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 “Twist'n frugg in an arrogant gesture”: 

Frank Zappa and the musical-theatrical gesture


Paul Carr

Principal Lecturer in popular music, University of Glamorgan, Wales 

Richard J. Hand

Professor of theatre and media drama, University of Glamorgan, Wales

Frank Zappa’s ability to fuse diverse styles into a unifying idiolect, make him a fascinating case study in intertextuality. Zappa’s work not only represents an extraordinary confluence of styles that was profoundly ironic in nature, but a prolonged and considered interchange of musical traditions. These gestures represented the beginning of a long-term unwritten contract Zappa forged with his audience, which presented him with an unparalleled amount of artistic freedom. Additionally, Zappa’s concerts achieved a legendarily theatrical status in which dramatic gesture was immensely important. This essay is concerned with examining how a multitude of musical and theatrical gestures influence the implementation and interpretation of Frank Zappa’s music, and hopes to present an explanation into the processes that underlie his complex multifaceted performances and recordings. How and why was Zappa’s music described as rock despite its numerous incongruous influences? How and why were the more “serious” aspects of his music usually juxtaposed with humour and frivolity? How and why did “non musical” gestures such as comic and absurdist theatricality in performance, dress code, album packaging, concert promotion, and political views influence the way his music was received? Throughout this essay, the word gesture will be used to describe any artistic activity that communicates “meaning” between Zappa himself and an external source. These paradigms range from the innovative “conduction” techniques Zappa employed on both musicians and audience, to the stylistic parameters of his music, to the often “absurdist” theatricality of his stage shows.
Early Years

When Frank Zappa arrived on the international music scene in the mid-1960s, he had already been working as a professional musician since leaving high school in 1958, gaining experience as a jobbing musician, film composer, studio owner, and songwriter. Early demo recordings of his pre-Mothers of Invention work portray a musician heavily influenced by the blues, doo-wop, orchestral arranging, and comedy theatre, but yet to find his unique artistic voice. Although he had not discovered a methodology to fuse these musical and theatrical gestures into a consistent idiolect, the combination of influences is already unique, and are recognisable contributors toward his mature style: evidence of this can be found in Mystery Disk (1998), a compilation of the very earliest Zappa recordings. Commencing on drums and changing to guitar at age fifteen, Zappa’s musical interests reach far beyond the rhythm & blues bands of his youth, almost developing an alter ego compulsion for twentieth-century classical music, especially the work of Edgard Varèse. Particularly interested in Varèse’s concept of music as “organised noise”, the influence remained consistent throughout his entire career, and appears to provide a major contribution toward his approach to live and studio work, as well as the numerous styles he was to engage with.

By the time Zappa released his debut album Freak Out in 1966, he had already elaborated upon these paradigms considerably. Stylistic gestures such as sarcastic anti establishment lyrics (“Mr America”), tape splicing (At 2.01 of “Who Are The Brain Police”), doo-wop influenced vocals (“Go Cry On Somebody Else’s Shoulder”), classical orchestration (“How Could I Be Such A Fool” and “You Didn’t Try To Call Me”), rhythm & blues influenced grooves (“Trouble Every Day”), and humorously complex thematic material (“You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here”) can all be diachronically traced from this point throughout his entire anthology, gradually becoming more intertextually and idiolectically consistent. The second half of the album subtlety introduces less commercial, more experimental works, including fusions of musique concrète and rock such as “The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet” and “Help I’m A Rock”. Such works present early examples of the unclassifiable stylistic fusion Zappa was to develop over the forthcoming years.

Zappa’s Sustained but Uneasy Interface with High and Low Culture
Zappa’s “Rock Star” persona appears to play a substantial part in informing his audience how to indexically categorise his work. Certainly throughout his early career, Zappa seemed to calculatedly utilise the archetypal clichés of the Rock tradition to compartmentalise his work into as lucrative a direction as possible. How would compositions such as “The Son of Monster Magnet”, “Help I’m a Rock”, and the Kagel influenced “It Can’t Happen Here” (Zappa 1966) be interpreted without the dress code, eccentric behaviour, and of course idiosyncratic electric guitar playing of Frank Zappa? Although often dismissing both the industry and consumer as cynical exploiters and ignorant fools respectively, he was in fact highly skilled at manipulating both institutions to his own means. For example, he appeared to have no conscience when utilising “cheap” publicity – such as appearing as a celebrity guest on television game shows – to help publicise his “product”; yet we are discussing the same figure whose 1984 recording The Perfect Stranger with Pierre Boulez resulted in Zappa being the only American composer aside from Elliot Carter that the great conductor dedicated an entire album to. Such seeming tautologies accentuate Zappa’s sometimes confusing and uneasy relationship with both high and low culture. However, Kevin Courrier arguably sees this as Zappa’s grandest, iconoclastic gesture:
Frank Zappa brought to popular music a desire to break down the boundaries between high and low culture. He presented musical history through the kaleidoscopic lens of social satire, then turned it into farce. This potent mixture upset many listeners who wanted to cling to a safer, more romantic view of art as something morally and spiritually edifying. (Courrier, 2002: 10).

