The Music Program at Bard College

Frank Zappa, American Composer:

Inter-Idiomatic Interests and the Pursuit of Individuality in Art

Luke Sandbank

MUS328: A History of Rhythm: Finding the Beat in European Music from 1000 to 2000 CE

Alexander Bonus

1-1-18

Perhaps most musicians in the 21st century would find it hard not to have something to say about Frank Zappa. His eclectic and innovative methods of composition and performance place him in a unique category of music. The essential character of Zappa and his work is bizarre, as shown by the “freak” culture associated with the music, and surely, both Zappa the person and his music are remembered as cultural curiosities. However, as much as this weirdness alienated people from his music, this freak outlook was very deliberate and inseparable from the content of his compositions, as pertaining to his innovative approach to rhythm. Furthermore, the outlook itself as well as the music he wrote can be seen in the context of a cohesive approach and attitude to music as an artform in his musical and social milieu. Zappa’s views of how music is happening in the modern world elucidate the significance of much of his music and brings us closer to understanding Zappa as a composer, as he exists between the worlds of serious and popular music.

Frank Zappa, musically, grew up listening to a diverse yet specific set of music, canonically consisting of the likes of Rock n’ Roll and Rhythm and Blues music such as Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as doo wop music of the 50’s. Co-present with his love for these idioms is a love for the imposing sounds of avant-garde classical music of the 20th century, such as Stravinsky, Varèse, and Webern. Zappa’s appreciation of both realms, with the gift of an effective compositional mind as a catalyst, led to the creation of a large collection of music consisting of elements from both idioms. This juxtaposition may at first seem arbitrary; the trope of an eccentric nerd with picky, nearly obsessive taste, but there lies a more significant connection between these interests; namely, the emancipation of dissonance, especially as this phenomenon exists in the realm of rhythm.[1] The guitar solos of Johnny Watson and Guitar Slim used techniques to emulate human emotions like anger, much to Zappa’s enjoyment.[2] The idea of dissonance in music is primarily associated with harmony. Indeed, the term is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a clashing or unresolved musical interval or chord”[3]. However, the idea of clashing components in music can also be applied to rhythm, a concept explored by music theorists such as Krebs (1987)[4] and Yeston (1976)[5] Rhythmic dissonance, as defined by Zappa, is “anything that deviates from the reinforcement of your factory rhythm (quarter-note pulse of the fixed meter)”.[6] In his analysis of Zappa’s The Black Page #1, Brett Clement found that such a device was used by Zappa to create a feeling of temporal acceleration and deceleration that functions independently from the meter (factory rhythm) of the piece.[7] Following is an excerpt (bars 3-6) from the piece, followed by an excerpt from Clement’s dissertation explaining the effect of this phenomenon:

“We can examine one phrase in “The Black Page #1”, the downbeat of m. 4 to the downbeat of m. 5, to demonstrate a common rhythmic practice in Zappa’s music (Example 7). Here, the measure of four quarter notes in measure 4 is particularly littered with notes, so that in the first two beats eighth notes are subdivided into fours, threes, and fives while in the last two beats quarter notes are subdivided into sevens. The different subdivisions of the beat produce a sense of slowing down at the sixteenth-note triplets, speeding up at the thirty-second-note quintuplets, then slowing down again at the sixteenth-note septuplets, which thwarts the factory rhythm (quarter-note pulse).”[8]

Clement’s explication of Zappa’s use of rhythmic dissonance provides us with the context necessary to understand the attitude underlying the following quote:

“Any rhythm which goes against the grain of the natural rhythm is going to be disturbing for the period at which the dissonance exists. But once you get back to that downbeat, you can then look back and say, ‘Hey, that was quite fascinating what happened there. I didn’t know you could squeeze all those beats [notes] into that one factory cycle.”

An example of polyrhythm as created by human speech patterns can be found in the song “Gangster of Love” by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, one of Zappa’s early influences. Similarly to Zappa’s “The Black Page #1”, the vocal part uses a rhythm that switches between the standard metrically granted subdivision (the meter of the song is 12/8) and alternative tuplets that fit the rhythm of the lyrics. In measure 3 of the song, the words “s’posed to be some”, containing four syllables, fit as four 8th notes in the place of three 8th notes.

