Frank Zappa

Music has been becoming increasingly Balkanised for many years now. From the

days of Gregorian chant to the present, there’s been an almost teleological

progression: the number of different types of music has increased, while the

audience for any given piece of music (expressed as a percentage of the music-loving

population) has steadily shrunk. It’s almost reached the point where music can’t

bring different types of people together any more: different people like different

music. None of the chart-topping acts have truly broad appeal: most of them

are, in fact, seriously disliked by most people.

But today I went to a concert with ten-year-old girls, eighty-year-old grannies,

Williamsburg hipsters and cardigan-wearing recluses. It was in Carnegie Hall,

but had probably the youngest audience that venerable venue has had in years;

certainly it was the most diverse. There was no snobbery, no sense that you

were part of some exclusive crowd. The home CDs of the concert-goers ranged

from avant-garde jazz to bubblegum pop to Tony Bennett to Andean nose-flautists. Probably some of us had little in the way of music

at home at all; certainly many of us had nothing by the main composer of the


It didn’t matter. Everybody in the hall had a whale of a time, and I’m pretty

sure we all left grinning from ear to ear. On the way out, there was a camraderie

amongst us. It was nothing like the grim-faced Music Lovers who loiter outside

the Knitting Factory eyeing each other suspiciously and obsessing over obscure

rarities: rather, we all had experienced a really fun concert, and were simply

in a great mood. As the gym slogan has it, No Judgements.

The concert, of course, or at least its second half, was orchestral arrangements

of pieces by Frank Zappa. Zappa started off as a wacked-out rock star, but didn’t

take long to get himself a certain amount of credibility in the serious (classical)

music world. Even so, his stuff isn’t often performed at Carnegie Hall, or other

venues of that ilk, and today’s performance certainly felt like a special occasion.

More interestingly, it felt like Zappa’s acceptance into the mainstream. That

almost never happens with dead musicians: if they weren’t broadly popular when

alive, the chances are that they’re not going to find new audiences once they’re

dead. But I think that what has happened is that (a) the very fragmentation

of music in recent years has forced people to become at least glancingly familiar

with a Zappaesque range of musical styles and vocabularies; and (b) what once

was daring and transgressive is now harmless and tinged with nostalgia.

That said, Zappa’s music still makes you sit up and take notice: it’s edgy,

exciting, exhilarating. We started off with a short piece called G-Spot

Tornado, a bit like John Adams’ A Short Ride in a Fast Machine

but crazier. Zappa has none of the self-conscious artiness of Adams: while the

latter uses venerable poets to come up with the rhyming couplets in his operas,

Zappa gives us wonderful poetry like this, from the centerpiece of the evening,

The Adventures of Greggery Peccary:

Is this the old loft with the paint peeling off it, by the Chinese police,

where the dogs roll by? Is this where they keep the philostophers now with

the rugs and the dust, where the books go to die? How many yez got? Say yez

got quite a few just sitting around there with nothing to do? Well I just

called yez up cause I wanted to see a philostopher be some assistance to me!

Rhyming couplets, yes, but with a Seussian flavour, as well as an anarchic

iconoclasm. The music is just as wild, if not more so: clashing dischords, wailing

guitars, and even, at one point, a section scored for three electric typewriters.

But somehow, today, such things are appealing, rather than offputting. Zappa

has become a bit like Kurt Weill, whose music obviously was a major influence:

a revolutionary artist whose art will live much longer than his revolutionary

fervour. (The music’s still biting, though. Anyone could love this music, but

no one will emerge from this concert completely unscathed. That’s part of why

it’s so loved.)

The American Composers Orchestra has certainly coped with much weirder things

than typewriters in its time, and in fact breezed through a score which, technically,

didn’t seem particularly demanding by contemporary-music standards. Our narrator,

David Moss, threw himself heart and soul into his role, his voice by far the

most versatile instrument in the orchestra despite the fact that almost never

could you say that what he was doing could really be described as singing. And

the conductor, Steven Sloane, was obviously having a whale of a time, and responded

marvelously to the audience’s very evident enthusiasm.

Elsewhere in the program, before the interval, we had to sit through three

commissions, all of which were pretty benign stuff. Nothing to set the heart

racing, nothing to object to. The harshness of most contemporary music in the

70s and 80s is now being replaced, I fear, with blandness. One of our new composers,

Dan Coleman, is arranging music for Lisa Loeb. Another, Hsueh-Yung Shen, wrote

a piece called Autumn Fall about which he writes that "the work

follows a large unbroken arch". (It’s something of an in-joke among readers

of contemporary-music program notes that at least 50% of all new music is "in

the form of an arch".) Zappa would skewer them all without a second thought.

There was more life and imagination in any 30 seconds of his music than in the

entire first half of the concert. Here’s hoping we get more of him at Carnegie

Hall, and that he continues to mix it up with young and old.

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