In performance too, Zappa can be seen to align the gesturing of high and low culture. A live performance of “Peaches en Regalia” taken from a 1979 television broadcast of Saturday Night Live provides an indicative example (Zappa 2004). Although this piece is known as one of his “Jazz Rock” works in terms of musicological content, the accompanying frivolity of the band performance and image of the performers seem to detract from the seriousness of this genre, being far more cogent with rock. It is as though Zappa is aware that the piece would not be suitable for mainstream television without the additional commercialised dimension of rock performance authenticity, the frivolity almost acting as a safeguard against anyone potentially questioning his Jazz-Rock pretensions. Toward the end of the piece, almost in an attempt to substantiate the credibility of the work, and the symbiotic interrelationship of its styles, Zappa performs an archetypal Rock “arm spin” gesture, which is reminiscent of the “Rock God” gesticulations of Pete Townsend. However, this movement is somewhat neutralised by immediately leading the band in the manner of a symphonic conductor, clearly alluding that this piece is not only “light entertainment” but also high art conceived by an imaginative, and above all serious composer. Although this performance took place in 1979, Zappa had been incorporating conducting techniques such as this since the mid 1960s. His conducting of the band not only alluded to his dominant hierarchical position as composer within the Mothers of Invention, but also the artistic merit of his music, and as Susan Fast pointed out when analysing the use of Jimmy Page’s use of the violin bow on guitar – a ‘quest for virtuosity’ (Fast, 2001: 38). Zappa’s conducting also demonstrated a range of complex, principally “indexical” related hand signals that according to him enabled the realisation of his recorded experiments with musique concrète in a live environment (Slaven, 2003: 175). Indeed, Zappa had a very traditional perspective of a musician’s role in the formulation of music, stating “Music comes from composers – not musicians. Composers think it up; musicians perform it” (Zappa, 1989: 174).

Ex-Zappa sideman Tommy Mars estimated that on a single tour, the members of his band would have to understand and interpret between fifteen to twenty hand signals, all of which could subtly or drastically alter the direction of a given piece (Murray 2004). Although these signals continue a tradition within the popular music canon established by bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus (Watson 2000), Zappa’s precise incorporation of these gestures appears to be totally unique. A composition that had been explicably scored and rehearsed could be drastically changed spontaneously by the implementation of specific hand signals, as Zappa reveals in his autobiography: 

[If I twirl] my fingers as if I’m piddling with a Rasta braid on the right side of my head – that means: “Play Reggae.” If I pretend to twirl braids on both sides of my head, it means: “Play ska” (…) If I want something played “heavy metal,” I put both hands near my crotch and do “Big Balls” (Zappa, 1989: 167).

If these movements instigated a shift in musical style, Zappa also used gestures such as raised eyebrows, iconic key shapes with fingers, and hand-based amplitude variations, all of which triggered predetermined environments, harmonic structures, styles, time signatures, modulations, melodies, textures, or behavioural patterns. When discussing Zappa’s implementation of these techniques, even when working with classically trained musicians, Ekman states: 

He was renowned for training his rock and roll bands to respond instantaneously to a variety of signals thereby enabling a spontaneous interaction with unpredictable events during a concert. This concept of course is entirely foreign to the controlled environment of the conventional classical music concert. I think Frank was intrigued by what could be achieved by bringing this propensity toward spontaneous interaction to classically trained musicians (Ekman 2000). 

