Frank Zappa and the Enterprise of Serious Contemporary Music

By Peter Kountz

Popular Music & Society, Vol.4 No.1, 1975

"A terribly hard taste of Music?"

Some Reflections...

I. What does a weird fellow like you have to do with Serious Music?

     Frank Zappa has been called many things since his auspicious entrance into the national music scene with his now-famous (infamous for some) first album, Freak Out, from a "truly weird, full freak" to "a supreme genius of American music." There should be no doubt about Zappa's "weirdness" as a pop figure nor about the enigmatic dimensions of his person and his art. But many writers, critics, musicologists on the one hand and record-buyers, concert-goers and aficionados of pop music on the other, have, almost universally, failed to appreciate Zappa as an extremely creative and highly proficient composer and performer of truly serious contemporary music, whose musical and artistic perception clearly transcends the narrowly defined limits of pop and whose breadth of musical experience outstrips the boundaries of all forms of American music, not simply pop.1

     By "serious," I mean a learned and studied writer of music; one who has studied the traditional techniques of theory, harmony, counterpoint, and composition; one who is aware of the history of Western Music especially and who can both appreciate and appraise contemporary music and its materials; one who has both a personal vision and aesthetic and who has the training to be, in Charles Ives' terms, "communicative," "melodious" and "expressive;" one whose work is what is done, not what has to be done; one who insists on the primacy of the creative imagination and is completely open to it both in himself herself and in others; and, above all, one who passionately loves music.

     By "serious music" is meant that music of the Academy, studied in and approved by the Academy; the music of the concert halls and recital rooms; "classical music," the music of Symphonies, String Quartets, of "Madama Butterfly" and "Wozzeck," of "Le Marteau Sans Maitre" and "Hyperprism," of "Agon" and "Three Places in New England." In sum, that music in Western Civilization which has received the attention and support of the Academy – and the wealthy – and which can be termed, "high-brow" and "elitist."

     The point of this essay is to suggest that Frank Zappa is indeed a very serious musician whose music and musical ideas, of themselves, are very much a part of serious contemporary music,2 and that he may, in fact, have already provided, through his musical ideas, several possible solutions to the crises facing the American Music Academy and its products. He is an innovative musician rather than a revolutionary.3 But his is also a necessary musical daring, a refusal, in Varèse's terms, to submit himself "only to sounds that have already been heard." He is not a Varèse nor a Stravinsky. He is himself and has retained "the courage of his own artistic vision."4 He is, in Stravinsky's words, an "inventor of music."

II. The Music and its Materials

     The contemporary American composer, Elliott Carter, has written of the efforts of the serious composer and the music that emerges from the fusion of these efforts.5 Carter believes that the serious composer invents interesting ideas that "fill certain compositional requirements and allow for imaginative continuations." It is serious music, Carter maintains, which has the richest substance, one which can create and absorb more imaginative lines and detail.

     This mirrors Frank Zappa and his music. Zappa's synthesis of theater and music, and his efforts to reach the Gesamtkunstwerk (union of the arts) of Richard Wagner, frequently overshadows the virtuosity of his composition and its highly technical and musical nature.

     Like one of his principal musical interests, Igor Stravinsky, Zappa is, on one level, a neo-classicist. Joseph Machlis, in his informative and persuasive volume on contemporary music has provided a very precise definition of the classicist (neo-classicist).

... The classicist exalts the values of order, lucidity, restraint. He seeks purity of style and harmonious proportion, striving to bring to perfection what already exists rather than to originate new forms. Achieving a certain measure of detachment from the art work, he expresses himself through symbols that have a universal validity.6


     The classicist is concerned with the shaping of a set of musical materials – melody, harmony, texture, tone color, structure – into some kind of "artistic form, according to techniques and procedures that derive from the nature of those materials," Purity of form is the first concern of the classicist; the control of the form, is the second concern. The classicist strives to achieve a "oneness" of form and content.

