Zappa Lumpy:Uncle

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  • 8/2/2019 Zappa Lumpy:Uncle


    Form and the Concept Album: Aspects of Modernism in Frank Zappa's Early ReleasesAuthor(s): James BordersReviewed work(s):Source: Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 118-160Published by: Perspectives of New MusicStable URL: .

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  • 8/2/2019 Zappa Lumpy:Uncle



    JAMES ORDERSRecord industry executives need to find out what it is they're sellingbecause, see, they don't know how important pop music is today. All theyknow is that that's what's making money this month. They really don'tknow what a revolution it is in terms of music history because there are a lotof people working in pop music today who are doing things that are artistic,and actuallymean 'em that way! ... I think it's living serious music!-Frank Zappa, TheFrank Zappa Companion:Four DecadesofCommentary

    THE IMMEDIATE AIM of this essay is to analyze the content and formof three early albums by Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Inven-tion-Lumpy Gravy, Uncle Meat, and Burnt Weeny Sandwich-anddemonstrate their affinity with certain works by Igor Stravinsky. It also

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    Form and the Concept Album

    seeks to advance a criticalapproach that views rock as a recorded art, androck recordings as aural artifacts. Such analysis, according to a leadingproponent, Paul Clarke, is based "on the complex of created relation-ships between sounds as they act on us through time."1 The unusuallywide range of musical sources and techniques Zappa incorporated intohis recordings at this stage of his career raises a prior question: how didthese albums figure into the cultural dialogue between rock and thechanging experience of modernity in America in the 1960s? Let usaddress this question before turning to the analysisto place it into properhistorical context.The short answer is that by juxtaposing different musical genres,Zappa, who considered himself a composer foremost, was attacking theentrenched critical and academic establishments whose members distin-guished categorically between art and popular music, particularly asregards structural and tonal complexity.2 To paraphraseCarl Dahlhaus,Zappa'swas a music directed against the esoteric quality of art.3Popularmusic intended not for thoughtless consumption but careful listeningalso strained against the repetitiveness and standardization of TheodorAdorno's "consumer music."4 By contrasting broadly differentapproachesto composition, moreover, Zappawas implicitly rejecting thekind of hairsplitting that set the "modernist" music of composers likeKarlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez apart from more accessible"avant-garde"works by John Cage and other so-called experimentalists.5Zappa was not alone in striving for this kind of pluralistic synthesis.Indeed a number of self-styled modernists were welcoming the eclecti-cism of contemporary art in sixties popular media. Susan Sontag, forexample, waxed enthusiastic about the lowering of barriersthat had for-merly separated high from low, past from present in an essay first pub-lished in Mademoiselle.6Although Zappa probably held a similaropinion,he could not help giving it a satiricaltwist, drawing upon sources dispar-ate and sometimes vulgar enough to exceed the bounds of even the mostbroad-minded critic's good taste.Unlike Sontag, Zappa's intent was hardly theoretical. Neither did heseek to create a truly unpopular music with "no commercial potential," alabel a Columbia Records executive once hung on his work to which heoften referred.7Rather, as he repeatedly stated, his albums were marketproducts designed to appeal to record buyers searching for the newestsound, the latest protest music, the most outrageous novelty. So he bal-anced his instrumental music with songs, the lyrics of which mostly sati-rized the manufactured fads and fashions of contemporary America.Never mind Zappa's serious and well-known involvement in all phases ofrecord production, marketing, and promotion, or professed willingness


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    Perspectivesof New Music

    to reap whatever profits came along-We're Only In It For TheMoneyisthe title of one of Zappa's early albums. That was part of the put-on.Zappa's early recordings were indeed "music about music,"8 but theywere also parodic popular critiques of the mass media, advertising, andthe consumer culture that sustained them all, designed to sell in volume.9With respect to the place of Zappa's earlyrecorded output in theoreti-cal discourse, it should be obvious that his musical borrowings and usesof collage and quick-cut techniques were never ambivalent-they alwayshad a point. Thus since Zappa's earlywork in no way anticipatesthe ahis-toricity, ironic detachment, and playful depthlessness characteristic ofpostmodernist quotation, it could be classed as modernist.0l There ismore to support this label than mere wordplay, as I shall argue below.Indeed, careful listening reveals an attention to form-the organizationof recorded sound in time-that places the three albums discussed in thisessay uneasily (and perhaps consciously so) into the tradition oftwentieth-century musical modernism. Before examining this hypothesis,Zappa's earlywork needs to be put into the larger context of sixties rockand its connections with modernism.

    Perhapsbecause genres closely associated with postmodern intertextu-ality, like punk, rap, and new wave, had already emerged by the time oftheir writing, some rock critics-most notably John Rockwell11-haveplaced particularemphasis on the tendency of late sixties rock to borrowmelodies, harmonies, and instrumentation from "classical"music. This isnowhere as prevalent as in discussions of progressiverock, exemplified byBritish bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake &Palmer. Criticaldiscussions during and shortly after the peak of progres-sive rock's popularity, however, focused not on any indebtedness to theclassics per se, but on its eclecticism.12 The best uses of borrowedgenres-jazz, blues, folk, non-Western music, as well as the classics-were not then viewed as reflections of artists' social or intellectual preten-sions, as Rockwell would have it. Rather they were part and parcel of themodern condition that Sontag described: a shifting between traditionsand ideas that made listeners aware of the confined conceptual spacesthey occupied. "Arttoday is a new kind of instrument, an instrument formodifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility," shewrote.13With modernist notions like this spilling off the pages of Made-moiselle, it is easy to understand how the quest for an expanded con-sciousness could be transformed into a consumer item, like a rock album.Complexity was another trait of rock that listeners identified at thetime. This was not so much the complexity of contemporary art music-indeed many quoted works are "chestnuts"14-or the extended chordsand forms of jazz, or the almost competitive virtuosity of the performers.


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    ILFormand the Concept Album

    ather, I would argue, it had primarilyto do with recording techniques.he aesthetic of modernism, with its promise of art-science synthesis,ius reached into the very mode of the music's production.The roots of this aesthetic reach back at least as far as producer Philpector's "Wallof Sound" recordings of the early 1960s.15 In these one:adily detects the expertly crafted, multi-layered, though hardlylassical-soundingarrangementsthat would have been impossible to rec-eate outside a recording studio. Spector's hit singles also involved whatiere, by the then-prevailing

    standards of rock'n'roll, exotic orchestralastruments like the timpani and castanets, along with more familiar-ounding strings, woodwinds, and brass.With these he sought to createvhat he called "little symphonies for the kids,"16 though he seldomcored them in a "classical"manner. String ensembles, for example, wereypically heard in short bursts within multi-textured accompaniments.[racing the classical orientation of progressive rock to the recordingndustry and Spector, rather than to qualities inherent in the classicshemselves, makes sense given the esteem in which later producers and*ockmusicians held his work.'7 Thus qualities of eclecticism, complexity,md technical sophistication figured prominently in rock from the early;ixtieson.Yet rock of the mid-sixties through early seventies differs from earlierworkin that it sometimes drew heavilyupon the experimentalorientationof the European avant-garde.The list of groups and artistswhose record-ings are noteworthy for introducing electronic sounds and tape tech-niques to a broad audien