Books on music: the Arcana series

I've been meaning to start some reviews of a few books I consider essential toward an understanding of modern music ("modern" being defined pretty loosely as 20th C. to now).  For me, the most essential books on music are the Arcana series, currently up to Volume V, edited by John Zorn.

In 2000, I was visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and just before leaving, I took a quick walk through the gift shop.  The first volume of Arcana had just been released, and it was published by Granary Books, a publisher that mostly handles artists' books that are sold through museum gift shops.  And this gift shop had a clever little display for Arcana that I happened to notice on my way out.  As a long time Zorn and NYC Downtown Scene fan, I couldn't believe my luck.  For me, 2000 was still a little on the "pre-internet" side of my life--maybe more accurately the "dialup connection occasionally at other peoples' houses" period of my life--and I doubt I would have heard about the book's availability through my old channels before it was sold out. 

I bought my copy and probably read it 10 times over the next few months.  Many of my favorite musicians and composers had their own essays: Mike Patton, Marc Ribot, David Shea, Bob Ostertag, Eyvind Kang, Bill Frisell, Anthony Coleman, Fred Frith, and many more.  And there were essays by lots of folks whom I knew by name only, or not at all, but the essays made me curious about all of their work: Scott Johnson, Z'EV, and John Oswald are three of my favorites whose work I investigated after reading the first Arcana.  Conveniently, the back of the book featured brief bios and recommended listening lists for each artist with an essay featured in the book.  Again, this being essentially a pre-internet period for me, there weren't yet opportunities to stream or sample any of this music online.  I started buying my way through the listening lists and loving every minute of it.  

As Zorn mentions in the first volume's introduction, the NYC downtown scene was incredibly under-represented in both popular and academic music journalism.  I became a big fan of Zorn's Naked City band in high school, but I don't ever remember reading anything about Zorn or the rest of the downtown folks back then.  As a sheltered Midwestern kid, I stumbled onto the whole scene via one little phrase that appeared in a Guitar World magazine in '90 or '91.  Bill Frisell was mentioned as being a creative, innovative guitarist who also played in "John Zorn's madcap band Naked City" or something to that effect.  I ordered a Naked City disc from my tiny local music store on the strength of that one phrase, and found myself totally hooked.  The only other connection to that scene I remember any friends finding at that time was that Zorn was listed as producer on the s/t Mr. Bungle album, and that record made it to small-town Nebraska probably only because it was marketed by Warner and because of the relative popularity of Faith No More around that time.

I spent the rest of high school and college trolling for more NYC downtown scene discs, both Zorn's work and other stuff that came out on the Avant label, and later the Tzadik label.  (I never told my parents this, but I saved my lunch money in high school to spend on music--I got a lot of popular cassettes that way, but I also ordered a fair share of those pricy Avant Japanese imports!)  To my ears, you can really hear the downtown scene of the 80s and 90s as both a source and a reinterpretation of all of the other music being played in those decades.  The classical/new-music world, jazz, pop, metal, world music, various electronica/sampler/turntablist approaches: everything is in that music.  Yet even in music school, I found that only a small handful of students and only one instructor had much familiarity with the scene.  I loved the music on its own, but as a student, I was craving the bigger context for the whole scene.  I sure wish Arcana would have been published five years sooner.

Since nobody else was stepping up to document this music, the scene tried to remedy the situation by documenting itself through the first volume of Arcana.  Though it's difficult to cover at least 2 decades of musical activity including hundreds of participants in only 30 essays, I think Arcana did a wonderful job.  The only thing lacking was...more of the same!  Seven years later, even that issue was addressed with the publication of Arcana II.  When Arcana III appeared a year after that in 2008, I was elated that such an essential document was expanding into a full series.

The Arcana series is up to five volumes now, and hopefully more are on the way--they've been annual since 2007, and hopefully we'll see a sixth volume before the end of this year.  It's difficult to "review" such a large body of essays, covering so much music, but here are at least a few highlights:

--not only are musicians of the "downtown scene" proper documented in the series, but other musicians from the West Coast and all over the world make appearances, too.  Most folks have worked with downtown scene people at some point in their careers, but the narrative arc of the series over volumes really serves to document how this music has both come from and spread to the rest of the world.

--while earlier volumes mostly documented the folks who were essentially the founders of the downtown scene in the late 70s and throughout the 80s, later volumes have included material from younger voices who continue to carry the torch for this music.  And of course there are also essays throughout the series from folks whose work in the 60s and 70s was foundational for the downtown scene.  Zorn's record label, Tzadik, also curates the scene from these multiple generational perspectives, and I find it comforting to know that both the music and ideas behind it are being preserved with so much care.

--each included essay is presented with the unique style and perspective of its author, so one can expect an incredibly wide variety of subjects and writing approaches throughout each volume.  Though some essays include relatively technical information and might be most interesting to musicians who read music or have fairly deep musical (and spiritual) backgrounds, there truly is something for almost ever music lover in every volume.  You can dig as deep as you'd like.

--a lot of anthology-format books like this tend to include a lot of academic/journalist essays.  In contrast, the Arcana series is primary source stuff.  You can read about the interests and obsessions behind this music directly from the people who make it.  No hidden academic agendas, stretched interpretations, or oversimplifications here.

--each volume has at least 30 essays, and you'll probably want to do some serious listening after diving into this material.  The Recommended Listening section at the back of each volume is a great place to begin your journey if you find any contributor's work particularly compelling.  Volume V doesn't include this list, but it's also a "special edition" that focuses on some of the mystical/spiritual drives behind this music.  The first four volumes go into those areas as contributors need, but the overall focus is on cultural/emotional/aesthetic/technical issues surrounding the music.

I really can't recommend the Arcana series highly enough.  With each volume, my understanding of and love for the downtown scene grows by leaps and bounds.  And there are always new or new-to-me contributors featured, which keep me happily ordering more life-changing music year after year.  If you want to start reading about uncompromising music directly from the people who make it, the Arcana series is the essential place to begin.

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