     One has only to consider the earliest Zappa albums with his Mothers of Invention to understand the "oneness" of his music. The 4th side of Freak Out including the now legendary " The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" is an example of such fusion. Or, the entire We're Only In It For The Money, one of the first "total concept" albums, is not unlike an orchestral suite. But perhaps the most striking example of Zappa's classicism is his album, Lumpy Gravy, with the Abnuceals Emuukha Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. It is a very serious effort at synthesis, but not simply of form and content, for within the form and within the content are materials of many kinds and many dimensions which themselves are shaped and synthesized. The album reflects the breadth of Zappa's "schooling" for he comfortably works not only with Stravinsky but with Varèse and John Cage and such an unlikely composer as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. There is improvisation, both dialogue and music, within a written-out structure. David Walley in his book on Zappa and the Mothers, No Commercial Potential, has written about Lumpy Gravy and its significance.7

     There is in Lumpy Gravy, as in other Zappa albums, a sense of "freeness," spontaneity, and occasionally even a sense of pleasant chaos. But this sense can be deceiving, for Zappa's is surely an ordered chaos and a controlled spontaneity. Stravinsky has written that the more an art is worked over, limited, controlled, the freer it is. Take for example Zappa's two part cultural comment on Absolutely Free, "America Drinks" and "America Drinks and Goes Home." The song is set in a cocktail bar and has all the indigenous sounds; the cash register, patrons engaged in mindless babbling, clinking glasses, a vapid musical group and vocalist. Zappa's explanation and analysis of it speaks to Stravinsky's theorem.8

     On a more musical level, the first side of the two record set, Uncle Meat, (Zappa's sixth album) indicates how precise and deliberate his musical structures can be. Even the very act of improvisation itself becomes something so ordered, it is hard to believe that such is really improvisation. Zappa's latest albums, especially those with The Grand Wazoo, though oriented in the compositional ideas and techniques of jazz and its improvisatory nature, reflect his neo-classical persuasions and almost belie the inimitable naturalness of jazz. Harvey Siders, writing in Downbeat, called Zappa's music for The Grand Wazoo and its eighteen-plus musicians, "cerebral, antiseptic and disciplined."9

     It would be useful here to consider the various uses of the musical materials in serious contemporary music10 and juxtapose these materials and their uses with those in/of Frank Zappa's music, Thus we can get a clearer notion of Zappa's musical art.

A. Melody

     With Richard Wagner came the height of the revolt against traditional melody, the symmetrical A-A:B-A form. Wagner developed what he called the "endless" or "infinite" melody, a melodic line which evolved freely and continuously, thus avoiding symmetrical, and stereotypical, melodic formations. On the heels of Wagner, the melodies of serious contemporary music took many new shapes. Following are some aspects of these new melodies:

new melodies seek models from the whole of music, from Greek and Latin melodies to the music of the renaissance to Handel and Bach to 18th and 19th century Romanticism; very few of the new melodies are typical four or eight bar patterns; the new melodies have little or no superfluity, they are very "tight" and deliberately structured; there is little apparent punctuation and rhyme in the new melodies, nor are the cadences always perceptible; the new melodies have wide intervals' and "jagged turns of phrase," very difficult to vocalize; the new melodies are wide-ranging and possess an angularity unlike classical or romantic melodies, their proportions seem awkward; the new melodies move within unusual rhythms, harmonies and textures and most often, there is no perceptible tonal center; few of the usual "signposts" of melodic construction are apparent in the new melodies


     The first striking element about Zappa's melodies is that they are in fact real melodies, with the elements of sound melodic construction. Zappa himself has spoken of the importance of melody in his music.

I'm interested in melodies and it's the one thing I find lacking in most of the music today. The construction of melody is a specialized art form. I know a lot of people who can write and arrange but don't pay too much attention to where the melody is. It's a big challenge to write a melody. That's why people who can improvise well against chord changes are so unique because that's a challenge met instantaneously. When all you're presented with is the harmonic skeleton, your challenge is to create a personalized melody against that set of chord changes, it's a very impressive feat.11


Zappa's melodies are musical though they are angular and often contain those "jagged turns of phrase." His classic, "King-Kong" from Uncle Meat as well as that album's title track reflect this angularity. Vocally, many of Zappa's melodies are difficult, not only to execute but to listen to; but they remain imaginative. He allows the melodic line freedom by deriving its rhythm and movement from the lyrics themselves. "Dog Breath" and "Mr. Green Genes" from Uncle Meat are examples of this freedom.

