Structural Dissonance in John Zorn’s “Spillane”

“The overhanging sonorities, as one section bleeds to the next, help give my pieces a sense of unity; you can almost feel the sections growing out of one another. It is much more organic that way, and so, easier to listen to.” – John Zorn, Spillane liner notes

“As for the listener, ultimately the most subjective response is the best response. Eventually, total subjectivity becomes total objectivity. That’s the way I see the world.” -Zorn



Perhaps the most interesting thing about music from the past hundred years is the expansive diversity of styles, genres, and independent voices that have emerged.  It is virtually impossible to organize various trends in music from this past century like musicologists have done with each preceding century without using the broadest of brushes.  However, regardless of specific end results that each composer achieves, there are some general musical concepts that most either confront directly or react against.  Arguably the most vital of these concepts is that of dissonance.

This is a concept that has evolved throughout music history – after all, what seemed dissonant to Mozart would be relatively consonant to Wagner.  Yet the climax of composers’ willingness to embrace all facets of dissonance seems to have begun around the advent of the 20th century.  Composers including Schoenberg and Ives had, in their own unique ways, obliterated a sense of harmonic and melodic tonal center that had previously just been blurred.  And for the first time, rhythmic consonance was also being seriously challenged, most notably by Stravinsky and Cowell.

One thing that united all examples of dissonance up to (and including) examples from these early 20th century composers is that all aspects of dissonance had been perceived on local levels.  In other words, dissonance was something that happened immediately over a given moment in time and not something that only gradually became noticeably over the span of an entire piece.  This makes sense, as dissonance at its core requires a listener to perceive two or more incongruent elements simultaneously.  However, more recent composers have started to explore other outlets of clash that are more abstract and global.  By maintaining relative harmonic consonance and yet challenging notions of cohesion across entire sections of music – what I refer to as “structural dissonance” – composers have discovered new ways to circumvent people’s expectations, and there is no stronger example of this than John Zorn’s “Spillane.”

***Modernism vs. Postmodernism***

This shift in the perception of dissonance reflects the aesthetics of two prominent movements from the past century: modernism vs. postmodernism.  An in-depth comparison between these two genres is well beyond the scope of this discussion, but to speak generally, composers in the former camp tended to consciously alienate the general public, while those of the latter sought to engage their audience.  Of course, this will not always hold true, but this accounts for each genre’s approach to dissonance.

What is unique about postmodernism – both in music and other art forms – is that there is no strict set of characteristics or aesthetic qualities that can be found in a majority of the example that fit under its umbrella.  For example, composers who tend to value extreme density like Carter, Xenakis, and Berio, and minimalist composers who tend to embrace clarity like Glass, Reich, and Riley, would seem to be on polar opposite ends of the artistic spectrum.  Yet all of these figures have been labeled as postmodernists.  Regarding Zorn’s second quote at the top, postmodern composers all seemed to place great emphasis on their listeners’ subjective responses to their music, whatever those may be.  This is not to say that modernist composers did not want a subjective response from their listeners, but they likely did not care as much about what that was.

In the article “The Nature and Origins of Musical Postmodernism”, Jonathan Kramer lists 16 general tenets/values (some of which will be highlighted momentarily) that are consistently demonstrated in music considered to be from this genre, but he still qualifies this extensive list with the caveat these are neither exclusive nor all-inclusive.  For example, Zorn’s “Spillane” possesses several of these qualities of postmodern music, although it certainly does not satisfy all of them.  A couple that are particularly telling, though, are numbers four & five, which are “challenges barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low’ styles” and “shows disdain for the often unquestioned value of structural unity,” respectively.  The piece’s adherence to the latter is particularly significant for this discussion, as its structural dissonance is easily its most defining aspect.

***Background on “Spillane”***

“Spillane,” which was released in 1987, is composed of approximately 40 distinct sections (possibly a few more or a few less depending on how the very small transitional sections are analyzed), and a substantial majority of these last for one minute or less.  Each section has its own distinct sound world, including greasy blues, country, salsa, and aleatoric passages that are can be either docile or demonic (or occasionally both).  And while some general styles return in later sections, virtually none of these short vignettes share any concrete elements with any other sections.  At just over 25 minutes in length, “Spillane” is an incredibly overwhelming undertaking, especially in its initial hearing.

