Conceptual Continuity, Anyone?

A while ago, I was sent a link to a course on the music of Frank Zappa, given between 2001 and 2007 by one Jason Klein of the University of North Texas. Browsing around, I stumbled across this PDF (caution: 23MB download), in which one page meticulously visualizes Zappa’s notion of Conceptual Continuity:

Conceptual Continuity Chart

The above is just a thumbnail. To study the graph in all its glory, download the big version here (3MB jpg). If bandwidth is no issue, I’ve also uploaded the chart to Flickr for online viewing. Fascinating stuff — someone make a poster out of this!

20 thoughts on “Conceptual Continuity, Anyone?”

  1. I like the idea of exploring FZ’s conceptual continuity and cross references in his work. This sort of thing adds layers to his work that you will not be able to find in other musicians in the second half of the 20th century. I mean, I think it’s important and valuable to do this because that will attract people’s attention to his work and his musicianship.

    Compared to the Beatles (who were heavily augmented by George Martin’s musical chops), FZ was a far more serious and original musician.

    Compared to say, Rodgers and Hammerstein (who were also seriously augmented by Robert Russell Bennett’s musical chops) FZ was a far more serious, original, and complete musician (he didn’t have to have other people score or harmonize his work.)

    He really is fully comparable to the classical masters frequently cited (Stravinsky, Bartok, etc.) and while they may have had some better musical skills than he, FZ was broader, essentially writing all of his own texts and conceptualizing his works from start to finish. And he definitely was a better composer than any of the 2nd Viennese school or post-2nd, because the overpriced intellectualism of those composers have never had an audience, and consequently, no relevance. Whereas FZ was not only able to be a composer, but because he crossed over to pop culture, his music is always relevant.

    He really was/is the most significant and original composer of the post-WW2 era.

    Or maybe I’m just feeling good today.

  2. I couldn’t agree with that. Messiaen’s dad can beat up Frank Zappa’s dad any day. If Frank Zappa wasn’t also a rock star, his orchestral music would have remained unperformed. That alone doesn’t say anything about the quality of the music, but if a composer had produced only FZ’s “serious” music (LSO, Boulez Conducts Zappa, Yellow Shark, Orchestral Favourites, 200 Motels – CP3 is in a different league to me) our evaluation of him would be different. Ligeti’s piano etudes out-Zappa Frank’s work in terms of gymnastic impossibilty and WTF extraterrestriality. And Elliott Carter gets no respect? Berio? Harry Partch? Morton Feldman?

    Avante Garde Project Archive has a lot of out-of-print recordings available for direct download in Lossless formats. Some of the older posts have come back in print, so they are no longer available. (AGP-23, for example. AGP-57, a Harry Partch record, is great. Please listen to this! “Barstow” is something any Zappa fan can appreciate)

    Talk about layers – Ben Watson’s book is hilarious. I seriously don’t understand why some people have such a hostile reaction to it. People still find humor in it without completely accepting his point of view.

  3. Hi, Birdman. I am aware of these other composers, as well as the AV in general, and I have listened to a lot of it over the years, alternately for laughs or quite dutifully. I don’t mean disrespect, I just don’t think it works other than as a novelty. I know Ligeti, Berio and Carter fairly well.

    As for FZ, no, I am not suggesting he a great composer sans his “pop” work. I am suggesting he is a great composer precisely BECAUSE of his pop work. How many catchy tunes did Messaien ever write? Not to derogate “serious” stuff, but catchy tunes is what survives. Yet FZ’s lyrical gifts (lyrical as melodic, not as words) are what sets him apart from other post-WW2 “serious” composers.

