Monger Airs (excerpt)

By John Adams

Hallelujah Juction, 2008

Hallelujah Junction by John Adams
Chapter 9 Monger Airs
pp 183-186

During the early 1980s, while I was doing concerts in San Francisco, a friend who had been copying music for Frank Zappa sent me several large orchestra scores by Zappa with the hint that perhaps I might lobby for performances of them with the San Francisco Symphony. They were part of a rapidly growing number of Zappa’s compositions for conventional classical orchestra. Although they still bore the familiar mocking, in-your-face Zappa titles like “Bogus Pomp,” “Mo ‘n’ Herb’s Vacation,” and “Penis Dimension,” they also included passages of dissonant, thickly orchestrated material, sometimes featuring perversely difficult rhythmic groupings that all but dared a big-time orchestra to take them on and wrestle with the knots and tangles of their polyrhythms. Nothing came of my perusal of those orchestral scores, but ten years later I began to program some of Zappa’s works for smaller orchestra, and over a period of time I did performances of his works in many cities throughout Europe and the United States, both on symphony orchestra programs and with special virtuoso ensembles like Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern and the London Sinfonietta.

Zappa’s admiration of Edgard Varèse was deep, genuine, and oft proclaimed. Even my own wife had said that Freak Out!, Zappa’s first best-selling album with the Mothers of Invention, had changed her life, introducing her to Varèse and launching her on a long voyage of discovery in the world of experimental music. Varèse himself was a lonely outsider, an émigré composer whose visionary futurism and stubborn individualism had kept him apart from the conventional classical music community, a community that Copland so expertly navigated. Varèse’s outlaw persona coupled with the radical constructivism of his music provided the perfect model for Zappa, who himself played the role of outlaw, angry individualist, and musical radical within the context of American pop music. But unlike Varèse, who seemed to care little for public notoriety, Zappa was an immensely clever self-promoter gifted with perfect pitch when it came to identifying the absurdities and vulgarities of American popular culture. The music he made with his bands was advanced by the standards of rock music, but in comparison to what was being accomplished at the same time by other contemporary composers, it was hardly more advanced than what had been around already for half a century. Zappa the snarky social critic, the taunting homunculus who ridiculed the vacuousness and stupidity of American culture, was very much in the lineage of our best social satirists – Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, and Hunter S. Thompson. With his snarling, potty-mouthed titles and song lyrics he had a gift for appealing to the eternal six-year-old in all of us. “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Alien Orifice,” “G-Spot Tornado” were musically interesting enough to beg multiple listenings, more at least than most of what was being produced at the time.

Zappa’s engines were driven by his savagely critical animus against commercial pop and the market-oriented, image-conscious, media-driven world of rock. Shortly after the 1966 release of Freak Out! he broke with the money-driven corporate world of commercial music, took control of all aspects of his work, and from then on entirely self-produced his music. Everything, the composing, recording, editing, mixing, packaging, marketing, and licensing, was under his personal direction. This of course gave him enormous creative freedom, and with the knowledge that there was no corporate middleman to answer to, his individuality flourished. He stayed outrageously productive, almost manically so, right up to his early death at the age of fifty-two.

I was always uncertain about Zappa and remain puzzled by him. His autobiography: The Real Frank Zappa Book, is one of the best of its kind written by a composer. Only Berlioz’s memoirs give such a delicious taste of the life and times of its writer without resorting to pomposity or self-promotion. What other composer would feel compelled to begin his memoirs with a statement denying the long-standing rumor that he had once taken a shit onstage? How can one not be impressed by his outgrowing the imaginative poverty of a childhood in the bleak desert town of Lancaster, California, where the signal cultural events were sock hops and car thefts?

Zappa’s creative life played out during the same time as the birth and flowering of rock, and much if not most of his work was a commentary on it. Having educated himself in contemporary classical techniques, he introduced phrase and metric irregularities to the boilerplate symmetries of pop music. In the 19805 he was one of the first, or possibly the first to compose works exclusively on electronic instruments, in his case the Synclavier, a precursor of computer-controlled technology, and the experience appears to have even further liberated his creativity. Zappa’s cool yet curmudgeonly persona and his hard-won maverick status brought him a huge and appreciative audience. He was a hero in the USA, but his fame was even larger in Europe, where his image as cultural icon continues to occupy a status not unlike that granted to Charles Bukowski in poetry.

I knew I ought to be grateful to Zappa for his going head-to-head with the worst vulgarities in American popular culture and satirizing them with a flair worthy of Panurge. But I struggled to stay involved when I listened to his music, whether it was his canonical early Mothers of Invention songs, his Synclavier compositions, or the “avant-garde” instrumental works of his late Yellow Shark compositions. Too often the butt of his humor turned out to be something I didn’t much care about – bad pop music, Los Angeles car culture, or adolescent complexes of not being popular. What one of his fans acknowledged as an “aggressive defensiveness concerning ‘high art’ ” sounded right to me. Zappa’s vein of wary, almost paranoid suspicion of cultural elitism runs very deep in the American psyche and often for good reason. But what he ridiculed as bogus pomp was also something he deeply desired to possess, a cachet in the world of serious art music, although strictly on his own terms. Curiously, despite their composer’s huge name recognition and popularity, Zappa’s “classical“ works have yet to be taken up as part of the regular repertoire. They are difficult and require much rehearsal time. But so are the works of Ives, Carter, Ligeti, and Adès, and conductors – at least some conductors – will accept the challenge of those composers. There seems to be a quality issue with Zappa’s “serious” works that cannot be gotten around.