It's All Music
By Norma McLain Stoop
Long-necked, broad-shouldered, slender-framed Frank Zappa moves with great assurance on the distant star he inhabits. "People," he says, "want to get to a distant star, but they have to face the reality that they are already there."
He has faced it. And many feel that his sometimes wildly original, sometimes zany, always very amusing outlook on life (here and elsewhere in the universe) is somewhat like that of one who walks on the treacherous terrain of an as yet unknown planet, rather than like the accepted outlook of the usual earthling.
Zappa, now thirty-one years old, married to an ex-groupie, and the father of two small children, has had a high school education plus one semester in junior college. "I only went to college to get laid," he asserts. And when someone asked him whether the people he went to high school with understand him now, because he obviously came out different from his classmates, he answered, "I think I went in different."
Most of Zappa's musical training (apart from a couple of harmony and composition courses) came from listening to records. "During the early Fifties," he explains, "Americans didn't get a chance to hear rhythm and blues music because white radio stations wouldn't play black music. But in England, while kids in the U.S. were listening to Pat Boone, they could hear Slim Harpo and that was the background for their musical development. There was a lot of heavy business involved in the old blues – it was more than just songs about your girlfriend and boyfriend. There was energy in that music that went above and beyond the actual notes that were being played. The British were listening to jazz, too, when Americans didn't get a very good blast of it, but I think the guts of it was in the blues. I first heard blues at the age of thirteen. Radio at that time was playing 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?,' but I was lucky enough to hear things like 'Cindy' by the Squires on Mambo and 'Annie Had A Baby' – the Midnighters on Federal. There was all this vast amount of blues music around that white people didn't even know about! The minute I heard it, I said, 'Here it is!' "
Now, when Zappa isn't listening to the recordings of his well-known group, The Mothers of Invention, it's Ravel, Honegger and Penderecki that he listens to for relaxation. "I've stopped listening to much other music because it went bad. The minute they started putting violins on Ray Charles records and Fats Domino records, I said, 'This is it. This is not my music anymore. There's some white people sneaking in there fixing that stuff up. And it's getting too good.' I'm very, very fond of Ravel," Zappa goes on, his large hazel eyes looking squarely at you from under their heavy lids. "I've also noticed a structural similarity between Penderecki and Ravel. If you study Penderecki's stuff and the way he deals with densities of musical material – scores where the violins are stacking up to produce a weight of sound that's generally quite dissonant, and you can see a shape where it starts at a quiet volume and the number of instruments increases and the thickness gets up like this," his very capable looking hands illustrate his point, "and it's a heavy density – very graphic music. Then if I listen to Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe, I can hear the same thing taking place there, except that it's gorgeous. I have a taste for either very lush, elaborate orchestration that is melodic, or the most crashing, extreme dissonance that you can get your hands on. Because they're equal opposite forces, and I like to deal with those sorts of primary factors."
The primary factors in his musical career were lack of money and jobs (the dissonance) and hard work, steady growth, and good men to work with (the melody).
"For about, let's see, five years," (Zappa is very careful about accuracy, taking his time, thinking before he speaks, a fact I remembered later when he was discussing his seemingly far out ideas of the universe), "we had mock-up Mothers – test batches – groups with the name before there was a real Mothers, and one of these groups was performing in '64 at Saints and Sinners, a beer joint for construction workers in Ontario, California. Guitar, bass, drums, and I was doing the singing – obviously that would limit the commercial potential of such an ensemble. But everybody was blowing their brains out. So that great event disbanded as a result of a special occurrence there at Cucamonga which is too elaborate to describe right now. Then I got a call from Ray Collins (original lead singer for the Mothers). He'd had an argument with the guitar player in the band he worked with – the Soul Giants – at the Broadside in Pomona, another beer joint, and asked me to be the substitute guitar player. It was a good group – I liked the sound and I thought it had potential. There was Ray Collins, Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada and Davy Coronado. Now, I was advocating the use of original material, but it's impossible to earn a living playing in California beer joints using original material. The owners would not hire you. They wanted you to play juke box content or radio simulated scum because the audience couldn't compute anything else. They wanted `Night Train' or like that. So, at the point we decided to do original material, we severely limited our earning power or just the chance of our survival. There was a time, for about a year, when our living conditions were desperate, verging on terrifying. Where there was no way to get a job, or any food, and there's no way to put a group together unless you work constantly to learn this new stuff. And we were out scrounging pop bottles so we could cash them in to buy bologna and cigarettes – not too good. And all the time, we were experimenting with different time signatures, music outside the blues format, and structures outside the two-minute record with a beginning, middle and end."
