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

Yesterday morning, I read a paper at a meeting of the Northern California Chapter of the American Musicological Society at Stanford. It went pretty well! There was a wonderful audience that provided some stimulating questions and conversation afterward.

A couple of readers (feeling teased by the abstracts I’ve posted lately) have asked me to post my papers, so I’ve decided to do just that. Keep in mind that this is a work in progress…

Click here to download a PDF version of the paper. (Slides and visual examples appear at the end of the PDF.) Or, follow the jump to read the html version.

UPDATE (2/10/2010): In hopes of providing audible examples of some of the tracks (but without infringing upon any copyrights myself) I’ve embedded the audio from two YouTube videos–one for “Status Back Baby” and another for “Fountain of Love.” Be warned, however: I did not upload the embedded media. It may be subject to changes beyond my control. The video for “Fountain of Love” has an odd mix and may not initially seem to match my transcription. You’ll have to listen hard! (A video with “In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky” could not be found.)

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

[Click the images to see the slides at full resolution.]

Frank Zappa regarded the division between art music and pop music as a social construction and, as such, an arbitrary obstacle to his creative authenticity. He regarded the music from both categories as equally valid—and equally enjoyable—and claimed to want to share his experience with whoever would listen. Accompanying this motivation was a perennial desire for the social cachet that comes with being a respected composer of “serious” music. While never escaping the reputation of a popular musician, he pursued productions of his orchestral compositions, even when most turned out to be financially disastrous.

In an effort to bring culturally edifying music to a wider audience—and to elevate the status of his own work—Zappa allied himself with certain twentieth-century composers. Instances in which Zappa borrowed art-music material and inserted it into pop-music contexts provide a particularly ripe venue for exploring these motivations. In this paper, I direct my attention to those moments in Zappa’s compositions where he himself explicitly acknowledges the influence of the avant-garde by borrowing from music by Igor Stravinsky. I focus on instances of direct musical borrowing: cases in which a source composition can be identified. Isolating these explicit moments will inform our understanding of how this influence extends more ambiguously to other contexts as well.

I highlight Zappa’s use of Stravinsky’s music for several reasons. To begin with, Stravinsky borrowings appear with greater frequency in Zappa’s music than those from any other source. Zappa drew from a number of compositions by Stravinsky and did so with remarkable consistency throughout his career. He claimed to have borrowed this music primarily as a means of subversively promoting his own, less accessible work. As he explained to the New York Times, in 1966.

Rock is the only living music in America today. It’s alive. I’m bringing music music to our rock arrangements. Stravinsky in rock is like a get acquainted offer, a loss-leader. It’s a gradual progression to bring in my own “serious” music. [1]

In this sense, Stravinsky’s music served as a gateway for Zappa and his listeners: a middle-ground between rock and “serious” composition. I would argue that the influence also runs much deeper, extending beyond Zappa’s compositional activity. It informs his discourse and the reputation he cultivated for himself as a composer of respectable art music.

Stravinsky’s music held great resonance for Zappa. He enjoyed listening to it—claiming at one point to have listened to The Rite of Spring more than “any man in the world”! [2] He also expressed a sincere desire to share this enthusiasm for the music with others. Of course, much like Zappa’s own fans, who find their listening experience swayed as much by his discourse as by the experience of listening to his music, Zappa’s pleasure in listening to Stravinsky was informed by similar extra-musical forces.

It is necessary here to distinguish between reality and perspective. Zappa’s understanding of Stravinsky, and the biography and reception of his music, is often informed more by the mythology surrounding the elder composer than by any sober historical or analytical analysis. For Zappa, the idea that the riot accompanying the premier of The Rite of Spring was incited by bold dissonance and jarring rhythms, would have had far greater resonance than an account considering the performance space, the weather, or, most revealingly, the choreography. For Zappa, such considerations would have watered down the defiant force of the music’s reputation. In most cases, Zappa’s loyalty lies with what Richard Taruskin calls the “Stravinsky myth” [3]— the legend, as understood by the non-historian and the non-musicologist.

Exploring this relationship, I take, as my primary example, Zappa’s “Status Back Baby”—a short, doo-wop infused pop song, the bridge of which contains several melodic fragments borrowed from the first tableau of Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet, Petrushka.

Inspired by Zappa’s self-professed modernist approach to composition, an analysis of correspondences between the fragments and their new context will demonstrate the embeddedness of the borrowings and inform a new reading of the text. The impetus for this inquiry lies with Zappa’s biography and his discourse on the nature of his profession. His formalist take on the act of composition seems to invite such an approach.

