The Return of “Water Walking and Bicycle Blowing”

After my second post about John Cage’s influence on Zappa yesterday, Arthur left a comment directing me to a lecture that Zappa gave (along with George Duke and Captain Beefheart) at Gifford Auditorium in Syracuse on April 23, 1975. Arthur sent me a .torrent file (many thanks, Arthur!), but I see now that the lecture is available streaming at “The Captain Beefheart Radar Station” website. (Listen here.)

The lecture is basically an extended Q&A with Zappa, Duke, and Beefheart answering all manner of questions from the audience. (Some of the questions remind me of The Chris Farley Show, but others manage to get some interesting and insightful comments out of Zappa.) I couldn’t seem to find a transcription of the event online, so here is the portion dealing with Cage. (I would love to transcribe the entire lecture, but simply don’t have the time!)

Before you mentioned an aspect of chance in your music. How much, or if any, do you have looked at anything as far as what John Cage has been dealing with? Or also, have you had any experience with a group of artists in New York by the name of Fluxus [a network of experimental artists organized in the early 1960s by George Maciunas in New York]?

Well I’ve heard of Fluxus, and I’ve listened to John Cage’s albums, and I attended a couple of John Cage lectures, and I did some research into that kind of aleatoric music, and studied other aleatoric composers during the late 50s when that was turning into something to be reckoned with. But there’s very few of those people that I thought did anything that sounded musical. You know, it was interesting, but I wouldn’t compare it to any lasting musical expression. You know, it was just a sign of the times and it was worthy as such. And if I listen to any of those records today I just hear it as an indicator and not as a piece of music. Like, the Bartok Second Piano Concerto is a piece of music and John Cage’s music for two prepared pianos and a something or other is… You know, that doesn’t register as music with me.

Do you find that to be the case with most aleatoric music?

It depends on the piece. There have been some pieces that contain improvisation that I’ve enjoyed: a couple of Earle Brown’s pieces I like, and—what’s that guy’s name?—Donald Erb. You know that record? Yeah, I like that. But most of the earlier things in the aleatoric vein, were not too… Well, I’ll tell you part of the problem. Whenever a composer relinquishes part of his control to a musician and says, “OK, just fill in the blanks here, I’ll trust your judgment,” he’s putting an awful lot of faith in somebody who may or may not be too interested in what his musical goals are. And whenever you’re writing a piece of music and you say, “this space is for you to fill out with an improvisation,” you’re really taking a lot of chances. And because of the attitude of most symphony musicians or most of the people who were playing those early aleatoric pieces, they hated what they were doing and I think that comes through in the recordings of that music very strongly. That the people who are playing that stuff just couldn’t stand it, didn’t understand what the idea was behind improvisation. And a lot of the people who play in symphony orchestras have never been asked to improvise before, so they’re very uncomfortable with it. And it’s possible that some of that music might turn out to be better if it was recorded now with people who understand that kind of improvisation.

What’s interesting to me here is Zappa’s commitment to control. He seems very hesitant to relinquish artistic command for any art that bears his name. This is perfectly understandable, of course. But why would Zappa be so concerned with “taking a lot of chances” when writing “chance music”? I think this comment demonstrates a real apprehension on Zappa’s part to invest himself too fully in this aspect of Cage’s theorizing. It seems like Zappa is more interested in the idea of a radical theoretical foundation than in the specifics of aleatoric composition.

Now that I think about it, one of Zappa’s most obviously aleatoric pieces–“Approximate”–is pretty heavily controlled in live contexts. Take the performance on the Dub Room Special DVD for example. After playing it straight–in which only the pitch dimension is left to “chance”–Zappa has the band sing the rhythm and then dance it. In effect, he’s minimizing the aleatory of the composition.

One other part that stood out for me had to do with the rarity (at least by 1975) of Zappa’s projects involving orchestras:

Would you, or are you planning to do anything again like you did with the L.A. Phil?

We’ve had maybe five or six offers from orchestras all over the world since that time, but it always seems like the wrong thing to do because what they want really is to get the Mothers as a rock and roll band to come in and play alongside of the orchestra so that they can improve their concert attendance. And so they use us as bait to bring kids into the concert hall with little or no regard for my music as something for an orchestra to play. And, you know, it’s a shuck. And I felt that from what happened with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and have sort of avoided the orchestral experience ever since because it’s disheartening to spend that amount of time writing some music for an orchestra and know that they just don’t give a shit when they get the music and it’s just another thing for them to do.

I think there’s another interesting contradiction that comes out with this response. I’ve always had the impression, from listing to Zappa’s music and reading what he had to say in books and interviews, that part of the reason he worked in popular idioms was to introduce “serious” music to a wider audience. In other words, it seems like he’s subversively trying to get his listeners more accustomed with difficult music. Saying that he doesn’t want to be used “as bait to bring kids into the concert hall” doesn’t seem to support this motivation.

More FZ food for thought!

The Return of “Water Walking and Bicycle Blowing”

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