Humor was, from the start, a big factor in the work of the Mothers. "The humorous approach," according to Frank Zappa, "is in the personalities in the group. I thought that would be an interesting element to share with an audience since rock and roll, up to that point, was taking itself so seriously. I mean the very idea of most white groups was ludicrous. White people getting out there and doing their best to be Chuck Berry or whoever else and doing it seriously and saying to themselves, 'Hey, man, I'm really heavy!' To me, it seemed absurd enough to warrant some commentary. That sort of humor still maintains itself in the group and I like working within that framework."
Now, all the experimentation is paying off. Their album, 200 Motels (United Artists), is a fine example of their drive, their originality. Their film of 200 Motels (UA) shows that Frank Zappa's mind has no trouble adapting to another medium. Zany and far out, it was shot on video-tape and transferred to 35 millimeter film, making possible some startling visual effects.
"The picture has been our first movement into the area of light," Zappa explains. "I have other ideas about light I'm thinking of, too. When I first conceived my overall plan, it seemed that the music business would be an excellent vehicle by which to execute some of these other things. Now it seems that there's potentiality in the film medium. Of course, I could never have made this film if I hadn't been in the music business for five or six years prior to seeking the financing for the film. It's all music, including the film. The structure of 200 Motels is built on musical lines using the same sort of structural mechanisms that occur in classical music."
Now Frank Zappa, always sitting so erectly that there seems to be a board strapped to his back, looking directly and intensely, starts expounding ideas that some people think are a gigantic put-on. They are an elaborate hypothesis that he (with no scientific or mathematical background) details with the calm air of a man who feels that one day he'll be able to prove what he thinks. Anyway, lack of proof would probably not deter him from believing what he believes.
"I think," he says, "that the two components of the universe are actually one – wave and time. The time determines the shape of – the length of – the wave. If a wave equals a wave, all time equals all other time, so you ain't goin' nowhere, 'cause you already been there. And if you could view this whole mechanism from a distance, it would just be a solid object. Sooner or later, everyone's going to have to dump the idea of atoms and all the rest of that shit and get down to business. I'm interested in the synthesis of solid objects that are unknowable. Solid objects as foreign to your senses as the output of a synthesizer the first time you heard a new wave shape. What you hear through your ears is a manifestation of waves pulsing between 20 cycles per second and 20,000 cycles per second. What your eyes receive is light at a frequency response far higher – vibrating at a different range. These are all small waves, but conceive of waves that might take 20 billion years to execute one pulse. The shape of the waves in terms of sound determines the color of the sound, and I have the feeling that below what you can hear and above what you can see is where it's really happening. A synthesizer spews out sound that you and I have never heard before – an unknown wave shape emerges. If you subject the frequencies in the range of light to the same alterations that sonic material is subjected to on a synthesizer, it's conceivable you could produce colors never seen before. Consider the possibility of extending that into the radiation frequency range – you might be able to produce other things that are unknown, unimagined. If you take a tape with sound vibrations on it and slow it down a great deal, it becomes a completely different sound object. You can convert a piccolo into a tuba if you slow it down enough. So if we could take you and slow you down enough, your wave shape, whatever represents your solidity, could be disengaged to a certain extent."
Though this theory of Frank Zappa's might be a joke he delights in playing on his listeners, the times he's putting people on, in my opinion, are when he says, with a shrug, when faced with a question he doesn't feel like answering, "Remember, I'm just a rock and roll guy." Listening to him, one becomes convinced that it is highly unlikely that anything will succeed in slowing down that wave named Frank Zappa.
"It seems inevitable," he says, "that I'll extend my ideas into other fields, but I'd like to say, it's all music.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net