    Remember that many of the great classical composers had the gift. Brahms made most of his money off his Hungarian dances, and songs (Lullaby). Then he used the bread to write his more “serious” stuff, which fans enjoy but which never really had a huge audience. FZ was no different. He did the albums to get the budget to do the “serious” stuff: but in the process he wrote an amazing quantity of high quality music. A lot of his instrumental stuff — including guitar solos collaged post facto — are wonderful compositions. A lot of his vocal stuff would make similarly wonderful compositions (you may notice that the vocal line is often doubled elsewhere.) What hurts FZ in this respect are the lyrics, which alternate between being joky and obscene, and thus detract from the music.

    I realize I am inviting, first, a split between those who are attracted to FZ the rebel, the iconoclast, the guy who writes funny words to his songs. I realize that’s an important part to what attracts people to him, but to me, the music is paramount. If there are others in the world of pop or jazz who are as consistently inventive, dense, structurally cohesive, and _diatonic_ as a listen-through of just about any FZ album, I’d be glad to check it out.

  4. I think a lot of Zappa’s output and efforts were based on his attempt to reconcile these disparate musical entities. Sure, he excelled in each ‘environment’ but it’s in the uni-sense of all these works that would produce something ‘original’ and innovative. The early Mothers albums were original, to the extent that he radically added musique concrete into a pop music context. He didnt ‘invent’ the pop song stucture or the techniques he used on those albums.

    For me, he really became an ‘original’, as far as composing goes, with the application of xenocricity onto his guitar solos. “Shut Up and Play Your Guitar” is a very mature work and one of which sounds completely alien to his influences.

    I would then look at his synclavier work as an extension of this technique: the controlled chaos of the performance [or in terms of the synclavier, the haphazard recording of belches and voices] with the godlike omnipotence of the digital studio.

    The earlier work is daring and excells in brilliance but, for me, the more significant work was the ‘serious’ 80’s stuff.

    “Shut Up and Play Your Guitar” is to Zappa what “Trout Mask Replica” is to Captain Beefheart.

  5. [quote comment=”4152″]
    Compared to the Beatles (who were heavily augmented by George Martin’s musical chops), FZ was a far more serious and original musician.
    You, know…. I never knew how good George Martin was until I heard his single, under the name Ray Cathode! (Thanks to WFMU’s Beware Of The Blog!)
    I mean, it sounds like THE FUCKING RESIDENTS!!!! IN 1962!!!!
    THAT”S how good George Matin was (is)!

  6. [quote comment=”4152″]

    Compared to the Beatles (who were heavily augmented by George Martin’s musical chops), FZ was a far more serious and original musician.

    Hoooo haaaaa! The boy’s alive. But, not speaking any truth, I’m afraid.

    The Beatles came up with their own music, and the way they crafted songs was quite unique for their day and this is one reason why their music stands the test of time. They made very odd choices in chords, chord changes, tempo changes, keys, bridges, you name it. This started in the beginning and continued through The End. They were very idiosyncratic but they made their odd choices work because they had very good ears and very good chops themselves. Martin didn’t come up with Help! and he didn’t write I Am The Walrus. This has been documented in minutiea, but the best book on the subject is probably A Day In the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. Another one for the fanatics is The Beatles Complete Recording History. If Martin wrote the songs the Beatles would be virtually forgotten and life on this planet would be quite different. Luckily, he didn’t write their music.

    He was there largely to get the tracks down, bounce ideas off on, and occasionally tweak arrangements but his word was by no means the last word, unless we are talking about some very specific rare cases, or as regards to the string arrangements, which were often described to him by the band anyway, before he called in the string players. This is well documented as well – get the boots if you don’t believe me, as the studio work for most every album is available to some degree or another which shows that the boys shaped their tunes themselves. Adding strings to some songs is only following the boys’ directions, not writing the songs. The boys crafted their tunes and George made their editing requests happen, and if they weren’t happy with the results they went back at it. This drive to get what they want is why every Beatle fan knows they stopped touring because they got more out of being in the studio together than playing to screaming fans. They also often recorded w/o Martin present.