The effect created here is similar to that explicated by Bret Clement in his analysis of the “Black Page #1”. The words seem to effectively accelerate the notes into the next beat by “going against the grain of the natural rhythm”, as Zappa describes his own use of polyrhythms. We can see here that Zappa’s appreciation of polyrhythm is founded in a love for vocal-driven pop music as much as it is founded in a love for avant-garde classical music.

To bridge the gap between Zappa’s loves of blues and classical music, we can find yet another similar example of this rhythmic phenomenon in Varèse’s “Ionisations”. In bars 8-10 of the snare drum part, a motif is played that involves 8th notes subdivided into both 3 and 4 notes.

The effect here, like the previous cases of tuplet variations mentioned, is one of perceived fluctuations in pace that are separate from the meter.

Perhaps we are getting closer to understanding why Zappa’s music is seen to be so bizarre- his compositional methods are founded on principles of rhythmic dissonance! While these rhythmic techniques existed in various idioms of music before Zappa, his extensive use of the idea of rhythmic tension and release, in tandem with the rather bizarre harmonies Zappa used in his music[9], may have contributed to the cult of “freaks” that followed the artist throughout his life, indeed rendering Zappa a cultural curiosity more so than an innovative composer. Nonetheless, these two personas did not coexist without discrepancy. An interesting confrontation between the freaky fandom of Frank and his intentions as a serious musician can been seen in a recording of a presentation of the music of Varèse in which Zappa acted as Master of Ceremonies[10]. Before the performance even commences, it is clear to Zappa that the audience was drawn to the event by their love for Zappa, and not by an appreciation (or even awareness) of Varèse. Zappa attempts to quell the restless and loud audience (who is probably used to amplified performances by Zappa’s band) by reminding the crowd of the delicate nature of the pieces they are about to hear: “These pieces are not real loud, and will sound better if you don't make a lot of noise while the pieces are being played.” Naturally, one audience member yells “YEAAH!” prompting Zappa’s frank response, “Oh, shut the f*ck up.” Zappa also mentions tongue-in-cheek that there will be no dance contest at the event, an allusion to a common phenomenon at Zappa’s concerts. A similar thing happens at the recording of Zappa’s final orchestral album, The Yellow Shark. While the audience is indeed cooperating with the level of decorum expected at such an event, Zappa asks the audience, perhaps as a preemptive measure, “Now let’s get serious, i know you came here to see really fine performances by a really fine modern music ensemble conducted by a really fine conductor, and here he comes now… and if you feel like throwing underpants onto the stage, put ‘em over there.”

Zappa’s comments at these performances make it clear that he wished to distance his serious compositions from his reputation as a bizarre entertainer. What then, is the purpose of the engagement with stage antics and iconic silliness that is present in much of his performances and studio recordings? Zappa seemed to value what might be perceived as silliness for its value in a world where silliness is generally unpopular. The following quote, from the liner notes of his first album Freak Out (1966) illustrates how this philosophy is more than merely a whimsical selling-point for Zappa’s music: On a personal level, Freaking Out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricting standards of thinking, dress, and social etiquette in order to express creatively his relationship to his immediate environment and the social structure as a whole.”[11] If we are to take “Freaking Out” to stand as an umbrella term encompassing his stage antics, unconventional rhythms and unpopular beliefs, then it becomes possible to see Zappa’s use of jarring rhythms as a statement congruent with his beliefs about “serious” music, which we shall explore in a few paragraphs. While he was not willing to be a member of “serious american music”[12], this does not mean he was not serious about his own music, whether it was an orchestral composition performed by the LSO or an impromptu opportunity to ask a live television audience to make coordinated fart noises. Indeed, inseparable from his presentation of serious rhythmical concepts is a multitude of silly songs about clandestine encounters in motels and other provocative expositions of bizarre modern cultural artifacts.

The strange juxtaposition of these intersecting idioms was pointed out by an interviewer, who claimed that Zappa, given his range of idiomatic involvements, ran the risk of appearing inconsistent or unfocused- fans of rock would see him as a composer, and composers would see him as a rockstar. To this he responds, “It happens that I have a life style which involves various forms of artistic expression. I try to get into those various forms of expression rather than being top notch at any one thing. If I find something interesting and can find a means of conveying that interest to somebody else I will do that in whatever form is best suited to do so.”[13] This remark indicates to us that Zappa’s pursuits were founded in something other than the perfection of a craft or the creation of a celebrity/artist persona, despite the lasting reputation of him as a satirical persona. The multitude of techniques used in his music, from guitar solos to manipulation of tape, can therefore be seen as tools used by a composer who was attempting to entertain his own interests as a listener of music, not gimmicks used by a troublemaker who was attempting to entertain curious listeners for money.

