I Come From Nowhere(?)

My dissertation–if you hadn’t already gathered–focuses on the convergence of popular and classical music streams that informs much of Frank Zappa’s music. This confluence means different things in different places (for both Zappa and his audience), but it seems to me to be a defining characteristic that runs through all of his work. My questions here are: Why would this be such an important aspect of his work? and, What influenced him in thinking this way?

Strictly Genteel

On the one hand, Zappa was trying to establish for himself a reputation as a composer of serious art music. His reasons for this are, of course, open to debate, but Zappa was always quick to point out that his ambitions were aesthetically motivated. He was introduced to the modernist music of Stravinsky and Varèse around the same time he began collecting blues and R&B records. Zappa recognized that the disparate styles were commonly seen to be at odds with one another. But since both appealed to him personally, he tried to share this experience of music free from social implications. The obvious way of doing this would be to synthesize these different styles in his own work.

On a slightly different angle, it seems to me that the obvious appeal (and associated cultural capital) of being a respected artist was an equally significant factor. Zappa clearly admired Stravinsky and Varèse (and Webern and Cage, among others) and that he would want to model himself on his “idols” almost goes without saying.

But where does this all come from? What streams (cultural, social, musical) does he fit into? Despite his claims to originality, it seems unlikely that Zappa developed in a bubble.

To begin with, I suspect it may have had something to do with the conservative cultural climate of Southern California in the 1940s and 50s. Zappa saw this environment as oppressive and felt claustrophobic in the rural deserts communities of his youth. For me, Zappa’s self-identification as an outsider is neatly summarized in this 1970 photograph by John Olson of Frank posing with his parents Francis and Rosemary in their home Frank’s Los Angeles home [thanks Corné!]:

Zappa with parents

(Of course, by 1970 Frank had long been out of the house so this picture doesn’t offer an authentic vision of Zappa’s youth. Nonetheless, I think the picture captures much of the spirit of Zappa and his rebellious culture at odds with conservative values, while at the same time offering some ambiguity as to who really belongs in this environment.)

While still a child, he found refuge in the modernist avant-garde. (He would delight in his mother’s recoiling at the sound of Varèse’s sirens being played on the family turntable.) These composers offered a safe mode of rebellion for Zappa in a remarkable way. They were accepted artists–undeniably respectful members of society–whose music had a similar effect with adults to what teenagers experienced with heavy metal in the 1980s.

But I don’t think it ends there. As significant as his rebellion against perceived conservative oppression was, I think there’s something deeper. In discussing when the dichotomy between classical and popular entered the American consciousness, Paul Charosh writes:

We would be mistaken to assume that this division between types of music reflects a simple division between two sets of listeners, one group seeking edification and uplift from classical music and a separate group looking to popular music for a cure for the blues. Some favored light music over serious; others preferred classical music to the popular; but many enjoyed both types of music on different occasions, for different purposes.[1]

Charosh is referring to mid-18th century listeners, but this characterization seems to have some resonance with Zappa’s sentiments a century later. Is this a constant stream in American musical consciousness? Did Zappa inherit this dual validity of opposing musical streams?

For that matter, who else was a part of this? Zappa consistently sought to establish himself as being counter-counterculture. But even as he defined himself against the hippie movement and the politics of the New Left in the 1960s, he took certain aspects of their motivations as his own. Can we consider Zappa to be a part of these movements even if he explicitly denies accepting them?

For now, these thoughts are very preliminary. I don’t have the answers to these questions. (Yet!)

[1] Paul Charosh, “‘Popular’ and ‘Classical’ in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” American Music, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Summer, 1992), 126.
I Come From Nowhere(?)