    The biggest and most well known case of Martin having a major hand in a song was with Strawberry Fields, where two pieces of music in different keys and tempos were joined and overlapped. John didn’t know how to do it and he told Martin what to do, so his role in the final product is still questionable to the degree his engineering magic helped the final outcome. I think it is obvious to anyone that he wouldn’t have chosen to make a song such as Strawberry Fields the way John chose to do it – that was all the Beatles with a little help from their friend.

    As for originality, to say that the Beatles were not original in their time is to make a serious flub of judgement. There is simply no way to back up such an assertion because the facts are quite the opposite.

    Yes, they were no Webern, no Carter, no Stravinski, what have you, but they weren’t writing such music were they? But they did incorporate Stockhausen, Cage and Stravinski in their artistry.

    McCartney, Harrison and Lennon’s love of the avant garde is well known. All of them made very bizarre “difficult” music at home using tape recorders. Harrison released an experimental electronic album, and Lennon’s first few solo releases were as avant garde as anything ever released at that time, and wasn’t really eclipsed until the mid 70s as far as ‘popular music’ is concerned, with the affor mentioned Residents, some Krautrock, later Negativeland….all that stuff comes from the same sources the Beatles were enjoying as well in the mid 60s.

    Martin was a genius producer and a great musician in his own right, but the Beatles created their own art on their own and had Martin pull their elements of their creations together into the records we know today.

  7. None of the Beatles were musically literate; they could barely read music. Martin’s hand had much more to do with their songs than one might think, his crowning touch was Side 2 of Abbey Road, which he essentially created out of odds and ends.

    But it’s nice to have a Beatles fan around. I am one too. I just know the difference between writing a pop song and having a composer’s mind. The Beatles did not have that. FZ did.

  8. Steve, where´s the difference between writing a pop song and having a composer’s mind? Why didn´t The Beatles had the latter and FZ did?

  9. [quote post=”1108″]I mean, it sounds like THE FUCKING RESIDENTS!!!! IN 1962!!!!
    THAT”S how good George Matin was (is)![/quote]
    Vince, would you like to be my friend? :~) What song is that, btw?

    George Martin’s contributions to The Beatles are immeasurable, but remember the boys passed on “How Do You Do It?” – they said no to their producer, something fairly unheard of – as their follow-up to “Love Me Do.” They brought “Please Please Me” to the studio, and after recording it Martin said, “Congratulations, boys, you just made your first number one!” or something like that. Still, he thought it was a fluke, until “She Loves You.”

    That said, George M. made their great songs into great records – that’s no small feat. They could have had a pushy, narrow-minded producer, breaking up within a year of signing to EMI.

    Comparing FZ and The Beatles is like comparing sushi and coffee. Both are fantastic in their own ways. The Beatles excelled as pop songwriters, slickly produced by Big George, and challenged the norm of what pop music is and its recording process. We owe them big time for emphasizing the album (beginning with Rubber Soul and Revolver) over the single, as well. Zappa was a composer, humorist, and on some level a philosopher. The whole conceptual continuity is a work of genius, that he would keep returning to and updating the same themes, introducing new ones…that takes dedication.

    One thing FZ and The Beatles DO have in common is that they both went into their last recorded works knowing it would be the last. For The Beatles, ‘Abbey Road’ was a means of ablution after the mess of the ‘Get Back’ project (if memory serves, Lennon referred to ‘Let It Be’ as a “cardboard tombstone”), and a way for the band to end on a great note. With CP3, Frank knew he was dying – a great deal of finality on that record. One of the few Zappa albums that alternately makes me laugh and choke up.

  10. I love Frank’s ‘serious’ music but I’m not so sure it is all that original or groundbreaking. That started to happen with Civ Phaze III. And then we all know what happened next.

  11. [quote comment=”4275″]I love Frank’s ‘serious’ music but I’m not so sure it is all that original or groundbreaking. That started to happen with Civ Phaze III. And then we all know what happened next.[/quote]

    From what I’ve read in interviews with “serious” musicians (Berlioz, LSO musicians, his notaters, Vai, etc..) his stuff was always very unique. Particularly in the area of rhythms.