So what exactly were the “forms of artistic expression” that Zappa was so interested in? Zappa’s first learned instrument in highschool was percussion, and as he composed music later in life, his love for rhythm showed. In his 1991 publication Untersuchungen Zum Musikalischen Schaffen Von Frank Zappa: Eine Musiksoziologische Und -Analytische Studie Zur Bestimmung Eines Musikalischen Stils, Wolfgang Ludwig states,“The most ear catching aspect of Zappa's music is his rhythmic differentiation”[14]. The way that Zappa is interested in exploring sound is very much the intellectual offspring of musicians of the 20th century such as Varèse and Penderecki, whose aspirations could perhaps be summarized by a quote from the latter: “All I'm interested in is liberating sound beyond all tradition”[15]. Zappa, at the previously mentioned concert of the music of Edgard Varèse, excitedly told the audience before hearing Ionisation, “you’re gonna get a chance to hear some sounds that you don’t often get to hear any place”. This idea of sound receiving a fair ground for the expression of its many potential forms is again related to the musical philosophy of Arnold Schoenberg, whose notion of “The Emancipation of Dissonance” refers to the process whereby an initially unpleasant sound, by exposure to ears, becomes more tolerated and thereby apparently more worth listening to in its own right, as opposed to, for example, a dominant chord lasting only as long as it takes for the listener to want to hear a more consonant chord. When harmony became liberated in western art music around the turn of the 20th century, other aspects of composition were also becoming “liberated”. Aspects of music such as metric dissonance and timbral experimentation became ripe materials for composers who were looking to hear something new. This rich environment of experimenting sound artists gave Zappa the idea that in this particular context, his music wasn’t weird just to give you the heebie-jeebies, but to explore something worth exploring.

There isn’t anything weird about my music. Weird is a skeleton in the closet, wearing a rubber mask with warts all over its nose, and all that kind of shit. That’s not what I do. The thing that makes my music unusual is that people only hear one kind of music all the time over the radio … Just because I don’t deal in those terms doesn’t mean I’m weird. So tell these people: I ain’t weird; I’m rational. I’m a person who can choose to write stuff like that, or choose to write stuff that includes all the notes on the piano played at once, followed by a cement truck driving over the piano, followed by a small atomic explosion. Nothing weird about that as long as you do it in a meaningful way.” (-"A Conversation With Frank Zappa" by Dave Rothman, in Oui (April 1979)

Further insight into this is found in an interview with Guitar Player Magazine[16]. While explaining the presence of odd rhythms in his music, Zappa admits that they would be hard to play seeing “a mystery hemiola” for the first time, “but the thing that's fascinating about it is that we end up right back on the beat. One, two, three, four, one -- then it comes back on the beat of the second beat of the bar. Anybody can do that if they want to.” Frank is denying that complicated rhythmic figures were even unusual: “This type of music, to me, is natural and up-to-date. It's not advanced; it's reasonable up-to-date. And I think that most other things are extremely retarded.” This is an extremely controversial opinion, considering that some Zappa’s music is indeed extremely hard to play. Nonetheless, Zappa’s conviction that these “up-to-date” rhythms ought to be considered standard is especially interesting in the context of his views of what was indeed standard in the music industry at the time[17]. This conviction reinforces Zappa’s belonging to the serious world of art music in which advanced (and difficult to digest) rhythmic, harmonic, and textural phenomena are to be found. However, equally important to Zappa is the world of popular music, because of concepts such as rhythmic dissonance in sung blues. Nonetheless, while avant-garde music is often ignored by the general public for reasons of indigestibility, popular music is often ignored by serious musicians for the opposite reason. Zappa, finding merit in both idioms, decided that in order to pursue his own craft he wouldn’t be able to fit into either.