Although there are few concrete connections between sections, Zorn unified all parts of the piece by abstractly linking them to the crime novels (and subsequent films) of Mickey Spillane and his protagonist, Mike Hammer.  As with much of Zorn’s works, to say that he composed the music is perhaps not disingenuous, but at the very least it misses the point.  After extensively researching Spillane’s work, Zorn wrote down a number of ideas for short musical scenes on a series of filing cards.  (Filing cards? That is so 80’s.)  An example of one card’s instructions is ‘Opening scream. Route 66 intro starting with a high hat, then piano, strings, harp’.  According to Zorn’s liner notes for this album, “each card relates to some aspect of Spillane’s work, his world, his characters, his ideology.”  Through diligent scrutiny, Zorn determined the exact instrumentation and personnel with whom he wanted to work.  After arranging his cards in an order that made sense, he and these musicians (he also plays alto saxophone and clarinet on it) would improvise material based on each card’s instructions, recording multiple takes until they found the right sound.

Understanding the process Zorn used in “Spillane’s” recording helps to illuminate why there is so little concrete connection between sections.  Because so little was actually written down, it would be nearly impossible to improvise identical passages throughout the recording process, even when the same musicians might be improvising within a similar style.  What is also enlightening about this is that there is still an embedded foundation supporting the whole piece.  Further listenings reveal that more abstract musical connections still exist in spite of the absence of any sort of motivic development, which supports the notion that everything relates to a general theme.  The use of spoken word is a consistent theme (found in #2, 5, 7, and several others), as is the consistent use of heavy, resonant reverb.  Even the radical juxtapositions of style and disparate sound worlds becomes its own expected pattern after awhile.  These also explain Zorn’s first quote at the top regarding “overhanging sonorities,” as the amalgam of sound worlds can only make sense through these abstract connections.  Zorn is not refuting his use of structural dissonance here; he is merely asserting that his use of abstract connection allows for these wildly distinct sections to develop organically.

Still, the lack of specific musical development over a piece of this length is highly unusual, and this speaks directly to postmodern music’s intentional disregard for structural unity and, by extension, the concept of structural dissonance.  Perceiving dissonance on a global level is similar to hearing harmonic dissonance in that the ear becomes so overwhelmed by the magnitude of distinct musical elements that it can only register what is happening as chaos.  The difference is that harmonic dissonance is more immediate because it generally happens simultaneously, whereas structural dissonance only occurs temporally.  This is somewhat analogous to the differences in manipulation of object and perspective in Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 and Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (seen below).  The former creates intense images that are immediately distorted, while the latter generally uses very clear imagery that is only perceived as distorted when compared to the audience’s preconceived notion of what these objects are.



Of course, a well-trained ear will not hear dissonance as chaos in the same than a casual listener might.  A major seventh interval is not just a clash, but a rather a specific sound with its own unique aesthetic quality.  The same goes for very dense harmony.  This is true especially in jazz music, where altered upper-extension harmonies are somewhat common and used to achieve a specific effect.  Really, though, this speaks to why composers continue to pursue dissonance: they do not necessarily hope to shatter boundaries of harmony and structure, they instead hope to expand the limits of what their audience perceives as art by challenging their aesthetic values.

***“Spillane’s” Form***

When reviewing the distinct sections in “Spillane” from the basic form chart I created (which includes descriptions that are made to emulate the instructions that Zorn may have written on his filing cards, though I do not know what his instructions said exactly), a few things stick out.  First, and as I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of sections.  I make no claim that these represent Zorn’s exact number of filing cards, as some distinct ideas were so short that they became assimilated into the section before or after them.  Regardless, it is very unusual to have so many unique sections without any sort of large-scale form emerging throughout them.  Most compositions, even more modern ones, have some sort of simplified large-scale form (ternary, rondo, AABA, etc.), but the given chart really does show the lowest common factor here.

Furthermore, only 6 of the 41 sections I have analyzed sustain ideas longer than a minute (#1, 12, 26, 34, 39, 41), and most of the rest are closer to 30 seconds in length.  Not only are ideas not developed throughout the piece, most are not really even developed in full within their own section.  Many parts sound as if they either start after they had already begun or end before they have come to their conclusion, as if the listener is scrolling down their radio dial trying to find something to listen to.  For example, section #23 features a blues progression that ends halfway through the second chorus instead of waiting until the end of the form.

