The Mother of All Interviews: Zappa on Music and Society [*]
By Florindo Volpacchio
Telos, Spring, 1991
Frank Zappa has always pushed the boundaries of what is musically acceptable. Though influenced by Varèse and Stravinsky, his disdain for the way music is accommodated in contemporary culture and his desire to address it with satire, humor, parody,, and a sardonic wit is reminiscent of Satie. The following discussion begins with the problem of modernism in music, but it immediately moves on to the issues of the culture industry.
Volpacchio: I would like to begin by asking what you think of Adorno's music.
Zappa: [The music] sounds like what happens if you tried to write something just like Webern and filled in all the empty spaces. Some of the things I liked, but I liked them because they reminded me of Webern. The choral piece was son of Das Augenlicht and there is an orchestral piece in there that sounds like it could have been from Webern's Five Orchestral Pieces. The piece I liked the best was the most old fashioned one, the tonal chromatic piece. It sounds more like what Wagner would have sounded like if he knew what he was doing. It reminded me of a cross between Wagner and Fauré. The other stuff seems to be aesthetically in the region of Webern's aesthetic with the aroma of Berg minus the turgid flux. You can think of it as enjoyable Schoenberg. But it did not come off to me as scholastic.
I thought there was a Webern aesthetic, harmonically and melodically [in most of the music]. But the thing that wasn't Webern was how it filled up all the spaces. I did not hear any forward looking compositional ideas there because everything that I had heard, with the exception of the earliest – I presume it was the earliest – piece, the one that was the most melodic, were all things I had heard in one form or another in the music of the Viennese School. If I had more familiarity with the music of Schoenberg, I could probably point out the names of the pieces that sounded like they were clones. I am more familiar with all the Webern pieces, and I just heard a lot of things in there that sounded very derivative of Webern. I don't know who did the work first.
Volpacchio: Speaking of the Viennese school, do you see the collapse of functional tonality and common time to be the single most important development in modem music?
Zappa: No. The single most important development in modem music is making a business out of it.... You have reached the point where you can't just sit down and write because you know how to write and you love to write and eventually somebody will listen because they love to listen and maybe somebody will play it because they'll want to play it. That is gone. The point where anybody who composes has to deal with the mechanics of the performance world, especially as it is characterized in American society, has to have a major impact on what you write. For example, one of my pet theories is that the leading cause of Minimalism is reduced budgets for rehearsal and reduced budgets for ensemble size. If a guy wants to write something and he knows that there are only a couple of minutes available for rehearsal, there is no way that he is going to write some massive thing for an orchestra. There is no incentive to do it because it will never be performed and it will never be rehearsed.... How can a person be concerned about atonality versus tonality when the real question is how do you get anything played. Whatever it is.
Volpacchio: You've always favored Stravinsky and Varèse as more interesting sources for the development of modern music. Why have you preferred the French developments in modern music over those of the Germans?
Zappa: Well you see, that's not the point. You talk about development as if a person has to abandon the way things ordinarily sound in order to think it has been developed. I think that if you write music, you should write for your own taste, whatever you like to hear and whatever style you want to write it in for whatever reason. It is a matter of expression, rather than a matter of living and dying by a certain popular style whatever that style is.... The twelve tone school at one point was a popular style up until there was a change in funding at the university level for different types of composition. I refer back to this anecdote that I heard about a guy from [one of the foundations] saying, we no longer fund ... that whole post-Webernian school of composers who were doing all kinds of serial experimentation. That was the approved method of expression in the academic world. Suddenly they stopped funding that and started funding Minimalism. And this was an anecdote that I heard around 1983 when I gave an address to the American Society of University Composers. So it did become a trend and it did become a style. And let's say a person wanted to write completely melodic music, while at the time twelve tone style was all that was being funded and all that was being accepted as serious modern music, then people would laugh at you if your composition could be hummed or remembered.
Volpacchio: But don't you think that this is also due to the change in the audiences?
Zappa: Yes. They get smaller.
Volpacchio: But they have not with Minimalism.
Zappa: Well, Minimalism is a different story because its hard to imagine Schoenberg doing an add for Dewar's scotch. Minimalism, I think, is a perfect form of music to express the spiritual condition of the 80s.