We may, like Zappa, view the intertwining of pop with pre-existing art music as dismantling socio-musical boundaries, but this understanding would be incomplete. Although it achieves a sense of stylistic hybridity, it simultaneously reinforces longstanding musical barriers. I will conclude with a more general discussion of how attempts at cross-genre synthesis ultimately depend on the contrast of stylistic juxtaposition.

*          *          *

On the surface, “Status Back Baby” is a relatively straightforward pop song. Each of its four verses consists of an A section in G major and a B section in the relative minor.

The B sections transition back to the opening material by altering the repeated melody and ascending to D. The melody then steps down to G, which is heard as tonic once again at the beginning of the next verse.

For the third verse, the vocals are replaced with instrumental solos: alto saxophonist Bunk Gardener provides a solo for the A section, while Zappa fills out the B section with a brief guitar solo in the style of Johnny “Guitar” Watson. Zappa’s solo, however, does not lead back to G major in the manner prescribed by the preceding verses. Rather, the concluding D, once achieved, is sustained. This is followed by a bridge section which continues the D pedal and features a second Zappa solo made up of three melodic fragments borrowed from Petrushka. Example 2 provides a transcription of the solo and identifies the fragments a through c.

After fragment c, the guitar solo and the D pedal abruptly stop and the ensemble presents a final Petrushka borrowing: the “Easter Song.” As in Petrushka, this melody is heard here as an arrival—a climax in the case of “Status Back Baby.” The bridge proceeds in G Dorian until a B/D dyad inflects the key back to G major.

Frank Zappa, “Status Back Baby” (skip to 1:45-2:35)

Influenced by the preceding material in G major, the listener will likely hear the sustained D throughout the bridge as a dominant pedal. The borrowed Petrushka fragments will therefore be heard as either conforming to or rubbing against the listener’s sense of tonality. Fragment a fits in G major, but is retroactively reinterpreted as a tonicization of D major with the introduction of C# in fragment b. Fragment c, however, upsets the tonal stability of this D-major hearing. With its Bbs, C naturals, and F naturals, fragment c initiates an abrupt modulation to G Dorian with a pedal D.

To experience the fragments in this way—as occurring in a decidedly tonal context—indicates a departure from their source. In Petrushka, the listener’s sense of tonality is fleeting, or at least undermined by the harmonic stasis of the tremolos that accompany each of the fragments in question. In the opening gesture, for example, the flutes seem to imply D major, but the lack of harmonic motion and the conspicuous absence of the third scale degree prevent any confirmation of this suspicion. In “Status Back Baby,” on the other hand, the initial three verses establish a sense of tonality which, once established, is difficult to shake.

Examples 3 through 5 show the sources of each of the fragments a through c.

In their original context, each of the fragments appears with the same harmonic support: D, E, G, and A, a (0257) tetrachord.

“Status Back Baby” presents a similar case: all of the borrowed fragments are presented at their original pitch level over a consistent D pedal—which we may think of as an abbreviated simulation of (DEGA). Unlike Petrushka, however, the overall context of “Status Back Baby” is decidedly tonal. The relocation of the fragments to this new setting has a direct influence on the effect of the borrowing: specifically, the jarring modulation to G Dorian brought on by fragment c in the bridge. Lest one hear the borrowed fragments as tacked on or superficial because of this disruption, Zappa compensates for the effects of re-contextualization by integrating certain set-class characteristics of the borrowed material elsewhere in the song.

The accompanimental figures in each A section of “Status Back Baby” behave similarly, though here the music is more heavily weighted towards tonality.

While the vocal and alto saxophone parts derive exclusively from pitches belonging to G major, the bass guitar’s F natural subtly thwarts the listener’s sense of key. Simultaneously, the alto saxophone arpeggiates a minor seventh chord on E. This chord eases the transition between the G-major A sections and E-minor B sections of each verse by combining the pitches of both tonic triads. More importantly, the bass arpeggiation (CDFG) belongs to the same set class as the tremolos accompanying each of the borrowed fragments in their original setting. In other words, the bass part presents a linearization of the ubiquitous (0257) tetrachord from Petrushka’s first tableau. In the bridge, this accompaniment is reduced to a single pitch class (D). Here, the entire set class is found intact.

Furthermore, the articulation of the bass line is an exact transposition of the triplet eighth notes descending from the high A. Zappa even retains the triplet rhythm; though here it is offset to begin on the beat.