     Perhaps the finest melodic statement of Frank Zappa remains the entire album (two sides), We're Only In It For The Money. As I mentioned before, it is a "total concept" album, beautifully orchestrated both in form and content. It has what Aaron Copland has called the "one great desideratum" of musical form, the Grande Ligne: it has that "sense of flow – a sense of continuity from first note to last." This album illustrates the composer's dependence on the melodic developments of serious contemporary music. The melodies of We're Only In It For The Money are wide-ranging, asymmetrical, economic and deliberately structured, angular and set within unusual rhythms, harmonies and textures. The melodies run the gamut from "Jimi Hendrix type" rock to Broadway-Tin Pan Alley to the abstractions of Anton Webern and Edgard Varèse, "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny," an example of the last. But the melodies are completely supportive of the powerful lyrics, e.g., "Mom and Dad" and "The Idiot Bastard Son." They are, at the same time, kaleidoscopic and synthetic, e.g., "Nasal Retentive Calliope Music." They are demanding melodies, as demanding as the lyrics they support. And these melodies are suggestive of the direction of melody in serious contemporary music: expansion, innovation and, to some degree, revolution.

       Zappa is not above going back to Wagner and his use of "Leitmotiv," those musical motifs in Wagner's later operas which represent specific characters, situations and recurrent ideas. The epic-like "Billy the Mountain" from Just Another Band From L.A. uses "Leitmotivs" for most of its characters: Billy, his wife Ethel, and Studebaker Hoch among others. And Zappa uses such motifs as the Tonight Show theme to represent Billy's cross-country vacation trip.

B. Harmony

       Again, as in the development of melody in serious contemporary music, the development of harmony is quite dependent on Richard Wagner and his avoidance of cadence/resolution and his use of dissonance. Wagner and many composers who followed him explored dissonance more fully and found many of its expressive powers, hitherto undiscovered and unaccepted. Stravinsky has defined dissonance in contrast to consonance, the harmonic unit of several tones:

... dissonance results from the deranging of this harmony by the addition of tones foreign to it ...

... dissonance is an element of transition, a complex or interval of tones which is not complete in itself and which must be resolved to the ear's satisfaction into a perfect consonance.12


Even now, so many years after Wagner, people are still repelled by the dissonance of serious contemporary music.

       But the harmony of serious contemporary music is more than dissonance. It is,

Chordal structures based on 1-3-5-7-9-11 and 1-3-5-7-9-11-13, etc.. .. in a word, polychords; polyharmony, of two sets or juxtaposed harmonies (chords); quartal harmony or chords built on fourths instead of the traditional triad; harmonies with veiled cadences and much less apparent harmonic structure; more stress upon individual chords and their percussive potential, "hammered" chords


Additionally, the harmony of serious contemporary music has a very strong influence upon the melody, so that often the melody seems buried in the chordal structure. Because of harmony, melody becomes much more difficult to perceive.

       Frank Zappa's harmonies contain all of these elements, though some albums reflect more specific elements than others. For instance, Hot Rats, Waka Jawaka, and The Grand Wazoo, reflect quite clearly the harmonies associated with jazz composition and orchestration, particularly in the ensemble writing for brass and reeds. Zappa moves freely and comfortably through all kinds of harmonic progressions and is completely at home with what the ordinary listener would think to be harmonic dissonance.

       Zappa has very clearly extended the harmonic constructions of pop music. These constructions are of unusual complexity and it is because of his use of these dissonances that some people find his music unpleasant to the ear.

C. Tonality

       Perhaps the most significant tonal achievement of serious contemporary music is its expansion and liberation of tonality. Tonal centers have become less restrictive chiefly because of the use of the twelve tones around a tonal center or tonic. The twelve tones, in effect, become twelve potential keys. Thus the distinctions between diatonic and chromatic and major and minor have been eliminated and, as a result, the key or tonal center is less clearly defined (chromaticism).

       Chords are often employed which are alien to the tonality of a composition. Modality is more frequently relied upon, a further attempt to remove the inhibitions created by the major-minor harmonic system.

       Bitonality (the simultaneous use of two keys) and polytonality (the simultaneous use of several keys) have become very much a part of the language of serious contemporary music. But these techniques do not dissolve the principle of the key. Thus, at the same time that they have extended the use of key through simultaneity and expansion, etc., bitonality and polytonality have been able to free music from what Bartok has called "the tyrannical rule of the major-minor keys."13

       One must not neglect to be aware of modulation (movement from one key to a contrasting one), as it remains one of the root principles in the composition of serious contemporary music.

