Zappa’s Stravinsky Borrowings (part 1)

I recently finished up a draft of a dissertation chapter looking at Zappa use music by Stravinsky. “Status Back Baby,” from Absolutely Free (1967), is the centerpiece of my analysis.: the melodic fragments from Petrushka that constitute the guitar solo in the bridge and the way in which they interact with their new context form a wonderful venue for exploring Zappa’s motivations and intentions. But there are a heck of a lot of other Stravinsky borrowings as well! Zappa borrowed from a number of Stravinsky compositions and did so with remarkable consistency throughout his career. Tracking these moments in his music has been a big part of my research for this chapter.

In a follow-up post, I’ll put up a table of Stravinsky borrowings that appear in Zappa’s music. Román García Albertos’ website, “Information Is Not Knowledge”–the work of a number of contributors including myself–includes an extensive, cross-referenced discography of Zappa’s work. It has been a wonderful resource for tracking musical borrowing. Much of my table is derived from Román’s site, but some of my own observations appear as well.

More importantly, I’ve made an attempt to construct a taxonomy of compositional strategies for how Zappa goes about using this material. Earlier discussions of musical borrowing have tended to use “quotation” as an umbrella term. J. Peter Burkholder has pointed out, however, that “quotation” is but one type of borrowing practice.[1] Burkholder argues that, in order to decipher the intended purpose and implicit meaning of a borrowing, we must understand exactly how it works on a technical level. Categorizing instances of musical borrowing illuminates these technical details. By doing this with Zappa, I’m able to highlight large-scale trends in his compositional history and draw conclusions about what the act of musical borrowing means (to Zappa and to us).

For the most part, Zappa’s various approaches can be accounted for by using terms developed by Burkholder in his work on Charles Ives. [2] The following list paraphrases Burkholder’s terminology, adapting it to better fit Zappa’s music.

  1. Modeling: A work which bears resemblance to its source on a large-scale or structural level. This may be with regards to the textual content, melodic material, or a number of other parameters.
  2. Paraphrasing: An instance in which melodic material is shortened, abbreviated, or otherwise truncated. In most cases, the source material is still highly identifiable.
  3. Arrangement: A rescoring of the musical forces. (Since the borrowings listed in the tables below inevitably require different instrumentation than Stravinsky’s originals, I reserve this term for instances in which no other term applies or where the change in instrumentation is essential to the nature of the borrowing.)
  4. Setting: Providing a new accompaniment for borrowed melodic material.
  5. Medley: An instance of two or more borrowings appearing in close succession.
  6. Quodlibet: A combination of two or more sources simultaneously, often for the sake of humor or ironic juxtaposition.
  7. Stylistic allusion: A reference to a specific work or style, but not necessarily appropriating any traceable melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic material from the source.
  8. Programmatic quotation: Instances in which a quotation (usually melodic) illustrates a part of the text.
  9. Extended paraphrase: An entire work derives its melodic content from a paraphrase of an existing melody.

Of course, not all of Ives’ techniques can be found in Zappa’s work. They are different composers, after all! I’ve omitted the strategies listed by Burkholder that don’t apply.

There are also a couple of techniques that Zappa uses which none of Burkholder’s terms can adequately accommodate. For this reason, I need to supplement the list with some terms of my own:

  1. Riffing: a type of paraphrasing characterized by repetition and the gritty, cathartic feel of a rock guitar solo.
  2. Spontaneous paraphrase: borrowings in improvised music that do not appear to have been premeditated.

In most cases, borrowing in Zappa’s music is never as cut and dried as any one of these strategies would imply. Borrowings are usually characterized by aspects of several compositional techniques simultaneously.

In my next post, I’ll put these terms to use. I’ll provide a table (three, actually!) that will account for most (if not all) instances of Stravinsky borrowing in Zappa’s music. Stay tuned…

[1] J. Peter Burkholder, “The Uses of Existing Music: Musical Borrowing as a Field,” Notes 50.3 (March 1994): 851-870. (Article here.)
[2] Ibid., 854.
Zappa’s Stravinsky Borrowings (part 1)