The vocal melody in the first measure of Example 6 is also built from the (0257) tetrachord. In this case, it shares the same pitch-class content as the tremolos from Petrushka: D, E, G, and A.

None of the (0257) tetrachords in “Status Back Baby” present an immediately audible connection to Petrushka. Given that both the bass arpeggiation and the vocal line conform to the melodic idioms of this sort of pop music, these set-class correlations may constitute an intentionally concealed borrowing. If so, this wouldn’t be a unique case in Zappa’s repertoire.

Another example is “Fountain of Love,” the tenth track on Zappa’s 1968 Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, which fades out with a typical doo-wop vamp repeating the titular phrase with background vocal “oo”-ing. Zappa points out that the melody is partly derived from “Sincerely,” a 1954 doo-wop hit by The Moonglows. [4]

But among the many musical borrowings to be found on the album, this one is unique for it also derives from the opening bassoon gesture of The Rite of Spring—a borrowing that Zappa proudly revealed in numerous interviews.

Frank Zappa, “Fountain of Love” (skip to 2:25)

In “Status Back Baby,” however, Zappa meant for listeners to recognize the borrowings. He was aware that the reference might go by unnoticed and at times felt compelled to compensate in live performances by announcing the borrowing at the beginning of his solo. Even if the specifics of the borrowings are not recognized by the audience, Zappa makes his intentions clear. The borrowings may be structurally embedded, but their effect relies on listener recognition.

Zappa saw Stravinsky as one of the most complex and publicly controversial composers of the twentieth century. I would suggest that in quoting Stravinsky’s music Zappa is also attempting to invoke the same sense of provocation which had been associated with composer since 1913 with the notorious debut of The Rite of Spring. Borrowing from Petrushka, therefore, imbues a certain degree of rebelliousness on Zappa’s music. The quality was one that Zappa surely relished. In “Status Back Baby,” however, it is impossible to know if listeners would have interpreted the Stravinsky borrowings as a signal of radical insubordination or simply as a reference to a composer of popular and unthreatening ballets. To some listeners, Stravinsky’s music—having long since been canonized—would have commanded a certain degree of reverence. Subjecting Petrushka to the low-brow pop context of “Status Back Baby” might be seen as intentional sacrilege.

Juxtaposition of this sort is common in Zappa’s borrowings from Stravinsky. He seems to have delighted in the apparent irony of high and low art being forced together. A striking example can be found on the 1988 album, Guitar. [5] The track “In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky” makes its content clear from the title. The piece begins with the highly recognizable bass riff of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

On top of this, the rhythm guitarist plays regularly-spaced, syncopated chords that rub against the established meter. Shortly thereafter, Zappa’s electric guitar solo commences with the opening melody of The Rite of Spring. The effect is striking, but was it planned? Did Zappa instruct his bassist to use the Iron Butterfly riff? Or was Zappa’s reference to Stravinsky inspired by the metrical contrast between the other musicians? Given the improvisatory nature of the work, one can only speculate as to Zappa’s intentions. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of these two borrowings has an immediacy that is hard to ignore.

As in “Fountain of Love” or “In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky,” the borrowed materials in “Status Back Baby” have a complex relationship with their musical surroundings—characterized by both integration and contrast. On the one hand, Zappa integrates harmonic material from Petrushka throughout the song in order to blunt the edge between the borrowed fragments and their new setting. On the other, the intended effect of the borrowing relies on an ironic contrast of art and pop; of Stravinsky and doo-wop. The fragments shouldn’t be there, and yet, perhaps, that is why they work.

This relationship is closely reflected in the text of the song.

I’m losing status at the high school.
I used to think that it was my school.
I was the king of every school activity,
But that’s no more, oh mama,
What will come of me?

The other night we painted posters.
They played some records by the Coasters.
A bunch of pom-pom girls looked down their nose at me.
They had painted tons of posters; I had painted three.
I hear the secret whispers everywhere I go.
My school spirit is at an all-time low.