       The middle set of Zappa albums (1968-1971), especially Burnt Weenie Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, are particularly striking for their varied and innovative uses of tonality. One hears in "Igor's Boogie, Phase One" and "Igor's Boogie, Phase Two" (from Burnt Weenie Sandwich) the use of "foreign chords," which not only disguise the melody but the tonal center as well. "The Orange County Lumber Truck" from Weasels Ripped My Flesh also mirrors the "foreign chord" technique.

       As evidenced in these two albums, Zappa would likely support Schoenberg's notion of modulation as "a change of scenery." But it is interesting to note, that the frequent modulation and bitonality do. not veil the melodies, e.g., the twenty-two minute "Little House I Used To Live In" from Burnt Weenie Sandwich. These examples and others suggest that Zappa is very comfortable with such uses of tonality.

       One must not think that Zappa's music is, as a whole, in any way "atonal"' (Stravinsky would prefer to use the term, "antitonal.") Zappa always returns to a tonal center (a key) and brings what might seem to be cacophony to an unaffected resolution. Schoenberg's Opus 19, No. 4, Six Little Piano Pieces, are paradigmatic of much of Zappa's music and its treatment of tonality, especially from the afore mentioned middle albums, 1969-1971.

D. Rhythm

       More than any other aspect, the rhythm of serious contemporary music exemplifies a reliance on the pulse of 20th century urban life, with its movement and sheerly physical impulses and actions. These are percussive, pounding rhythms, kinetic and polyphonic.

       As in the melodic aspects of serious contemporary music, there is a definite "non-symmetrical" quality about the rhythm. The four-bar rhythm is avoided. Instead, one finds meters of five, seven, nine, eleven and thirteen with very intricate and often unusual subdivisions. One thinks of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and its frequent change of meter in each measure (from three to five to three to four to five to three to four, etc.). Or of Charles Ives' music with his simultaneous groupings of different clusters of notes to the beat (two or three or five or seven, etc.). The former represents the development of multi-rhythm, the latter of polyrhythm.

       There also developed a more frequent use of a constant rhythmic pattern juxtaposed with the polyrhythms; the technique has been called, (though perhaps inappropriately) "ostinato," for it is based on the 17th century technique of repeating a melodic phrase in the bass voices while the upper voices carry on in different melodic directions. Nor does one often hear a downbeat in serious contemporary music.

       Zappa's rhythmic constructions are truly contemporary. Since he bases so many of his melodies on the rhythms and movement of his lyrics, the rhythms are irregular and "non-symmetrical." And often, when he juxtaposes the verbal rhythm with another rhythm in the horns or percussion he achieves a kind of rhythmic polyphony rarely attained in any contemporary music.

       "Son of Suzy Creamcheese" from Zappa's second album, Absolutely Free is extraordinary in its rhythmic complexities. In one minute and thirty-three seconds, the tune runs a rhythmic gamut from four measures of 4/4, one measure of 8/8, one measure of 9/8, to 8/8 to 9/8 to 8/8 to 9/8 to 8/8 to 9/8 to 8/8 to 4/8 to 5/8 to 6/8 and finally back into 4/4.

       A different kind of rhythmic picture is presented in "Toads of the Short Forest" from Weasels Ripped My Flesh. As Zappa himself explains it, "... at this very moment we have drummer A playing in 7/8, drummer B playing in 3/4, the bass playing in 3/4, the organ playing in 5/8, the tambourine playing in 3/4 and the alto sax blowing his nose..." Such a rhythmic structure is not at all uncommon in the musical literature of Frank Zappa, including even the accentuated honking of a horn of some sort which often adds a percussive emphasis, not unlike the stabbing accents of Edgard Varèse.

        Again, we must not say that Zappa is revolutionary. But surely he is an innovator of the first order especially with the musical material of rhythm. And the unique thing is that he can still genuinely swing in a deliberate 4/4 or 3/4, as evidenced in the Grand Wazoo albums, Waka Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo.

E. Texture

        In the use of texture, serious contemporary music has retained the most common types: monophonic (the one-line single voice texture), homophonic/chordal (the single voice with clear chordal accompaniment) and polyphonic (the combination of several independent voices or melody lines which together form harmonies-counterpoint). But more emphasis has been placed on the linear, polyphonic textures which bespeaks the 20th century's desire to further objectify its music through a "condensation of style and purity of expression."

