By Michael Smolen

Stereo Review, June, 1987

FRANK ZAPPA is one of the most influential, innovative, and consistently controversial musicians of the past two decades. Since the beginning of his career this performer, composer, and selfstyled philosopher for the modern world has recorded over fifty albums, many of them double-record sets, often creating musical milestones along the way.

With his irrepressible, frequently scatological musical observances, Zappa has also carved himself a niche that fits no major record company's wall, forcing him to create his own record label (Barking Pumpkin) and distribution company (Barfko-Swill).

"Narrow-mindedness has always been one of the prime factors in American society," Zappa told me recently over coffee at New York's Mayfair Hotel. "It's a big blind spot in America, the closed-mindedness, the small-mindedness, the resistance to change. There's a resistance to change and an artificial support of things that are new, because Americans have a resistance to going all the way. So when people say 'That's not music,' that's just another manifestation of closed-mindedness. It's an educational problem."

Zappa's first release, "Freak Out" with the Mothers of Invention back in 1966, was simultaneously the first "concept" album and the first double-disc rock album. Subsequent records gained attention for their incorporation of diverse musical sources, including rock, classical, and jazz – and no small amount of outrageousness. An admirer of Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern, and Edgard Varèse (he wrote a tribute to Varèse in this magazine in 1971), Zappa has introduced his own nontraditional uses of harmony, rhythm, and orchestration. His music is always serious, but never without a sense of humor.

Zappa's other artistic pursuits have included the production of two movies, 200 Motels and Baby Snakes, and several videos combining music, animation, live performances, and his personal observations. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a new two-hour movie with the same title, Uncle Meat, as the 1969 LP that introduced the now infamous character of Suzy Creamcheese. He has also composed symphonic works that have been performed by a number of major musical organizations, including the Ensemble InterContemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez, and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Zappa on Compact Disc

Frank Zappa will always be thought of in terms of his phenomenal musical talent, and for many fans the recent release of ten vintage Zappa recordings on compact discs is a dream come true.

The reissues are part of an exclusive agreement between Zappa and Rykodisc USA, which will release eight more Zappa CD's a year over the next three years. The difficult task of deciding which recordings to release first from the large Zappa discography fell to Zappa and Rykodisc president Don Rose. The initial eight albums (two are double-disc sets) – which reached stores late last year – include, in chronological order, "We're Only in It for the Money/Lumpy Gravy," "The Grand Wazoo," "Overnite Sensation/Apostrophe," "Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar," "London Symphony Orchestra," "Them or Us," "Thing-Fish," and "Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention."

"One of the reasons I was glad the CD came around was the length of the program material," Zappa said. "An hour and twelve minutes is real nice for the kind of stuff I do, especially for my live material, because when I do live shows the music is nonstop. On all of the live albums I've put out I had to resequence the material, fade things in and out, and do a bunch of things that actually spoiled the continuity of the show.

"With the CD you can get a better idea of what one of my live shows is all about. In fact, Rykodisc will soon be releasing a multi-CD set called 'You Can't Do That on a Stage Anymore.' It's stuff that in a contemporary, conservative society you can't do on stage any more, and it'll have examples of that kind of material that go back to 1968 up through 1984."

Wherever appropriate, the Rykodisc releases have been resequenced to follow Zappa's original intentions, and extra tracks have been added, when available, to bring the playing time closer to a CD's hour-plus capacity. For example, "London Symphony Orchestra" includes a never-before-released twenty-five-minute track, Bogus Pomp, whose added length would have exceeded that of the LP mastering. For two of the new releases, "Apostrophe/Overnite Sensation" and "We're Only in It for the Money/Lumpy Gravy," two complete and consecutively recorded albums have been combined on a single CD. The CD packaging, while based on the LP originals, has been extensively reconfigured for the medium. The two-CD set of the opera "Thing-Fish," for example, contains a thirty-two-page libretto, something that was not provided with the original LP version when it was released in 1984.

But a spiffy presentation on the part of Rykodisc is only half of the story. Zappa has painstakingly remastered and re-equalized the recordings to take advantage of the expanded dynamic range of the compact disc format. Zappa is one of the digital world's pioneers. His studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, has been digital since 1981 and is home to one of the nation's first digital multitrack recorders. His current setup includes four digital machines: two Sony 3324's, a Sony 1610, and a Sony 1630. It is here that Zappa and his recording engineer, Bob Stone, prepared the master tapes for the new Rykodisc CD's.