Volpacchio: Yet, Minimalism sees itself as a form of music which includes eclectic, popular elements recognizable by an audience as a necessary response to the abstractness of modernism. Consequently, the music is more approachable.
Zappa: There is a certain merit to that argument. But then on the other hand, if that's true then all they are doing is helping to create the wallpaper to the contemporary lifestyle. There is a certain function to it. But it is really not an integral part of the fabric of contemporary American life. Its the only way in which a composer can function in contemporary American life at all, that is to do this shallow, empty, repetitive, disposable stuff, and then verify it or rationalize it by saying that is the way the society is and we poor composers can only reflect the way the society is. There is a certain amount of truth to that, but then on the other hand, why the fuck bother to listen to it.
Volpacchio: When you can hear, let's say, a Rolling Stones song promoting a commercial product, what does that say about the inherent properties of modern composition or songwriting if music can be appropriated for such ends?
Zappa: Well, if you think of a Rolling Stones song as a modern composition, you could bemoan the fact that it winds up being used in a commercial. But I believe that at the time most of that material was manufactured, the goal was to make money not to create an anthem for a generation. I am making a distinction between the rock n' roll and the so-called contemporary art music. You would have to be a lunatic to think you could make money from doing the contemporary art music no matter what style you were writing in.
Volpacchio: Yet in your music, despite the overlapping influences, you do consciously maintain a separation of styles and musical forms. Do you see a distinction between high and low art?
Zappa: Or any art at all?
Volpacchio: However, with the increasing appropriation of elements, if not outright songs, of popular music by the "serious" music world, is rock n' roll the new classicism?
Zappa: No. My recollection of the development of the history of rock n' roll music is that from the point where the songs were being performed by young performers - note, not old blues singers or jazz musicians – teenagers started doing it and recording it. Basically, they did a bunch of songs about their girl friends. And that was fairly real. That was the early days of doo-wop music. And from then on they started getting corporate assistance, first from the guys with the cigars sticking out of their mouths in the Brill Building who said, hey I could write one of those. They realized that the biggest profit from a record is in the writing and publishing. You started seeing more of a business involvement of people who really didn't care about a song about ... fill the girl's name in the blank for the title of the song. It was just, o.k, I know what the style is and because I am a professional songwriter I can do this. This eventually turned into corporate rock. So, there is nothing classic about that as far as I am concerned. It is certainly valid and consumable lifestyle material and certainly reflects what is going on in the society – good, bad, and indifferent – the message is tucked away in the music. The goal of creating that kind of material is to make product, not to do composition. I always make a distinction between songwriters and composers.
Volpacchio: There are those who feel rock music offers an opportunity for undermining the consumer culture.
Zappa: I don't buy that. The reason I don't buy it is because at its best, rock music is a folk art form when it comes directly from the people who may know how to play one or two songs on their instruments and those one or two songs mean something to the people who wrote them and sing them.
Volpacchio: Are you referring to the Bob Dylans of the world?
Zappa: That's on a more sophisticated level. I'm talking about Cannibal and the Headhunters, little one shot groups ... the guys who got together who really are not looking forward to a long-term career. But they have that one song that is their song, and they are into it, and they play it for all its worth. And it is their personal expression of how they feel at the time they managed by some miracle to get their song on a record. That is when rock is really doing its job. It is kind of a democratic art form because it lets people who are not certified as musicians or composers or songwriters to sneak in there and say something. But things like that are more and more rare.
Volpacchio: However, the point I would like to make is that, despite the intentions of the guys who create the product, it appears that the music for the audience at least often carries more of a message than may ever have been intended. Isn't this how a song becomes the anthem of a generation? Isn't this what really differentiates rock music from other forms of popular music, the ability to somehow mystically capture the experience of a generation regardless of what may have inspired the song? Even more to the point, if you take the example of the Sex Pistols...
Zappa: They were manufactured.
Volpacchio: Yes, they are a prime example of a band put together to exploit the counterculture market of the music business. Yet, ironically, they were a serious inspiration for a new generation of rock musicians and audiences who saw in them precisely the potential of rock to challenge the corporate culture that had absolutely appropriated rock by the mid-1970s.
Zappa: Great, hum me one of their songs. Are we talking about music or are we talking about sociology? Basically, what you are describing to me is a commercial game which has been played. As far as I am concerned, this has nothing to do with music. I am glad that someone sneaks in there and makes a mockery of the business. But how much of a mockery is it if they wind up being sold and distributed by the same business that they intend to mock?
