Orientalism in John Zorn’s
Forbidden Fruit and Torture Garden
By Steve Wilson
Wichita State University
Racist! Misogynist! Asiophile! Such heated rhetoric could be found in many
publications throughout the United States, all talking about saxophonist and composer
John Zorn. Asian Americans summarily condemned Zorn and his use of Japanese erotic
art, and a national scandal ensued. Though controversial I believe that Zorn’s use of
orientalism in these works presents a truthful view of Japan that doesn’t reduce Japanese
culture to a jumble of non-functional signifiers, as is sometimes the case with multi-
national postmodernism. This paper will examine two of Zorn’s postmodern works that
deal directly with orientalism musically, visually, and textually. The two works selected,
Torture Garden and Forbidden Fruit, have outraged many, but also contain very original
music with a unique perspective on the darker side of Japanese culture.
Since Edward Said coined the term in Orientalism (1978),1 it has been applied to
many aspects of society, philosophy, and culture. In a basic sense, it deals with the
representation of the orient (Near, Middle, and Far East) by the West in everything from
politics to art. Apropos music, one can see a great number of works, both pre- and post-
1978 exhibiting oriental traits, some more explicit than others. Because music is an
inherently abstract method of communication, purely musical elements that evoke the
orient are somewhat limited: we have the use of traditional oriental scales, such as the
pentatonic; exotic instruments, such as the koto of Japan, or the zarb of Persia; and the
use of folk song, as composers such as Bartók explore. There are also extra-musical
methods of evoking the orient; the foremost being the textual, which could consist of a
program note, a traditional poem recited as part of the work, the narrative of an opera, or
1 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).
simply a title. While one may contend that the recitation of a poem or text during a work
could constitute a musical element, it seems that the importance is on the language and
the sound of the foreign tongue rather than the element of melody in the voice. In the case
of opera, there is also the visual aspect—costumes, dance, and set design all play an
important role in evoking the orient. Later in the twentieth century recordings gained
popularity and added another visual aspect to orientalism, namely the cover art. While
some works may contain each of these elements, many works employ few, or only one of
The largest issue of orientalism is the motive of the composer choosing to evoke
the orient. Specifically, is the composer showing proper respect, or exploiting the
culture? Some composers simply wish to expand their color palette, others assimilate it
into their own culture, and others leave the unique aspects of the culture intact. For a
composer such as George Crumb, who deals extensively in odd sounds and extended
techniques, the orient provides a cornucopia of different instruments, timbres, and colors.
A work such as Music for a Summer Evening uses Japanese temple bells, African log
drum and African thumb piano, Chinese wood blocks, Tibetan prayer stones, and many
other exotic instruments of a non-Western origin. The plurality of his instrument
selection indicates that he isn’t trying to present some clear concept of a specific culture,
but rather is using them in a more-or-less arbitrary fashion simply because they present
unusual sounds to Western audiences. Steve Reich’s Tehillim exemplifies the second
category as it deals with Hebrew Psalms and Middle Eastern rhythms while using Reich’s
own Western techniques of layering and jazzy chords. This presents an interesting and
thoughtful use of non-Western material and creates a novel synthesis of Eastern and
Western art. The third category can be clearly seen in John Zorn’s work. His artwork and
texts present certain aspects of oriental culture free from a Western influence.
Frequently, it is evident that the creation of an orientalist work requires no actual
knowledge of the orient, as a working knowledge of oriental signifiers is sufficient.
Umberto Eco amusingly illustrates this point in his essay “How to Play Indians,”2 a
satirical examination of the generic clichés found in westerns written so that Native
Americans playing themselves in a film will behave as expected. Frequently, composers
borrow from the orient rather indiscriminately. Surely, a Korean listening to John
Chance’s Variations on a Korean Folk Song would be surprised to learn that Chinese
temple blocks figure so prominently in their folk tradition.
The composers may genuinely misunderstand the culture they attempt to
represent, they may be willfully ignorant or lazy, or they may simply not care.
Regardless, there is very little pressure from audiences for them to ‘get it right’. An opera
composer can insert widely recognized, but widely misunderstood elements—a white-
faced actress, small black eyebrows, a kimono, a paper fan—and the audience
understands that the composer means to evoke Japan, or China, or Korea, or Taiwan,
which ever the particular audience member thinks of first. These are all elements of
Japanese Noh Theater, but the majority of the audience may not understand this, so is it
really necessary for the composer to go to the trouble of actually understanding the
culture he or she wishes to represent? I’m sure there are a multitude of Japanese people
who would argue that their culture is important and a Westerner shouldn’t confusedly
plunder their heritage.
2 Umberto Eco, "How to Play Indians," In How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays
(New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1994).
