The Experimental Music Of Frank Zappa

Sunday, May 19, 1963—Mount St. Mary's College—Broadcast by KPFK, January 8, 1974

A fragment appears on:

Transcription, names and tracking from the version at 1963 05 19 Carlos Hagen Presents Mount St. Mary's Concert KPFK-FM 61.26 (T-1106)

1. Opening Comments By Carlos Hagen

Carlos Hagen:

Here's Carlos Hagen introducing another one of my programs.

In today's program I will explore briefly the early beginnings of Frank Zappa, the leader of the famed Mothers Of Invention.

Of all of the figures that they made the rock revolution of the 1960s possible, one of them that I most admire is Frank Zappa, and for several reasons.

One is because he's a genuine pioneer in avant-garde musical style. Another reason is his honesty and moral sense that led him to become one of the most acerbic critics against hypocrisy in all levels of American society—establishment, liberal, hip, left and right, and so on.

[...] reason is his renaissance attitude that goes way beyond music. He very early introduced some very novel visual and cinematic effects in concerts. He also became very concerned with acoustics and sound recording techniques. And in the sociological aspect, he was perhaps the first one to understand the importance and fully document that phenomenon of the groupies. And really I would not be surprised if twenty, forty, or fifty years from now Frank Zappa were studied with the same interest that we now show for people such as Varèse, Cage, or even Charles Ives.

I think it is very interesting and revealing too to recall my first contact with Frank Zappa, long before The Mothers Of Invention, and long before he became what you might call a freak.

The year was 1963. I was a newcomer in Los Angeles and I was avidly looking for and feeling, sensing the avant-garde in Los Angeles. And I was also producing my very first programs for KPFK, the Pacifica Foundation outlet in Los Angeles.

Very soon I realized that the avant-garde was not to be found along the famed La Cienega Boulevard or in the sadly and rapidly decaying beat scene of Venice, but mostly was to be found in often obscure unexpected places. And that is how I was attracted to the 5th Annual Contemporary Musical Symposium that was held in the spring of that year at a small but very open-minded Catholic liberal college of West Los Angeles, Mount St. Mary's College.

And that was virtually the only place in Los Angeles that opened its doors to Frank Zappa and his novel musical and visual experiments of you might call experimental aleatory electronic visual music.

I became very fascinated with these early experiments of Frank Zappa and I recall that I brought to KPFK all of the tapes of that festival.

Well, KPFK in the early 60s was very much what you might call a sort of liberal establishment institution. Musically, for example, the only accepted music was classical, jazz, folkloric, and a few well known electronic composers. Other kinds of music were not proper, you might say, and were seldom if ever played.

Well, those tapes that I made in that festival that contained chamber, baroque, or conventional classical music were played on prime time. But the tapes of Frank Zappa were shelved. Only after my constant requests, my constant pressure, finally but very grudgingly they agreed to play them. But it was done in the worst time and with all of the commentaries deleted.

And this was a sort of foretaste of what Frank Zappa would have to face later. Because Frank Zappa has had very bad luck indeed with radios, recording companies and even the public. It is true that he had some relative public acceptance during the heyday of the hip movement among hip underground audiences, but mostly I find it because of their antics, the you might call freakiness of the ensemble. But the very remarkable artistic, musical, and social message was way ahead of his time and generally way above the heads of the audiences.

But, worse even, Frank Zappa, being part of that generation of the 1950s, was caught in that whole syndrome of the silent generation, McCarthyism, the Eisenhower years, he was caught in a traditional 1950s marriage that ended in failure, and in spite his obvious talent he was rejected by virtually all the academic musical circles, and ended up having to earn a meager living doing some menial technical jobs or writing some popular songs.

And to top it all he was victim of you might say the blue nose censorship of those years. He was busted by the police and mercilessly prosecuted because he had produced what they called a sort of porno soundtrack. A soundtrack so tame by present day standards that it could not even qualify for an X rating.

So, if you think about all of this and combine all of these elements with a very talented pioneering intense personality, you will get a clue of the anger, loneliness, frustration Frank Zappa often felt and expressed openly in some of his public appearances. A loneliness, anger, frustration, I might add, not too different from what I, from what many of us feel now, faced with the almost surrealistic monstrosities of the society that surrounds us.

So it's no wonder that Frank Zappa became one of the most outrageous, acerbic, artistic spokesmen and critics of social and moral criticism of the rock revolutionary 1960s.