Volpacchio: But doesn't the business need these types of bands to allow it to identify where the new markets are for the next generation it wants to commercially colonize?
Zappa: No major school of rock music ever occurred without being able to dress up to it. In other words, you can't have a trend in music, as far as pop music goes, unless there is a costume that you can wear that goes along with it, that lets the consumer participate in the fantasy. So that is really when you're talking about looking for a market. If a new group comes along, in order for it to be a really mega, mega group, there has to be some way to either imitate their hair-do or imitate their clothes. It has nothing to do with the music. This is the marketing aspect of it. The companies are not going to invest heavily to promote a group just because they sing well, play well, write well. The bucks arc going to go into that group when somebody in an office sniffs the possibility of co-operative advertising and co-operative promotions with soft drinks, with alcoholic beverages, with clothing manufacturers, with shoe manufacturers, with jewelry manufacturers...
Volpacchio: Do you see this as the attempt by the business to exploit the absolute identification of the consumer with his product?
Zappa: I am sure that is in the back of the mind of just about everybody who makes a product. They are either going to do it through some kind of star endorsement or find some other way to tie their product more intimately to the popular culture. Because if it is involved with the culture, it gives the illusion that the product itself has a more exalted, inherent value if it is something that functions in the culture. Coca-Cola is the best example. Basically, it is carbonated brown water as far as I am concerned. But the way in which it has become intertwined with the American flag and every other thing ... For example, I was flipping through C-SPAN yesterday, and they had a round table discussion about the base closings. The guy who is head of this organization dealing with base closings, his last job was head of the national soft drink manufacturers association. And the fellow who introduced him made the comment that, well no matter what happens in terms of closing these bases, I am sure that they will always be selling Coke and Pepsi at them. It was sort of meant to be a joke, but that's kind of the way it is, no matter what happens economically and otherwise in this country. If you want to really have something for the country to rally around, there is always that soft drink industry.
Volpacchio: Do you really believe the songs themselves help sell the products? Or is that just a fantasy among advertisers?
Zappa: I think that it works two ways. There may be some boost in sales when, for example, Michael Jackson did the two minute commercial in the middle of the Grammies a few years ago. These kinds of things may give a little boost in sales. But one of the reasons these kinds of companies especially have to tie themselves to pop culture is they need some reason to exist ... to identify with whatever is contemporary.
Volpacchio: What you are saying then is that the only way you can sell something is by being thought to be hip and modern, which is very much associated with American culture.
Zappa: Right. You tie your product to the latest rock video act, you sponsor that act's tour, you put your signs up all over the place when that act comes to town. Its not just that the act has appeared in your commercial on television; the act winds up being a salesman for your product everyplace it goes. The problem with that is the shelf life of the contemporary rock music act is not that long, so that they are going to be constantly searching for new things to identify with.
Volpacchio: Is this affecting the way new acts break into the business?
Zappa: I don't think that it is possible to function as a real touring artist in the music business today without some sort of corporate sponsorship because the costs are so high. The only way you can expect to make a profit on a tour is to have that subsidization.
Volpacchio: This also brings up the question of live performances versus recorded performances. Most popular music acts today appear to function primarily in the studio, and the live performances attempt to reproduce the recorded performance. There is less spontaneity and improvisation, not to mention the sense of musicianship necessary to perform before a live audience. In short, live performances also appear to be more and more programmed. Do you attribute this to the way audiences have become acculturated to music primarily through recordings?
Zappa: It is the groups' fault. You can't blame this on the audiences. Ultimately, it is their music and their reputation. They are not slaves. It is a conscious decision on the part of the groups to go out and do this.
Volpacchio: Don't producers though play a large influence on how music gets recorded?
Zappa: But producers have nothing to do with the live performance situation.
Volpacchio: Yet, if a touring group wants to make an audience happy, and the best way to achieve this is by reproducing something familiar, and this means reproducing the familiarity of the recording as shaped by die producer...
Zappa: Well, let us take a look at the original recording. Is it a work of art or is it a piece of product? If it is a product, then what do you do? You are out there to sell the product. So, naturally you will want to replicate the product. You go out and be a jukebox.
