Zappa: Musical Trip
By Rich Mangelsdorff
Frank Zappa has been called a genius and this is probably true, at least if scope of knowledge, use of materials and conception are the criterion you're using.
You could tell, even off of the Freak Out lp that this cat had eaten and digested all the rock sides ever made. He threatens to do the same for all world music. Impossible? Not if your ear and head are good enough and working together.
When it comes to working with extended forms and with non-rock materials, Zappa can't be beat. This is the only cat I'm trust to write that "rock opera" that someone is threatening to put together every month. Not a cavalier like Bernstein, not The Beatles (rich man's optimism and too much cuteness, at least if the wish-fulfillment Magical Mystery Tour is any indication).
Zappa's conception is fed by the aforementioned musical knowledge and also by an excellent satiristic bent. He has the satirist's ear for the telling cliché (most importantly, the ones which others haven't even isolated yet – Who Needs the Peace Corps from We're Only in it for the Money is only the latest illustration) and his knack for getting dialects and mannerisms down ought to have impressed you enough to need little further comment (LA [rels and pals] being two of his favourite targets).
Zappa has mastered all the possibilities of rock as it is known and played today, having thereby eminently earned the right to do what he is continually trying to do – EXTEND the language of rock and (really) of music in general.
I don't know how Zappa in got to where he's at now because I don't read fan magazines (if needed he is covered there), but it would seem that he was one who early in life got into contemporary classical music and saw the blind alley it was heading down through. Like in 1962 or so everyone wondered how they were [xx xx] to be able to continue writing "classical music," what the next stop would be like, etc. Many of us just kept on grooving [with] jazz.
Zappa seems to have gone right to the heart of the problem; [what] contemporary classical music generally lacked was pulsative thrust and relevance. Note: percussion pieces usually have lots of action but generally little thrust; attempts to copy folk or nationalistic styles (Copland's El Salon Mexico, Milhaud in South America or Stravinsky after jazz, etc., were generally pale imitations, Carlos Chavez being one of a few who could sometimes make this bag work) suffer when you listen to almost anything by a jazz composer like Duke Ellington or Gil Evans.
Anyway, Zappa solved the first problem by utilizing the pulsative and regular rhythms being developed in rock (not the monotonous back-beat of the '50's, either) and realized that regularity can be regulated and that African music and jazz can provide countless examples of how to retain regularity while obtaining all kinds of variety and embellishment. Zappa's concentration upon percussion then, is neither accident nor hangup.
Relevance is lost when complexities multiply without reference to a sufficiently broad base of interest or probability, (imitators of Boulez, Carter, Babbitt, et.al., sometimes even the originals themselves, when chance is employed for its own sake or as a cop-out Cage and many electronic composers, although it's only fair to note that Cage doesn't get hung up and perhaps it will be seen that one man, Cage, could have sufficed for an entire school), or when novelty is introduced merely to keep from getting [dragged] (easy; textures and time can be explored endlessly, compose a piece like this: 1st movement; African finger piano accompanied by marbles rolled over a snare drum head – 2nd movement; trumpet cadenza played on 4 designated lower register notes spaced by square root ratio of seconds, up to a 128 second interval between last two notes – 3rd movement; same as first but throw some marbles at the audience as La Monte Young might do – 4th movement; same as second, but reverse it so the last time interval is [??] seconds.
Here's where Zappa's ability to hear all sorts of music serves him; but, most important, he picked up on the expanded consciousness thought patterns and the multi-level lyrics being explored most notably by Bob Dylan.
What results is a new musical unit which could most conveniently be referred to as a trip. The Zappa musical trip has roots firmly in Stockhausen, Cage, Varèse, et.al., is driven by expert and throbbing percussion (or can be when he chooses), and moves by means of juxtaposition (a device which every century artist has made considerable use of) of all the music Zappa knows and all the contents which his head can divulge. Zappa is the most unpredictable cat around; anything might show up.
Although this applies more to the longer sound mixes, he's likely to stick electronic devices and flashes (his units for reinforcing themes and/or playing with the listener's concentration span) in pieces of any length, even short mean satires simultaneously scanning a 1950's rock style and an American state of mind (as if a short piece wasn't already loaded and doing work enough on those terms).
Since you've all been good enough to stumble through a piece which has no doubt caused you much pain, here's a games section for you:
- whatever happened to The Mothers of Trouble Every Day and I Ain't Got No Heart (Freak Out lp)?
- how would the first two sections of Help, I'm a Rock sound without the drums kicking them along and what kind of musical structure does the piece follow?
- get your local Mantraic Vocal group to work out the "daa-doot-doot-doot-doot-doot-doo-doo-dot" intro for America Drinks (Absolutely Free) as a rondo and present in connection with the guerilla theater unit as a happening at a Chamber of Commerce meeting.
- what did you think "pooting" and "numies" meant (in Let's Make the Water Turn Black from We're Only in it for the Money) before Zappa yanked you out of your lethargic mental shuck?
- identify the classical antecedents for as many of the devices used in The Chrome Plated uegaphone of Destiny (We're Only in it for the Money) as you can.
- identify at least five of the giants of the West Coast jazz movement who serve as studio musicians for Lumpy Gravy.
- construct the various dialogues in Lumpy Gravy into a stage-play and pester O'Horgan until he directs it for you.
- open your eyes and ears.
Frank Zappa and The Mothers record for Verve:
Freak Out – (2) V6-5005
Absolutely Free – V6-5013
We're Only in it for the Money – V6-5045
Lumpy Gravy – V6-8741
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net