Frank Zappa's orchestral works : art music or "bogus pomp"?
MMus(R) thesis, University of Glasgow.
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This dissertation was conceived in response to the many authors, notably Jonathan Bernard, Matthias Kassel, Ben Watson and Kevin Courrier, who suggest that Frank Zappa's "art" music contains stylistic references to early 20th century composers as Igor Stravinsky, Eric Satie, Charles Ives, John Cage and Edgard Varese. On the whole such studies, though undoubtedly important contributions to Zappa criticism, stop short of further specific investigation as to why Zappa's music evokes the style of these composers. If we are to make an attempt at understanding Zappa's music fully in this light, it is necessary to examine these assertions more closely, in order to discover the degree to which Zappa's music has absorbed particular stylistic nuances from each of the aforementioned composers. For the purposes of this first tentative step towards an in-depth investigation into stylistic similarities between early 20th century modernists and Frank Zappa, I have chosen to concentrate primarily on the influence of Edgard Varese. To examine all the possible stylistic references to 20th century composers noted by Bernard, Kassel and Courrier, would go beyond the limits of this initial dissertation. The study is conducted as a narrowly focused comparative examination, where specific Zappa pieces are analysed in order to show how the relate to Varese's methods of composing. In my analyses that follow, I have consulted Jonathan Bernard's book The Music of Edgard Varese as guidance on Varese's technique, as well as the opinions of Varese himself as most famously exemplified in the "Liberation of Sound" lecture he gave in 1936. This will form a basis to which we can compare certain elements of Zappa's music to, and in turn ascertain the degree to which Zappa's music uses distinctively "Varesian" ideas. Zappa's works that are specifically referred to appear in the following CD releases : The Perfect Stranger, The London Symphony Orchestra Volume II, The Yellow Shark and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. The analyses will consider examples of both acoustic and electronically recorded pieces from within this discography. Some critics might object that the "art" music influence on Zappa has generally been over-exaggerated, possibly even ascribing to Zappa the same elevated sense of prestige he himself satirised in such music as "Bogus Pomp". But it is undoubtedly the case that Zappa held Varese in high regard, from his first experience of listening to Ionisation to his own aspirations of compositional technique explicitly described in his own words as Varesian. Whether or not it is true that Zappa wished to be regarded on the same level as Varese, he clearly acknowledged the aesthetic allegiance in such comments as this one, quoted in The Real Frank Zappa Book: "In my compositions, I employ a system of weights, balances, measured tensions and releases - in some ways similar to Varese's aesthetic". He goes on to describe this as being similar to a "Calder mobile," a device with various weights, suspended and balanced with each other by the varying distance between them. Such a suggestive but relatively general comment challenges us to diagnose exactly how and to what extent Zappa's "system" actually can be described, and whether or not it helps to hear his music in the light of the Varesian "measured tensions and releases" he sees as fundamental to the "Varesian aesthetic". That, in short, is the principal aim of this thesis.
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