I’m losing status at the high school.
I used to think that it was my school.
Everyone in town knows I’m a hand-some football star.
I sing and dance and spray my hair and drive a shiny car.
I’m friendly and I’m charming; I belong to De Molay.
I’m gonna try like mad to get my status back today!
Status back baby…

The narrator expresses frustration at the social expectations of his peers and struggles to fit in. He finds himself at the whim of forces beyond his control. The parallel with the eponymous puppet in Stravinsky’s Petrushka is obvious. In this reading, the Charlatan’s oppressive influence over Petrushka mirrors the ingrained social structure of a typical American high school, and Zappa’s decision to borrow from Petrushka suggests the inevitability of social conformity. In a typical ballet, dancers are restricted to the specifications of the choreography. Petrushka takes the concept one step further through its depiction of a puppet. In reality, the movements of both characters, Petrushka and the Charlatan, are dictated by Michel Fokine’s choreography. But the appearance of heightened submissiveness remains implicit nonetheless.

The majority of Zappa’s commentators have tended to hear “Status Back Baby” as autobiographical, equating Zappa’s voice with the voice of its estranged narrator. My reading of the song also refers to Zappa’s biography but not quite as explicitly. I see a parallel between the act of musical borrowing and the thematic content of the song. Musically, Zappa transforms both the borrowed Petrushka fragments and the context in which they appear. An earlier version of “Status Back Baby” from 1964—included on a demo recording of an unfinished rock opera entitled I Was a Teenage Maltshop—did not include any borrowings from Stravinsky. That they appear in the later version of the song suggests that alterations to the verse sections were required in order to accommodate the newly added Petrushka fragments. The set-class correlations between the fragments’ source and the newly composed arrangement of the song secure the structural embeddedness of the borrowing, but are ultimately unable to subdue the audible contrast. Meanwhile, the narrator of “Status Back Baby” feels oppressed—a sentiment with which Zappa sympathized and projected onto Petrushka. Anxious to boost his spirits, he “tries like mad to get his status back” but cannot help revealing his true self via Zappa’s guitar solo.

The Petrushka fragments are as foreign to the pop context as the narrator is to his peers. In this sense, they represent the narrator’s identity as a unique individual. The narrator and the borrowings retain an abrasive relationship with their surroundings despite the ultimately superficial manipulation of social status or musical transformation.

This interpretation correlates with Zappa’s ambitions to secure his reputation as a serious composer. Zappa revealed a deep-set desire to be taken seriously as a composer of art music, largely because of the compositional constraints he encountered in the world of pop. The textual implications of “Status Back Baby” reflect his understanding of social elevation. The presence of the Stravinsky borrowings establishes him as a connoisseur. But more importantly, Zappa mimics the very technique of those whom he identifies as his forbears. Borrowing from established borrowers seems an attempt at gaining membership within the modernist avant-garde. The act of musical borrowing, in other words, simultaneously facilitates and embodies the pedestal which Zappa built beneath himself.

*          *          *

Zappa’s Stravinsky borrowings, like all of his appropriations from the avant-garde, confront socio-musical barriers and attempt to dismantle these obstacles to creative expression. This antagonistic sentiment runs throughout much of Zappa’s work and is shared by a number of other composers and musicians. Artists as diverse as Mike Patton, David Byrne, Kate Bush, and Paul Simon have all shown similar ambitions. I am referring here to the phenomena which the music industry calls crossover music, a term that has its origins in record sales charts. When music that is generally considered to reside in one genre gains popularity elsewhere, it is said to “cross over” from one chart to another. Of course, these categorizations are highly problematic. Although alleged to be rooted in concrete musical characteristics, they are highly dependent on a number of socio-cultural influences.

In hopes of avoiding the slippery issue of how such genres are defined, I use the term “crossover music” as a marker of artistic intent. I am concerned with cases where the artist actively and knowingly combines aspects of distinct musical traditions. Crossover music in this regard is often said to be motivated by a desire to ensure the creative freedom of the artist. On a localized level, producers of crossover music are concerned with achieving a sort of personal musical utopia. Crossover artists want to break free from the socially imposed constraints that hinder their artistic freedom.

On a larger scale, crossover music often carries the banner of peaceful interpersonal relations—social harmony through musical collaboration and cooperation. Consider the case of Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland, which generated a marked degree of notoriety for these very reasons. The participation of South African musicians on Graceland led to accusations that Simon had violated cultural boycotts levied against the apartheid government. Concerns about cultural imperialism and accusations that Graceland upholds harmful racial stereotypes complicate the reception of the album even further. But, as Louise Meintjes points out in her detailed analysis of Graceland and its circumstances, Simon carefully avoids any mention of the apartheid government in his music and discourse, leaving the album politically ambiguous. [6]

Through all the accusations, Simon and his apologists have maintained that the record was simply meant to portray a positive example of collaborative music making. [7]

