IN-A-GADDA-STRAVINSKY: Frank, the Composer
First, some good news / bad news.
The bad news: we're entering the home stretch of our Kickstarter, and there's not much time left to reach our stretch goals. The good news? We've just passed $610,000, so:
With 10 days left, we're 61% of the way to our next goal.
It's not going to be easy to hit our next goal and reach $1,000,000... but here's how I'm looking at it: we're now 2/3 of the way through our campaign, and we're almost 2/3 of the way to our next goal. If we can reach 66% in the next 24 hours, we'll be right on schedule... and to help us get there, I've got a few more ideas planned. I'll give you more details this afternoon, but I don't want to waste any time, so I hope you'll help spread the word:
If we can reach $660K by 12pm PST tomorrow, I've got an awesome surprise to share with you guys.
And it would be the perfect way to celebrate. More on that later.
Right now, let's get back to sharing more details about FZ that newer Zappa fans might not know... and today's topic is one of my favorites.
The Black Page: Zappa as composer
"All the good music has already been written by people with wigs and stuff." - FZ
If you only know a little bit about Frank Zappa, you probably know he was a rock musician. Maybe you know he worked comedy into his music. But while he loved blues, jazz, rock, and doo-wop, his biggest influences from an early age were actually modernist classical composers. And fundamentally, that's what he was. As early as high school, while his music-loving peers were in garage bands, he was writing and conducting avant-garde orchestral music.
Frank was seriously influenced from a young age by the work of composers like Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern, and long before he was being flooded with his own fan mail, he was a giddy teenage fan of one guy in particular: French composer Edgard Varèse.
Zappa's first muse: Edgard Varése
The compositions of Varèse had a profound effect on Frank from the very beginning — he became obsessed after discovering the 1950 LP Complete Works Of Edgard Varèse, Volume 1.
On his 15th birthday (in 1955), his mother gave him an unusual – and important – gift: Permission to place a pricy long-distance call to Varèse’s home in New York. As it turned out, Varèse was out of town that day... so Frank chatted with his wife instead. However, Frank did receive this letter, which is still framed in his office:
Frank and Varèse did eventually get to speak, but despite their best efforts, never managed to meet in person.
Still, the composer's influence on Zappa was massive. In '92, Zappa recorded a new album of Varèse's seminal works with the Ensemble Modern titled Varèse: The Rage And The Fury. Spencer Chrislu, Frank’s mix engineer at the time, talked about the album in Frank’s obituary in Rolling Stone, explaining that "Frank didn't want to call it a tribute. He felt Varèse is completely misunderstood, and he didn't think the music had ever been performed properly."
Of course, Frank's own music might be even more difficult to perform properly. His piece “The Black Page” is infamously referred to by musicians as “the most difficult rock song to play live." You might’ve caught a glimpse of Frank’s framed copy on the wall of his office, which Joe T. pointed out in our tour on Friday:
Pretty incredible stuff... especially if you know what you're looking at.
Notes on “I’m Stealing the Room” from Scoremeister Kurt
When I mentioned I was interested in telling you guys a bit about Frank’s composition work, Kurt Morgan – aka the Zappa "Scoremeister" – sent along the below handwritten excerpts from “I’m Stealing The Room” — a moment from Frank’s 200 Motels film score — and generously took some time to tell me more about them.
Kurt estimates that FZ composed this sometime in 1970 while on the road with The Mothers of Invention, although revisions may have been made as late as February of 1971. I'll let you tell him the rest himself:
Let me give you some background... 200 Motels is a film conceived by FZ and released in 1971. It is an ambitious piece of experimental cinema that includes live performances by FZ and The Mothers of Invention, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and appearances by Theodore Bikel, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, and others.
The theme of 200 Motels is “touring can make you crazy,” and FZ uses every method at his disposal to drive this message home. The music, the dialogue, the sets, and the video effects (which were groundbreaking for 1971) all work together to give the viewer a surreal taste of what it might feel like to be on the road with a rock and roll group while struggling to maintain their sanity. The scores excerpts that you have are a wonderful example of how the music reinforces this theme.
This moment (above) is from the scene where Jeff Simmons (bassist for The Mothers) goes crazy. In this scene Jeff works himself into a paranoid frenzy pondering what his life would be like if he wasn’t subjected to Zappa’s “comedy music.” He consoles himself by smoking a mildew-infested bath towel and stealing the entire contents of his motel room. This first page of the score sets up the tension of this scene with some of Zappa’s musical trademarks. The shifting time signatures, dissonant harmonies, and orchestration all contribute to the uneasy feeling that is played out by Jeff in the pages that follow. This short excerpt is also an example of FZ’s love for percussion and his use of the piano as primarily a percussion instrument.
And the above is from the end of that same piece — the climax of Jeff’s paranoid episode. The music here is very dense, dissonant, and rhythmically complex with the different sections of the orchestra playing different subdivisions of the pulse that seem to converge and diverge in unpredictable ways.
The result is a kind of semi-synchronized cacophony that gives the listener the illusion that the music is speeding up and slowing down when in fact, the pulse is a constant toe-tapping Disco 4/4. To add to the madness of this section, FZ has the members of the chorus vibrate their throat with their finger while they sing their notes (this direction is just visible in the lower right hand corner of the excerpt).
Now, of course, you’ve gotta hear them, right? Give a listen to this performance of “I’m Stealing the Room” from 200 Motels - The Suites by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
(If you want to match the recording up with the sheet music above, the first excerpt is just the first five seconds, and the second runs from 12:22 - 12:30.)
So, there you go: Frank Zappa wasn't just one of the most famous rock stars of his era... He was also known as one of the seminal composers of the 20th Century.
That's it for this morning, but we've still got more amazing stuff coming your way this week. Plus, like I said, I'll be back with more details about our final 10 days later this afternoon, including specifics about the awesome reward I've lined up if we can hit $660,000 by tomorrow at 12pm PST. It's non-stop around here!
Music is the best, you guys are the best. Keep spreading the word!
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If @zappamovie's Kickstarter to #SavetheVault reaches $660K by 12pm PST tmw, amazing #Zappa surprise for everyone: whoisfrankzappa.com