Zappa: The Composer Speaks
By Mark Roberts
This interview was conducted in Frank Zappa's downtown hotel room on March 6 – the day after his Dallas performance with his Mothers. Don Christensen and Craig Curtis, two students of music who have shared my interest in Zappa's work, helped in preparation of the questions. The primary intent of this interview was to explore Zappa's attitudes toward music, a subject which, as he noted at the conclusion of the discussion, has been most often neglected in his interviews. You will, therefore, find no mention of Zappa's notorious theatrics in this piece. If you want to amuse yourself with the same tired old rumors, I would refer you to faded copies of Rolling Stone, or Time. There you will find multitudinous examples of the sort of obsession with Zappa's early stage performances that have, for years, obscured the appreciation of his genius as a composer of intelligent, imaginative music.
ICONOCLAST: How did you ﬁrst become interested in music composition?
ZAPPA: The first thing I did was I decided that writing music had to be the most fun thing that anybody could do. So I just started doing it.
ICONOCLAST: Did you use any texts?
ZAPPA: I had some basic interests in art, and since I was a kid I was able to draw things. So I saw a piece of music and I drew a piece of music. I had no idea what it would sound like or what was going on in it, but I knew what an eighth note looked like – I didn't know it was an eighth note. I started drawing music and that was it. I struggled and got somebody to plunk it out on the piano to hear what it sounded like. And I said, "Well, is that all there is to it? You just draw it and somebody plays it for you. That's great." That's how I started.
ICONOCLAST: Which composers have inﬂuenced you?
ZAPPA: Varese, Stravinsky, Webern, mostly. And Penderecki.
ICONOCLAST: Any jazz composers?
ZAPPA: Yeah. Charlie Mingus. Thelonious Monk.
ICONOCLAST: When you were young, what sort of music did you listen to?
ZAPPA: Rhythm and blues.
ICONOCLAST: Erik Satie, in his compositions, uses a lot of humor-e-a lot of facetious little verbal comments under his music. He did this as a defense, because of his lack of confidence in himself, and I was wondering if you. . . .
ZAPPA: Was that referred to you by a book?
ICONOCLAST: Yes, it was.
ZAPPA: Yeah, well, I've never read that, and I don't know anything about Satie’s life, and I wouldn't take that on faith that that's the reason he put humor into his music. There have been other composers who have put humor into music – in various different ways – and I really don't buy the defense mechanism ideas. In fact, the bravest thing that you can do is to do something humorous for an audience that can't compute humor. And take a classical music audience – there you have a prime example. There are only three things with less humor than a classical audience: there's a country and western audience, a rock and roll audience, and a jazz audience.
ICONOCLAST: Which audience do you think you appeal to the most?
ZAPPA: I don't know, because it is pretty widespread age-wise and otherwise.
ICONOCLA ST: Do you feel you could have benefited more as a composer if you had studied under someone?
ICONOCLAST: Is it safe to assume that you are completely self-taught?
ZAPPA: Well, I'll tell you exactly what I did to learn my trade. I went to the library and I listened to records. I had some basic instruction in harmony and theory in school – most of which I rejected as being boring and being not useful to what I wanted to hear. Because, first of all, the thing I love most out of diatonic music is parallel fifths – that's one of my most favorite sounds.
ZAPPA: That's it – that's a nasty sound. "You can't have them." So figured that anybody that's going to tell me that I can't have what I like is not on my side.
ICONOCLAST: What do you think of the present music education system?
ZAPPA: I think that it is destined to turn out people who don't know anything about music.
ICONOCLAST: Do you have any ideas on how to improve it?
ZAPPA: The first thing is that most musicologists de-emphasize live performance, and the academic way is emphasized. I think that's wrong. Everybody should be able to play something and experience the joy of getting out and playing an instrument, and just feeling what it's like to play music, and not just play assigned parts. People should be given the opportunity to improvise and see what it's like to just make something up. Right there on the spot.
ICONOCLAST: You use so much unison work in your music; do you work with a basis, and jam on top of that?
ZAPPA: Well, the songs are structured in such a way that there are unifying factors and individual solos and in some instances there are complete blank spots that I will just conjure up on stage. And there is a chance that I will be crazy one night and I will just make something up completely right there.
ICONOCLAST: You pioneered the combination of jazz and rock and "serious" music. . . .
ZAPPA: That's just a logical extension of the way everything is. If people will look at it, everything is made up out of the same stuff, and I'm not talking about atoms, either. There's no reason that music shouldn't contain any kind of element you would like to hear as a composer. What I put together is built to suit my own taste. If somebody else likes the way I cook it up, then they can eat it, too.
ICONOCLAST: You've done some work with symphony orchestras; have you been pleased with the way they respond to you?
ZAPPA: Well, individually, there are people in the orchestras who are either bored or negative to what I'm doing. But, depending on the orchestra and what the conditions are, most of the time we get along. Musically, I haven't liked the results too much, because the difference between a group and an orchestra is this: a group with, say, eight or nine members, with its own sort of focus or interest in doing its specific thing musically with a drive toward some goal, is different from an orchestra with a hundred people who are being paid to do a job and come in there just like they were a plumber. It's a very different consciousness and it's hard to get them to put their personal energy into what they are playing the same way you can get people in the group to do it.
ICONOCLAST: Of course, there are a number of individuals in the orchestra who are sincerely involved in the music. . . .
ZAPPA: That's true, but I'm talking about the net result of the group. It is very seldom that you will find an orchestra – and especially in the United States – where the overriding drive of the orchestra is to their guts into the performance and just blow the audience away, because they're all concerned about their union breaks. They're concerned about new legislation that's going to affect their income, and all the rest of that crap. They're not as concerned – I'm not saying that it doesn't exist in rock 'n' roll, too – but they're not as concerned as a rock group would be.
ICONOCLAST: How much of the music that you've written is ever recorded?
ZAPPA: About 80 percent.
ICONOCLAST: Has the other material not been recorded because you feel there is no market for it, or because you fear that people won't understand it?
ZAPPA: No, I've never been afraid that people won't understand it, because I take that as a fact. There is always that possibility. But the thing that keeps me from recording something is the cost of it.
ICONOCIAST: You've done a couple of albums with a large jazz ensemble – THE GRAND WAZOO, WAKA-JAWAKA – do you find that you have the same sort of problems with studio jazz musicians that you do with orchestral musicians?
ZAPPA: No. It's a different breed of player. They're still not up to the level of energy from a rock group, but they weren't as stiff as symphony players.
ICONOCLAST: How do you think your music has inﬂuenced music as a whole today?
ZAPPA: Well, if I do something that seems interesting to another group or another musician, and they borrow it, or extrapolate on it, then that's how my inﬂuence is exerted.
ICONOCIAST: Have you ever considered teaching?
ZAPPA: No. Not really. It's hard enough just teaching the members of the group how to play this stuff, let alone thinking of giving a class.
ICONOCIAST: What about rehearsals – you must rehearse quite a bit.
ZAPPA: We have a three-week rehearsal before each tour. It is five hours a day, five days a week. The mixer rehearses with the group, and in the last week of the rehearsal the light man comes in. And then, everyday we play a concert, we do three hours before the concert.
ICONOCLAST: Do you have any problems with endurance?
ZAPPA: Yeah, we have some problems with endurance, but it only comes up when people like to party too much. And if they party too much, they're not in the band anymore.
ICONOCLAST: Does that happen very often?
ZAPPA: No. I've only had to fire people a couple of times. They just bungled.
ICONOCIAST: When you broke up the first Mothers – the ABSOLUTELY FREE band and what that progressed into – you were quoted as saying that the audiences weren't ready for your music. Do you feel that audiences have matured any since that time?