This complete lack of focus and warm embrace of society’s ADHD tendencies fits nicely into the postmodern ethos, and it is also the aspect of the piece most accountable for creating its sense of structural dissonance.  The listener becomes so inundated with independent musical ideas that it is quite difficult to remember where the music came from or anticipate where it is heading.  The same chaos that exists simultaneously in a single instance for harmonic dissonance is now sustained over a substantial duration of time.  While structural dissonance does not possess the same immediacy as harmonic dissonance, it achieves the same general effect by instilling a challenging and disorienting experience for the listener.

Another obvious observation from the form chart is that there is a general alternation of types of sections, where a section built off groove-based material (in blue font) is followed by more ambient, transitional material (in green font).  Closer scrutiny of each section then reveals that while there are these two basic types of sections, the content of each section is vividly unique.  Transitional sections often employ the use of ambient sounds, but these use a wide variety of sounds and instruments that range from traditional instruments like synths and strings to aleatoric sounds like thunder and trains.  Many of these sections also feature spoken word (which helps lend an explicit connection to Spillane’s crime novels), but text is never repeated, and sometimes different voices are used.

Groove-based sections are equally widespread, spanning a wide gamut of styles that covers classical (#11), jazz (#1), pop (#13), and world (#34) genres.  The most prevalent sound is that of a piano jazz trio, but even though this group usually plays some sort of swing groove, it never repeats the same idea.  Multiple sections use similar styles, including brisk swing grooves (#1, 17, 40) or heavy blues grooves (#3, 15), but the specific content within each is unique.  Because Zorn seems to have written very little (if any) specific musical material, opting instead for providing musicians with vague subjective instructions, he is consciously looking to subvert conventions of repetition and development.  Zorn is only interested with abstract connections to his non-musical subject, and this helps create the sense of disconnect listeners experience when being jettisoned across this veritable all-you-can-eat-buffet of musical styles.

This blurring of styles and genres is another vital component of postmodern music, and it also contributes to this period’s tendency towards structural dissonance.  This trait exists because two things have developed concurrently since the height of modernism: “serious” composers have increasingly sought to distance themselves from audience and “lower” styles alike, and more styles have emerged that are also accessible to more people.  Not coincidentally, the latter has developed along with technology, which above all else fosters improved communication and spread of information globally.  Postmodern composers have reconciled these by actually welcoming the lower styles of music into their writing (including popular music), and they invite them to cohabitate with classical styles.  Because there is such a vivid aural disconnect with these styles, the juxtaposition of them will naturally be jarring, thus resulting in the sensation of structural dissonance.

Like many of its contemporary examples, “Spillane” seeks to challenge its audience’s aesthetic values by introducing elements of chaos.  Interestingly, though, Zorn uses very little harmonic dissonance throughout the piece (also a tenet of postmodernism, and a direct reaction to modernism), and most of the local dissonance he achieves comes through either extreme dynamics or unusual timbral combinations (for example, the bullets and shattering glass sounds that occur in section #4 or the trombone/piano/drum outbursts heard in #31).  Instead, Zorn achieves this by guiding his listener through a perpetually interrupted yet abstractly unified journey across many styles of music, resulting in dissonance that only occurs on a global level. Perhaps Zorn’s strongest musical asset is his deep and profound admiration of all genres, and as “Spillane” demonstrates, his tastes reflect the diversity of his time.



3 thoughts on “Structural Dissonance in John Zorn’s “Spillane”

  1. Hi, really thank you for this post! I’m trying to listen to Zorn’s music from a more well-aware point of view, not relying only on my personal feelings but by learning the background and the ideas of the songs before and after listening to them. Unfortunately I’m getting hard times in founding analysis good as yours, even worse in my native language.
    So, if you don’t mind, can you suggest me some books or some other references that may be useful to my cause?

    Thank you,

    1. Alessio,

      Thank you for your interest, and I’m glad you’re also taking a critical approach to Zorn’s music. One of the challenges with analyzing and interpreting newer music is that there isn’t a lot of scholarly writing on it available. One book that helped turn me onto postmodern music (and, in turn, Zorn) was “Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought.” It is a collection of essays on various aspects of postmodern art and music by various authors, and it was edited by Judy Lockhead and Joseph Auner. A couple of articles specific to Zorn’s music can be found at the links I’ll list below, and hopefully you can have access to those.

      Thanks again!

      1. Hi,
        I’m only reading now – after four months – since I haven’t got any notification of your answer! Thank you for your reply: I’ll sure check your links and information, adding them to other volumes I’ve got in the meanwhile!

        Thank you,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *