Water Walking and Bicycle Blowing (part 2)

Following up on my previous post (discussing Cage’s influence on Zappa with regards to performances they gave on popular television shows), I’d like to discuss some of Zappa’s comments on Cage and get into the issue of influence a little deeper. What follows is a (roughly chronological) account of instances where Zappa talks about Cage explicitly.

There are two main issues that come up in Zappa’s discourse concerning Cage: 1) control vs. indeterminacy; and, 2) the visual dimension of musical performance. In a 1968 radio interview by Studs Terkel, Zappa suggests that Cage’s approach is, perhaps, too uncontrolled:

You’d have like a musicality of actual talk too, whether it be there laugh, or whether it be a guy talking seriously or scared.

Oh, I’ll agree with Cage, at this that there’s a musicality in everything. But I’ll disagree with Cage when it comes to just allowing everything to happen. I still feel like a composer if I manipulate my environment and my sound environment to create something that reflects my point of view of that environment. And I don’t think it’s enough to just turn everything loose and let it happen.

[…] Then you don’t subscribe to chance as Cage would’ve…

Well, I subscribe to chance to this extent: If I construct a piece, wherein I feel, that in order to balance the tension of a very tightly organized section, to offset that I’ll allow a certain number of seconds or certain number of bars or a just little piece of time wherein anything can take place, and in a live performance environment, we’ll play sound units, which we rehearse in advance, you know and everybody exactly what’s going to happen during these things, but after that unit is completed they don’t know. And, I have the option at that time to make just about anything happen that I want to, all by a series of signals. [1]

Nontheless, Zappa was intrigued enough by the concept to incorporate chance elements into his own compositions:

Cage is a big influence. We’ve done a thing with voices, with talking, that is very like one of his pieces, except that of course in our piece the guys are talking about working in an airplane factory, or their cars. [2]

Zappa is referring to Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood’s monologue on “At the Gas Station,” eight and a half minutes into Lumpy Gravy, Part 1. After recording Motorhead speaking on a number of subjects, Zappa physically cut the tape up into small pieces, rearranged them at random, and put them back together again for the final cut. Zappa described the process in 1969:

John Cage’s work has had an influence on Lumpy Gravy because of his theories of random happenings and, you know, take your chances and just let it happen and that’ll be the, the musical composition. The way Lumpy Gravy was put together was sort of like that–I had a certain number of building blocks to work with, all committed to tape, and at one point I just cut these lengths of tape and just shuffled ’em around, and stuck ’em together, and there are sections that were assembled that way. [3]

Zappa would later extend his connection of indeterminacy with Cage to also include improvisation.

Any time you’re dealing with the improvisational medium, you have to bow your head to John Cage, because he has to be the master of taking nothing and making something out of it. If you are going to improvise, you’re always working in his territory. Which is not to say that the improvisations that we’ll be doing will sound like John Cage compositions, but there is always that special element of chance that he’s always dealt with.[4]

Although this comment dates from 1992, I think it has profound implications for how Zappa regarded the nature of his work. Much of his music was improvised–or at least semi-improvised–so to claim that improvisation is linked with indeterminacy shows how invested Zappa was with Cage’s influence.

Another thing I’d like to suggest, regarding the videos from the previous post, is that one of Cage’s biggest influences on Zappa has to do with the legitimization of theatricality in musical performances. A lot of people refer to the Flo-n-Eddie-era Mothers as “The Vaudeville Band.” I think there’s something to that: the band’s stage antics have a lot in common with American music/comedy/theater around the turn of the century. But I also think that this label is somewhat misleading. Nobody seems to have addressed the possible Cage connection here.

The scatological slapstick of the Vaudeville Mothers seems like a pretty far cry from Cage’s style of experimentation, but it does seem to have grown directly out of the various performance practices of the original Mothers. And I think the original Mothers are very closely tied to what Zappa saw in Cage.

The following comment, though coming from 1970, illustrates Zappa’s characterization of Cage:

[D]o you think the theatricality in the band obscures musical appreciation? Or do you feel this is what they really want to see?

Neither of those things. I think it’s integral to the music. It’s as integral as any piece by John Cage; like for instance, the one where he has the trombone player who wanders around stage and first blows his horn into a bucket of water, and then lies on his back under a piano and plays one note, and then gets up and pulls an apple out of the end of his horn and throws it. You know, it’s part of the music. For instance, the point where we’re just scratching on the strings of the guitar and the bass and doing all these poses around the stage: it’s necessary that it be in there. It would be extremely dull during that section if we just stood there and went glonk, glonk, glonk. [5]

I think this comparison supports the argument I’m trying to make. Zappa’s view of Cage directly influenced the extramusical dimensions of his performances. Mock ballets performed by the Mothers are a direct outgrowth of Cage’s submersible trombones. (Does anyone know which piece he’s referring to?!) When asked specifically about the theatricality of his performances, Zappa suggests that the visual dimension is a necessity, put in place to keep from losing his listeners’ attention.

Towards the end of his life, Zappa would frequently recall an experience seeing Cage perform in Claremont, CA:

Once upon a time, when I was an impressionable young composer, somebody gave me a John Cage record and I listened to it, and went ‘What the fuck is this?’ But since I didn’t know what the fuck anything was, I thought ‘Maybe this is really good.’ A short time after that, John Cage came to Claremont College and he was giving one of his … he does these performances with a throat microphone. He’d put this thing on his throat and drink a quart of carrot juice, or read something to you while he was drinking the carrot juice. In a way, this ties in with my over-all feeling towards colleges. In this instance, there was a college audience watching John Cage drink the carrot juice and do these things, and they were pondering it like it had this large significance. It occurred to me that if he could do that, then certainly, SURELY there were other things equally ridiculous that a person such as myself could do in the music business. And so I decided that I would try, not necessarily to gargle with the carrot juice, but that I’d do other things that come awfully close. [6]

A similar comment appears in The Real Frank Zappa Book:

The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively—because, without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a ‘box’ around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall? If John Cage, for instance, says, “I’m putting a contact microphone on my throat, and I’m going to drink carrot juice, and that’s my composition,” then his gurgling qualifies as his composition because he put a frame around it and said so. “Take it or leave it, I now will this to be music.” After that it’s a matter of taste. Without the frame-as-announced, it’s a guy swallowing carrot juice. So, if music is the best, what is music? Anything can be music, but it doesn’t become music until someone wills it to be music, and the audience listening to it decides to perceive it as music. Most people can’t deal with that abstraction—or don’t want to. [7]

Again, it’s unclear as to which Cage composition Zappa is talking about. According to Paul van Emmerik’s “A John Cage Compendium,” Cage performed in Bridges Hall at Pomona College (in Claremont, CA) on March 7, 1962. With David Tudor, Cage presented his Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing? performance/lecture and Variations II. Neither of these pieces, as far as I can tell, entailed carrot juice gurgling. It’s possible that Zappa added the carrot juice in reference to Cage’s other claim to fame as a gourmet macrobiotic chef. Either way, it seems that Zappa is simply trying to call attention to some typically Cage-ian performance practices with the hope of bringing out their ridiculousness.


Bridges Hall at Pomona College, Claremont, CA (From here.)

Zappa also claimed to be more interested in Cage’s theories than his actual music:

I have many John Cage recordings, but I find his writing more interesting than his music. [8]

This is a reasonable claim, but I don’t think it gives the whole picture. I think Zappa was definitely invested in the acoustic effect of this kind of theorizing. When asked about Cage’s work with silence, for example, Zappa says:

I think that’s an acquired taste. When I first learned of Cage’s work, it seemed like the concept of it was far more entertaining than the audio result, but that could have just been a matter of the performances that were available on record at that time. Because even if you’re going to be performing – well, silence is a bad example, but somebody with more abstract notations that require a conscious participation of willingness on the part of musicians to do something constructive in the piece. It’s not often that you find musicians who like that idea and who will do a good job with it. I’m pretty sure that early recordings of Cage did not have willing accomplices. [9]

These quotations from Zappa’s interviews and writings (presented in roughly chronological order) paint a pretty intriguing picture of how he viewed Cage and his role in contemporary art. Even when he comes across as mildly sarcastic, I don’t think Zappa is trying to paint Cage in a negative light. He obviously held Cage in great esteem, though at times he may have been somewhat apprehensive to associate himself with such a controversial figure. (Zappa’s relationship with Cage, in this respect, seems to be fundamentally different from his view of Stravinsky or Varèse, who he saw as indisputable masters.) Let me conclude (this overly long post) with a quotation from the LA times:

Without Cage, Zappa said, much of what takes place in modern music and art “would not be possible.” [10]

[1] This quotation is from a transcription of a radio interview of Frank Zappa conducted by Studs Terkel for WFMT in Chicago in August of 1968. (Text here.)
[2] Sally Kempton, “Zappa and the Mothers: Ugly Can Be Beautiful,” in The Age of Rock: Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution, ed. Jonathan Eisen (New York: Random House, 1969). (Text here.)
[3] This is the text of a track entitled “Lumpy Gravy ‘Shuffle’” from Frank Zappa, The Lumpy Money Project/Object, Zappa Records ZR20008. (Text here.)
[4] Axel Wünsch and Aad Hoogesteger, “Frankfurt Press Conference 21.7.92,” T’Mershi Duween, no. 26 (September 1992). (Text here.)
[5] Mike Bourne, “The Aesthetics of Freakery,” Down Beat Yearbook (1971). (Text here.)
[6] Den Simms, “An Evening With Pierre Boulez and Frank Zappa,” T’Mershi Duween, no. 9 (October 1989). (Text here.)
[7] Frank Zappa and Peter Occhiogrosso, The Real Frank Zappa Book (New York: Poseidon Press, 1989), 140-141.
[8] Jon Winokur, “Frank Zappa: Drowning in the News Bath,” in The Big Curmudgeon (Black Dog Publishing, 2007), 355-356. (Text here.)
[9] Don Menn, “The Mother of all Interviews: Part 2.” (Text here.)
[10] Rip Rense, “Zapping All Those Rumors,” Los Angeles Times (October 1, 1992): F1. (Text here.)
Water Walking and Bicycle Blowing (part 2)