ICONOCLAST: What do you attribute that to?
ZAPPA: Widespread uses of some of the techniques which we pioneered. And as long as people keep hearing it from all kinds of different sources, then they might say, "Well, maybe Zappa was right when he did that."
ICONOCLAST: Do you think jam and rock have become more complex as a result of the inﬂuence of classical music?
ZAPPA: No. I think that jazz and rock have become more complex as a result of the influence from jazz and rock. I don't think there are too many people in either field that really pay attention to serious music, so to speak. As a matter of fact, one of the sickest parts of the musical world today is the condition of serious music. Of today. I'm not talking about the earlier 20th century. I'm talking about today's composers. They're just bullshit. It's amazing.
ICONOCLAST: What particularly disturbs you about present-day composers?
ZAPPA: It's the post-Webern generation. The post-Penderecki composers. It is such a climb-on-the-bandwagon type of routine, you know. People started getting into Webern and everybody wrote boop-beep shit. You know, spaces in between the notes, and serializing the amount of rests in your piece, and all that stuff. The only person that could really appreciate it would be a computer programmer, and they certainly don't have an ear for it. And besides that, Webern did it perfectly, and there is no reason that anybody should have tried to whip on it like that. When Penderecki came along with his dense clusters and his string effects and stuff like that, a lot of other composers started doing the same thing. It is like the latest "mod" clothing or something; just too many people getting into the superficial modernism of a type of sound without providing any real content to their pieces. There is no life to them. I go out and buy contemporary music all the time – that's mostly what I buy for albums. And I have been invariably disappointed by the pieces an all the hot new up-and-coming guys. And especially the electronic music. It's just so. . . drab.
ICONOCLAST: Is there anybody in electronic music that you appreciate? Stockhausen? Subotnik?
ZAPPA: I don't like Stockhausen's electronic music. I really don't like Subotnik. There is one piece by Stockhausen that I enjoyed – I have an album with "Song of the Youths" on one side and "Kontakte" on the other. That's pretty good. Most of the rest of it is. . . it's not musical. And I'm not a math freak so I'm not going to sit there and. . . there is one other guy whose stuff I like, with some reservations, and that's Milton Babbitt.
ICONOCLAST: Returning to your musical direction: your last album – OVERNIGHT SENSATION – struck me quite differently than other albums you have done. It's caught on more with the "top forty" crowd than did its more jazz-oriented predecessors. I was wondering if you were aware of that possibility when you made the album.
ZAPPA: No. That's what I felt like doing. People make the mistake of thinking that if a person makes an album that that is the sum total of all he can conceive of musically – and that's it, there between the borderlines of that jacket on that disc. But every one of our albums is different. So that's what I was interested in then; I made an album called OVERNIGHT SENSATION, and that's what's in it. And there it is, folks.
ICONOCLAST: Could you comment on your forthcoming album?
ZAPPA: It's called APOSTROPHE. It has one instrumental and the rest are vocals. It has some things on it that are sort of bluesy, and I'm singing all the stuff myself. Some cuts are with this group, and some cuts are with other people: Jack Bruce, Jim Gordon, Aynsley Dunbar, Johnny Guerin. . . .
ICONOCIAST: Is there one project to which you are devoting most of your energies right now?
ZAPPA: Yeah. The band. Because I think that this particular band, once it shapes itself up and learns how to play all this stuff, is going to be a great vehicle for future music. It's got a lot of skill. They're still shaky on this stuff. You may have thought it was tight, but it's not. And when they get it tight, it will scare you to death
ICONOCIA ST: In future music histories, there will undoubtedly be some mention of you and your work. How do you think you will be regarded?
ZAPPA: I doubt if they are going to treat me very seriously in those textbooks because, after all, they have to maintain that system. They don't maintain that system, boy, and you guys aren't going to be consumers, are you?
[Mark Roberts is a film student at SMU, a free-lance film critic, and a bartender on weekends.]
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net