        The counterpoint is coupled with the new harmonic ideas, especially polyharmony so that, in effect, the polyphony is not just within the melodic lines but also within the harmonic structures. The opening measures of Stravinsky's "Petrushka" provide a very famous example of this unusual harmonic polyphony. Machlis calls it "moving blocks of harmony which are heard on separate planes."14

       Another unusual textural quality to emerge within serious contemporary music is that of "dissonant counterpoint," or several lines of texture each independent of the other, with no concern for harmonic or melodic relationships.

       What is so exceptional about the polyphonic textures in Frank Zappa's music is their variety. In "The Duke of Prunes" from Absolutely Free, Zappa not only quotes Stravinsky directly from "The Rite of Spring" and "The Firebird" but he weaves a polyphonic texture by combining improvising voices with other, repeated, fixed voice patterns. In "Absolutely Free" from We're Only In It For The Money, Zappa uses dubbed voices and other electronic recording effects to achieve the contrapuntal texture. Instrumentally, he will often set his guitar against one of the keyboard instruments so that between the two, two or three independent melodic lines can be spun. Or he will juxtapose horn with horn or guitar with horn or horn with piano or organ. Almost all of Zappa's "orchestral music, " i.e., that music using a larger number of musicians in an orchestral manner, with orchestral writing (whether it is a brief forty-second interlude or something like "Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra" from his album with Jean-Luc Ponty, King Kong) mirrors polyphony of an extraordinarily intricate weave, again very much akin to both early Stravinsky and early Schoenberg.

       "The Nancy and Mary Music" from Chunga's Revenge reveals what Zappa can do in constructing a percussive (with percussion instruments) polyphony using not only the instruments themselves but voices doing scat lines of drum riffs.

F. Orchestration and Form

       Composers of serious contemporary music found themselves at odds with Wagner's rich, romantic orchestral texture, his doubling of instruments and melody lines and heavy brass writing. The orchestra became not only enormous in sound but also in size. Strauss, Mahler and, to some degree, Bruckner, and Ravel orchestrated in this "swollen, opaque" fashion with "a furious interplay of instrumental lines." Machlis goes on to say that this "Wagnerian" manner of orchestration "brought to its ultimate development the vertical-harmonic – that is to say, the sheerly romantic – way of hearing music. The post-Wagnerian orchestra reached a point beyond which further advance was hardly possible."15

       The return to counterpoint and contrapuntal writing and thinking by the composers of serious contemporary music, made the writing for orchestra once again classical: absolute clarity of melodic line and lucid texture. In a sense, the orchestra was "decongested," once again in both sound and size. Orchestration once more became the servant of the music as many composers returned to the idea of the chamber ensemble. The bombastic dimension of the orchestra's sound was, in effect, deliberately removed as more and more composers re-embraced the clarity and precision of the chamber orchestra's sound.

       Instruments with darker and richer timbre were favored, e.g., the viola, english horn. With the advent of percussive rhythms, came the interest in the percussion instruments, especially the mallet instruments with their "objective sonarity." The piano and hitherto seldom used instruments like the guitar and mandolin, all became part of the ensemble.

       And, of special significance, instruments came to be used in new ways: ranges were extended, unusual combinations of instrument were explored, seemingly unlikely instruments assumed solo roles, and instrumentalists had greater demands placed on them as they were asked to draw new notes and new technical responses from their instruments.

       Frank Zappa is a master orchestrator because he functions as a neo-classicist. He is, in Stravinsky's terms both a creator and a performer; both an interpreter and an executant. And he brings these qualities to his orchestration.

       The bulk of the Zappa repertoire reflects the emphasis of serious contemporary composers on the textures of the chamber ensemble. Zappa has said that he came to rock late in his musical life (21 years old) and that prior to that time he was writing "strictly chamber or orchestra music." He realized that the only way he could get it played was to put together his own band and write for that band. He adds whimsically, "then, I found out it was not easy to find people who could read what I was writing and so I wound up doing things that were not exactly complicated but at least it was mine and I got to hear the idea I had dreamed up."16

       In another interview, Zappa has described some of his ideas of orchestration as seen and heard in his Mothers and the level of sophistication the orchestration achieves.17 Not only is this a musical orchestration (again, We're Only In It For The Money stands out) but it is also an orchestration of theater and all those seemingly "non-musical" aspects which Zappa makes such an integral part of his composition.

