of these transgressive acts remains for much longer as we try to re-establish the sense of stability that has been displaced by the experience of a vertiginous instability that characterizes nonknowledge.


  12. That the images included on Zorn’s CD covers and liner notes are complex is beyond any doubt. The complexity derives, in part, from the fact that these images are stripped from their original contexts – the complete manga or entire film as well as the knowledge of Fu Chou Li’s crime and punishment – and are seemingly re-presented as independent and self-contained depictions of various acts. At the same time, the re-contextualization of these images in relation to Zorn’s music adds new layers of interpretive complexity, where the music and images can be understood as existing in some sort of mimetic relationship (where the music is heard as a “sonic analogue” to the graphic images and the “real” violence they depict) or, following the Bataillean perspective outlined above, as representations of transgressive acts that open up, contest, and momentarily merge the separate spaces assumed by the mimetic interpretation.

  13. From a purely theoretical standpoint, the Bataillean perspective offers greater explanatory power in that it enables us to situate and “make sense of” other images included on Zorn’s CD covers and liner notes from around this same time (images not discussed by Zorn’s critics). Focusing on the Naked City recordings, Heretic, Jeux des Dames Cruelles (1992) reproduces photos from Serge Nazarieff’s collection of historic erotic photography; Grand Guignol (1992) uses photos from the “Dr. Stanley R. Burns Collection of Historic Medical Photographs” and a manga by Suehiro Maruo; Radio (1993) uses photographs by Man Ray, and Absinthe, the band’s final studio recording (1993), features hand-colored photographs from Hans Bellmer’s The Doll (from 1935).40 When we consider the artwork from this period as a whole, what emerges is a much larger project whereby Zorn interrogates the boundaries of fantasy and reality, homogeneity and heterogeneity, and the fluid and permeable boundaries that exist between meaning and non-meaning, knowledge and nonknowledge.

  14. At the same time, the Bataillean perspective allows us to situate Zorn’s music and musical poetics within certain practices, principles, and aims common to many of the major avant-garde movements of the twentieth-century. For example, the constant interrogation of discursive, cultural, and societal boundaries was a major premise of, for example, the Dadaists’ “anti-art” as well as the varied practices, artists, and thinkers associated with Surrealism. Like Zorn, many artists associated with these and other movements aimed to shock viewers with their artworks, often resorting to extreme images of violence and/or sexuality. Thus, as Susan Rubin Suleiman has noted, it was with these avant-garde movements – movements so influential to Zorn’s own musical thought – that a “metaphoric equivalence between the violation of sexual taboos and the violation of discursive norms … became fully elaborated” (Suleiman 74).

  15. With this move, sexually explicit or violent visual representations are understood as metaphors for certain forms of linguistic or discursive violence (écriture) as described by theorists such as Barthes and Derrida. Suleiman, again, writes how écriture:
    … is precisely that element of discursive practice which exceeds the traditional boundaries of meaning, of unity, of representation; and just as for Bataille the experience of transgression was indissociable from a consciousness of the boundaries it violated, so the practice of écriture was indissociable from a consciousness of the discursive and logical rules, the system of prohibitions and exclusions that made meaning, unity, and representation possible but that the play of écriture constantly subverted. (Suleiman 76)
    If we allow for an écriture of discursive and logical musical rules, we recognize the transgressive aims of practices of Zorn’s music and musical poetics described in the preceding section.

  16. There is a potential “blind spot” to this way of reading. If the graphic images such as those that appear with Zorn’s CDs are conceived of and treated as signifiers for a deeper, more general metaphor of linguistic and discursive violence, is it even possible to recognize, talk about, or confront those images that depict actual scenes of violence, racism, misogyny, or hatred? In other words, does the transgressive interpretive model described above in relation to Zorn and Bataille preclude the possibility that the re-presentation of particular images might actually reflect certain beliefs or wishes of an individual or group? Without any sort of consensus as to standards or restrictions (elements that would seem to undermine the entire transgressive project itself), it would appear that there is not and that it is impossible for viewers to distinguish between a range of photographs, artworks, films, or forms of literature that may be considered erotic or that include violent scenes as part of their specific aims or unfolding narratives and those that seem to glorify brutal forms of violence, sexuality, and cruelty.41 If this is the case, then a transgressive perspective ultimately arrives at a similarly extreme (though negated) interpretation of such images as does the “image as speech act” model described in the sections on the reception of Zorn’s images in America and Japan. Whereas an extreme version of the “image as speech act” model denies the possibility that these images can mean anything other than what they re-present (actual, real forms of violence), the transgressive perspective would seem to deny the possibility that real violence has any meaning outside of an imagined textual or discursive frames. By pursuing each of these ways of reading to their logical conclusions, we arrive at equally untenable and ultimately irreconcilable positions. In short, we have arrived at the extremes of rational, homogeneous thought and stand precariously on the edge of non-meaning.