Volpacchio: But the way that product been produced in the recording studio has also affected the way people listen to music.
Zappa: The way people listen to music has more to do with MTV than it does with the producers. Part of the problem when you are doing the live performance is that you will never look as good as your video, unless your video is some exalted version of a live performance and you take the same 10,000 lamp rig on the road with you and do all that stuff. At that point you can't afford to do it unless you are subsidized. All of the so-called concept videos, there is no way to replicate that aroma on stage. Its still basically just a band and some amplifiers, unless you are going to spend a lot of money on sets. The people who engage in this kind of business practice – designing audio products for sale and then promoting it with replications that are as close to the original product as possible – they do not have any qualms about going out there and lipsynching.
Volpacchio: But have you not commented elsewhere on how difficult it is to play instrumental music because of the audiences' declining attention span?
Zappa: It's only going to get worse if you don't try to give the audience something different to listen to. But remember, there is not just one, monolithic audience out there. And if your product has been brought to an audience's attention on MTV, then the people who live the MTV lifestyle will come to that concert and I will guarantee you they want to see no improvisation, they want to hear no deviation from the original arrangement. They are perfectly satisfied to see people lipsynching and dancing a lot on stage. But that tends to be a younger audience.
Volpacchio: But even older audiences want no surprises, not to mention new music, when they go to a concert. And I am sure that has to do with the fact that concert halls have to fill seats.
Zappa: The other thing that bears on that is the action of unions. When the production cost of a concert is escalated to fantasy realms by union costs, it severely limits the types of performances that you can mount because you are obliged to sell all the seats just to pay your costs.
Volpacchio: It is very difficult then for anyone who is composing new music to find any way of putting it on stage.
Zappa: Sure. Suppose you are Joe Blow, the composer, and you get a revolutionary idea. What are you going to do with it?
Volpacchio: But there have always been alternative places for artists to expose their work. Don't these provide an outlet for new ideas?
Zappa: The symphony orchestra?
Volpacchio: Granted, they don't provide an outlet for symphonic works.
Zappa: But there, we are getting right to the nub of it. The symphony orchestra is a magnificent instrument and that repertoire, in an ideal world, should grow. And orchestral repertoire should reflect the contemporary life, rather than small groups of people who play endless, repeated patterns. Part of the problem is not just the stagehands' union, it is the musicians' union. Composers don't have a union. Nobody looks out for their interest. At the point where a composer has to get something performed, he is at the mercy of the copyists - who are part of the musicians union - and the musicians themselves. The guy who actually took the time to write the music will probably wind up making less from its performance than the guy who moved the chairs for the string quartet. If he is going to stay alive, he has to have a part-time job ... something grim, like maybe being a professor. Then everybody goes through this fucking charade for an audience that is not there, an audience that would rather see Vanilla Ice.
Volpacchio: Speaking of Vanilla ice, how do you explain his success?
Zappa: First of all, I am not sure that the sales figures are accurate. I believe he is an endorsee of one of those soft drink products. And I think that once you are hooked up with one of those endorsements, it is very easy for people to exaggerate sales because a company would not want to have an endorsement relationship with somebody who was not platinum at some level.
Volpacchio: Rap music seems to be a music form that arises totally out of pre-recorded elements. What do you see going on there musically and what has brought it the popularity it has now attained?
Zappa: Rap, I don't believe, could have existed without two or three decades of conditioning through commercials.
Volpacchio: Do you think it is a product of watching too much television?
Zappa: Well, it is just my first instinctual reaction to it. Also, it's all we have left of poetry in America.... All we have left of visual arts is commercials. A lot of the people who are directors of commercials are the most sought after people to direct rock videos, who then become the most sought after young talents to make feature films.
Volpacchio: Do you think Madison Avenue is totally able to manipulate our needs or have people now become so cynical that this very cynicism is all that remains of independent judgment?
Zappa: There is no 100%. Let us just say that the ability of Madison Avenue to persuade people will rise proportionately as the educational system deteriorates.
Volpacchio: But the inability to make ethical and moral decisions can't just be traced to the decline of the American educational system?