       It is important to note too that improvisation is indigenous to Zappa's orchestration. As much as one can possibly control or guide improvisation, Zappa will "orchestrate" it within the textures of a given piece. Live and on his recordings he will "conduct" the performances, including improvisations, and for his recordings he will, not infrequently, splice and dub an orchestration together. "Lonesome Electric Turkey" from The Mothers, Fillmore East, June 1971 is an example of these "conducted" orchestrations.

       "Fifty-Fifty" from Over-Nite Sensation, Zappa's 1973 album is perhaps one of the finest examples of the over-all superb quality and brilliance of his orchestration and those astonishing webs of orchestral textures that he so often creates. The tune opens with a kind of musical "statement of purpose" or capsule overture, in which all the musical materials of the piece are presented, from the drum breaks to the ostinato bass. The lyrics of the tune are quite "musical" in their own right, but Zappa has set them to a splendidly, non-symmetrical melodic line, through which he weaves, note for note with the melody, an ensemble harmonic accompaniment. Zappa cadences the melodic line to set up the three strictly improvisatory statements of the pipe-organ, baritone violin and guitar – three statements of a different nature but all part of the same orchestral texture. The whole piece is a kaleidoscopic pattern of modulation and rhythms.18

       Lastly, a word should be said about form and the interest in not only what is done but how it is done. Zappa's own achievements in fashioning new forms within his area of pop far overshadow the changes in musical form within serious contemporary music. Zappa has had few models within serious contemporary music to study, few composers who have made spectacular changes or unusual new developments in musical form. But though alone in his search for new forms Zappa has had success in creating them. His first album, Freak Out remains one of the most esoteric and creative attempts to reach new musical forms. On this two-record set, Zappa not only explored new forms of the "pop" song, but he was able in such a piece as "Help, I'm a Rock" to extend the limits of form to a degree seldom reached in serious contemporary music.

       Zappa seems to aim for the collage which might direct one to think that he lacks form within which and from which to proceed. But such is not the case, for Zappa is quite deliberate and precise about form. Everything is a whole, again, the "oneness" of form and content. Freak Out is a synthesis of form(s) and, on a sheerly musical level, ahead of its time. It has a place among serious contemporary music.

III. Zappa, Varèse and the Future

       Of all the serious contemporary composers that Zappa has studied and listened to,19 Edgard Varèse emerges as Zappa's principal musical interest.

When I was going to school ... I could never get enough information about Varèse and I thought he was the greatest composer I'd ever heard. His writing was so far beyond anything which these other punks had ever attempted and he was getting little things like that in a book. One time I actually saw a picture of him in a book when he was a young man ... I couldn't understand. If throughout musical history there have been people as great as Varèse with that little exposure somebody ought to go out there and dig them up and find out what we've been missing, for all the reams and reams that have been written about Mozart and Mendelssohn and the rest of the nice composers.20


     Zappa has spent a good part of his musical life "digging up" Edgard Varèse. He sprinkles quotes from Varèse's Integrales and Ionization throughout his early composition and in the liner notes of the first five albums with the Mothers, Zappa quoted Varèse's famous dictum from the manifesto he wrote for his International Composers Guild, … "The present day composers refuse to die."

     It was Edgard Varèse who stressed "pitchless music" and pure rhythm and sound. He conceived of music in "volumes and densities of sound," not in terms of conventional melody and harmonies. He created what has been termed, "sonorous objects moving in a new sound-space," His music develops in "geometric patterns" of sound, comparable to the designs of cubist painting, or the elements of a Calder mobile.

     Joseph Machlis provides some insights as to why Zappa would be so attracted to Varèse.

Several important currents within the mainstream of contemporary music came together in Varèse's works; the desire to root out private feelings from art and to achieve a completely objective style; the spirit of urbanism, and the attempt to evoke the imagery of a machine civilization; the rejection of tonal harmony; the interest in primitivism, with its revitalization of rhythm and its attendant emphasis on the percussive instruments; the attempt to return music to its pristine sources, and to mold it into architectural forms as pure sound. Given Varèse's early training in science and his mathematical turn of mind, it was almost inevitable that he would be sensitive to these trends. He adopted a frankly experimental attitude toward his art that placed him among the extreme radicals of our time.21


     This could be a description of Zappa and his music, particularly in respect to Varèse's choices and applications of sound materials. John Cage's eloquent tribute to Edgard Varèse written for the Fall, 1958 issue of Nutida Musik and reprinted in his book, Silence, speaks to the implications of Varèse's choice of sound materials. As Cage notes, Varèse accepted "all audible phenomena as material proper to music." 22 This perception of Varèse can properly be applied to Frank Zappa's musical art. For Zappa, as for Varèse there is little, if any, dichotomy between life and work, between music and life.