Lillian Roxon, the author of the famed Encyclopaedia Of Rock, says in part, talking about Frank Zappa and his Mothers Of Invention, "Their first album, Freak Out!, was unlike anything that was happening in American music in 1966. Freak Out! was not just social and musical satire, it was the first rock album produced as if it were a single piece of music, and it was a full year before The Beatles made this concept commercially acceptable with Sgt. Pepper." And she adds, "The Mothers Of Invention used props and visual aids to bring to rock a whole new element of art, theater and audience participation." End quote.

And one of the best articles I have seen on Frank Zappa was written by Mark Leviton, and says in part, "Zappa's dream shatterer is a powerful force. He calls drugs this generation's aphrodisiacs and claims that joining leftist organizations has become the equivalent of belonging to a car club in the 1950s. His skillful sense of alienation is shown well on the album Burnt Weeny Sandwich, on which there's a live recording of a concert at Royal Albert Hall in England. The police are getting people back to their seats after they have overflowed and one man in the balcony is screaming, 'Take that uniform off, man, before it's too late, man.' And Zappa waits a minute before answering, 'Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, and don't kid yourselves.'" And he continues, "Zappa may be hard on his own generation, but what he does to the preceding generation is a thing of perverse beauty. 'Brown Shoes' is probably the best little opus ever penned by Zappa, and it is a devastating, depressing look at nearly everything. The opening lines describe a family eating TV dinners by a pool. The hip young son is growing a beard, which his sister is watching, and talks about his final year in school. Through a series of surrealistic sequences, Zappa condemns a world of secret hungers where every desire is hidden away in a drawer in a desk at the office. Mechanized sex such as between a thirteen year old girl who knows how to nasty and a guy whose nose lights up when she bites his neck like a pinball machine. And finally returning to another scene of the family around the pool. The son, having now finished school, reflects in his voice the uselessness of it all. And the family vainly tries to convince itself that life is worth living, and that they have some control over it. 'Brown Shoes' is perfection in lyrics and orchestration and thoroughly a downer." End quote.

So now in the rest of the program I will bring you a few of the early compositions of Frank Zappa that he and some of his friends performed during those concerts of contemporary and experimental music in the Mount St. Mary's College in that spring of 1963.

In between compositions Frank Zappa explains some of his ideas and answers some questions from the audience.

And the compositions you will hear are:

First, Piece #2 Of Visual Music (1957) For Jazz Ensemble And 16mm Projector. Then Piano Pieces From Opus #5. Then Collage #1 For String Instruments. Then Two Fragments Of The Prepared Tape To Be Used In Opus 5. And finally his then very controversial composition, Opus 5 For Piano, Tape Recorder, And Multiple Orchestras.

2. Piece #2 Of Visual Music (1957) For Jazz Ensemble And 16mm Projector

FZ: Now the way this is supposed to work is the musicians are instructed to interpret what they see on the screen in this manner. They draw an equivalent sight on the screen. And they're to produce their own musical equivalent of that particular sight. Got that? That's all you have to do.

Can we have the lights down? We don't need these.

FZ: Can you turn the lights on the stage off?

Could you—

Could we turn—

Move this too?

And can you move the stand?

FZ: The tempo is free.

Which— How far will it have to—

Give us a tempo.

Is that any better?

Can we— Can these go off?

Towards us a little bit more?

FZ: Dr. Doran, could you turn the screen towards the musicians [...]

Dr. Doran: Yes.

Surprised that the audience can see it, but—

FZ: Okay, that's it.

FZ: I'm sorry for the delay, but in the course of turning off the lights on the stage, we've also turned off the projector.

We could use a little light up here, you know— [...]

There we go.

FZ: You may continue to play.

Much too fast.

FZ:

Those of you who could see the screen— I'm sure it was kind of difficult for some of you because of the angle. The film was made partly by photographing images. The way you do it is you take the camera—I did this with a little 8mm Brownie movie camera. I went running around my back yard like a maniac, holding the camera like this. And I turned it on and just went spinning around like this. And the spring in my camera runs slower than it should; it speeds up the images anyway. If you run the camera around in circles like that, you get everything just swirling by, so you get all these colors, and you don't really get images out of what you're doing. You just get an action, kind of, from what you shoot.

This was taken and blown up to 16mm in a lab. And by doing that you add a lot of grain to the picture, and you also lose some of your color contrast.