Thus, because of the many hazards found in the use of orientalism, composers
must be assiduous in their efforts to accurately and respectfully represent a different
culture. Although composer’s intent may be far from malicious, he or she may fail
nonetheless in the representation of an actual, specific culture resulting in a
Baudrillardian simulacrum, or in Borgesian terms, “a chaos of appearances.”3
When examining orientalism in a composer such as Zorn, one must take into
account the influence of postmodernism. The effect of Lyotard’s “incredulity towards
meta-narratives”,4 continues to spur many interesting changes in the musical world.
Although frequently misunderstood, postmodernism presents an array of interesting
concepts. A distrust of hegemonies and recognition of the Other, fundamental to the
philosophy of postmodernism, is a positive trend for oriental countries because they can
finally take their place in a musical history previously ruled by the elite, educated, white
Anglo-Saxon protestants. Because pluralism is, in some cases, a consequent of
incorporating the Other, it can be both a positive and a negative concept depending on the
necessarily subjective perspective of the critic. A composer like Crumb, who borrows
rather indiscriminately from many cultures within the same piece, can be innovative for
cohesion within heterogeneity, or he can be a wrecker of cultural distinction, depending
upon the listener's perspective.
Reaching back into the past, both deferentially and irreverently, is another
prominent feature of postmodernism. Traditionally, orientalism was almost entirely
3 Jorge Luis Borges, "An Overwhelming Film," In Movies, edited by Gilbert Adair (London: Penguin
Books, 1999), 215.
4 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Conditioin: A Report on Knowledge, Translated by Geoff
Bennington and Brian Massumi, Edited by Wlad Godzich and Jochen Schulte-Sasse (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.
anachronistic—works depicted ancient rituals, exotic locales, and outdated customs. This
practice was culturally safe because, in the event that the composer got some of the facts
wrong, it didn’t appear that he was commenting in any important way on anything that
was currently happening in Eastern nations. Subjects also tended to be very safe—though
orientalism tended to make Middle Eastern races into savages and slave-traders, they
were careful to represent the cultures in a positive light and to avoid the taboo. Few
complained about this light-hearted, fanciful treatment.
However, when John Zorn’s Torture Garden hit the street, suddenly orientalism
presented a major problem for Asian Americans. The problem began with the album
cover, which features a bare-breasted Japanese woman holding a whip, while standing
over another woman. Suddenly, it isn’t the past any more—suddenly, someone isn’t
playing it safe with smiling Asian caricatures carrying chopsticks. It is firmly in the
present or recent past and dealing with the taboo no less. Zorn’s CD provoked moral
outcry across the United States and was especially attacked by Asian Americans. But
what exactly is going on here? Is Zorn a perverted Asiophile? Is he trying to express the
idea that white men should dominate Asian women, or is he actually making an artistic
and worthy statement with his music?
On John Zorn
John Zorn is impossible to pin down and his oeuvre is made up of many styles
and genres including string quartets, Jewish jazz tunes, twentieth-century art music, and
blues concertos to name a few. But he does not chase fads or change style to stay with the
times, as is the case with David Bowie or Madonna. He is involved in a myriad of
projects simultaneously, yet they are all instantly recognizable as Zorn works. Above all
else, Zorn is an idealist and continually resists the controlling hand of the market driven
culture industry. He has stood by his philosophy since he began composing in 1972 and
hasn’t changed since. He makes music exactly how he wants.
The business-driven practice of labeling is perhaps Zorn’s greatest antipathy. This
is evident in his preface to Arcana.5 “[Terms such as] surrealism, postmodernism abstract
expressionism, minimalism, are used to commodify and commercialize an artist’s
complex personal vision.”6 He goes on to say that not only is this a tool of marketing, but
also for consumption. Once one affixes a certain label to a work, the listener no longer
needs to “hear” it, as there is already an elaborate system of value judgments in place—
the critique writes itself. Zorn strives to constantly surprise his listener—to remove them
from their comfort zone. With Zorn’s music all bets are off—the listener must create their
own interpretation and critique it based on some aesthetic criteria, not presupposed values
that come with the label.
Along with the music industry’s classification system, Zorn constantly rails on
prejudice and elitism in musical scholarship. He says of the idea of ‘high art’ and ‘low
that distinction’s a bunch of fucking bullshit. That’s the kind of thing
created to make it look like you listen to classical music while you’re
sipping champagne and with rock music you’re boogeying [sic] with a
bottle of beer and jazz you’re in some dirty club with a shot of whiskey or
some shit like that…There’s good music and great music and phoney
music in every genre and all the genres are the fucking same! Classical
music is not better than blues because this guy went to school and got a
degree and studied very cleanly while the other guy was out on the street
5 John Zorn, "Preface," In Arcana: Musicians on Music, edited by John Zorn (New York: Granary Books,
6 Ibid., v.
7 Cole Gagne, Soundpieces 2: Interviews with American Composers (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, Inc.,
Although this sparks cries of relativism,8 Zorn chooses to endorse music that moves him
spiritually. Nothing is excluded, as long as it’s sincere and has decent craftsmanship. Of
course, some styles are near to Zorn’s heart such as grindcore and occur frequently in his
music (especially that of Naked City), but he doesn’t seem to place higher importance on
any particular style. His film music is just as important as his orchestral commissions,
which are as important as his chamber works and his thrash-jazz trio, Painkiller.