... I am not a person who goes to work. I am my work. I'm there. I'm in the middle of that whole thing. That's what I do. It's not a separate entity.23


     Again, for Zappa and Varèse, the purpose of writing music itself is what Cage has called "purposeless play."24

     And the future of serious contemporary music? Another musical interest of Zappa's, Pierre Boulez, has provided a valuable perspective.

I think our generation will give itself to synthesizing as much as – if not more than – discovering: The broadening of techniques, generalizing of methods, rationalization of the procedures of writing, – in sum, a synthesis of the great creative currents that have manifested themselves principally since the end of the nineteenth century.25


     Frank Zappa is a synthesizer and this quality is precisely the extraordinary value of what he does musically. He is always a student and he is curious and aware. He sees that, at this point in time, the culture – and its music – does not really need more discovery as much as it needs the ability to absorb and synthesize what it has already discovered.

     Frank Zappa deserves to be considered and respected as an important and serious musical force in the 20th century. If, as Boulez suggests, ours is to be a generation of musical synthesis, acknowledgment and acceptance of Frank Zappa will be a crucial element in the synthesis.26


1 It goes without saying that there are many exceptions to my statement. Within Rock alone, exceptions are numerous: e.g., Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Oregon, Pink Floyd, The New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, Genesis, Lighthouse, etc. There are also exceptions within Jazz.

2 I have not used American as an adjective here because, in certain contexts, it would be too limiting. It can however be implied in most instances in which I use "serious contemporary music."

3 See Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the form of Six Lessons (New York: Random House, 1947, pp. 12-18.

4 See Roger Sessions, "Problems and Issues Facing the Composer Today," Problems of Modern Music, The Princeton Seminar in Advanced Musical Studies, ed. Paul Henry Lang (New York: Norton and Company, 1960), p. 25.

5 See Elliott Carter, "Shop Talk by an American Composer," Problems of Modern Music, The Princeton Seminar in Advanced Musical Studies, ed. Paul Henry Lang (New York: Norton and Company, 1960), pp. 54-55.

6 Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (New York: Norton and Company, 1961), p. 7.

7 See David Walley, No Commercial Potential: The Saga of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention (New York: Outerbridge and Lazard, 1972),p. 88.

8 See "Frank Zappa: The Mothers of Invention," interview by Frank Kofsky, The Rock Giants, ed. Pauline Rivelli and Robert Levin (New York: The World Publishing Co., 1970), pp. 31-32.

9 Harvey Siders, "Meet the Grand Wazoo," Downbeat, Vol. 39, No. 18, (November 9, 1972), p. 36.

10 This section on the materials of serious contemporary music is very dependent on Joseph Machlis' discussion in the already cited volume, Introduction to Contemporary Music.

11 James Schaffer, "The Perspective of Frank Zappa," Downbeat, Vol. 40, No. 15, (September 13, 1973), p. 14.

12 Stravinsky, pp. 35-36.

13 quoted in Machlis, p. 35.

14 Machlis, p. 51.

15 Machlis, p. 55.

16 Schaeffer, p. 15.

17 See Kofsky, p. 23.

18 A rare glimpse of Zappa's gift for orchestrating the unusual can be heard in his "Goodnight" to the audience on the Fillmore '71 album.

19 A partial list: Sessions, Ravel, Schoenberg, Persichetti, Craft, Honegger, Debussey, Boulez, Webern, Stockhausen, Ives, Cage and Varèse.

20 Walley, p. 28.

21 Machlis, p. 625.

22 John Cage, Silence (Wesleyan University Press, Conn., 1961), p. 84. 23Walley, p. 142.

24 See Cage, p. 12.

25 quoted in Machlis, p. 436.

26 Zappa's latest two albums, Apostrophe (and its success) and Roxy & Elsewhere reflect his intensified quest for "commercial success." Though they bear Zappa's unmistakable imprint, the albums seem more gimicky than earlier albums, less complex musically, and on some cuts, more "Top Fortyish." One hopes this does not mark a new direction for Zappa, to the exclusion of his more involved and serious musical investigations.

Peter Kountz is affiliated with Roosevelt University

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