Zappa Et. Al.

By Bill Betts

New University, November 13, 1970

(NOTE: This story was written in reply to a criticism of my review of WEASLES RIPPED MY FLE$H. The letter, which appeared in last Friday’s NEW U., made the completely justified complaint that I had copped-out in my discussion of Frank Zappa’s creative sources. As a belated answer to my anonymous junior critic and others who had this complaint, I offer this summary. BB)

In order to properly place the music of Frank Zappa within the context of twentieth-century music, it is necessary for the listener to be aware of several trends in the development of music over the past seventy years: increased harmonic freedom, increased rhythmic freedom, and a growing awareness of the musical potentialities of electronic sound production.

The first of these three trends, increased harmonic freedom, is a result of work done by Arnold Schoenberg and his followers. From the Middle Ages until Schoenberg’s work, music almost invariably had a tonal base; that is, the work centered around a single note which, when sounded, tends to give a musical phrase a sense of completion. Schoenberg devised a twelve-tone system which is designed to eliminate the tonal base and to give every note in the octave equal weight in the composition.

The first of Schoenberg’s compositions to use this twelve-tone form of composition was the FIVE PIANO PIECES written in 1923. He was followed in using this technique by two other composers, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. Their work took the somewhat scholastic work of Schoenberg and gave it a sense of warmth that, for many listeners, it lacked. From the pioneering work of these men, the use of dissonance and unusual harmonies has become an important aspect of musical practice. That Zappa has made liberal use of this freedom is obvious to anyone who has listened to the vocals on ABSOLUTELY FREE, to give one example of many.

The development of the second of the three trends in modern music under discussion, increased rhythmic freedom, took place at roughly the same time that Schoenberg and his followers were experimenting with harmonies. Igor Stravinsky’s LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS appeared in 1913, and caused a riot in the audience. It too was a very dissonant piece of music, but in a different way the work of the twelve-tone composers. Stravinsky’s main concern was with rhythm, a concern totally in keeping with a ballet about primitive fertility rites, complete with the sacrifice of a young girl. LE SACRE may be the most influential single piece of music written in the past seventy years. In the words of Pierre Boulez, “This ritual of ‘Pagan Russia’ attains by itself a dimension quite beyond its formal point of departure: It has become the ritual and the myth – of modern music.” (From the liner notes to Boulez conduction LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS, Colombia MS 7293.)

Edgar Varèse took the rhythmic freedom unleashed by Stravinsky and, in IONISATION (1931), created a piece of music which depends almost entirely upon unpitched, percussion instrumentation. Since these instruments (cymbals, triangle, fire siren, maracas, and the like) are not tuned to a particular pitch, it is obvious that harmony is impossible to achieve. The entire basis of the music has to be rhythmic.

Stravinsky and Varèse have been the two strongest influences on Zappa’s music. In LUMPY GRAVY, Zappa utilizes themes from LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS in several places. The second movement of “Help, I’m a Rock” is dedicated to Varèse (something which Zappa has done for no other composer), while “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet” is a percussion piece that sounds very much like IONISATION. (Both songs are from FREAK-OUT!) In a more general vein, Zappa’s debt to both is apparent in many of his songs. A good example is “Son of Suzy Creamcheese” from ABSOLUTELY FREE. Zappa described the structure of the song to Frank Kofsky thus: “ ‘Son of Suzy Creamcheese’ took a year to learn how to play. Can you tell why? The time, the time it’s fantastic. It’s four bars of 4/4, one bar 8/8, one bar 9/8 – OK? And then it goes 8/8, 9/8, 8/8, 9/8, 8/8, 9/8, then it goes 8/8, 4/8, 5/8, 6/8, and back into 4/4 again.” (Eisen, THE AGE OF ROCK, p. 260.) It’s not the only song that complex rhythmically, either on the album or on Zappa’s other albums, Listen to a couple of them, and pick these things out for yourself.

Finally comes the contemporary awareness of electronic techniques of sound production and alteration. This is a phenomenon which has been central to the development of rock music, for rock instrumentation is basically electronic, not acoustic. The electric bass and the electric guitar have potentialities which can never be duplicated by their acoustic counterparts. The two most common electronic variations on the basic tones of these instruments are the fuzz box and the wah-wah pedal. Zappa has done little work with the fuzz-tone (the riffs on WE’RE ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY are probably played by Eric Clapton, who is credited in the liner notes with having “graciously consented to speak to you in several critical areas.”), but he is a master of the wah-wah pedal, as even a cursory listening to “Get a Little” on WEASLES RIPPED MY FLESH will show.

Another area of electronic manipulation of music at which Zappa is a master is the use of magnetic tape in recording his albums. He has produced all but the first two albums (which were done by Tom Wilson), carefully editing takes, splicing them together, laying up tracks onto the master, and using filters and variable playing speeds to alter the tones when necessary. Zappa, as well as most other good record producers, owes a great debt to Karlheinz Stockhausen and his followers in learning to utilize magnetic tape as a medium of musical expression. Stockhausen suddenly became prominent with the release of the Beatles’ SGT. PEPPER, but his influence has extended beyond the Beatles into all of rock music. (It should be noted that ABSOLUTELY FREE is almost contemporaneous with SGT. PEPPER, and makes just as much use of the potential of magnetic tape.)

Zappa’s music is strange, by the standards of popular music, but it can’t be said that the composer has deliberately tried to make it obscure. “The whole FREAK-OUT! album (and by extension, the rest of his music) is to be as accessible as possible to the people who wanted to take the time to make it accessible. That list of names there (preceded by ‘We have been influenced by ––––, do not hold it against them’), if anybody were to research it, it would probably help them a great deal.” (Eisen, p. 267) All that has been attempted here is a brief introduction to that list. If you’re interested, it’s there for your further use.