  17. At one level, the perceived resonances between Zorn’s music and the accompanying artwork reflect his intention in creating a coherent “total package” informed by the thought (not to mention writing style) of Georges Bataille and other writers and thinkers who have explored the places and functions of violence in society, culture, and art.42 However, the re-presentation of images depicting torture, violence, and S/M practices have since forced their way beyond the immediate context of Zorn’s recordings and have entered a larger debate, a debate on the ways such images can be read or understood. Interestingly, when these de-contextualized images are viewed and debated according to either the “image as speech act” or transgressive models, Zorn’s original artistic intention is extended and developed. “Those areas of human experience hidden in the gaps between pain + pleasure, life + death, horror + ecstasy” that Zorn claims are explored in his CDs now becomes an exploration into the hidden gaps and limits associated with certain modes of reading. For instance, whether Suehiro Maruo’s manga indicates an extreme hatred towards women or is the product of his own artistic fantasy or imagination, or if the images of S/M practices are viewed as deviant or abnormal sex acts instead of a form of sexual expression preferred by some individuals, or, finally, if the images of Fu Chou Li’s execution are understood as a glorification of torture or (as Bataille does) an extreme form of sovereign subjectivity, they cannot be satisfactorily resolved according to either the “image as speech act” or transgressive forms of reading described above and the diverse social realities and individual fantasies that we bring to these readings.

  18. It is probably clear to most readers that the form of the present essay reflects the types of theoretical difficulties I have been describing. That is, rather than defending or condemning a particular interpretation of the images that appear on Zorn’s CDs, I have chosen to highlight the types of incongruities and limitations associated with a variety of reading strategies. For some readers, my position might be understood as a “cop-out.” In my opinion, however, to suggest any sort of over-arching conclusion regarding the meanings of these images – on their own or in relation to Zorn’s music – would undermine the very notions of discursive instability and semantic indeterminacy they are designed to elicit in viewers/listeners. In this regard, I understand the form of this essay as embodying and enacting the very complexities and uncertainties that Zorn forces us to engage with and confront when considering his music, the accompanying artwork, and the interactions between the two.

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38 It is also possible to read her remarks as a not-so-veiled dismissal of thrash music in general. It is outside the scope of the present essay to consider any possible value judgments she may or may not hold regarding this or similarly related genres of rock music.

39 Emphasis in original.

40 While these images are, in terms of their depictions of violence and sexuality, just as graphic as those accompanying Torture Garden and Leng Tch’e (i.e. Man Ray’s photographs of a bound woman wearing a leather (or rubber) suit and mask, medical photos of decapitated heads and heaps of severed body parts, etc.), they have not been subjected to the same type of scrutiny. This is due, perhaps, to the fact that the women and men shown in these images are Caucasian and not Asian and/or the sources of these images (Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, etc.) have, in various ways, been “legitimized” by the academy (through their relations with Surrealism). In other words, even if the images have the capacity to cause offense, their “real meaning” is much “deeper” and abstract, a luxury that is not afforded to the Japanese-based images.

41 Here I am thinking of certain Japanese films released as part of the “Guinea Pig” (ginpiggu) series. In at least two of the films released in this series (The Devil’s Experiment and Flowers of Flesh and Blood), the filmmakers attempt to recreate the contents of actual snuff films. In support of the “image as speech act” model described in the body of this essay, it is worth pointing out that copies of these and other films were found in the possession of Miyazaki Tsutomu, a serial killer who tortured and killed at least four young Japanese girls from 1988 to 1989.

42 In the liner notes to Grand Guignol, Zorn identifies (among many others) the Marquis de Sade, Edgar Allen Poe, Salvador Dalí, Alfred Hitchcock, Hermann Nitsch, and Bataille. (Liner notes to Naked City, Grand Guignol, n.p.).

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