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Was Zappa a Bad Composer?
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FeelersRebo
Joined: 2013-04-17
Posts: 35
Post 2018-02-28 20:23   [Quote] 
Obviously not, just a provocatively-worded question. To disclaim, Zappa is my favourite composer and was a gateway into contemporary classical music for me.

What I'm really asking is, do we know if Zappa had any profound understanding of functional harmony, in either a Common Practice Period or jazz context? He clearly knew stuff like what a ii-V-I is and parodied its aesthetic (America Drinks springs to mind), but (according to the Real FZ Book, if I remember correctly) he did put his guitar away in a huff after apparently having an unpleasant time playing the standards, and I wonder what really happened there (it sounds like perhaps he didn't have an aptitude for that style - maybe he struggled to solo over the changes, which could be due to gaps in his knowledge about functional harmony?).

There's also no evidence I've come across in his orchestral work of common practice influence, as it seems like he sought to adopt an entirely non-functional approach (not a criticism of his ability - this was clearly a result of his aesthetic preferences, and he stated himself he didn't listen to many pre-20th C composers, Chopin and Bach being exceptions, though I still don't hear them in his music). His jazz-fusion (for want of a better description) and rock-oriented material seemed to be structured more around shapes that were idiomatic to the guitar (Ruth Underwood somewhat confirms this approach in the Roxy By Proxy liner notes, and we can see an example of this clearly in the Echidna's Arf coda).

The reason I ask this question is because I've been recently trying to understand Zappa's music from a functional harmony approach (I've spent years exploring how he structures his pieces and uses rhythm, but his harmonies often seemed to be fairly static, whilst rich in sonority). I somewhat expected this to be futile, because it just doesn't seem to be how Zappa worked, but I just wondered what I might discover. So far it's been a headache from a functional perspective, and it just doesn't seem like a good way to analyse this great music. But I wondered if it's just gaps in my own knowledge preventing me from understanding it in this way.
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drdork
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Post 2018-02-28 21:47   [Quote] 
Have you read Brett Clement's dissertation? If not, you should.

Brett Clement, 2009, A Study Of The Instrumental Music Of Frank Zappa, doctoral dissertation, University of Cincinnati.

It was discussed here. I don't think you can download the dissertation from that initial link anymore though. You could PM brettclem.
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scherbe2003
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Post 2018-03-01 05:21   [Quote] 
Here's the link:
https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=ucin1248708091&disposition=attachment
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drdork
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Post 2018-03-01 06:23   [Quote] 
Thanks for the link. One will have to copy and paste it, thanks to the peculiarities of BBCode.

Let me reiterate: every Zappa fan with an interest in music theory should read this dissertatation.
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cookie_manager
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Post 2018-03-01 07:19   [Quote] 
Music theory is the best!

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FeelersRebo
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Post 2018-03-01 08:42   [Quote] 
Yeah, the Clement dissertation is very good. And the Lydian theory is an interesting way of approaching the diatonic stuff, even if Frank probably didn't deliberately devise it that way.

I suppose it's fascinating that Zappa seemed to enjoy so much success and apparently, a fair amount of popularity among his peers without really "speaking the dialect" in more than superficial detail (both with regards to CPP harmony from the classical tradition, or the kind of functional harmonies that are found in jazz standards). He had his own systems of non-functional harmony worked out in impressive detail, and was clearly extremely competent, but it seems like he was largely his own little universe. That isn't a bad thing, but I can't think of anyone I know who is involved in music professionally that would be able to get any jobs without compromising and aligning themselves with a particular community of musicians (which would also involve "fluency in the dialect"). I suppose Zappa's most conventionally accepted"dialect" was in the blues and rock idiom, which is what he was marketed as for a long time and maybe allowed him to "earn his stripes" amongst a particular crowd.
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mb666
Joined: 2006-11-11
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Post 2018-03-01 18:04   [Quote] 
I wish I knew what you're talking about. Sounds interesting. But unfortunately my musical education is based on the Ramones chord changes.
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bleachboy
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Post 2018-03-01 23:01   [Quote] 
It's basically the exact same thing

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FeelersRebo
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Post 2018-03-01 23:57   [Quote] 
bleachboy wrote:
It's basically the exact same thing

Is this in response to my comments about Zappa's "blues dialect" as opposed to a "jazz dialect"? If so, the blues repertoire is a very different set of tunes to the jazz repertoire (though inevitably there'll be some overlap somewhere), and Zappa seemed much more ready to engage with a more straightforward 12-bar blues form (Cosmik Debris, Dickie's Such an Asshole, countless other e.g.s) rather than what he probably saw as a bunch of cheesy tin-pan-alley songs. Jazz musicians steeped in the latter approached harmony in a more adventurous way than a lot of (perhaps most) blues - though this isn't to suggest jazz is "superior" to blues. It's interesting that he worked with quite a few top-notch jazz players and didn't really seem to pick up the lingo, at least on more than a superficial level.

