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Frank Zappa was a musician and composer and he was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Frank Zappa was mostly a self-trained musician who was able to delve into various genres of music including symphonies, jazz, and rock. Zappa is mostly known for his blatant attempts to flout the traditional conventions of music and for encompassing math and chemistry influences in his compositions (Ashby 1999). Other than music, Zappa also served as a film director, an album cover designer, and a social activist. As a musician, Zappa tended to focus too much on the controversy, an aspect that often overshadowed his artistic genius. By the time of his death, Frank Zappa had made immense contributions to the field of music in a career that spanned over a period of thirty years.
Frank Zappa’s Biography
Frank Zappa “was born in Baltimore, Maryland on 21st of December 1940 to Rosie Marie and Francis Vincent Zappa as the firstborn of four children” (Miles 2014, p. 6). Frank’s father was a chemist and a mathematician and he was regularly contacted to carry out defense projects on behalf of the United States government. Consequently, the Zappa family was constantly moving across the country. It is often assumed that because the young Zappa came into contact with various chemicals, his health might have been affected greatly. At an early age, Zappa showed immense interest in scientific innovations, an element that he transferred to his music later on in life. Zappa’s initial music influences were in the form of Avant-guard composers such as Edgard Varese and Igor Stravinsky. Zappa was also initially interested in modern jazz and doo-wop genres of music. The Zappa family finally settled in Los Angeles when the composer was in his late teenage years, and he began learning how to play both the guitar and the drum. Zappa’s quick mastery of music is noted through the fact that he was able to write original compositions for the school orchestra in his final year of high school.
Zappa formally ventured into the music business after clearing high school. Zappa’s original band “The Blackouts” featured a racially diverse band that was not able to withstand the racial intolerance of the 1950s. Zappa joined “The Soul Giants” a band that mostly did covers but the outfit soon started to perform some of his original compositions (Clement 2009). The band later changed its name to “The Mothers” in 1965. The band started releasing albums under the name “The Mothers of Invention” and it was able to attain considerable international success.
Other than composing and performing music, Zappa worked as a director for music videos and films. Zappa’s philosophy of ‘infinite possibilities’ saw him being involved in a number of ventures including activism. Within the United States and most of Europe, “the general public’s perception of the composer was often one of a kook but in the end, Zappa was deeply respected as a consummate musician and composer, an innovative filmmaker, and a prolific cross-genre artist” (Miles 2014, p. 98). Zappa succumbed to prostate cancer in 1993 at the age of 52 and he was inducted into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” two years later. Zappa is also a recipient of a “Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award”.
Frank Zappa is responsible for various works including some award-winning compositions. Nevertheless, his debut album with his band “The Mothers of Invention” is the one that introduced Frank Zappa to the world of popular music. The album was titled “Freak Out” and it is was one of the best rock double albums that were released in 1966. At the time of its release, “Freak Out” was only rivaled by Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” in terms of class and popularity. The composition of “Freak Out” encompassed various genres including “rhythm and blues, doo-wop, musique concrete, and experimental sound collages that captured the ‘freak’ subculture that was popular around Los Angeles at the time” (Kountz 2005, p. 38).
Biographers note that Zappa was quite dissatisfied with the final product when he released “Freak Out”. Nevertheless, “Freak Out” introduced Zappa as a ‘radical’ in matters of rock music, a tag he carried for the rest of his career. Zappa’s compositions in “Freak Out” utilized quite a raw sound but the arrangements of the music were complex, unlike the ones that were used in rock music at the time. The intention behind the rawness of the sound in “Freak Out” was to break the jinx of American consumerism where most of the sounds were carried on from one popular work to another. When composing the music for “Freak Out” “some of the additional session musicians were shocked that they were expected to read the notes on sheet music from charts with Zappa conducting them since it was not standard when recording rock music” (Lowe 2007, p. 45).
Most of the album’s lyrical content featured elements of non-conformity and deviation from the norm. There was a lot of artistic freedom in “Freak Out” although he later claimed that this liberty did not come easily. In most “Mothers of Invention” performances, Zappa played the guitar for the tracks in the “Freak Out” album. Zappa also did the vocals for the album. In his biography “The Real Frank Zappa Book”, the composer reveals that all of the songs that were included in the “Freak Out” album were independent and none was more important than the others (no songs acted as fillers for hit singles) (Zappa & Occhiogrosso 1990). Furthermore, Zappa joked that the target demographic for “Freak Out” was six to eighty-year-olds.