An example of this “propensity” can be heard in the posthumously released “Jolly Good Fellow” (Zappa 1999). Although clearly a “free” improvisation, it has a unified thematic structure that enables it to sound like a composition, bearing witness to Zappa’s ability to creatively and spontaneously manipulate even large groups of musicians like a musical instrument. Despite its improvised nature, the whole piece is founded upon a single chromatic motif, which gradually, and in typical Zappa style humorously elaborates as the piece progresses. The motif is conversational in nature, sometimes being performed by a single instrument (For example at the start), but also played in unison and contrapuntally (For example between 0.30 – 0.40 and 1.15 and 1.39). Musical characteristics of the motif are engrained with melancholy and mischievousness, and are given an added dimension by subtle variety of timbre, texture, phrase length (via the use of diminution and augmentation), vibrato and note duration. This overt incorporation of narrative is typical throughout Zappa’s career, and this piece clearly depicts conversational allusions, whose activities and attitudes develop in time and space. The use of the Theremin punctuates the piece with another pervasive theme from the Zappa archives, alluding to the (cheap) science fiction of his never to be realised Hunchentoot, in addition to Joe’s Garage (1979) and “Cheapness” (Zappa 1974b) As indicated above, throughout “Jolly Good Fellow” (Zappa is clearly using the cohort as a compositional tool, spontaneously documenting a profound work of art in the style not dissimilar to the expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. Calling the technique “conduction”, Zappa himself regarded it as a means to “draw ‘designs’ in the nowhere – with a stick, or with your hands – which are interpreted as ‘instructional messages’ by guys wearing bow ties who wish they were fishing” (Zappa, 1989: 176). It in fact represents a living testimony to the famous Zappa maxim – “Anything, Any Time, Anywhere – for No Reason at All” (Zappa, 1989: 163). 

As well as communicating subliminal messages to the audience regarding the artistic importance of his music, musical information to his band concerning the stylistic and textural nature of a work, and providing an exceptional creative medium for himself, these signals were also incredibly dramatic in nature, and could even be applied to individual band members and audiences, creating theatrical set pieces. In the 1968 Royal Albert Hall concert, which featured fourteen members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Mothers’ keyboardist Don Preston suddenly transformed, Jekyll and Hyde style, into Dom De Wild, a rampaging hunchback monster who enacted a microcosmic melodrama while bass player Roy Estrada emerged as a Mexican Pope wearing metal breasts who distributed contraceptives to the audience by the handful (social satire meets Theatre of the Absurd). Ensemble set pieces include the remarkable performance of “Approximate” (documented in the Dub Room Special DVD, 2006) which provides a full spectrum of performance and theatrical gesture: that is to say, the same theme is played by the assembled six-piece band first with their instruments, then through their voices, then through mime, and finally through the medium of dance. When it came to the audience, Zappa would hold impromptu dance, singing or “sex noise” contests, and as discussed later in the essay would regularly integrate the participants into his works of art. The Mothers’ performances at the Garrick Theatre in New York City in 1967 were extraordinary theatrical and explored a constant interplay between performer and audience: as well as encouraging audience participation in the event, the performances had regular key players such as a large stuffed giraffe which, when massaged by a frog puppet, would squirt whipped cream over the audience. But it was not just gestures of absurdist frivolity at the Garrick. One of the most problematic yet fascinating incidents of Zappa’s relationship with audience occurred in the summer of 1967. The Vietnam War – and the protest against it – was at his height and three marines arrived at the Garrick. Far from looking for trouble, the marines joined in the performance, singing and expressing anti-war sentiments and gestures that were certainly treasonable. The audience loved it, but when Zappa, in a provocative gesture, tossed the marines a doll and told them demonstrate how they would kill a “gook baby”: they did with unbridled ferocity and the concert itself was killed dead. Zappa later claimed in an interview that in these shocking and alienating moments just as much as in the surrealistic humour, “We were carrying on the forgotten tradition of Dada stagecraft. The more absurd, the better I liked it.” (Quoted in Courrier, 2002: 125). Incidentally, the published interview was yet another example of Zappa’s postmodern confluence of high and low art, as it is probably the only time that Dada has been discussed in the pages of Playboy magazine. 

Although these gestures were comprehensively understood by his employees as a communicative medium, through which Zappa could instantaneously alter numerous parameters of a given performance, and by his audience as ironic and/or strategic anti essentialist[1] tendencies of his character, they are also clear examples of a two-way process outlined by Tagg: 

Gestural interconversion entails… both the projection of an external emotion via an appropriate gesture on to an external object and the emotional and corporeal internalisation or appropriation of an external object through the medium of a gesture corresponding in some way to the form, shape, movement, grain, density, viscosity, etc. of those objects. (Tagg, 2003: 254). 

