Frank Zappa was a rock musician... AND a classical composer. He was also somewhere in-between a lot of the time.
Funny. Researching Zappa for this diary, his name kept popping up in lists of greatest classical composers of the twentieth century, usually in the comments, with Zappa-holics praising him to the sky and feeling outraged that he's not already on the list. Etc.
I don't know if Zappa belongs in the top ten of anything, but he's very likely the most POPULAR modernist classical composer of the twentieth century. (Before you start pointing out Gershwin etc., note my vague use of the word modernist.) Maybe the electric guitars had something to do with that.
I wrote a diary once for another series (I won't link to it -- it's a bit R-rated) that suggested I put his Uncle Meat at the very top of my list of music albums to get stoned by. It was when I was younger and when I spent a lot of time stoned, which, to be perfectly clear, I don't do anymore. However, I spent enough time in that state to consider myself an authority (not the ultimate one) of good stoner music. Most classical music just doesn't translate well to altered states of consciousness because they require too much mental analysis. Beethoven? Awful music to listen to while wasted. Zappa, by contrast, has lots of interesting tinkly sounds!
We'll start with Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague, from the Uncle Meat album. It's not as challenging as some we will hear. I'm choosing it first for a reason.
Dog Breath, In the Year of the Plague, from Uncle Meat
Driving to El Monte,
Going to pick up 'Weesa,
She is so divine...
For those a little bit familiar with Zappa, those words might be memorable. Listen to the underlying melody of that theme, on the words "Driving to El Monte, Chevy 39." That's a recurring motif throughout the Uncle Meat album. More than that, it's a recurring motif throughout a lot of his other music as well. It pops up in little disguised forms.
I could have gone in chronological order and started with the Main Title Theme, but it's harder to identify it there. Now that I've pointed it out, maybe you can hear how its used.
Uncle Meat, Main Title Theme
His music often starts out in simpler, more popular ways, and then goes off the rails. At the first hearing, it can seem like self-indulgent hippy shit. Hey, that was MY first impression, and I loved it! But there's more method to his madness.
Let's ratchet up the difficulty now with a later track. Try and spot the "Drivin' to El Monte" theme here and how it is manipulated. This is more difficult stuff.
We Can Shoot You, from Uncle Meat
(The name of Zappa's band is Mothers of Invention. I'm going to be lazy and sloppy and just credit Zappa in this diary. Sorry 'bout that, Mothers.)
I'm not a rock expert, nor a Zappa expert. I hope and expect a Zappa fanatic wil drop in here and correct anything wrong I say or better elucidate us on the subject. I do know that Dave Marsh included Zappa in his list of most influential rock albums. Frankly, I don't quite understand that, because I can't think of many rock albums INSPIRED by Uncle Meat. I can think of a gazillion rock albums inspired by The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper or Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. Uncle Meat? It, and the rest of Zappa's output, to my knowledge, were rarely imitated. His music was popular but it was never populist.
... And, AHA! I correct myself in mid-paragraph, as I often do, without editing, because it's more interesting that way. Reading the wiki entry for Zappa's first album, Freak Out, I read the following:
Freak Out! was initially more successful in Europe and quickly influenced many English rock musicians. According to David Fricke, the album was a major influence on The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Paul McCartney regarded Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band as The Beatles' Freak Out! However, Zappa criticized the Beatles, as he felt they were "only in it for the money".Well, if it influenced Sgt. Pepper, case closed, it was influential, even though he had a low opinion of The Beatles.
In fact, his third album, curiously titled, We're Only In It For the money," (1968) mocked the Sgt. Pepper album and the hippy movement in general. Wiki again:
The Beatles were targeted as a symbol of Zappa's objections to the corporatization of youth culture, and the album served as a criticism of them and psychedelic rock as a whole.Parody and satire were a defining factor of almost all Zappa's music. There was never anything remotely sentimental. In fact, I find myself laughing to myself at just using the word sentimental in a sentence about Zappa. There is nothing remotely close to a Zappa Moonlight Sonata or Swan Lake or Valse Triste. In fact, if you were to find something that sounds like that, odds are it's more mockery.
