History Notes

Our columnist takes us on a musical ride that shows how attitudes change over time.

by Vince Farinaccio

Recently, I happened upon a folder of materials from my college days, among them a term paper written for a literature class. I immediately recalled why I had preserved this particular assignment. Within its pages, now yellowed after 45 years, is a margin note written by the professor that interestingly addresses how time can reshape a teacher-student dialogue.

The assignment called for the class to read a recently published book by Duncan Williams, Trousered Apes, and write an opinion paper. The book was an attack on the so-called “sick literature” created by an equally “sick society” and Williams was ready to tackle all of the arts in a campaign to discredit the behavior it was purportedly creating.

Although some of his points seemed valid, Williams tended to use only a select group of examples that could prove his thesis while conveniently avoiding anything that would disprove it. He also, I pointed out in the paper, seemed to have only a superficial acquaintance with contemporary music, a topic he offhandedly seemed to dismiss.

When Williams questioned the existence of any contemporary musicians who practiced “ceaselessly” like Mozart, my paper offered the example of Frank Zappa, whose work encompassed classical, jazz and rock music as a daily regimen of practice and composing. I thought it was a good response to the author’s question.

The professor, however, took umbrage with my example. “Ahem,” he noted in the margin of my paper, “I don’t think we can quite ‘match’ Mozart with Zappa.” But, actually, we can.

Zappa lived and breathed music, devoting himself to it until his death at age 52 in 1993, so if someone is looking for a contemporary example worthy of Mozart’s dedication to his art, Zappa qualifies. But I don’t think that’s what prompted the margin note; I believe equating Zappa with a classical-music luminary such as Mozart was considered a lapse in judgment and needed addressing.

Such thinking appears to have evaporated over time. Alex Winter, director of the 2020 documentary film Zappa, told the Guardian newspaper last year, “The part of the music world that dismissed Frank the most in his lifetime is now the one that takes him the most seriously. Now, most of the classical world considers him one of the greatest 20th-century composers that America has produced. They did not think that when he was alive.”

Winter’s film includes a revealing interview with percussionist and former Zappa bandmember Ruth Underwood, who recounts how, while attending Julliard in the 1960s, she first witnessed her future employer performing in New York. Afterward, she used one of the school’s piano rooms to work out the “melodic shape” of the Zappa composition “Oh No.”

“I played the piece to the best of my recollection,” she explained, “…[and] probably within thirty seconds, an officer of the school came in.” Asking what she was doing, Underwood replied she was “playing this beautiful music.” The official responded, “It doesn’t sound like any music you’re supposed to be playing here.”

Such disdain should have earned Zappa a place on Williams’s list of offenders, yet he eluded the author’s attention, unlike Lord of the Flies author William Golding and acclaimed artist Pablo Picasso.

Today, one is allowed to compare Zappa to Mozart without a throat-clearing “ahem” or any offense rendered. In their 2005 academic study Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and the Secret History of Maximalism, authors Michel Delville and Andrew Norris even take a moment to compare the works of the two composers: “Like Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Zappa’s music has often been accused of being far too noisy and of containing too many notes.”

And, like Mozart’s voluminous catalogue, Zappa’s collected works exist on more than 100 albums. As Delville and Norris note, “Zappa is one of the most prolific artists of the 20th century.” That takes a lot of dedication.

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