Mother Follower Of Edgard Varèse

By Ralph J. Gleason

Datebook, December 8, 1968

“AN ARTIST is never ahead of his time but most people are far behind theirs,” the late Edgard Varèse once said. And I was reminded of that last weekend when I heard Frank Zappa conduct his orchestra (which he quaintly calls The Mothers of Invention) in concert in Berkeley. [1]

Zappa is a confirmed follower of Varese, I would say, not only because the latter’s dictum “The composer in America refuses to die!” is printed on the jacket of each of Zappa’s albums but because Zappa has so obviously followed another of Varese’s sayings, “The future composers of symphonic music will consult the scientist in his laboratory instead of the violin maker in his garret.”

Early in 1969, Frank Zappa will begin issuing albums of The Mothers of Invention on his own label, “Bizarre.” Hopefully we will get a better chance then to hear his music than I think we have had so far in the group’s Verve LPs.

From the recorded evidence available so far and from the kind of thing they did at their Berkeley concert, there seems to be good reason to think that Zappa is a serious composer in the new field of electronics.

That he uses instruments usually associated with rock ’n’ roll (i.e. amplified guitars and basses; saxophones with special electronic devices and electronic pianos and organs) is no reason to discount his music. He produces what his orchestra plays by laying the individual sounds over one another rather in the fashion of Varèse.

In addition, Zappa uses the voices of his musicians, not only as a vocal chorus but in striking, individual ways as well for special effects. Many of the effects he desires are satirical at this point in his career, but in order for him to obtain a hearing at all it has been necessary for him to present his music as though it was a kind of burlesque act.

From that initial stance, he has raised the routine of his concerts to high level satire, an all-out attack on the audience and through the audience the society. It is highly theatrical and just as flagrantly burlesque as it can be, but it is effective. He is gaining a faithful audience with this and while he has them there, listening to the outrageous lyrics of his songs (some of which are just as deeply satirical as Lenny Bruce), he goes into interludes of serious electronic music.

In a review of the recent concert, I said it was the first electric jazz band. This doesn’t mean, however, that Zappa utilizes a constant tempo or rhythmic pattern as does most jazz. He is inclined, like Miles Davis, to break up the swinging passages after a while, shift the tempo, utilize speed-ups and slow-downs and change the whole thing around in terms of pattern and beat.

The more a serious music audience develops for Zappa’s work, the sooner we will have a concert in which he will expand his concepts of electronic music to include a diversification of sounds that should be astonishing.

The experimentation in the serious rock of the past two years has opened up new areas in electronic music. It has also called a number of musicians working in that field by the label “genius.” Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys was the first victim of that, due to his concern with electronics. Van Dyke Parks is another. Neither of them is in the same league with Frank Zappa.

1. Mothers Of Invention gig on Saturday, November 30 1968, in Berkeley Community Theater with Wild Man Fisher as a warm-up act (Zappa Gig List).

See also "Those Mothers Can Really Play" by Ralph J. Gleason.