Die-hard classical purists would say “Frank Zappa didn’t write classical music.” Or “He’s a performer, not a composer.” Zappa claimed in his autobiography that the reason he became a rock musician was so that he could bankroll his classical aspirations. In his last years, he focused less on rock concerts and spent his time writing pieces that saw performances by the London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Boulez, and the German group, Ensemble Modern. The reason he is the subject today is because as a boy, I heard the second album he ever released and recently, as an adult, the last recorded during his lifetime. What strikes me now comparing the two is how he good a musician he really was, and in my mind, I put him in the category of Kurt Weill.
Zappa released Absolutely Free in 1967. I just happened to be in my brother Bob’s room one day when Tim Labuda, his best friend, burst in holding an album. Tim, who looked like a beat poet with a goatee (and I think he even wore a beret) said “You’ve got to listen to this.” They let me stay, and though I didn’t have a very highly developed sense of sarcasm back then, I was interested to hear lyrics making fun of high school cheer leaders along with quite interesting music that didn’t sound like your average pop record of the day.
As mentioned earlier, I used to sneak into Bob’s room when he wasn’t there and Absolutely Free was one of the albums I used to play again and again. One song became my favorite “Status Back Baby,” which lampooned vapid cheerleaders from the point of view of a boy who doesn’t fit in because he doesn’t care about high school spirit. At one point, the song breaks into an instrumental interlude, which sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Seven years later in college, when I first heard Stravinski’s “Petrushka” I realized Zappa had lifted the first movement from that ballet score. That made me return to Zappa and I casually followed his career from then on, buying just a few albums of the scores that he released. Another song on Absolutely Free, “Plastic People,” became the anthem of the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia that brought an end to twenty years of communist rule.
During the 1980s, Zappa became interested in politics and free speech and even testified in hearings before congress against labeling rock albums with parental warning stickers. In the late ’80s he toured again, and I went to see him perform at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C. Though Zappa’s ensemble performed some rock standards, the concert seemed more like a cabaret show than anything else. At one point, they broke into a musical skit satirizing Ed Meese, head of the Justice Department, who had announced an additive that the federal government was going to start putting in prisoners’ food to keep them docile. Zappa saw this as fascistic, as he did censorship and big business.
Around this time, I read his autobiography, in which he described his early musical influences–Stravinski, Messiaen, and Varese. He bemoaned the fact that people writing serious music often couldn’t get their works performed. The reason is that new music is often difficult to play, which requires extra rehearsal time for orchestras and that makes the pieces prohibitively expensive to produce. Still at the end of his life, the Frankfurt Music Festival honored him, placing him in the same category as John Cage and Stockhausen. His last album Yellow Shark consists of a performance of his works by the Ensemble Modern at that festival. One of the pieces, “G spot Tornado” is so accessible that it could become part of the basic repertoire for orchestras.
Thinking about Zappa also makes me wonder what has happened to classical music. Before composers became cult figures, musicians often improvised. We’re told nowadays that renaissance musicians were kind of like modern jazz performers. They had a basic melody and some musical conventions, but they were free to do their own thing within that framework. Maybe that is why renaissance music has become popular of late: it is beautiful, but it also has a fresh spontaneity to it that you often don’t find in huge, ponderous, symphonic pieces.
European audiences and musicians took Frank Zappa more seriously than American, who didn’t quite know how to categorize him. Zappa was a kind of iconoclast, who never minced words when criticizing people he thought of as vain and stupid. Thus he angered just about everyone. For example, he referred to rock journalists as ”people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” He also criticized what he thought of as stodgy classical musicians, orchestras, and conductors who didn’t perform his work. Still, he never seemed to compromise his principles, and he did get through to a number of people. Rarely do you get a chance to laugh at rock music; it takes itself so seriously. Even more rarely do you find popular musicians that aren’t a “product” targeted at a specific market segment, and who actually have talent. Rarest of all are “serious composers” who are also virtuoso performers, articulate champions of free speech, and who maintain a sense of the absurd. Among some people, me included, Zappa finally got his “Status Back Baby.”