Then I took some 16mm leader. And leader is this stuff like this. Sometimes it's white. And you dip it in a hypo solution and it becomes clear. And this still has emulsion on it, which I scraped and mixed with different colors of ink, and nail polish, and anything I could get my hands on to make these colors on there. Some of it was done with a brush, some with pen, some with pieces of wood, some with an airbrush. And I had no idea what it was gonna look like while I was doing it, because when you get something this big when you're painting it on the film, it bears really very little relation to what it's gonna look like when it's blown up that large onto the screen. You can't really tell what your action is gonna be. So the whole thing, the film was more or less improvised.

And it was put together in a random fashion, just trying to keep the most interesting parts of what I had shot and what I had painted. And the only thing that I cut out of this is certain dead spots. And the black leader, the quiet passages that were in the film were inserted there as spacers to tone down the group while they were performing this. They were in there for a purpose. That's not actual film that was wasted.

3. Piano Pieces From Opus #5

FZ:

The next piece we're gonna perform, instead of Variables I For Any Five Instruments, will be a group of piano pieces taken from the Opus 5 For Four Orchestras, which is actually a piece for, in this case, the way it's being performed tonight will be with three orchestral groups, the tape recorder, and the piano.

This is the piano element from that composition. It tends to get buried somewhat when the rest of the orchestra plays.

The pianist will perform these fragments in any order he feels necessary, and will improvise freely upon them.

4. Collage #1 For String Instruments

FZ:

The next piece we're going to perform will be Collage 1 For A String Group Accompanied With Woodwinds. Let me explain to you a little bit about what happened in the last piece while the other musicians are coming up here.

Excuse me, would you hand me the part to what you just played? The fragments.

He has two sheets of paper with nine fragments, which are not serial. They're not twelve-tone. They're just sound studies and interval studies. And this is the basic premise upon which most of this music is built.

The collage, which you are about to hear, is called a collage because, just like the collage in terms of art, things are overlaid, like pieces of paper, or pieces of music in this case. This collage is built from fragments of different canons, if you follow me. I constructed a number of small canons, broke them up into pieces, laid them one on top of the other, and scored them for the strings and the woodwinds. Okay, and we continue with this.

[5 seconds missing at 3:25]

Now, before . . .

5. Two Fragments Of The Prepared Tape To Be Used In Opus 5

FZ:

Before we take a brief intermission, I would like to play for you part of the electronic tape which will be integrated into the Opus 5 for the orchestral group. Let me attach this to the speaker. Elements that are going to make up the Opus 5, before you actually hear it. I hope thereby it will be easier for you to understand exactly what is taking place when the Opus 5 is played.

Before I go any farther, I'll tell you what's on this tape, and how to do it yourself if you care to. The sounds that you will hear are produced by actual musical instruments. The only thing that makes this different than any other kind of music you'll hear, is the fact that the instruments that are being played are being played by people who don't know how to play those instruments.

For instance, you will hear a clarinet on this tape recording which is played by my wife, who does not play a clarinet. And you will also hear banjo music played by another fellow who doesn't know how to play a banjo.

These things were then subjected to electronic alterations. For instance, they were pumped through echo chambers. They are reverberated. They are run through a tremolo device, which sends a tone of low cycle which modulates the rest of what's happening on the tape.

After all these modifications were completed to the original musical sounds, the tape was then cut up at, uh . . . in random order, we just chopped it up, and stuck it back together again any way that the pieces happened to fall together, so it was totally improvised. Now, I'll play you a piece of the tape.

The instruments that you're hearing on this part of the tape are vibraphone, marimba, banjo, bassoon, clarinet, violin, bongo drums, and, uh, there's a flute in there someplace too.

Bulk of this recording was produced on a small Webcor tape recorder, which I rented from a store downtown for $2.50. And if any of you have the inclination, you might rent yourself a small tape recorder and try this too in your own home. It is really very interesting.

6. Opus 5 For Piano, Tape Recorder And Multiple Orchestras

FZ:

Here's how Opus 5 works. This is what the wind conductor is reading from. These pages spread around here are fragments that the musicians have copied onto their parts. Now he is going to give them signals telling them which of these fragments to play. And these schematics show him in which order they are to be played this time. The piece is flexible; you can play it any way you want. We've imposed a certain amount of order on it for this performance only.

The blue sections on his schematic tells him that he is to be silent for a certain length of time. The red areas tell him that he is to allow his players to improvise. The brass conductor has a similar chart, which he goes by. And I go by the same thing for the strings. I'm conducting the tape recorder, the strings and the piano, and uh, Barry is conducting the woodwinds, and— What's your name?

Pete:

Pete.

FZ:

Pete is conducting the uh, brass.