However, the "satire" aspect of Zappa is always too played up in the criticism of his music. The world is full of great satire. Zappa's music is good music that also happens to usually be satirical in its presentation because the usual broken hearts thing bored him. I think his choice of subjects and lyrics is often just a way of saying fuck you to the conventional requirements that music be about something.
Zappa was a fan of several classical composers, but above all, Edgard Varese. From wiki again:
Zappa's deep interest in modern classical music began when he read a LOOK magazine article about the Sam Goody record store chain that lauded its ability to sell an LP as obscure as The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One. The article described Varèse's percussion composition Ionisation, produced by EMS Recordings, as "a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds". Zappa decided to seek out Varèse's music. After searching for over a year, Zappa found a copy (he noticed the LP because of the "mad scientist" looking photo of Varèse on the cover). Not having enough money with him, he persuaded the salesman to sell him the record at a discount. Thus began his lifelong passion for Varèse's music and that of other modern classical composers.Some Varese. My favorite Varese piece, Density 21.5.
Density 21.5 by Edgard Varese. Lara Pou, flute
That one is actually pretty conventional by comparison with his later works. Atonal, but it adheres to the musical scale. Compare it to this one now, the 1958 work Poeme Electronique. You need headphones or good stereo separation to appreciate this. This one is fun.
Poeme Electronique (1958) by Edgard Varese
Following the success of his 80s pop song Valley Girl, Zappa turned to the concert hall for a while. The result was his album with Pierre Boulez.
Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger
Zappa is hard to categorize. Depending on your mood, you could call him psychedelic rock, R&B, fusion jazz, novelty satire. Listening to the above album, he sounds well-entrenched in 20th century modernist classical music. How he would have felt about being categorized that way, I don't know. Probably mixed. He loved classical music, but he seemed to hate being categorized. Maybe he'd enjoy it but be a bit miffed at the same time.
From wikipedia again:
In 1991, Zappa was chosen to be one of four featured composers at the Frankfurt Festival in 1992 (the others were John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Alexander Knaifel). Zappa was approached by the German chamber ensemble, Ensemble Modern, which was interested in playing his music for the event. Although ill, Zappa invited them to Los Angeles for rehearsals of new compositions and new arrangements of older material.For those who don't know, Cage and Stockhausen are two of the biggest names of 20th century avant-garde music. (Knaifel, I've never heard of.) For somebody who had loved avant-garde classical music since he was a kid, that must have felt really good. Unfortunately, his health was deteriorating and those concerts would be his last public appearances.
The Dog Breath Variations, from Yellow Shark, with the Ensemble Moderne
And here we are, back to the Driving to El Monte motif yet again.
He wasn't just recycling his old crap. I'd be derelict to leave out this one.
Overture to Yellow Shark, with the Ensemble Moderne
For somebody who tried so, so hard to not be serious, there is a very serious tone in some of this later music, like the above piece and in Perfect Stranger.
It's getting late, and I'm not up to trying to cover things related to his final works, like Civilization Phase III, or his congressional battles with Tipper Gore and the PMRC, or Vaclav Havel appointing him as Czechoslovakia's Cultural Attache. Or the baroque ensemble cover bands. Or his porn tape arrest, a lot of fun stuff like that. We'll call it quits here. Jeez. I thought I was making my life easier by trying to use Frank Zappa for a punt diary.
Oh............. Okay, one more. This is Strictly Genteel, the final piece of his film, 200 Motels.
Strictly Genteel (Remix)
Next week: I'm bummed out. My computer has developed problems again after a blackout we had a couple of days ago. I'm going to provisionally blame it on power spikes, even though I had a surge protector and my computer was turned off. Whatever. IT means I'm going to have to strip down my computer to figure out what the problem is, and I'm going to have to wait until Saturday to do that because I feel to pissed and depressed thinking about it right now. As for next week's diary: It's a question of whether there will be one at the moment. If anybody wants to fill in next Thursday, please do.