Zorn’s influences and interests are, like his music, incredibly varied. He writes in
the liner notes to Spillane
I grew up in New York City as a media freak, watching movies and TV
and buying hundreds of records. There’s a lot of jazz in me, but there’s
also a lot of rock, a lot of classical, a lot of ethnic music, a lot of blues, a
lot of movie soundtracks. I’m a mixture of all those things…We should
take advantage of all the great music and musicians in this world without
fear of musical barriers, which sometimes are even stronger than racial or
Along with his genuinely eclectic musical taste is his love of film, also equally catholic.
Although his biggest influence is probably Jean-Luc Godard, his film library includes
everyone from Russ Meyer to Maya Deren.
Around the time Zorn composed Forbidden Fruit, he was living in Tokyo about
six months out of the year. In Japan Zorn found a stimulating change of culture. “The
Japanese,” he writes, “often borrow and mirror other people’s cultures, that’s what’s so
great about the place. They make a crazy mix out of it all.”10 He plays with Japanese
musicians, goes to movies, and absorbs the culture. But aside from the rather mainstream
interests in Japanese pop music and television, he is also interested in the obscure and the
8 How can we express value judgments if anyone’s opinion is as good as the next?
9 John Zorn. Spillane. Digital disc. Elektra/Nonesuch, 9 79172-2, 1987. 9
10 John Zorn. Spillane. Digital disc. Elektra/Nonesuch, 9 79172-2, 1987. 9
taboo. Japan’s rich history of erotic and sadomasochistic art figures prominently in his
Naked City and Painkiller projects sometimes as inspiration and sometimes as subject
With regard to orientalism, there is one crucial concept necessary to understand
Zorn’s music. He sees his CD releases not as music on a disc inside a plastic container,
but as a complete package that is intimately related to his subject. Both the visual (cover
art) and the textual (liner notes and track titles) serve to enhance the musical experience.
One could listen to track 11 on Torture Garden and see it as simply a “crazy” free
improvisation, but once one digests the violent album artwork and the descriptive track
title (“Perfume of a Critic’s Burning Flesh”), the track’s meaning becomes very clear.
Examining Orientalism in Forbidden Fruit and Torture Garden
Orientalism is present in Forbidden Fruit both visually and textually. The music
itself doesn’t contain any explicit references to Japan. Though there is a Japanese
vocalist, for the purpose of this essay, I am considering it a text, not a melody. The work,
written for the Kronos Quartet, plus vocalist Ohta Hiromi and turntablist Christian
Marclay, deals extensively with quotations both from the ‘live’ string quartet and from
the turntables. There are twelve themes and four sets of twelve variations for a total of
sixty sections within the space of just over ten minutes making it a very compact,
concentrated work. Zorn indicates that some small parts may involve controlled
improvisation, but from listening, it’s impossible to differentiate between notated and un-
Although Japanese music doesn’t appear, it’s clear, thanks to the artwork, the
title, and the text, that this piece deals with Japan. It is tempting to interpret the title as an
allusion to a sort of young, unattainable, and precocious Japanese girl containing some
forbidden sexuality—an Asian Lolita if you will. However, I believe this reading fails to
take into account the accompanying artwork. Forbidden Fruit, found on Zorn’s CD
Spillane, is accompanied by a full-page picture in the liner notes which serves as the
cover it would have received had it been released independently. The picture is a still
from the film Kurutta Kajitsu (Crazed Fruit) and shows a young Japanese woman sitting
with her back to the camera while two young Japanese men gaze longingly at her. The
film deals with two brothers who are visiting the beach for some youthful decadence
when a woman shows up and becomes the object of their teenage lust. From here, one
sees that, instead of an older man lusting over a young woman, it is a meditation on
teenage desire. It is important to note that in Eros plus Massacre11, David Desser credits
Crazed Fruit’s theme of uninhibited teenage sex as sparking the sexual revolution that
was led by Japanese iconoclast filmmaker, Nagisa Oshima who will be discussed later.
Suffice it to say, this film was a major landmark in the reemergence of open sexuality in
The original texts by Reck are the final touch of orientalism in this work. Ohta
Hiromi’s sensual, breathy vocals convey the eroticism of the texts without requiring the
listener to understand a word of Japanese. A translation is provided in the liner note, but
it is largely unnecessary because it is not what Hiromi is saying, but rather how she says
it – the fact that it’s Japanese and sensual. Both the textual and visual means impart a
distinctly oriental flavor on the work, even though it contains no Japanese instruments or
11 David Desser, Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1988), 41.