(Laughter)

So we'll just wail right on.

The next piece that we're going to play . . .

Maybe I should tell you what we were doing . . . When we were rehearsing this piece, the Opus 5, I gave all the instrumentalists instructions to devise new and different sounds on their instruments, you see, part of the— a lot of the piece was improvised and I asked them to find different kind of sounds that they could make on their instruments, and some of them really came up with some nice ideas.

The, the signals that we were giving, I'll explain to you very simply: This means 'free improvisation' and the finger signals told the performers which of the fragments they were to play at any given moment. And anything else that we were doing while we were gyrating around here is all meant to convey some kind of meaning. Maybe they could just halfway guess what we meant, it would— something to encourage them to make a different kind of sound.

[Anyway, the next piece that we're going to play is in standard notation, and it's actually pretty tame compared to the Opus 5. It's called The Collage 2, and it was written last Thursday.]

7. Question And Answer Session

Attendee #1:

. . . wanna know.

FZ:

Sure.

Attendee #1:

Uh, your Opus 5 moved me profoundly, but not in any rational way. It reminded me of one time I had hysterics.

FZ:

Well . . .

Attendee #1:

And I don't think this is a very— I don't think this is a bad thing to say at all. I think maybe this what you're after. You want to be so far out, that we're completely detached or what?

FZ:

No, I'm not trying to be far out, and I'm not trying to be hysterical. All I . . . it's, it's, in a way it's quite purely an intellectual thing, on the Opus 5, even though it may have sounded comical to a few of you, I see we got a nice little laugh at the end of the piece.

But the fact is, that there is quite a bit of thought that went into putting that piece together, and it took me a long time to figure out how, how to make it as loose as it sounded. And that was the intention all along, to make it sound that way. Not to make it sound hysterical, because that's only your interpretation of it. Maybe somebody else is gonna agree, but . . .

Attendee #1:

You're, you're accusing me of being facetious, and I'm quite serious . . .

FZ:

Yeah, I'm, I'm not accusing you of being facetious, I've, you may have, you may have felt that that uh, induced a certain amount of hysteria in you. But, to me, when I hear that, the only thing that I can say is that's the way I've always wanted music to sound.

(Audience laughter, applause)

FZ:

Yes?

Attendee #2:

I'm not being facetious . . . (audience laughter)

FZ:

Nobody is. That's OK. Nobody's facetious.

Attendee #2:

We're all very sober, but— I'd like to know what your definition of music is.

FZ:

Music is any organized pattern of sounds.

Attendee #2:

This is not— By your own definition, you said the rhythms are supposed to be chaotic.

FZ:

Yeah.

Attendee #2:

In the answer to one question. In another— In the answer to the question about improvisation, you said that the chords are supposed to be chaotic. So it's not organized.

FZ:

Oh, why, how can you say that? If the conductor is conducting from a chart, which is a certain type of organization, if they're playing from parts, which are a certain type of organization, and if the improvisations are allowed at certain periods specified on a schematic diagram, is that not organization?

Attendee #2:

Well, where then is the structure? I mean . . .

FZ:

The structure is right on the—

Attendee #2:

You've been asked several times what the structure is, and it isn't [...]

FZ:

No, I haven't been asked several times. Dr. Doran asked me one time whether or not— what was the structure of the last piece that was played, the one in standard notation. Do I have to tell you that's a sonata allegro? I mean, what difference does it make? It's got a shape to it; it's got a diagram that tells 'em when to play and when to be quiet and when to improvise. That's a structure. And it doesn't have to be something that's been hanging around for five or six hundred years.

(applause)

Dr. Doran?

Dr. Doran:

In academic terms, this is what we call aleatoric music, in which the general structure is planned, but the details are left up to the performers to some extent. Up to the conductor it is something like a piece by John Cage in which there might be twenty-four players and twelve radios, two players to a radio, and the conductor points to these various people, and they put on the dials loudly or softly or turn the stations as the conductor wishes. And of course this music by John Cage is much more difficult to comprehend than the music that you have heard because it depends on what radio programs are being played at that particular time.

FZ:

Yeah.

Dr. Doran:

So, if you think this is too wild, well, John Cage is much wilder. And this would be a kind of introduction to this gentleman.

FZ:

Yes. I think you should all go to a John Cage concert. And then you'll come back to the next one I have and you'll like it.

(laughter)

Attendee #3:

Frank?

FZ:

Excuse me, what?

Attendee #3:

In what regard do you consider what we would call the great masters of the past of music—Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert, Schoenberg?