Zappa in fact developed a whole range of physical and musical gestures that initially had semantic meaning to him, and eventually became learned responses for his musicians and audiences. Although Zappa’s use of conduction, and diverse stylistic palette were instigated to enable him to implement and control his creative environment, it had the effect of signifying important social and cultural information to his audience. Even though the image and sounds of “Peaches en Regalia” may be aligned to rock and jazz paradigms, the aforementioned conducting gesture is associated with high art, and implies elevated degrees of musical literacy from both the musicians and audience. Amidst the same production, Zappa took this procedure a stage further by actually conducting the band from a podium, complete with musical score and baton, and during “I’m The Slime” played the role of a school teacher, attempting to teach the American public his political convictions by highlighting the song’s lyrics on a flip chart. The sociological and cultural implications of the aforementioned “high art” gestalt is in congruence with Zappa’s conception of the composers’ dominant hierarchical position over the orchestra, and when combined with advanced musicological techniques such as serialism, classical orchestration, and complex time signatures, has a profound subliminal effect on the interpretation of his music. Interestingly, these factors sharply contradict with the indexical rock signifiers of his album packaging, public image, concert promotion, and guitar solos, the combination of which instigates a series of dichotomies in the mindset of the audience. Is the music Rock, Jazz or Classical? High or low art? Controlled or open? Improvisatory or notated? Serious or frivolous? Complex or simple? Elitist or vernacular?

Complexity of Style and Integration of Tradition 

Although his musical and physical presence often portrays all of the dichotomies outlined above, his rock-founded persona and reception is always intact, and can be described with Bakhtin’s notion of centripetal and centrifugal forces. When discussing similar paradigms in the work of Neil Young, Echard stipulates that “it makes sense to cast rock as the over-arching category, exerting a centripetal pull on its various sub-traditions, and to cast the subtraditions – for example punk, rockabilly, country and blues – as the particular, destabilizing forces” (Echard, 2005: 62). This is also true for Frank Zappa, who calculatedly managed the balance of these “destabilising forces” in his music throughout his career, in effect both evading and relying on the material he engages with (Echard, 2005: 76). Although Zappa’s centrifugal gestures did regularly move in the direction of the subtraditions of rock – for example “Love of My Life” (Mothers of Invention 1968) (doo-wop) and “Louise has Messed My Mind Up” (Zappa 1979) (Reggae) – his pervasive engagement with music outside of the tradition has a more profound effect on the reception of his music, and the stylistic balance outlined above.

It is proposed that Zappa’s long-term relationship with contemporary classical music appears to be not just a juxtaposition of style, but eventually became a confluence of traditions[2]. Analysis of much of Zappa’s portfolio reveals a consistency when experimenting with classical and rock styles, and this factor seems to be largely responsible for the erratic genre labelling his music often receives. When discussing the “classical” influences inherent in his early portfolio he verifies a clear intention to gradually educate his audience into comprehending his more “inaccessible” future efforts, stating – “Stravinsky in rock n’ roll is like a get-acquainted offer… It’s a gradual progression to bring in my own ‘serious’ music” (Slaven, 2003: 82). This statement verifies the fact that Zappa explicitly but subtly integrated classical gestures into his early portfolio, gradually increasing the propensity of the statements in individual compositions, and eventually albums. Examples of his early practice include “puns” that allude to classical titles (such as “Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin” (Mothers of Invention 1967), and “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask” (Zappa 1970)); direct quotations from the canon (“Fountain of Love” (Mothers of Invention 1968) includes a quote from the opening theme of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring), written acknowledgement of relevant influences (Freak Out (1966) includes a substantial list of his major influences, including Boulez, Kagel, Schoenberg, Varèse, and Stravinsky amongst many others ); and compositional intent (Absolutely Free (1967) was considered to be two oratorios, and included a “mini rock opera”: “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”). In 1967 Zappa took this process a stage further, by interspersing Lumpy Gravy (1967) – which makes extensive use of an orchestra – between the more centripetal rock forces of Absolutely Free (1967) and We’re Only in it for the Money (1968), a process he was to repeat with Orchestral Favourites (1979) – produced between Sheik Yerbouti (1979) and Joe’s Garage Act I (1979) – and London Symphony Orchestra Volume 1 (1983), produced between The Man from Utopia (1983) and Them or Us (1984). Toward the end of his life, Zappa’s most profound centrifugal gesture was to ensure that his final three albums – Ahead of Their Time (1993), The Yellow Shark (1993) and Civilization Phase 3 (1995) – were all, to varying degrees, orchestral in nature. Despite the indisputable musicological paradigms of the above, it is apparent that audio qualities alone are not enough to classify the stylistic qualities of any musical work, and when discussing the stylistic ambiguity of Zappa’s portfolio, Gracyk comments 
When Frank Zappa puts an instrumental track on his albums, it’s rock music even if we recognise its jazz or classical influences. But when Pierre Boulez records an album of Zappa music, it’s classical music (Gracyk, 1996: 5). 