"The 'We're Only in It for the Money' album has new, digitally recorded drum and bass tracks added to it," Zappa explained. "The original tracks were replaced completely when the album was remixed. All the rest of the early albums are just remastered from the original two-track master tapes. I did the new tracks for 'We're Only in It' because the original masters for that album had deteriorated – the oxide had fallen off the tape. So we had to go back to the original material, which was eight-track, and I figured that as long as we're going to do that, let's see what would happen if we put new bass and drums on it. I liked the results, and I also did it to 'Reuben and the Jets,' which will probably be in the next batch of releases."

Zappa's latest CD release, also from Rykodisc, is the new album "Jazz from Hell." The recording is completely instrumental, and it is performed almost entirely on a New England Digital Synclavier, a state-of-the-art digital instrument that (in a gross oversimplification) can be looked at as a combination of a synthesizer, a multitrack recorder, and a computer. In fact, the only track not performed on the Synclavier is St. Etienne, spotlighting a typically bizarre guitar solo. Joining Zappa on St. Etienne is a group of well-known musicians, Steve Vai, Ray White, Tommy Mars, Bobby Martin, Ed Mann, Scott Thunes, and Chad Wackerman.

The album also includes Night School, the theme song from Zappa's long-awaited TV show, about which he says, "I have been negotiating with several companies who are intrigued with the idea of putting me on TV, but they're all afraid of what might happen when I open my mouth." The bulk of the album contains "really complicated compositions that human beings just couldn't play." Because of the consistent use of digital processing – sampling, recording, mixing, and mastering – "Jazz from Hell" is a totally digital recording.

Goodbye Guitar, Hello Synclavier

To many, Frank Zappa is a bona fide guitar hero. His mastery of the instrument is displayed on albums as diverse as "Hot Rats" (1969), "Zoot Allures" (1976), "Joe's Garage Act 1" (1979), and "Sheik Yerbouti" (1979). Nowhere is the Chief Mother's guitar work more brilliantly displayed than on the boxed LP set – and, fortunately, the double-CD set – of "Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar."

But Zappa doesn't play the guitar any more.

"Right now I prefer working with the Synclavier. I haven't played the guitar in over two years," said Zappa. "With the Synclavier you can literally sit there and play every part in an orchestra, resynchronize those parts, edit those parts, even re-orchestrate those parts. It gives me the chance to be not only the composer but the conductor, because I can orchestrate the dynamics into the piece. If you can think in that global way, you can really have complete control over your composition."

The Synclavier employs a new method of music synthesis called partial timbres. It features twenty-four separately adjustable harmonics, a six-stage volume-envelope generator, completely adjustable vibrato and portamento, separate keyboard decay-adjust of volume envelopes, separate keyboard control of stereo placement, powerful sampling ability, and virtually unrestrained editing capabilities.

"Basically the data is entered into the system with the dual keyboard, an octapad, and drumsticks, or it's just typed in," Zappa explained. "After the data is entered, you can edit it in several different ways. For example, you can look at sheet music on the screen, or you can edit lists of information on a screen that shows you three columns of data – rhythm, pitch, and duration. By typing in different values you can edit your material. Then just push a button, and it plays it back.

"It's not that user-friendly, but it's not that impossible. I would say that in terms of being a real techno guy I'm no whiz. I'm just an average techno guy. I don't know what the hell to do with a soldering iron, I don't know anything about circuits, I can't do arithmetic, and I hate to read. I never really read the Synclavier manual. I learned by pushing the buttons."

Zappa for President

Besides his musical endeavors, Frank Zappa has gained international attention for his outspoken work against record ratings – in particular, the system proposed by the Parents' Music Resource Center, which he testified against in Washington – and censorship in general. He has become an unofficial spokesman on these subjects and is often called on by national media to supply opposing views to what he considers right-wing-extremist attacks on the U.S. Constitution. So, naturally, he is the perfect person to ask for an opinion about the proposed digital audio tape (DAT) copy-prevention legislation.

"I have no objection to anything that protects copyrights, because I think a work of art has to be protected," said Zappa. "If you want artists to stay in business, you have to protect what it is they do – ownership of that is what gives them their income – so I'm in favor of protecting artists' rights. But I am totally against stunting technology in order to achieve that goal. If the 'copy- protect' chip they want to install in DAT machines does not in any way impair the sound or create any audio quality problems, then I have no problem with it."

As evidenced by the outstanding quality of his CD releases, Frank Zappa is an artist who has welcomed digital technology with open arms. He has realized its benefits, found its limitations, and is aware of what must be done to improve it. He knows the pros and cons of upcoming legislation affecting the music industry. But he also knows the bottom line.

"Instead of looking at new technology as an opportunity, everybody for their own reasons looks at it as a threat to their potential dominance of the marketplace," he concluded. "I think that behind all this is quite a bit of greed and not very much concern for the consumer, who ultimately just wants to buy music."