"...Alright now watch this. Let me tell you about this song...this song was originally constructed as a drum solo. That's right. Now; after Terry learned how to play 'The Black Page' on the drumset, I figured: 'Well...maybe it would be good for other...instruments'. So I wrote a melody that went along with the...drum solo...and that turned into 'The Black Page, Part One, the hard version'. Then I said : 'Well, what about the other people in the World who might enjoy the melody of the Black
Page, but couldn't really approach its...statistical Density...in its basic form?'
So, I went to work and constructed a little ditty which is now being...set up for you with this little Disco type vamp...this is:
'The Black Page, Part Two, the easy teenage New York version'. Get down with your bad self, so to speak, to the Black Page part two..." (1)
Frank Zappa released over sixty full-length albums during his thirty year career spanning the 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's, and the Zappa family trust has continued to release archive material since his untimely death from cancer in 1993. (2) The scope and diversity of the music contained on these releases gives some insight into this eclectic and iconoclastic American composer-genius, and how he has both reflected and influenced twentieth century music.
There are several well written books on the Zappa life history, covering his politics and sociological stance. (3) This is an appealing angle from which to approach Zappology, because the man himself was notoriously forward with his beliefs, through the spoken, sung and written social commentary and critique in his musical releases, his political outpourings (4) , and the various press releases he made through his career. There are also in-depth discographies and reviews of the Zappa musical output insome of these books (5) .These publications make it possible to explore Zappa's universe, and to form a picture of his career development and the
emergence of the Zappa legend.
There is a distinct lack, however, of musical analysis of Frank Zappa's work, especially when compared to that of other contemporary composers.The reasons for this apparent oversight on behalf of musicologists may stem from a few simple points:
- Frank Zappa was an irreverent and unrepentant rock and roll guitar player with a sharp and sardonic wit. He openly spurned then lampooned academia and was intentionally dismissive of any high-art pretension.
- Frank Zappa wrote music primarily for Frank Zappa, blatantly disregarding stylistic boundaries. He could not be tied to any musical movement, and his very individual style developed throughout a long and intensive career (6) . This built a truly eclectic catalogue of works, that can not be easily categorised or analysed as a whole.
- His music is (from the outset) too weird. Frank Zappa's musical career runs parallel to the proposed birth of postmodernism, and high-art musics in this time have received much critical attention. The reactionism of the Minimalist movement did raise sociological issues, but there is no shortage of intelligent musical analysis of its exponents' individual styles. Similarly, there are many sociological studies of popular musics, but there are also decent musical analyses of the genre that have been published. Zappa is lost somewhere in between. His composition does not fall into any school or movement, but it most certainly has a place in high-art traditions; parallel to this, he continued a line in 'sophisticated semipopular entertainment' throughout his career (7) .
This lack of genre identification and stylistic ambiguity was quite intentional, and it is part of the reason why Zappa has yet to receive the critical appreciation that would lead to the publicationof musical analyses of his work.The irony was that his often elaborate music was most frequently heard (and appreciated) by what is largely considered a 'low-art' audience; the Rock fan.
To this extent, Zappa has popularised the avant-garde.My own personal
understanding of developments in high-art musics of the twentieth century has come about through an interest in Zappa's music and its influences. I sought out the music of Edgard Varese, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky and other great composers on the strength that I liked Zappa's music and wanted to know where it was coming from.
When questioned about his music, Zappa would quote such diverse influences as rhythm and blues, doo-wop and jazz, to serialism and neo-classicism (8). His approach to composition allowed him to combine these influences to create an eclectic but convincing catalogue, striving for excellence in every musical direction.
The sheer volume of Zappa's output is such that his live recording tapes fill a basement at his studio in California, where they are still being catalogued, and archive material is still being released on Zappa records. The musical complexity and detail contained within the recordings and scores that are available is quite often astounding, and stand as testament to Zappa's dedication to music. As such, this essay is by no means definitive or comprehensive coverage of Zappa's output. This is an introduction that attempts to understand what makes Zappa sound like
(1) Frank Zappa's preamble to 'The Black Page No.2', transcribed from the 1977 live album release 'Zappa in New York'. C.D two, track 7, 00:06 - 01:23 min/sec.
(2) See Discography.
(3) Specifically The Real Frank Zappa Book.(See Bibliography).
(4) In his lifetime, Zappa was, amongst other things, a political and business aide to the Newly formed Czech Republic. He also spoke out in the American Congress and the British Courts against Censorship (see The Real Frank Zappa Book).
(5) The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play by Ben Watson is an exhaustive analysis of the Zappa musical output, applying Adorno's theory to the chronological run-down of Zappa releases. Most of the consideration goes towards sociological aspects and attempting to prove Zappa's 'conceptual continuity', but there is some musical analysis, though mostly descriptive. During my research, this was the only available published analysis, and indeed the only musical analysis I could find at all, regarding Zappa's music.
(6) This is exemplified by the fact that during his career, Zappa worked with such diverse talents as The London Symphony Orchestra, The Ensemble Modern, Pierre Boulez, Kent Nagano, Steve Vai, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, George Duke, Aynsley Dunbar, Terry Bozzio and the N.E.D Synclavier, to name but a few.
(7) 'Sophisticated Semipopular Entertainment' is coined in the packaging blurb to the 1991 video release Zappa's Universe (see discography).
(8) The Real Frank Zappa Book, 'There Goes the Neighbourhood' and 'All About Music' chapters form a clearer picture of Zappa's musical influences (see bibliography).