Gracyk goes on to argue that ‘when Brandford Marsalis releases an album, it is jazz. But when he appears on a Grateful Dead album (Without a Net 1991) he is playing rock, even if he is playing exactly the same horn part that he might play on one of his own albums’ (Gracyk, 1996: 5) The musical tradition of the artist has a profound impact on how their music is interpreted, and Frank Zappa for the greater part of his career was unquestionably part of the rock tradition. However, the calculated way he managed his musical output enabled him to eventually be accepted as part of the classical/”new music” tradition, effectively metamorphosing into what was originally his alter ego, undergoing a similar, albeit more profound process that The Beatles undertook when maturing from a rock & roll band, to that of a rock band. In a recent interview, David Butcher, chief executive of the Britton Symphonia, recently compared Zappa’s output to Stravinsky’s, stating: 

The biggest compliment I can pay is to think of a composer like Stravinsky, who wrote in many, many different styles. You had the “Rite of Spring” Stravinsky, you had the neo-classical Stravinsky, you had the late twelve tone Stravinsky, and you could almost mirror that in terms of Frank’s serious output. But I would say like Stravinsky, whether it’s very jazz based or rock based, or whether it’s dissonant and Varèse-like – you know it’s Frank Zappa (Greer 2006). 

A recent article in The New York times described Zappa as ‘an outsider artist eventually discovered and embraced by the establishment without ever losing his outsider cachet’ (Midgette 2007). Specifically discussing a night of his chamber music performed at the Millar Theatre by The Fireworks Ensemble, this comment succinctly describes how Zappa’s legacy has successfully negotiated both rock and classical traditions. This becomes even clearer when we realise that Zappa’s entire compositional portfolio can be regarded as a single profound philosophical gesture, which he entitled the Big Note. When discussing his entire output in 1968 he revealed both his allegiance to musique concrète and the gesture in question, commenting 

All the material in the albums is organically related and if I had all the master tapes and I could take a razor blade and cut them apart and put it together again in a different order, it still would make one piece of music you can listen too” (Slaven, 2002: 121). 

Zappa continued with this philosophical perspective throughout his career, and would frequently not only refer to and rearrange earlier compositions, but actually include previously recorded material into his current works. When ratifying the artistic merit of this process he commented upon the theatrical nature of what could be considered “self plagiarism”, stating that when “a novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party?” (Zappa, 1989: 139). This was often the fundamental philosophy behind the countless re-arrangements Zappa made of his works, prompting him to incorporate the terminology of Project/Object when describing the perceived difference between the completed work of art in a recording (Object), and the ongoing process of redefining it (Project). 

He extended these conceptual continuity gestures – a term first mentioned on side 2 of Lumpy Gravy (1968) – to his entire creative output (including his album covers and videos) in a clear demonstration that he considered individual works of art as being in a process of constant development. He commented: 

In the case of the Project/Object, you may find a little poodle over here, a little blow job over there, etc., etc. I am not obsessed by poodles or blow jobs, however; these words (and others of equal insignificance), along with pictorial images and melodic themes, recur throughout the albums, interviews, films, videos (and this book) for no other reason than to unify the “collection.” (Zappa, 1989: 140). 

Zappa’s Big Note, included another self titled gesture entitled Xenochrony (Etymology deriving from the Greek words xeno (strange or alien) and chrono (time)). This was exclusively a studio based technique that enabled him to horizontally fuse disparate recordings from unrelated time and places, consequently enabling him to superimpose “unrelated” guitar solos, usually from live recordings, into his studio projects. After initially experimenting with the technique on Captain Beefheart’s “The Blimp” (Captain Beefheart 1969), it became a pervasive creative aspect of his portfolio, resulting in numerous recordings fusing the scientific perfection of his studio work, with the free flowing improvisation he was able to initiate in a live environment, a technique especially pervasive in Joe’s Garage: Acts I, II & III (1979). It is important to verify that when using xenochronic techniques, Zappa was interested not only in fusing recordings from different times and places, but aligning musical structures from completely incongruous compositions. The effect of this angular gesture often has a profound effect on the listener, in effect accentuating the disparate locations and spaces the tracks were originally recording in. 

As outlined above, Zappa clearly received a creative energy from his audience, and regarded them as part of the two-way “gestural interconversion” process indicated earlier. Indeed his audience not only interpreted the pervasive gestural codes inherent in any live performance such as dress code, movement and sound, but as demonstrated on numerous tracks such as “Make A Sex Noise” (Zappa 1992), were often incorporated into the creative process, often being asked to interpret similar hand signals to his musicians, and in effect becoming an integral part of the work of art. Zappa guitarist Steve Vai commented 

He would give audiences noises to make, in various sections of the audience. So then he would create this piece of music by having everybody watch him, and he would point, or give a cue, then he would point to the audience, and he would just, you know, wield his baton around, and next thing you know you’ve got this very unique interesting kind of a composition that involves the entire audience and the band and everything. It was nice and it was different every night (Greer 2006). 

