The following is a guest post by Carter Rawson.
In the 80th year of his birth, let us recall bandleader, composer, guitarist, and satirist, Frank Zappa. Often referred to by fans and family as simply FZ, it is tempting to add iconoclast, dadaist and social provocateur to the late musician’s curriculum vitae. Zappa was indeed many things over his roughly 30 year career, which included an assignment as cultural liaison for the Czech Republic, but the consensus is that he was an outspoken and intellectually fearless human being determined to be taken seriously as a composer. Possessing both a musically rigorous and entrepreneurial approach to the performing arts, Zappa emerged as a 1960’s avant-garde music & film artist from Southern California. He evolved into a 1970’s counter-cultural icon before committing himself to orchestral works in his later years.
FZ was not shy about his modernist affections. Born into a military family, the young Zappa absorbed a great deal of classical music while growing up next to the Mojave Desert. 20th century composers in particular were a big influence well before he became a rock-n-roll polymath. While still a teenager, Zappa became enamored by French composer Edgard Varese. Stravinsky, Dvorak, and Bartok also had an impact (Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto was one of his favorite pieces, and he would quote it often in his music). Life in a remote town allowed him to both hone his musical craft as a gifted outsider and to build his first studio. Zappa’s outsider status, coupled with his “do-it-yourself” aesthetic, bears more than a passing resemblance to Charles Ives’s musical life some 50 years prior in rural Connecticut. Ives, son of a military bandleader, was successful in the insurance industry when he was not composing.
Zappa, a media savvy producer as well as a composer, successfully recruited ex-military band members Don Preston and Bunk Gardner to create the Mothers of Invention, one of the most memorable performing acts of the late 1960s. With the Mothers, FZ became legendary as a band leader capable of inspiring loyalty and virtuosity from professional musicians 10 years his senior. Although famous for being rigid and exacting with his troupe, FZ gleefully indulged in improvisation, comedy and surrealism that was completely non-conformist.
While the “Mothers of Invention” were collecting underground press accolades for their 1966 debut album, Freak Out, classical music programs in America were moving on from a mid-century “Ives revival”. Established conductors and venues began to focus on a variety of younger composers taking hold in the classical community as electronics and recording technology continued to evolve at a rapid pace. By 1970, “genre bending” was now in style with rock and classical forms competing head to head for an audience. Gold record artists such as Wendy Carlos and Emerson Lake & Palmer were finding great success with synthesized re-interpretations of Bach, Mussorgsky, etc. Rock acts were increasingly filling traditional concert halls and traditional artists, such as Virgil Fox, were likewise finding new audiences at hip venues such as the Fillmore East.
After having been injured at a concert in 1971, Zappa continued to compose during his extended convalescence and rebuilt his live act around jazzier instrumentals such as “Duprees Paradise” with various musicians. 1975 saw him record with a 37-piece orchestra featuring conductor Michael Zearott. The sessions were entirely instrumental and featured material reworked from 200 Motels such as “Strictly Genteel” along with new work such as “Pedro’s Dowry” and “Naval Aviation in Art?” as stand-out pieces. From here, FZ music embarked on a 5-year creative period that wove rock and classical themes together to yield some of his greatest work. The magnum opus Lather, along with the multi-disc Joe’s Garage and Shut Up & Play Your Guitar series show him in peak form.
Conductor Pierre Boulez perhaps paid Zappa the ultimate compliment on 1984’s The Perfect Stranger by leading the Ensemble InterContemporain through a number of Zappa’s compositions. (Ensemble InterContemporain performed in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress in 2015). FZ the composer was finally getting his due. He would go on to record with Kent Nagano & the London Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1980’s, before delivering his final album, The Yellow Shark, in 1993 shortly before his death. Frank Zappa’s recorded legacy would seem to suggest he packed three lifetimes worth of material into his 52 years and the handful of albums mentioned here are a good place to start.
If you enjoyed learning about the prolific musical life of Frank Zappa, please consider the following materials for further reference. To borrow any materials mentioned in this blog, you may access BARD or request a copy on digital cartridge or braille by contacting the Music Section by phone at 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail [email protected]
Boulez, Pierre. Experiments in Electronics. Composer-conductor Pierre Boulez discusses his search for a new musical language. (DBM00330)
Electronic Music. Milton Babbit discusses and plays electronic music. (DBM00583)
Glenn Gould on the Moog Synthesizer. Glenn Gould talks about the Moog synthesizer used in the production of the recording Switched on Bach. Includes interviews with synthesizer performer Wendy Carlos and Canadian poet Jean Le Moyne. (DBM00244)
Bartok, Bela. Third Piano Concerto. One of Frank Zappa’s favorite pieces. Reduction for two pianos, four hands by Matyas Seiber in bar over bar format. (BRM25803)
Ewen, David. Composers of Tomorrow’s Music ; a Non-Technical Introduction to the Musical Avant-Garde Movement. (BR01945)
Ives, Charles. Thirteen Songs for voice and piano. Words by Charles Ives and others. Bar over bar format. (BRM23992)
Stravinsky, Igor. The Rite of Spring: Ballet for Orchestra. Quoted by Frank Zappa in his work “In-a-Gadda-Stravinsky.” Reduction for piano duet by the composer in bar over bar format. (BRM29704)
For further reading, here is a blog post from the Library of Congress about Frank Zappa’s 1968 album, “We’re Only in it for the Money.”
Here is a 1999 Carnegie Hall interview of Pierre Boulez led by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.