        To explore his struggles with the apparent dichotomy between serious and popular music, we shall look at the time Zappa gave a speech to the American Society of University Composers in 1984, wherein he drew a comparison between the patronage of musicians in the classical period to the patronage of contemporary composers. The views presented in his keynote address make it clear that he saw little practical difference between the worlds of serious and popular music. While contemporary art music is supposed to be new and liberated; no longer constrained by the conservative tastes of 18th century patrons, Zappa claims that the current system of musical education provides an analogous atmosphere which chokes the freedom of music:

THEN: The composer had to write for the specific tastes (no matter how bad) of, THE KING, THE POLITICAL DICTATOR, or THE CHURCH. Failure to do so resulted in unemployment, torture or death … ALL OF THE SWILL PRODUCED UNDER THESE CONSTRAINTS IS WHAT WE NOW ADMIRE AS 'REAL CLASSICAL MUSIC' . . . and when music is taught in schools, it is the 'taste norms' of those KINGS, DICTATORS, and CLERICS which are perpetuated in the harmony and counterpoint classes. After those are doled out, and the student gets to the 'advanced stuff', he is introduced to the splendors of 12-tone rigmarole, serialized dynamics, and computer programming of 'automated indeterminate composition'. Those 'tools' enable the budding genius to do what everybody else does in 'modern life': hide behind preposterous regulations (preferably as a member of a 'committee'), in order to absolve himself of blame or responsibility for 'individual action' --- in this case, the heinous act of 'musical creation'. By conforming to these idiocies, the young composer receives praise, certification of splendidness, and GRANT MONEY… Anyone not choosing to follow this approved method of enlightenment is regarded as a fool or a pervert.[18]

With the lack of freedom in both art music and popular music apparent, Zappa chooses to identify with neither explicitly. He instead chooses to follow his own path, making music that he himself wants to listen to. Given his unique preferences for noises, many of which were previously not yet created before his initiative, Zappa was able to utilize many techniques such as overdubs, pitch manipulation, unconventional mixing, nested tuplets, computer-based composition, unusual simultaneity, xenochrony, and generally complex compositions in order to fulfill his wishes as a listener.

Shunning the “aesthetic gulf”[19] between the idioms of serious and popular music allowed Zappa to employ elements from a diverse compositional palette, which gave birth to his oeuvre. Whether is was a complex piano prelude to a lengthy rock jam, or harmonically advanced 32nd notes in the middle of an otherwise simple blues-rock tune to emphasise the lyrics, Zappa’s willingness to combine elements from idioms that may otherwise disagree with each other is what made him such a memorable composer. While many remember him for his popular songs, Zappa’s fondness of multiple idioms in tandem with his autodidactic approach to composition led him to create some of the more unique pieces of music of the 20th century. While refusing to be grouped in with any particular group of artists made it hard for people to understand what Zappa’s intentions were as a musician, this ambiguity made the diverse elements used in his compositions all the more valid in their own context, which was that of a driven individual with the musical expertise required to realize their dreams across the idioms of rock, classical, and beyond. The very fact that dissonance is by definition unpleasant to hear means that it will be underrepresented in mainstream music. Thankfully for the sake of art, there are people curious enough in a multitude of idioms to find what they like in those idioms and extract the elements necessary to create something new, all the while remaining independent from dogmatic trends and institutions that would restrict the freedom of one’s craft.

Works Cited

Clement, Brett. “Little Dots: A Study of the Melodies of the Guitarist/Composer Frank Zappa.”

Florida State University, 2004.

Dawbarn, Bob. “Zappa - The Great Satirist .” Kill Ugly Radio,

        wiki.killuglyradio.com/wiki/Zappa_%E2%80%93_The_Great_Satirist. Accessed 24 Dec. 2017.

“Dissonance.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, 3 Dec. 2017,

        www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dissonance.

Frank Zappa presents: A Musical Tribute to Edgard Varèse, Recorded Live at The Palladium (New York

        City) on April 17, 1981. Performed By The Orchestra Of Our Time, conductor Joel Thorne

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKE7hJviT_g

Krebs, Harald. “Some Extensions of the Concepts of Metrical Consonance and Dissonance.” Journal of

Music Theory, vol. 31, no. 1, 1987, p. 99., doi:10.2307/843547.

Ludwig, Wolfgang. Untersuchungen Zum Musikalischen Schaffen Von Frank Zappa: Eine                                   Musiksoziologische Und -Analytische Studie Zur Bestimmung Eines Musikalischen Stils. 1991.

Liner notes for the album Freak Out! (27 June 1966).

Magazine, Guitar Player. “Non-Foods: Coming To Grips With Polyrhythms.” Apr. 1983, p. 101.

Scheffers, Frank, director. Frank Zappa: A Pioneer Of Future Music. VPRO, 2007.

Schoenberg, Arnold. 1975. Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. Edited by Leonard

Stein, with translations by Leo Black. New York: St. Martins Press; London: Faber & Faber.        ISBN 0-520-05294-3.

