This is reflective of another important aspect of Zappa's work. The eclecticism of his early influences led him to treat music as music, without any preconceived notions of what is stylistically (or otherwise) 'correct'. Pieces would often be arranged for rock
group or small ensemble, then re-orchestrated for symphony orchestra, with the structure of the piece remaining intact in either environment. One example that has to be heard to be believed is 'Envelopes'. There are two startlingly different
instrumentations of this piece which can be found on the albums Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch and London Symphony Orchestra Vol.II (see discography). The instrumentation goes from digital keyboards, rock rhythm section and distorted electric guitar on 'Witch' to woodwinds, horn section and strings on 'L.S.O'. That Zappa managed to keep the piece sounding excellent in either category is no mean feat. It would have taken a highly specialised approach to
conceive of this kind of arrangement, let alone achieve it.
Frank enlisted Kent Nagano, conductor of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, to realise his scores...the two met backstage at a Zappa concert and Frank showed him some scores. 'I looked at them and realised they were far too complicated for me to comprehend just sitting there,' Nagano said. These kinds of musical syntaxes usually take a master's degree to even grapple with, and even then, most composers with degrees don't necessarily have the inspiration to go along with their knowledge,' he added.(1)
All of Zappa's music exists in its own creative environment, following its own rules. The crossover employment of rock, classical and jazz players, sometimes all in the same group, coupled with the abilities of a truly self-taught composer and
bandleader allowed for the development of a kind of music that is truly unique, and however eclectic, somehow stamped with the Zappa identity.
The term 'Third Stream' was coined by the American composer Gunther Schuller in about 1958 during a lecture; it describes the attempts being made at that time to fuse 'the improvisational spontaneity and rhythmic vitality of jazz with the compositional procedures acquired in Western music during during 700 years of musical development', producing a kind of music separate from either ingredient. (2)
It seems as if the above statement holds true to Zappa's musical output. Pieces like 'The Black Page' could only have come from a mind that understood the discipline of the classical tradition and appreciated the rhythmical influences that have poured into all twentieth century musics.
Considering how much musical territory Zappa explored, it can be no real surprise how diverse his output was.The real genius must be that he kept a sense of discipline, continuity and individuality in all his work, so that is always recognisable.
Arranger Ali N. Askin had this to say in the sleevenote to Zappa's last orchestral project, The Yellow Shark:
"I think Frank's music is unique in this way: I don't know of any composer who is mixing or switching between all those influences and musical dialects he uses. Somehow he managed
to work with these many, many influences since the very beginning in his musical career. And I think for many composers this would be a really big danger, to get lost in all those
things you could do - like a child lost in a toy store. But he's really original at using all these influences. I could compare him, in that regard, to somebody like Stravinsky.He is also
influenced very much by European composers, but he doesn't care about what comes after what. He uses the "Louie Louie" progression and goes straight into a cluster which could be
written by Ligeti, and he doesn't care, as long as it sounds good.There is no 'theory' about what could be used, like 'could I use a C-major chord in this twelve tone context', or
something like that. The last judge is his ear. This fresh way to work with all those colors and textures, I think, is
Perhaps it was this apparent freedom in his approach that meant Zappa produced a body of work in his lifetime that simply dwarfs the output of his contemporaries. Because of sheer volume alone, trying to understand Zappa's musical universe
could easily becomethe work of a lifetime, and can only be touched upon in the ten thousand or so words here.
One thing that is certain is that Frank Zappa's music will continue to have a cult following, as it has for the last thirty years. Zappa scores are slowly filtering into classical ensemble repertoires. It can only be a matter of time before Zappa's
fantastic musical output receives the attention it rightly deserves.
(1) Quote taken from Zappa:Electric Don Quixote p.256, (see bibliography)
(2) Quote taken from The Oxford Companion to Music (see bibliography) 'History of Music' p.478
(3) Taken from the booklet included with The Yellow Shark album. (see discography)