Despite his obvious affinity with at least the surface aesthetic of jazz, it seems funny that his comments about it seemed imbued with a vitriolic snark (Stewart Copeland also seems to have reacted against it in a similar way, claiming "there are no talented people in jazz" [paraphrase from an interview from Youtube] - a percussionist thing, maybe?). Maybe it was a reaction against what he perceived as an inadequacy in his own writing, which he more than compensated for in other respects (perhaps why he examined rhythm in such obsessive detail)? He seemed to feel similarly about "painting by numbers" with established classical forms. His wryness about about these styles, amusing as it is, could almost be perceived as defensive on some level.

Not that this speculation is anything more than trivial, but the more people I play with and the more styles I approach, I just find it quite fascinating that such a competent, apparently open-minded composer could be so closed off to certain musical ideas. Not that I would pose this as a criticism, but this rejection of established norms is something which seems to be often romanticised about Zappa, when in a way it may have been more like an achilles heel (mighty and fleet-footed though Achilles was).
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GenerousMittenful
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Post 2018-03-02 22:42   [Quote] 
FeelersRebo wrote:
Not that I would pose this as a criticism, but this rejection of established norms is something which seems to be often romanticised about Zappa, when in a way it may have been more like an achilles heel (mighty and fleet-footed though Achilles was).


His rejection of established norms made him who he was. It's also why I was drawn to his music, and love it so much to this day. Had he been an academic, it would have ruined him.

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Last edited by GenerousMittenful on 2018-03-03 00:54; edited 1 time in total
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FeelersRebo
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Post 2018-03-02 23:12   [Quote] 
I agree to an extent, but it is possible to make a bold statement whilst also maximising your employability as a musician (which is not to "sell out").

Obviously, I wouldn't have Zappa any other way - had he been involved in music in a different way, his music would have been different, and most likely not the thing that I love. However, I doubt whether it's the best attitude for a musician to adopt in the present day, at least from the pragmatic perspective of wanting to make a career out of music. Zappa was definitely an outlier in the way he just sort of seemed to manage to synthesize his own musical universe and live inside it. But Zappa was, in his own words, "the world's finest optional entertainment", and was an alternative to other trends. Now you can consume an abundance of "optional entertainment" readily and for free online. That doesn't mean the current landscape is necessarily bad, but it is radically different, and I wonder if maybe Zappa's attitude might be self-destructive in today's environment, if adopted by someone trying to forge a reputation.
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GenerousMittenful
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Post 2018-03-03 00:57   [Quote] 
FeelersRebo wrote:
I agree to an extent, but it is possible to make a bold statement whilst also maximising your employability as a musician (which is not to "sell out").

Obviously, I wouldn't have Zappa any other way - had he been involved in music in a different way, his music would have been different, and most likely not the thing that I love. However, I doubt whether it's the best attitude for a musician to adopt in the present day, at least from the pragmatic perspective of wanting to make a career out of music. Zappa was definitely an outlier in the way he just sort of seemed to manage to synthesize his own musical universe and live inside it. But Zappa was, in his own words, "the world's finest optional entertainment", and was an alternative to other trends. Now you can consume an abundance of "optional entertainment" readily and for free online. That doesn't mean the current landscape is necessarily bad, but it is radically different, and I wonder if maybe Zappa's attitude might be self-destructive in today's environment, if adopted by someone trying to forge a reputation.


We'll never know, but he did always say that him getting attention, getting signed to a record label, and becoming a successful artist could only have happened during the mid sixties.

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bleachboy
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Post 2018-03-04 08:47   [Quote] 
@FeelersRebo: no I was responding to the post just above about the ramones

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scherbe2003
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Post 2018-03-04 10:05   [Quote] 
FeelersRebo wrote:
Yeah, the Clement dissertation is very good. And the Lydian theory is an interesting way of approaching the diatonic stuff, even if Frank probably didn't deliberately devise it that way.


It's a while I read the Lydian paper so I can't recall everything Brett said there, but from a descriptive point of view it doesn't really matter whether it was by deliberate design or just sounded attractive to him (or it sounded good to him and he also found it comfortable to finger, or whatever). One would certainly find preferred scales also with other guitar players (I seem to remember having read a number of articles over the years to that effect).
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brainpang
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Post 2018-03-10 05:20   [Quote] 
Well, he did cheat on his wife and other stuff but given he came out of the 60s, the rock star status and all, I do not think that necessarily makes him bad.

(okay, that was cheap and easy but I couldn't resist)
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