Research has indicated that if performers are sensitive to the gestural codes emanating from their audiences, it has a direct positive effect on their creative output (Davidson, 2002: 146), and Frank Zappa appreciated this factor more than most. Perhaps this is the reason he preferred to incorporate live guitar solos into his studio work? When compiling the album series You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Zappa skilfully aligned recordings from his entire career to date, this time vertically, and to paraphrase him, “without overdubs”. Regarding the entire series, he clearly verifies that “This collection is not chronological”, going on to confirm that “any band from any year can be (and often is) edited to the performance of any other band from any other year – sometimes in the middle of a song” (Zappa 1991). This album series is effectively not only an astonishing technological display of Zappa’s studio skills, but a realisation of his Big Note philosophy, each recording representing a “utopian” live concert as seen from Zappa’s perspective. Effectively aligning disparate time and places into a series of individual artistic gestures as represented on each album. It could be argued that a genuine live “concert” has to be derived from a congruent time and place. However studio technology has made it common practice for musicians to experiment with these parameters in both live and studio performance situations, effectively ensuring that errors are eliminated, and that all instruments are appropriately balanced. Zappa however seems to accept the lack of authenticity his studio work attribute these recordings. The album series is consequently an extremely ironic gesture, acknowledging the fact that it would indeed be impossible to achieve the variance of recording venue, time, and band personal without studio technology. Zak would describe individual tracks on these albums as artefacts, pointing to the “shifts in perspective that a record makes available through its manipulation of [synchronic and diachronic] four dimensional space” (Zak, 2001: 144). Incorporating Zak’s model, these track based artefacts themselves become diachronic and synchronic gestures for more subtle artefacts ranging from conceptual continuity clues, to fused performances from disparate time and place (“Lonesome Cowboy Nando” (Zappa 1992) consists of two takes recorded seventeen years apart ), to performances of historical significance, to band based folklore. As Susan Fast pointed out in her monograph on Led Zeppelin (2001), stylistic diversity is important to fans, as it is indicative of the artist’s “willingness to grow musically, to take risks, and especially to shy away from the easy option of repeating themselves” (Fast 2001: 20). Fast’s argument that these paradigms “run against capitalist marketplace interests” (Fast, 2001: 22) is particularly pertinent to Zappa, who as immortalised in the title of David Walley’s early monograph - No Commercial Potential: The Saga of Frank Zappa (1972), was explicit regarding the ‘non commercial’ intent of his music, which is in turn reflective of his non conformist political and social views. When discussing the reception of these traits, Moore asserted that competency in discerning musical styles derives from “the [listeners] ability to distinguish normative from unusual exemplars, and to make predictions of the likelihood of certain events in real-time listening” (Moore, 2001: 26). However, this article proposes that this approach is not possible with Zappa’s output, where even superficial analysis confirms that the only predicable event is the unexpected. This is true not only in the chronological connection between albums (as stated above), but also in the diachronic and synchronic construction of individual tracks and albums. As Zappa stated 

My idea of a good time is a really simple minded song followed by something that is out to lunch, and then back to simplicity again, and then back out to lunch again. That’s the way the world really is… (Zappa, 1989: 97) 

It is important to verify that this essay does not suggest that Zappa is the first (or indeed the last) musician to appropriate western classical music into their ‘centrifugal’ style. Musicians such as Scott Joplin, George Gershwin, Stan Kenton and Claude Thornhill all experimented with merging jazz with classical paradigms in the first half of the twentieth century. These experiments cumulated in the formation of the term Third Stream in the early 1950s, whose advocates considered the merging of classical and jazz styles to be an important artistic and cultural development for the art form. As discussed later, this postmodern merging of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art was also pervasive in the developmental stages of rock music, and as Walser correctly noted regarding the analysis of these divides, it is not uncommon to attempt a legitimisation of popular culture by “applying the standards of “high” culture, with the assumptions that underpin cultural value judgements left untouched” (Walser, 1993: 59). If this assumption were applied to Zappa, despite the complexity of his work, his often sarcastic, ironic and anti establishment regard of the ‘seriousness’ of music would be omitted, as would his contempt for the audiences who received it. When discussing the use of ‘Art’ music in the work of Elvis Costello, Brackett observed that this lack of distinction between high and low culture has a tendency to make high cultural paradigms more accessible to “rebellious youth at the margins” who may otherwise have considered it snobbish or elitist (Brackett, 2001: 168). Zappa makes his opinion perfectly clear when discussing the reality of the Classical period in autobiography: 

I find music of the classical period boring because it reminds me of ‘painting by numbers.’ There are certain things composers of that period were not allowed to do because they were considered to be outside the boundaries of the industrial regulations which determined whether the piece was a symphony, a sonata or a whatever. (Zappa, 1989: 186). 

