Frank Zappa the Idol of my Youth
Published in Urthona Issue 21, 2004-5.(This article is slightly modified from what was printed in Urthona)
The first time I heard FZ’s music, 24 years ago, I laughed until I cried and my stomach ached. In fact the lyrics were so funny that I barely registered that the music was kind of unusual. Initially it was the humour that drew me, but I began to realise that FZ’s work went much deeper than “Titties and Beer”. Increasingly I was drawn to the instrumentals, and to the orchestral Zappa.
FZ was a strong willed, individualistic outsider. He taught himself composition by obtaining scores by Stravinsky, Varese, Bartok and others, and studying them. Quite a feat! He liked to observe and celebrate the weirder side of human behaviour. But the weirdest thing about the man himself was his penchant for spending 16 hours a day drawing dots and beams on music paper, and then expecting his long suffering musicians to reproduce it exactly as written. He didn’t like drugs, he encouraged kids to vote, and he was a trenchant crusader for freedom of speech.
FZ had a special grasp of timbre and rhythm. This comes out especially in his orchestral works where he uses timbre to great, often comic, effect. Rhythmically his music is often complex and difficult for the uneducated ear to appreciate. However he always liked to bring his audience along with him. Vocal or musical clues that he dubbed Conceptual Continuity helped to make the listener feel at home. In a complex Stravinskian piece, for instance, would suddenly come a ‘texture’ from a 1950’s sci-fi monster movie, instantly recognisable as such, or someone would utter the word poodle and Zappa fans would collectively sigh… well that’s alright then. Conceptual continuity also provided links to the rest of his Project/Object as he called his oeuvre. His aesthetic was decidedly Dada, he described it as “anything, anytime, anywhere, for no reason at all”. This is not to say that he did not know exactly what he was doing at each point of the score. That said he was also adept at incorporating extraneous sounds itto his work.
Musicians, whatever their background and training were expected to play with accuracy, but also with passion – he had a knack for bring out the best in them, often exposing hidden talents and exploiting them. Musicians in a touring band would learn up to 60 tunes, some horribly difficult, and to be able to play them in any number of styles. Zappa could with the use of private hand signals indicate a change from, say, something approximating the synthesised sound of Devo, into a laid back reggae romp. If the whole band did not change on the beat the result was a train wreck – no other rock band has ever been so demanding. However he was constantly frustrated by the problems that musicians brought with them, and in 1985 began experimenting with the Synclavier. This powerful sequencer could play his fiendishly difficult rhythms and changes all day without complaining, getting drunk or invoking obscure union regulations to screw him for more money. The Synclavier material does sound a bit dry, but at least one gets to hear accurately what is in the score.
Happily in the last years before his untimely death from prostate cancer in 1994, FZ met the Ensemble Modern, a German based group of musicians who actually liked playing contemporary material, and loved FZ’s music in particular. They rehearsed on their own time even! And the resulting concerts, and the Yellow Shark Album recorded during them, is probably as close to perfection as it gets – not 100% accuracy as FZ points out, but very good. Far better than the LSO recordings (marred the by drunkenness of some of the players apparently!) or the disappointing Pierre Boulez album, and with moments of trademark deeply sardonic humour.
My favourite recording of FZ’s music is by the Ensemble Ambrosius who are a group of young Finnish early music enthusiasts. They transcribed FZ’s music (a non-trivial task in itself!), and reproduced it on replica Baroque instruments. It’s such a bizarre concept that I’m sure FZ would have loved it too!