The Frank Zappa Aesthetic - Part I

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my Music As Art series of posts. The goal of those posts is to highlight a musician or group that pushes modern music beyond the realm of mere formulaic verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structuring, into the realm of true artistic expression. Of course, this comes with the somewhat controversial implication that pop songwriting itself falls short of being art. While I hope most readers will appreciate that claim as being mostly self-evident, I do acknowledge that many people disagree. My intent with the series, however, is to highlight music that seems to push beyond the realm of rules and formula, and into more entirely expressive territory. Popular music has become notoriously structured, formulaic, and predictable. Those reaching beyond the established norms are working to advance artistic progress in the musical realm. Those working within the norms are simply entertaining themselves and others subject to the ground broken by their musical predecessors.

Another way to put it is as Frank Zappa once said: "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible." This is a simple and profound truth.

Well, who better demonstrates a commitment to music as art than Frank Zappa? In fact, I had him in mind when I created this series of posts, but I thought I might delay his installment until I had a chance to cover some other artists. The problem with writing a Music As Art post on Zappa, though, is that there is far too much to cover. My only alternative, then, is to present Frank Zappa's art in its own set of installments. Today's post is the first of I'm not sure how many. Let's get right to it.

Part One: The Medium
Frank Zappa grew up and developed his musical tastes during a remarkable time in American pop culture history. It was the birth of rock and roll, the blossoming of rhythm and blues, and the peak of ensemble jazz. It was also a time during which American households could regularly experience orchestral music on the radio, via records, and at public performances.

This is an important contrast to today's music environment. Zappa's two major orchestral influences - Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinski - are nearly impossible to "accidentally come across." In The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa recounts how he discovered his first Stravinski record while browsing through the bargain bin at the record store. Today, by contrast, there are few physical record stores, much less bargain bins. The closest thing would perhaps be the CDs sold near the cash register in convenience stores and grocers - but those typically consist of the most popular pop music artists of all time as measured by album sales, not 20th Century composers' recordings being cleared of inventory to make room for something by The Coasters.

Furthermore, the search algorithms used to recommend music to users of YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and so forth, return results based on prior listening history. The more you listen to Katy Perry, the more likely it is that your recommendations will consist of rare Perry tracks and Nicki Minaj tracks. There is no known option for discovering something you would never normally hear. The more this technology advances, the more likely it is that you'll surround yourself with more of the same. In short, it's getting harder to hear totally new sounds.

This is relevant for two reasons: First, Frank Zappa had the opportunity to draw from a large palette of influences. He had the opportunity to hear more kinds of music than musicians do today. Within each style of music, he had the opportunity to hear more widely varying sounds. And all of these sounds were current, they were contemporary, they were happening "now," and Zappa was hearing it develop. Second, Zappa watched - with total awareness - as the commercial structure of the music business slowly and steadily eradicated the variety of music available.

This latter point may have been one of the reasons Zappa put so many different styles together in his own music, occasionally citing Stravinski or Varese, famously mashing together be-bop and tango musical styles, and so forth. It may be that part of his mission as an artist was to simply expose the listening public to things they wouldn't ordinarily hear.

More importantly, however, Zappa was interested in progress. He was interested in doing things that hadn't been done before. He liked to experiment, and he drew influence from every available source. When he ran out of source material, he created his own. Above all, he fused it all together into a signature sound, a Zappa aesthetic, that served as the backbone for everything he would produce over the course of his prolific, decades-long career.

There are key components to this aesthetic. The most obvious one is dadaism. It is Zappa's use of nonsense and silliness that most people find off-putting. One famous quote encapsulating Zappa's perpective on this is, "You can't always write a chord ugly enough to say what you want to say, so sometimes you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream." For the casual listener, the giraffe filled with whipped cream is not merely the first thing that gets noticed. For many, it is the only thing that stands out when they hear a Frank Zappa piece or a see a video of a live performance. This over-the-top ridiculousness, this dadaism, served to call a great deal of attention to Zappa. Doubtless many of his devout fans deeply love this component of the music. But it comes with a cost, for most people never really venture any further.

But all that cartoonishness merely masked another vital ingredient to the Zappa aesthetic: his deft use of harmony, a truly apt description of which could only really be given by someone with a stronger background in music theory than I have. Zappa harmonies lean heavily on parallel fourths (for example, the bedrock arpeggios in "Pound for a Brown") or parallel fifths ("The Idiot Bastard Son"). There is often elaborate interplay between the root chord and the secondary and tertiary chords implied by adding 11ths and 13ths to the root chords. Zappa had a knack for blending two tonalities together in a way that ensures that one can never be certain where the piece will go next - not even with extensive prior knowledge of Zappa's work. He cunningly determined that most rock ensembles couldn't navigate complex harmony because the guitarists and keyboardists were playing full chords in their arrangements. Zappa arranged his work such that each player was only playing one or two notes at a time. The complex harmonies thus sounded clearer, and perhaps more importantly, richer since the notes would ring out in a variety of timbres, based on the sundry instruments sounding them out.

So those audience members that were focused mainly on the cartoonish dadaism and "freakiness" of Zappa's aesthetic must have been stunned when they arrived at a live Mothers concert expecting to hear the studio version of a vocal song like "Duke of Prunes," only to hear a fully instrumental version instead. How shocking - and, indeed, mind-blowing - it must have been to hear the delicate 12-string guitar arpeggios played against the haunting saxophone harmonies, giving rise to that piece's iconic melodies. Of course, some who hear "Inca Roads" never really clue into the fact that the beautiful and approachable vocal melodies that occur during the first half of the piece are really a sliced-up version of "Inca Roads" proper, the stunning, rapid-fire septuplet melodies that make up the second half of the song.

Another component to the aesthetic is the use of odd rhythmic groupings in melody. This is perhaps Zappa's trademark technical ingredient. The "classic" Zappa grouping is a quintuplet followed by a triplet, demonstrated by the faster sequence of notes in the main melody of "Peaches En Regalia." But that rhythmic figure occurs everywhere throughout the Zappa oeuvre; it is iconic. Once he had enough fame and fortune to pay the music world's most technically proficient performers, Zappa penned the legendary percussion masterpiece, "The Black Page," which elevated his use of odd rhythmic groupings to its absolute apogee.

These three ingredients coming together built the foundation for a whole other musical world, one unlike anything else that was happening in the music scenes of the 1960s and 70s. Or since. Frank Zappa succeeded in doing something few have ever managed to truly accomplish: He carved out a sound all his own.

And for most artists, that would be too much to ask for already. But in the Frank Zappa aesthetic, it was only really the beginning. In subsequent installments, I'll take a look at how Zappa explored diverse musical avenues while always remaining true to his signature sound.