I’ve paid a little attention to what I call post-structuralist forms of music here lately, especially free jazz and No Wave. What those have in common is a critique of the accepted forms of genres of music, and an intentional rebellion against the conventions of those forms.
Post-structuralism in general has a number of different dimensions. The most important of these dimensions is the ethical, and that has perhaps best been expressed by Michel Foucault, whose philosophy was concerned with identifying and challenging the connection between knowledge and power, which he called “power-knowledge.” Most of us have heard the maxim “knowledge is power.” This, of course, means that as one accumulates knowledge, one also accumulates power. It is usually employed to attempt to persuade wayward students to stay in school, and has absolutely nothing in common with Foucault’s “power-knowledge.”
For Foucault, it isn’t “knowledge is power,” but rather “power is knowledge.” That is, in any given situation, what passes as knowledge is what has been deemed as knowledge by powerful social, political, and economic interests. Whoever has power decides what counts as knowledge, and tramples on what Foucault identified as “subjugated ways of knowing.”
This leads to a critique of the structures of knowledge, by saying that common phrases like “everybody knows” points not to some kind of certain knowledge, but rather to whatever way of knowing is least threatening to entrenched powers. This is one kind of post-structuralism: to say that structures serve the interests of those who wield power over the vast majority of people, and impose as knowledge those ideas that they deem least threatening to their stranglehold on power.
This has some implications in music, especially, perhaps, in rock music. Punk, after all, isn’t just musical anarchy. It is often also the soundtrack to political anarchy, challenging not only the way that popular music can be composed and performed, but also all sorts of other informal and formal prohibitions on thought and expression. In punk, whatever it is that any power would have you do, you do the opposite.
But not all post-structural forms have such an overt political content. Some are principally concerned with the aesthetics. The dictates of form and genre are, thus, not morally wrong or politically limiting, they are simply bad for art. Free jazz, in general, strikes me as such an example. The dictates of form limit the ways in which artists can express themselves, so, for artistic reasons, some artists shrug off those limits, and in doing so challenge the very form that imposed the limit, as a way of furthering artistic expression.
But there’s also a spiritual component to post-structural forms. When I think of that, I can’t help but think of the Zen notion of the emptiness of form.
One of the many kinds of sacred literature in Buddhism is a class of texts called Prajñāpāramitā (or “perfection of wisdom”) sutras. Included in this class of texts are such famous sutras as the Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya) and the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra). To the extent that the Zen form of Buddhism has intellectual underpinnings, these are it.
Both of these sutras, like all Prajñāpāramitā sutras, focus on (to steal from myself, in my previous life as a religion blogger) the elimination of all attachments. This is achieved by recognizing the emptiness of all things. In this, Prajñāpāramitā sutras do not differ from anything else in Buddhism. Where they turn previous expressions of Buddhism on their respective heads, however, is in what follows from this: If all things are empty, all dharmas (teachings, or ideas) must also be empty, even bodhidharma, the teachings of the Buddha.
This understanding of the emptiness of ideas and forms ultimately boils down, in my understanding, anyway, to a critique of convention. Any idea – no matter how good it may be – is just somebody else’s idea. Any form is just how somebody else thought things should be. This is all well and good, but you should never mistake it for more than what it is: just what other people think, just what other people agree on. This is no substitute for your own experience, which, if you are fully mindful, fully present in the moment, has primacy for you over what others may think.
This leads to the famous (and confusing) Zen precept: “If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” The Buddha, here, represents the teachings of the Buddha, all the ideas of and about the Buddha. Even they don’t belong in some special class that has some arbitrary authority over your own experience. So, if you’re attached to even the Buddha, you’d better be willing even to kill the Buddha (symbolically, of course) in order to sever that attachment. Because even the Buddha is just another person, and even the teachings of the Buddha are just a set of ideas that somebody else had.
That’s not just Zen; it’s also punk. And it leads me to today’s artist, who exists in a number of musical genres while challenging the very concept of genre: John Zorn.
Before I say anything about the life, career, and music of Zorn, let me offer up one of his more accessible pieces of music, just to prove that when he busts out of the confines of musical convention, he isn’t doing it because he’s just making shit up to mask a lack of conventional ability. Here’s one of his groups, Bar Kokhba, performing his composition, “Gevurah”:
But, as interesting as that piece is, I wouldn’t be writing about John Zorn if all his work sounded like that. There are many, many other aspects to his composition and performance.
To get some idea of just how prolific and diverse his work has been, check out this comprehensive discography, put together by Patrice Roussel. I can’t bring myself to count all of the entries, but Wikipedia tells me that there are over 400 of them.
His work ranges from free jazz and avante garde to hard core, punk, and experiments with electronic noise, with bop, pop, and classical in between.
Here’s a video of him playing with his famous punk outfit, Naked City. Notice especially his experiments with noise on the saxophone, taking Gil Evans’ experiments with the range of various instruments to their most extreme conclusion:
Here’s one of his experiments in hardcore with Naked City (which also featured noted jazz guitarist Bill Frisell); part of a series they did based on torture scenes in horror movies:
Within a more traditional jazz framework – though still bursting with experimentation – is his group Masada, which aims to combine Ornette Coleman’s free jazz with Jewish scales:
If you’re interested is music that tests the limits not only of any particular genre, but even of sound itself, I could not more highly recommend the music of John Zorn. I’ve already spilled more than a thousand words here, and there are many more spilled on his music throughout the Internet by those who know it much better than I do. So, I’ll leave you with this: Check this dude out!