Zappa spent most of his career with his band “The Mothers of Invention” although its band members changed from time to time. In addition, Zappa was often signed to major recording houses until he fell out with “Warner Bros. Records”, his last music label in the late 1970s. Zappa’s album as an independent artist was “Sheik Yerbouti”. The album featured live recording with a few elements of studio music. The double album featured Zappa’s trademark comedic lyrics and a satirical take on life and popular personalities. “Sheik Yerbouti” is also Zappa’s bestselling album and it was certified Gold after its release. The album cover for “Sheik Yerbouti” features Zappa in Arabic headgear and its title is a gimmick-pronunciation for the 1976 hit “Shake Your Booty”.
Most of the songs in “Sheik Yerbouti” were originally recorded live and then overdubbed. Some of the component elements that are found in this album include ‘musique concrete’ in the track “Rat Tomago”. The compositions also utilize sound effects, studio-dialogue, among other various musical arrangements. Zappa’s characteristic pioneering-composition style is found in the track “Rubber Shirt” where the composer combines a drum set performance and a brass ensemble from two different settings. The composer later called the music style where two tracks have different tempos and time signatures; ‘synchrony’. The most dominant composition style in “Sheik Yerbouti” is the heavy use of overdubs.
It is likely that “Sheik Yerbouti” is Zappa’s way of celebrating his status as an independent artist and it showcases his previously suppressed comic side. Consequently, devout Frank Zappa fans consider “Sheik Yerbouti” to be a signature representation of Zappa’s music. Nevertheless, Zappa was astounded by the fact that the track “Bobby Brown” became a major hit in Scandinavia.
Comparison of Early and Late Works
Most of Zappa’s compositions featured an undeniable element of the need to deviate from the norm. Zappa’s initial encounter with music was in the form of a high school orchestra where he was able to write and compose music with characteristic ease. However, Zappa always wowed his listeners with his ever-changing additions to rock music. In “Freak Out”, Zappa’s composition was obviously out of the norm, especially its comical, obscene, and unapologetic lyrics.
Most listeners attributed “The Mothers of Invention” original music to be the product of drug abuse. The orchestra arrangements that were featured in its composition also added to the confusion about Zappa’s artistic direction among audiences. Nevertheless, Zappa’s “Sheik Yerbouti” received critical acclaim and also managed to sell over two million copies worldwide. However, there are approximately twenty-five albums between Zappa’s “Freak Out” and “Sheik Yerbouti”. The composition in “Freak Out” features an element of the blues and doo-wop. In the latter album, Zappa does not use this style of composition but he records the music live and then overdubs in the studio.
In addition, most of the tracks in “Sheik Yerbouti” are remakes of earlier Zappa compositions. Although the two albums do not feature similar stylistic compositions, the way they are made is representative of Zappa’s unique style of composing music. In “Sheik Yerbouti”, the composer uses a completely new style of merging a track from a drum set and another one from the bass guitar in unrelated settings.This random style is reminiscent of Zappa’s decision of writing and conducting music in a rock-music recording session. Consequently, Zappa’s style of composing music remained ‘constantly random’. Nevertheless, Zappa never abandoned his style of lyrical content throughout his compositions (Carr & Hand 2006). The music in “Freak Out” featured explicit, comical, satirical, and unapologetic lyricism. All these features are replicated in “Sheik Yerbouti”. The orchestras and ‘avant-garde’ sounds can also be heard in most of Zappa’s compositions.
Although Zappa was an all-round musician, he primarily considered himself to be a composer. Therefore, Zappa took up every opportunity to exercise his freedom as a composer. It is important to note that in the end, Zappa’s music did not achieve lasting genres or sub-genres. However, Zappa’s radical style of composition has influenced several other composers who came after him. The most lasting element of Zappa’s composition is his orchestras and guitar compositions. Zappa’s comedic and satirical stance was evident in his earlier compositions and it remained to be a key element of the composer’s work. The texture of Zappa’s music was unpalatable at first but his breakthroughs in Europe and the United States are a testament to his increased acceptance. The guitar and the comically unapologetic lyrics are the most withstanding elements of Zappa’s music.
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Ashby, A 1999, ‘Frank Zappa and the anti-Fetishist orchestra’, Musical Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 6, pp. 557-606.
Carr, P & Hand, R 2006, ‘Frank Zappa and musical theatre: ugly ugly o’phan Annie and really deep, intense, thought-provoking Broadway symbolism’, Studies in Musical Theatre, vol.1, no. 1, pp. 41-56.
Clement, B 2009, A study of the instrumental music of Frank Zappa, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati.
Kountz, P 2005, ‘Frank Zappa and the enterprise of serious contemporary music: “A terribly hard taste of Music?” Some reflections…’, Popular Music & Society, vol.1, no. 4, pp. 36-51.
Lowe, K 2007, The words and music of Frank Zappa, University of Nebraska Press, Nebraska.
Miles, B 2014, Frank Zappa, Atlantic Books Ltd, New York.
Zappa, F & Occhiogrosso, P 1990, Real Frank Zappa book, Simon and Schuster, New York.