When comparing the glorified reception of this music to the formulaic nature of its harmonic paradigms, he is equally disdainful, believing that ‘many compositions that have been accepted as “GREAT ART” through the years reek of these hateful practices’ (Zappa, 1989: 187) believing that “People who think that classical music is somehow more elevated than ‘radio music’ should take a look at the forms involved -- and at who’s paying the bills” (Zappa, 1989: 186). 

Zappa’s realism regarding the commercial constraints placed on classical music, in addition to the detached and humorous way he presented his work is indicative of the lack differentiation between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art outlined above, and his involvement with twentieth-century art music was always ironic in nature. When discussing the appropriation of classical music with Heavy Metal, Walser discusses how Afro-American jazz musicians such Duke Ellington attempted to defeat “racist essentialism” by proving they can engage with classical music. He argues that the ‘prestige’ Ellington achieved through positioning himself as a classically influenced composer was partially responsible for his influential role in gaining respect of African-American music (Walser, 1993: 61). Walser continues to discuss how guitarists such Richie Blackmore, Edward Van Halen, Randy Roades and Yngwie Malmsteen pushed the theoretical, technical, and pedagogical boundaries of Heavy Metal by incorporating the virtuosity and compositional traits associated with the Baroque and Classical periods. Although a noted and influential guitarist, Zappa was first and foremost a composer whose portfolio displays unusual intertextual depth, and who like Ellington engrained a calculated mix of innovation and tradition in his music, which consequently played an important role in gaining ‘prestige’ for the rock genre. 

Ontological Thickness – Recording Processes, Musical Notation, and Conceptual Continuity 

Zappa is an interesting example of a “rock” artist whose compositional portfolio has ontological interest from the perspective of both the score and the record. Although his employment of xenochronic and cut and paste studio artefacts/gestures are radical, they are perceived as being very much part of the rock tradition, where technology is used as a compositional tool, often enabling new works to emerge from independently conceived ideas. More experimental examples from the canon such as U2’s Achtung Baby (1991) and Neil Young’s Arc (1991) (Gracyk, 1996: 49), can be placed in context when compared to Zappa’s more stylistically adventurous experiments on albums such as Lumpy Gravy (1968) and Civilisation Phaze 3 (1993), as well as individual tracks such as “The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny” (Mothers of Invention 1967) and “Dwarf Nebula Processional March & Dwarf Nebula” (Zappa 1970): where Zappa seems to rely on influences such as Pierre Schaeffer and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen more than rock. The pervasive use of multi tracking in rock music was indeed preceded by the musique concrète experiments of the late 1940s, rock serving as a conduit through which the techniques could be experienced via low culture, it being the first commercial music form to rely on the recording process to develop specific works. During this process, the completed work of art is often labelled retrospectively, when the recording process is complete, the performers of individual tracks not necessarily being aware of the precise details of what they are recording. These paradigms undertook a new dimension in some of Zappa’s recorded work, where any recorded element of his previous portfolio could reoccur in future projects. As well as subtly incorporating material from pervious albums into his current recordings, in the tradition of the compositional practices of Bebop, Zappa also used entire rhythm tracks as the basis for new works. His satire of Broadway musical form Thing-Fish (1984) is probably the most notable example of this process, where the majority of the songs were either directly taken from earlier recordings, or in the case of “Galloot Update” and “You Are What You Is”, lyrically revised versions of earlier songs. The fact that these songs have independent titles proves that Zappa considers the recordings not to be arrangements of earlier works, but independent, albeit derivative recordings. This is similar to the process incorporated by surrealist artist René Magritte, who prided himself on giving new meanings to familiar ideas. For example his The Man With The Bowler Hat (1964) and The Son of Man (1964) are identical apart from the artefacts covering the subjects’ face (a bird and apple respectively), which are in turn developments of his earlier work Golconda (1953) and Mysteries of the Horizon (1955). Like Zappa, he clearly regards aspects of his work not as finished products, but as part of an ongoing process that can be developed over many years. As discussed above, without an overarching gesture such as the Big Note, it would be easy to interpret Zappa’s “sampling” practices as at best self-plagiarism, but individuals taking this view are missing the profound conceptual continuity gesture which is so integral to his work. In addition to his creative gestures when using studio technology, Zappa’s confluence of high and low culture is accentuated by his pervasive use of notation when scoring his band and orchestral pieces. This results in his portfolio having analytical interest from the perspective of both traditional musicology, where ontological priority focuses on the organization of rhythm and pitch, and what Allan Moore entitles “the primary text” (Moore, 2001: 1-8), the importance of the musical sounds inherent in the records themselves. Moore goes on to compartmentalise the differences between the transmission of European art music and rock, presenting a score vs. recording divide, (Moore, 2001: 34). He continues to verify that “European art music is performed with reference to a pre-existent score, which is accepted as an encoded version of the sounds intended by the composer. [Alternatively], [t]he rock score, where one exists, is actually a transcription of what has already been performed and produced” (ibid). Zappa’s holistic portfolio consists of both of these paradigms, consequently containing what Gracyk describes as ontological “thickness” in both areas (Gracyk, 1996: 31) 

