200 Motels

By Robert Carrington

RDH Comix, September, 1971


On Monday, February 8th, I waited with many other disappointed Zappa-freaks, to hear him explain why the concert at London's Albert Hall had been cancelled. At that time, as now, the reasons for the cancellation were very clouded. This is the first time that Zappa has had coverage in more or less all the daily papers, and reached British notoriety overnight. Many newspapers have quoted remarks from members of the orchestra, management and Zappa himself. The concert was said to be obscene (although one member of the orchestra did get around to mentioning the music, saying it was similar to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring").

The main aim of the concert was to give the public insight into Zappa's film, "200 Motels", since the music was a selection from the soundtrack. The film has now terminated shooting at Pinewood Studios and will probably face the same problems the concert did. The orchestra used is about 100-strong, with a very large percussion section, 3 classical guitarists, a choir and dancers. The work, which was performed more or less successfully in America with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra under Zubin Mehta, uses a lot of old Mothers of Invention favourites such as "Duke of Prunes", "Who needs the peace corps?" and "Lumpy Gravy".  The main complaint in the U.S.A. was not in the moral content, although Zubin Mehta refused to perform the second part of the work, but the quality of balance between the Mothers and the orchestra, i.e. distortion.

Zappa is preoccupied with music-theatre techniques reminiscent of John Cage e.g. Water Music and Music Walk. Here the whole process of musical performance is parodied and taken to absurd excesses. The act of pulling the bow across the strings of a violin becomes a ritualistic act. Thus theatre and concert hall are brought together by the fact that the musician is called upon to play two roles, the actor and the musician. It is this dual role which can transform a rather sterile and dead event into something more alive and exciting. It is this fact that Zappa is exploiting in his concerts. It is not the music he is poking fun at, but the dead serious aura of mystique which surrounds a musical performance. It becomes one in which the musician becomes too overawed with his own importance and loses his humanity.

This is one of the faults which both Zappa and I find in avant-garde music, again it is not the music itself that he objects to, but the stuffiness surrounding its performance and the serious, intellectual straightness with which it is received.  A new, exciting adventure in sounds should not be a stuffy, dry experience. The visual side of the performance is somehow lacking and the audience is not involved enough in the music taking place. It is this side of the musical performance which music-theatre fills, adding more interest than the plain mode of presentation that a so-called "straight" performance shows.

Two concepts meet here: the parody of the musical performance and an attempt to fuse the arts together. It is difficult to know completely whether either of these are at the back of Zappa's mind or if it is, as some of my friends have said, an attempt at musical anarchy (which it is in Cage's case). I think that Zappa is trying to get people to look at music in a more refreshing, alive way and it is this idea that doddering, stiff-collared musicians, who are nevertheless very fine technicians, object to. It is this attempt to destroy musical pomposity which is the underlying reason for the cancellation of "200 Motels", in that it is a severe threat to the ivory towers in which many musicians live. The spur for musical adventure, and interest in the new which all musicians should have to some extent, is dulled or at worst never existed. This is what I, as a classical musician strongly object to, and it sickens me to be a part of a wide circle of musicians which in many parts propagates the traditional stuffy false ideas. But maybe I'm being just as pompous and as over-intellectual on the people I'm trying to attack. I hope not.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net