Rosen, Steve. “One Size Fits All Interview.” Guitar Player Magazine, Jan. 1977.

(Tomaszewski, Mieczyslaw (2000). "Orchestral Works Vol 1 Liner Notes".)

Yeston, Maury. The Stratification of Musical Rhythm. University Microfilms International, 1978.

Zappa, Frank V. “Bingo! There Goes Your Tenure.” American Society of University Composers .  

American Society of University Composers , 2017, Baton Rouge.

Zappa, Frank; Peter Occhiogrosso (1989). The Real Frank Zappa Book (First Touchstone Edition 1999

ed.). Touchstone. pp. front cover. ISBN 0-671-70572-5.


[1] Schoenberg, Arnold. 1975. Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. Edited by Leonard Stein, with translations by Leo Black. New York: St. Martins Press; London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 0-520-05294-3.

[2] Rosen, Steve. “One Size Fits All Interview.” Guitar Player Magazine, Jan. 1977.

[3]“Dissonance.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, 3 Dec. 2017, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dissonance.

[4] Krebs, Harald. “Some Extensions of the Concepts of Metrical Consonance and Dissonance.”Journal of Music Theory, vol. 31, no. 1, 1987, p. 99., doi:10.2307/843547.

[5] Yeston, Maury. The Stratification of Musical Rhythm. University Microfilms International, 1978.

[6] Clement, Brett. “Little Dots: A Study of the Melodies of the Guitarist/Composer Frank Zappa.” Florida State University, 2004.

[7] Clement, Brett. “Little Dots: A Study of the Melodies of the Guitarist/Composer Frank Zappa.” Florida State University, 2004.

[8] Clement, Brett. “Little Dots: A Study of the Melodies of the Guitarist/Composer Frank Zappa.” Florida State University, 2004.

[9] Ludwig, Wolfgang. Untersuchungen Zum Musikalischen Schaffen Von Frank Zappa: Eine Musiksoziologische Und -Analytische Studie Zur Bestimmung Eines Musikalischen Stils. 1991. “[Typical in Zappa’s music] are for instance the more than average use of intervals larger than a third, that can move into opposite directions. Some examples of unharmonic fourth and fifth movements are given.”

[10] Recording is an original by youtuber br1tag;

Frank Zappa presents: A Musical Tribute to Edgard Varèse, Recorded Live at The Palladium (New York City) on April 17, 1981. Performed By The Orchestra Of Our Time, conductor Joel Thome. Presentation by Frank Zappa

[11] Liner notes for the album Freak Out! (27 June 1966).

[12] Scheffers, Frank, director. Frank Zappa: A Pioneer Of Future Music. VPRO, 2007. Interviewer- “Is 200 Motels an attempt to get into American serious music?” “No, hardly, first of all I have no place in American serious music. What would I do in there? I don’t want… I don’t socialize with those people who are deeply involved in that part of the culture; that whole world doesn’t appeal to me. I would like to hear what I wrote!”

[13] Dawbarn, Bob. “Zappa - The Great Satirist .” Kill Ugly Radio, wiki.killuglyradio.com/wiki/Zappa_%E2%80%93_The_Great_Satirist. Accessed 24 Dec. 2017.

[14] Ludwig, Wolfgang. Untersuchungen Zum Musikalischen Schaffen Von Frank Zappa: Eine Musiksoziologische Und -Analytische Studie Zur Bestimmung Eines Musikalischen Stils. 1991.

[15] (Tomaszewski, Mieczyslaw (2000). "Orchestral Works Vol 1 Liner Notes".)

[16] Magazine, Guitar Player. “Non-Foods: Coming To Grips With Polyrhythms.” Apr. 1983, p. 101.

[17] “American radio listeners, raised on a diet of _____ (fill in the blank), have experienced a musical universe so small they cannot begin to know what they like.” Zappa, Frank; Peter Occhiogrosso (1989). The Real Frank Zappa Book (First Touchstone Edition 1999 ed.). Touchstone. pp. front cover. ISBN 0-671-70572-5.

[18] Zappa, Frank V. “Bingo! There Goes Your Tenure.” American Society of University Composers . American Society of University Composers , 2017, Baton Rouge.

[19] Zappa, Frank V. “Bingo! There Goes Your Tenure.” American Society of University Composers . American Society of University Composers , 2017, Baton Rouge.