It is not my intention to rekindle the controversy surrounding Graceland, but rather to consider the motivations of the musicians involved. Simon approaches his music with a certain predisposition towards aesthetic autonomy. When he claims that he “just fell in love with the music and wanted to play,” he implies that music can be isolated from its socio-political circumstances. But music and context cannot be divorced. In her writings on Graceland, Meintjes demonstrates the strength of this connection for listeners and critics. I argue that the same holds true for the musicians, even if they are not themselves aware of it. Writing on the collaborative processes of Graceland’s genesis, Simon notes how South African elements became intertwined with his own musical ideas and tastes. [8] He describes the backgrounds and social circumstances of his collaborators, thereby acknowledging the cultural and political implications of their music.

Regardless of intention, crossover music cannot achieve the stylistic synthesis it attempts. It relies on socio-cultural boundaries even as it confronts and attempts to dismantle them. In all of these cases, much of the purported value of such music lies with its ability to bring together disparate art forms. In the absence of otherness, crossover music would lose its value.

An equally influential motivation for producing crossover music concerns the accumulation of economic and cultural capital. Mark Fenster, in his study of the hybridized iconography of country music videos, notes the tendency of the music industry to expand into new markets for financial gain. As Fenster writes, this typically occurs in three stages: 1) the identification of a new promotional medium; 2) the development of individual conventions; and 3) the establishment of new promotional tools. [9] I would argue that crossover music is always mediated by these motivations, though the specifics are not so straightforward. In the case of country music videos, the potential for financial gain is obvious. But what of Zappa’s attempts to hybridize art and pop?

Surely Zappa did not expect a tremendous spike in record sales by introducing his work to classical music audiences. It seems likely that only the most open-minded of art-music consumers would even give his music a chance. In this case, the incentive is not to branch out into a new market, but to achieve the lucrative reputation of an innovator. With his borrowings from the avant-garde, Zappa plays the pop music ambassador—collecting artifacts from the world of art music and displaying them within a pop context. By providing his audience with exciting new sounds, Zappa promotes his fluency in both types of music, establishing for himself a reputation as a connoisseur and a trailblazer.

Herein lies the essential paradox. The successful integration of these disparate streams depends on his innovation and the conviction of his synthesis. But his connoisseurship would be diminished were his music to hybridize its sources beyond the point of recognition.

The Stravinsky borrowings discussed in this paper all depend on distinctions between art and pop. As I have argued, one of Zappa’s most convincing tools is the ironic juxtaposition of “high” and “low” art. Despite their conception and execution, the effect of these borrowings relies on the perceived contrast between musical traditions. Although the specific implications of each borrowing depend on the degree of structural integration, boundaries are always reinforced even as they are blurred. With Graceland, the music’s positive message has no conviction when the listener is unable to distinguish the intertwined musical streams and identify their respective cultures. Likewise, with Zappa’s Stravinsky borrowings, the irony of juxtaposition would disappear if the opposing styles were blended beyond distinction. In both cases, synthesis through aesthetic autonomy is the goal, simultaneously thwarted and supported by irremovable socio-cultural associations.

[1] Robert Shelton, “Son of Suzy Creamcheese,” New York Times, December 25, 1966, X12. (Text here.)
[2] Rip Rense, “A Unique Musical Force or Blasphemous Freak: Which Is Frank Zappa?,” The Valley News [Van Nuys, CA] (June 27, 1976). (Text here.)
[3] Richard Taruskin, “Stravinsky and Us,” in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays (University of California Press, 2008), 424. (Limited preview here.)
[4] Frank Zappa and Richard Blackburn, “’50s Teenagers And ’50s Rock,” Evergreen Review, no. 81 (August 1970). (Text here.)
[5] Frank Zappa, Guitar, Barking Pumpkin D1 74212, 1988.
[6] Louise Meintjes, “Paul Simon’s Graceland, South Africa, and the Mediation of Musical Meaning,” Ethnomusicology 34, no. 1 (Winter 1990): 37-73. (Article here. Requires subscription.)
[7] Charles Hamm, “Graceland Revisited,” Popular Music 8, no. 3 (October 1989): 299. (Article here. Requires subscription.)
[8] Liner notes for Graceland.
[9] Mark Fenster, “Country Music Video,” Popular Music 7, no. 3 (October 1988): 285. (Article here. Requires subscription.)
Does Serious Music Belong in Pop? Borrowings from Stravinsky in the Music of Frank Zappa