Having been posthumously accepted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Zappa is now firmly established within this tradition, and has been a major influence regarding broadening the stylistic pre-requisites of the Rock genre. However, since his death in 1993 he has increasingly been accepted as a composer of concert music: one of the final albums produced in his lifetime, The Yellow Shark (1993) with the Ensemble Modern, has resulted in numerous concert and radio performances and a subsequent album Ensemble Modern Plays Frank Zappa: Greggery Peccary and other persuasions (2004). If we are to accept Echard’s definition of tradition as “a complex discursive category which correlates bundles of generic and stylistic features with specific social groups, places, and histories” (Echard, 2005: 62), then Zappa’s phenomena can be considered to have gone full circle, and realised his childhood intentions to be accepted as a serious composer. 


This essay does not propose that Zappa was the only rock based musician operating on the boarders of high and low art forms during the late 1960’s – early 1970’s. Artists such as Deep Purple (Concerto for Group and Orchestra 1969), ELP (Pictures at am Exhibition 1971), Yes, The Moody Blues (Days of Future Passed 1967) and of course The Beatles (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band 1967) all experimented with the Rock/Classical divide with far greater commercial success than Zappa. None, however, engaged with the long term consistency, unpretentious complexity, and detached irony/strategic anti-essentialism as Zappa, who firmly believed that music, regardless of its complexity should be for ‘purely for entertainment’. 

Despite the eclectic nature of Zappa’s music, and the numerous ways it can be interpreted, his portfolio can still be regarded as having a unified idiolect, which is ironically aligned to his ability to incorporate complex musical and theatrical gestures in his work. Although many of his early albums were originally interpreted as “ironic” and highly allegorical statements, retrospective analysis does allude to clear “strategic anti essentialist” tendencies that potentially provide insights not only to his artistic predisposition, but his personal character. This paper proposes that although Zappa’s engagement with classical music was initially interpreted as an ironic gesture by his audience, it gradually became more “anti-essentialist” in nature, as he unashamedly and consistently engaged with his life long interest in “art music”. This is verified by his wife Gail Zappa, who recently confirmed that his long-term engagement with Rock music was unashamedly used to finance his more orchestral ambitions (Greer 2006). It is also noted that characters portrayed in pieces such as “The Torture Never Stops” (Zappa 1976) and “Wet T-Shirt Nite” (Zappa 1979) could be interpreted as voyeuristic extensions of his own personality, or are they examples of socio-political critique: Gestus as it is used in Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt? What we can now verify without vacillation is that what appeared to be a “high art alter ego” in the early part of his career was, in fact, a serious twentieth-century composer jostling for supremacy and peer recognition. Posthumous albums such as Everything is Healing Nicely (1999), Strictly Genteel: A Classical Introduction to Frank Zappa (1997), and Ensemble Modern plays Frank Zappa: Greggery Peccary and other persuasions (2004) have gone some way to redefine centrifugally his music away from its original reception as Rock. At the same time, Zappa has also been reclaimed as a major influence on the Jazz-Rock movement of the early 1970s, again presenting an ironic perspective to his famous maxim “Jazz is not dead – it just smells funny”. Frank Zappa, however, is dead but he continues to be a post-modern figure who defies definition. In Zappa’s anti-Broadway musical Thing-Fish (1984), the eponymous character invites us to “Twist ‘n frugg in an arrogant gesture to THE BEST of what de 20th Century have to offer”: This seems an apt description of what Zappa himself set out to do, although, in retrospect, his gestures now look less arrogant than profoundly and unreservedly ironic.


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[1]Lipsitz uses this term to describe a process in which artists “[take] on disguises in order to express indirectly parts of their identity that might be too threatening to express directly” (Lipsitz 1994, 62).

[2]Throughout this article we are adhering to Echard’s description of tradition as “a complex discursive category which correlates bundles of generic and stylistic features with specific social groups, places and histories” (Echard 2005, 58).