FZ:

I know absolutely nothing about any composers before the twentieth century. I have a very unusual type musical background. It's practically nil.

(laughter)

I taught myself what I know—whatever that is—about music. And my own personal tastes and what I listen to do not include very much tonal music of that type. But I'll tell you what I do like. I'm a great fan of rhythm and blues, and I like rock & roll. And I like folk music. But I don't like Schubert, and I don't like Brahms, and I don't like things like that. I don't like Beethoven—a whole lot.

(laughter)

The first— The first long-playing album that I bought was The Complete Works Of Edgard Varèse, and I got that when I was about fourteen years old. And that's what I grew up with musically. I had— I didn't even have a record player before that, and I wasn't listening to the radio. So you might say that I kind of started out on the wrong foot.

But that's the answer to his question.

Anybody else?

Yes.

Attendee #4:

I would like a little more clarification for myself on your improvisation, your previous number before the last one. I think we all think of improvisation in the terms of the jazz field, where there is a set either chord progression or what-have-you. Could you explain a little bit more about your improvisation?

FZ:

How they improvise?

Attendee #4:

Yes.

FZ:

Well, it's very simple. They are just turned completely free.

Attendee #4:

No lead of any sort other than the lead . . .

FZ:

No.

Attendee #4:

Well that would be . . .

FZ:

Well, during the improvisation, the actual improvisation sections, when they aren't reading anything at all, they're just instructed to go, just turn themselves completely free, and try and avoid tonal passages was the only thing that I said to 'em during the rehearsal. And I think they pretty well did that.

(laughter)

Attendee #4:

Now let's say your improvisation number, that you were going to do it again . . .

FZ:

Yes.

Attendee #4:

. . . and you wanted it to come out approximately the same way as it did tonight, what instructions would you give the group?

FZ:

Well, I may want it to come out approximately the same way it did tonight, but I don't see really how I could. Because in the first place, it's kind of a foolish idea, because after how I explained to you how the parts were, you just can't match the rhythms, and you can't duplicate the improvisations, and you can't duplicate the spontaneity that you get.

Attendee #4:

Well, I'm thinking, in the line of the jazz field, of course. Because improvisation is a wonderful thing.

FZ:

I like it.

Attendee #4:

[...] can be a tremendous experience. And what I'm getting at is when a group, a jazz group improvise, they have an idea before they start, you see, of what [...]

FZ:

They had an idea of what they were supposed to do before they started too. I told them what not to play. I told them what I didn't want to hear.

It may sound kind of tyrannical, but the idea was that we have these conductors up here who are actually helping to compose the piece. The conductor, in this instance, is more than a conductor: he's assistant composer. And I have the total say-so over the other assistant composers over how I want it to sound. All I'm trying to do with this group in Opus 5 is make them create a piece of music on the spot the way I would like to have it played. See, that's the whole idea of it.

And when we were rehearsing, I just explained to them I didn't want any scale practicing, and I didn't want any fooling around of that sort, and playing of little tunes in there, things like that.

Yes?

Attendee #5:

Have you composed—I guess that's the word you could use—any other music than what we've heard tonight, any other radical things?

FZ:

Have I composed any other radical things?

Attendee #5:

Well, I didn't mean it that way.

(laughter)

No. What we've heard tonight, have you done anything very much different than this?

FZ:

Yes.

Attendee #5:

Could you explain anything else that would [...] pertinent?

?:

Tell 'em about the movie.

FZ:

Yeah, I'm going to. I sold a record to Capitol last Friday. (laughter) And you'll hear it on KFWB by next Friday. It's a rock & roll song. And I make my living doing things like that. And it is quite a bit different than what you have heard tonight. The name of the song is "The Big Surfer." You can all go out and buy it.

8. Closing Comments By Carlos Hagen

Carlos Hagen:

And thus I come to the end of this program that today was dedicated to a very brief survey of the early musical beginnings of what I consider is one of the most talented and pioneering figures of the rock revolution of the 1960s, the—in the early 1960s—experimental avant-garde composer Frank Zappa, later the founder and leader of the famed Mothers Of Invention.

And this has been your host and producer, Carlos Hagen. Thank you very much for your attention.

 

All compositions by Frank Zappa except as noted
Site maintained by Román García Albertos
http://www.donlope.net/fz/
Original transcription by Román and Charles Ulrich
Corrections and addtions by Francis Khoury
The parts from The Lost Episodes are printed this way
This page updated: 2020-10-05