ABSTRACTS: Stravinsky Borrowings and Cage on Popular Television

Whew! Things have been pretty hectic lately! In addition to the usual chipping away at the ol’ dissertation, I’ve been preparing abstracts for paper proposals at a number of upcoming conferences. (See my post from November 15.)

Responses from conference committees have slowly (but surely!) been trickling in. Unfortunately, the Experience Music Project Pop Conference couldn’t find a place for my proposed paper on Zappa’s xenochrony. Oh well, maybe next year… On the other hand, I’ve had two abstracts accepted! Read the abstracts after the jump.

The first paper I’ll be reading will be at a meeting of the Northern California Chapter of the American Musicological Society on Saturday, February 6 (2010), to be held at the Braun Music Center at Stanford University. My paper is entitled: “Does Serious Music Belong in Pop? Borrowings from Stravinsky in the Music of Frank Zappa.” Judging from the program, the meeting is sure to have some very interesting papers on a wide variety of topics. Program here. (The acute accent adorning the “e” in my name wasn’t my idea, but it sure looks snazzy, doesn’t it?)

Here’s the abstract:

“Does Serious Music Belong in Pop? Borrowings from Stravinsky in the Music of Frank Zappa”

Crossover music, from Paul Simon’s Graceland to Gunther Schuller’s Third Stream, is generally presented as dismantling socio-musical boundaries. This understanding, however, is incomplete. Even as it achieves a sense of stylistic hybridity, crossover music simultaneously reinforces longstanding musical barriers. In this vein, Frank Zappa’s quotations of music by modernist composers in pop-centric contexts—often presented as a “missing link” between cultivated and vernacular traditions—ultimately depend on the contrast of stylistic juxtaposition. This paper explores various types of borrowing that appear in Zappa’s music, and shows that, depending on the structural significance of the borrowing, they acquire meanings that confront perceived barriers between “high” and “low” art.

From Zappa’s borrowing-rich repertoire, this paper isolates quotations of music by Igor Stravinsky. “Status Back Baby” (1966) forms the centerpiece of my analysis. An intentionally mundane pop song, “Status Back Baby” integrates melodic fragments from the first tableau of Petrushka and bases its harmonic structure on Stravinsky’s octatonic/diatonic schema. By integrating the quotation in this manner, Zappa effectively appropriates the very technique of his modernist forbears.

I supplement this examination with discussions of other pieces by Zappa that draw from Stravinsky in different ways: “In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky” and “Fountain of Love.” Each of these pieces highlight the musical contrast of mid-century pop music with Stravinsky’s avant-garde modernism. But Zappa repeatedly claimed that such gestures were philanthropic, intended to bring “serious music” to a lay audience—loss leaders meant to seduce the listener into appreciating more challenging repertoire.

Despite the disparate means of conception and execution, the effect of these quotations relies on the contrast between musical traditions. Although the specific implications of each depend on their structural integration, in both cases boundaries are reinforced as much as blurred.

I will also be reading a paper entitled “Laughter Over Tears: John Cage, Experimental Art Music, and Popular Television” for the annual Music and the Moving Image conference (May 21-23, 2010) at the NYU Steinhardt School’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions. While not directly related to my Zappa research per se, the paper will likely serve as groundwork for a chapter on Cage’s influence on Zappa.

And the abstract for this one:

“Laughter Over Tears: John Cage, Experimental Art Music, and Popular Television”

“These are nice people, but some of them are going to laugh. Is that alright?” “Of course!” John Cage replied gleefully, setting up a performance of his Water Walk on a 1960 episode of the game show I’ve Got a Secret, “I consider laughter preferable to tears!”

Cage designed Water Walk (1959) specifically to be performed on television. Reworking an earlier composition—Water Music (1952)—he adapted to popular television conventions by focusing more explicitly on humor and visuality. In this paper, I offer a close analysis of differences between Water Music and Water Walk to demonstrate how Cage approached the televised medium. By comparing Cage’s evolving outlook on musical composition to contemporaneous discussions on the nature of the performing arts on television, I frame Cage’s performance as the product of these momentarily intersecting trajectories.

During the first few decades of broadcast television, much of the attendant discourse was concerned with how the new medium would contribute to the performing arts. As one writer noted in 1950, television’s unique liveness—its “immediacy, spontaneity, and actuality”—made it well-suited for a revival of vaudeville. Variety shows and game shows continued this tradition. Meanwhile, throughout the 1950s, Cage became increasingly engaged with theatricality and the visual aspects of performance. Television offered an exciting venue through which to explore these interests. Rejecting the traditional values of western art music, Cage appeals instead to television aesthetics—he chooses laughter over tears.

I’m very excited about speaking at both of these conferences! Readers are encouraged to attend either (or both!) if you’re in the area and would like to be mentally stimulated!

(My apologies for the lack of posts lately. Stay tuned for more Zappa goodness in the weeks to come!)

ABSTRACTS: Stravinsky Borrowings and Cage on Popular Television

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