Zappa And The New Reich

By Michael Bloom

Feature, January 1979

Frank Zappa

Discreet (DSK 220])

Steve Reich

ECM (ECM 1129)

Frank Zappa is the most indispensable asshole of modern rock ’n roll. He’s the only elder statesman we would trust to comment authoritatively on the state of the art, but he’s continually mooning us. Case in point: Studio Tan, which is the best Zappa record since Grand Wazoo. Not only does it consist of old material, but of tapes that his estranged label put out behind his back; in other words, this looks very much like a record he didn’t want us to hear.

Well, let’s stop shaking our heads long enough to look at this minor masterpiece. “Greggery Peccary” seems to be a follow-up to “Billy the Mountain”: It follows the some narrative and program music format, and alludes to the earlier work at one point. Its story line, however, features more of that vicious social criticism we lap up so masochistically, and the incidental music is a lot more varied and precise – the advantages of studio presentation on this lp vs. live work with former Turtles.

Nearly all of side two is genuine music. “Revised Music for Guitar and low Budget Orchestra” is orchestrated in the style of the Waka/Jawaka days, but the material is much older – Zappa produced it originally for Jean-Luc Ponty’s violin (see the latter’s King Kong) soon after Hot Rats. “Redunzl” is a later theme with an earlier presentation: The vibes that became Zappa’s trademark for a while compete only with the piano and tasteful synthesizer a la Don Preston. About “Let Me Take You to the Beach” I know nothing save that it takes the piss out of the Ramones.

Meanwhile, downtown, the lacy, introspective, meditative and glorious music known vulgarly as “the Soho minimalist school” takes several quantum jumps toward knowledgeable acceptance. Several Terry Riley film soundtracks are now available, notably the jolly Lifespan, as imports. Philip Glass’ opera, Einstein on the Beach, is reputed to be released in its rococo entirety, promising to be magnificent. And now, Steve Reich’s richest work to date will have the benefits of major label muscle, wide critical attention and quality pressing. This is a coup for the fine arts.

Reich’s music, like Glass’ and Riley’s, eschews most of the vaunted textbook advances of Western music. Reich prefers the musical devices of cultures for which music-making is a communal social event or a ritual evocation. The Reichian player does not burst forth with a melodic line, or push the music with chordal harmonies, or cross swords with another voice in counterpoint; he is called upon to find his niche in the sonic ecology. Texture is more important than tunefulness, and stability supercedes motion. The focus is time, understood not as a boundary but as a sort of acoustic clay. The listener notices first the flattery tempo of the eighth- or 16th-notes that are the atoms of this music, then the languourous evolution as it courses dawn the organic river.

Music for 18 Musicians presents another, intermediate rhythm, a pattern of themes and riffs that dive in and out of the timestream. Set in a matrix defined by law, breathy instruments (bass clarinet, cello) complemented by bright high percussives (pianos, marimbas, xylophones), the melodic fragments dance about and metamorphose in cyclic outpourings. These motifs bridge the gap between Reich’s contemplation of the ineffable and our more terrene scale of beauty. I find this piece as enveloping as Glass’ Music in Changing Parts, perhaps the all-time classic of the genre, and more lively in timbre and tone. It’s just gorgeous.