  12. Listening to the Beatles “Anthology” and bootlegs of demos, I was blown away that the songs sound so great even without the polished surface. It would be interesting to hear “Magical Mystery Tour…Naked” and especially to hear “I am the Walrus” without the arrangements and phantasmagorical production. It’s easy to forget how completely revolutionary George Martin’s use of compression was, and without the little touches, the albums wouldn’t be so completely magic, but the songs are consistently solid. What if…Eddie Kramer produced the Beatles?

  13. Little touches … and all or most of the brass and string arrangements – but if you compare the demo of “While my Guitar Gently Weeps” to the re-orchestrated version on “Love” – both are great, without or without Martin’s contributions.

    Another mental exercise – FZ always hired the best musicians he could get, and the music he made with each set of musicians shows how much input he got from them. Imagine if Paul hired the Wrecking Crew from Motown, or (using a time travel device) Bernard Purdie, Chuck Rainey, and George Duke to play on the track “Got to Get You Into My Life” minus the brass arrangement that he probably didn’t contribute.

  14. Whoops! Funk Brothers from Motown. Wrecking Crew from L.A. Either way, in a paralell universe there are so fucked up Beatles records we’ll never hear.

    Okay. I’ll try and stop now.

  15. [quote post=”1108″]What if…Eddie Kramer produced the Beatles?[/quote]
    Dare we dream?

    Then again, the question “What if Phil Spector produced The Beatles?” was answered…we all know how that one turned out…

  16. My Conceptual Continuity clou between The Beatles and FZ is, that Lennons “Sometimes in NYC” has a live section with Lennon and FZ plus MOI. When I heard this part of the record, I had to get more of FZ music. So I listenend to “We´re only in it” at my uncle´s place and I made him get rid of his copy. Then I bought “200 Motels” and saw the film shortly thereafter. And there was good old Ringo Starr playing FZ.

    Well, I was in heaven (being 11 at that time!) that my old heroes and my new hero even knew each other and made music together. I carried on with “Roxy” and “Apostrophe” and for a very long while my Beatles records left untouched.

    I still think, that “Roxy” is one of the best Rock / Jazz live recordings of the 70s, beside Little Feat´s “Waiting For Columbus” probably, 801´s “Live” and Be-Bop Deluxe´s “Live In The Air Age”.

    Anyway, funny enough for me is, that I know a lot of people who are into FZ a n d The Beatles.

    Conceptual Continuity / FZ / myself means to me, that his music made my noisy into all directions of music. And I still love The Beatles.

  17. [quote post=”1108″]801´s “Live” and Be-Bop Deluxe´s “Live In The Air Age”.[/quote]
    WHOA! Awesome – I visited a friend back in November and he had JUST bought 801’s album. Cool beans.

    And for anyone to know Be-Bop Deluxe who isn’t my dad is a swell fella in my book. Bill Nelson = woefully underrated.

  18. And between Be-Bop Deluxe´s “Live In The Air Age” and FZ is another Continuity Clou for me. There is a song on this album called “Adventures In A Yorkshire Landscape” and when I listened to it once, my wife came along and asked, if this is a tune from FZ, because the long guitar solo sounds like him. Nope, it´s Bill Nelson. In my eyes (and ears) a very underrated guitar player anyway.

    Once I heard a quote towards Bill Nelson, that he has more records released, than he actually has fans. But if I may propose an album as a starter for Nelson´s oeuvre, I´d pick “Practically Wired”, a guitar album. But beware, Nelson has a wide range of musical directions and is extremely different in his output – like FZ.

  19. As a piss-poor undergrad, I make no promises, but I’ll certainly put it high up on my “albums to buy when I actually have 2 nickels to rub together” queue.

    Also on the list – anything by Brian Eno, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, Dave Davies’ solo material, and some Taylor-era Bluesbreakers.

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