Zappa: They have all broken down because in order to have a reasonable standard of living, it is impossible – unless Dad is a drug pusher – to earn enough money in a two parent family just holding a normal job without both parents working. When both parents are out working, who is taking care of the kids ... the TV set. And then the kid does not do any work in school ... of course there is no work to do, and the school is for shit, and it is such a physically abysmal place to be sitting in for six to eight hours a day, and everything that you see on television leads you away from any hint of intellectual development. This is the subtext of all the commercials. There is a radio commercial running here in California. In it people are sitting around talking about a mathematical problem, and they are having trouble with it. One of the young people in this commercial goes, why think? This is a beer commercial, so its subtext is why think when you can drink.
Volpacchio: Is the problem of the culture industry inherently and predominantly an urban one?
Zappa: It is for a moment. Network television purports to create a type of entertainment which should be acceptable and even enjoyable to people in the heartland. This is all concocted for people in the heartland by people in urban centers who hate the people who live in the heartland, have no regard for them whatsoever, and think of them as bumpkins. Furthermore, on the days when they have to make these decisions to provide entertainment for people in the heartland, these same denizens are struggling for their own existence in a highly competitive environment in these major urban centers. Basically, they have mutated themselves. And because they have this type of a job, all their bad mental health is inflicted on the rest of the population through that medium. Their idea of what is beautiful... their idea of what is valuable... their idea of what is exciting... their idea of what is news... everything is strained through the mentality of these people in these urban centers. The little guy out there in the heartland, he does not have a chance.
Volpacchio: But even those places in the heartland – the sources of American populism that used to try to resist the control of the urban centers – even they appear to have succumbed to tastes that are shaped outside of their communities. Is there any heritage and tradition left in these communities?
Zappa: There is a heritage... it is dwindling. There are traditions... they are vanishing. But there are also aspirations, and the aspirations unfortunately seem to lead these people in the direction of the behavior of their brethren in the major metropolitan areas. Figure it out. You live on the farm ... you're in the Midwest ... you're in the heartland ... and you like Madonna? Why? What can that possibly mean? Well, it is a symbol of excitement. It is a symbol of what you do not have where you live. And now how are you going to attain it? By modifying your heartland community to a place where you can one day sprout your own Madonna? Or do you just - as soon as you get to be old enough to travel – go to where those Madonna people are so you can participate in it?
Volpacchio: However, these heartland communities have also had a checkered past. Many people point to these communities as being the source of American racism and ethnic hatred in their desire to be closed, homogenous communities.
Zappa: Not to the degree that they are any better or any worse than what goes on in the metropolitan areas. The only difference is that in the metropolitan areas, there is more media, people making speeches... there is more hypocrisy. Its the same racism.
Volpacchio: Do you see racism as being the greatest problem facing this country today? Is this the same racism that has always existed in the culture or is it a new strain?
Zappa: It is a problem, but it is certainly part of the raw material of the American society. I think you've got the pigmentation racism ... you've got the class- based racism ... and you've got a kind of politically based racism too. And one of the things that, if you're trying to arrive at an assessment of whether or not the American strain of racism is more virulent than in other societies, you might point out that we probably have more racists rubbing up against each other in this country than people in other countries. There are more people to hate. I remember when they first tried to promote the idea of brotherhood week and all the rest of this stuff in the 50s. It didn't last very long ... It was one of those kind of promo concepts that they didn't keep going with it because there seemed to be no real reason to.... Why bother to bend over backwards to have anything that resembles brotherhood when after the Reagan administration years it was officially announced by the government that greed is good? Well, if the government says so, then why do I need to look out for anybody else when the most important thing on the planet to do is to look out for yourself?
Volpacchio: Thank you for this interview.
* [Ed.] Those readers who suspect that this title has something to do with Saddam Hussein should recall Frank Zappa's old band, "The Mothers of Invention."
1. Recordings of Zwei Stücke für Streichquartett, op. 2 (1925/26); Sechs kurze Orchesterstücke, op. 4 (1929); Drei Gedichte von Theodor Daubler für vierstimmigen Frauenchor a capella (1929-1945); Zwei Lieder mit Orchester aus dem geplanten Singspiel "Der Schatz des Indianer Joe" nach Mark Twain (1932/33); "Kinderjahr," Sechs Stücke aus op. 68 von Robert Schumann für kleines Orchester gesetzt (1941), in Kompositionen (Wergo, 1990).
2. This telephone interview was conducted on May 16, 1991. Frank Zappa has recently announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States.
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