An Analysis of Virtuality in the Creation and Reception of the Music of Frank Zappa

Here is a transcript of the paper Paul Carr gave at the IASPM conference in Brighton, in September 2016


My chapter in the book discusses the creation and reception of the music of Frank Zappa, who overtly and purposively positioned his creative output in a virtual, often teleological dimension. Through the analysis of Zappa’s music, use of the recording studio and personal philosophies such as Xenochrony, Project/Object and Big Note, the chapter draws on the work of a range of scholars from Hanslick, Hagel, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Schopenhauer, to Bernard Russell, Jennifer Robertson and Leo Treitler, ultimately examining the broader question regarding the extent to which music has the capacity to be representational and/or ‘virtual’– what is it that makes it “be”?.

These factors are pertinent when considering the music of Frank Zappa, as his ‘songs’ can often be considered as parts of multiple instances – which include live performances, recorded rearrangements, album artwork, even bootleg recordings and on-going performances by tribute artists. These philosophies and compositional techniques are considered alongside the medium through which we all engage with music analysis – written language, by considering the extent to which words influence our documentation, interpretation and clarity of musical meaning.

The talk I will give today is a condensation of an 8000 word chapter, so I have decided to focus on the background philosophies and wider debates – as opposed to outlining the analysis of Zappa’s music – that can be found in the book!

Virtuality, Vagueness, and the Impact of Language on Analysis

The problems associated with the ‘representational’ nature of music has been a feature of musicology and indeed Western thought for many years, with Eduard Hanslick’s notion of how music’s ‘beauty’ lies in its formal structure as opposed to containing or purveying any inherent emotionality or referentiality, conflicting strongly with influential Greek metaphysical thought,[1] or indeed late antiquity scholars such as Augustine (354 – 430)[2] and Boethius (c.475 – 524).[3] Like these authors, later scholars such as Francino Gaforio (1451 – 1522) and Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) both considered music to be a representational reflection of the divine, a factor that according to Nicholas Cooke was also prevalent in literature of the time, as evidenced in works such as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

It is important to note that Hanslick was influenced by the Transcendental Idealism of Immanuel Kant (1724 –1804), who according to James Donelan “considered [music] a decorative art, a poor imitation of vague emotional content”. In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), he differentiates between the objective world as it is and what he described as the subjective world of ideas. Describing the former as noumenon and the latter as the phenomenon, he outlines how external objects (i.e. music) don’t exist for the subject – so need to be differentiated in terms of their purposivness (their function unto themselves) and how purposeful they are to us. With this distinction, Kant unwittingly presents an important factor when considering virtuality in music, with purposivness clearly linking to Hanslickian thought, and the concept of the purposeful representing an antecedent to many philosophies discussed in my chapter – including the impacts of written language. When asking the question how music, without the help of words, can signify anything in the external world, Jenefer Robertson highlights an important point regarding the role of language in musical virtuality. Speaking of instrumental music specifically, she states

[….] but without specially introduced conventions – such as [those that] stipulate the meaning of national anthems and leitmotif – musical phrases and chords do not normally have conventional meanings as words and sentences in a language do. Pictures represent things and so can be said to signify them, but again, without special stipulations, such as is given by a title, music cannot normally represent particular people, scenes and events….

Obviously referring to Hanslickian thought, Robertson is alluding to the inherent vagueness of meaning in instrumental music, and how words have the capacity to work alongside it – effectively assisting its signification. However, as early as 1842, Felix Mendelssohn was presenting an alternative view regarding the ‘problem’ of language itself. Stipulating that the message that music communicates to be beyond language, he writes:

People often complain that music is too ambiguous; that what they should think when they hear it is so unclear, whereas everyone understands words. With me it is exactly the reverse, and not only with regard to an entire speech, but also with individual words. These, too, seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music.

Writing 30 years after Mendelssohn in 1872, Nietzsche continues this perspective, this time alluding to issues associated with critical discourse itself. He stated

[….]hence language, as the organ and symbol of phenomena, can never uncover the innermost core of music, but, once it attempts to imitate music, always remains in superficial contact with it, and no amount of lyrical eloquence can bring its deepest meaning a step closer.

In an article entitled ‘Vagueness’, Bertrand Russell discusses the relationship between “what means and what is meant”, and how the study of symbolism can assist us in not being “unconsciously influenced by language”, concluding that “all language is vague”. Indeed according to Russell, all representation is vague to some degree, with the relationship between the “representing system to the represented system seen to be not ‘one to one, but one [to] many” – a polysemic combination he considers the epitome of vagueness. Russell believed the epistemological space between the actual properties something may possess and what is known about it, to be a bi-product of Kant’s Idealism and potentially a delusion, therefore positioning vagueness to be “a characteristic of [an artefact’s] relation to that which is known, not a characteristic of the occurrence in itself”.

Taking this argument a step further, Leo Treitler purports the language of analysis to have a tendency to “hold music [not only] at arm’s length from the listener but also from meanings that may be attributed to it – to make musical meaning indirect and conceptual and to locate it outside of music”. Treitler’s consequent assertion that “words are asked to identify not music’s properties or the experience of those properties but abstractions that music signifies” is important, as this effectively often locates discussion about music further into a mediated logocentric virtual world – be this a good or bad thing. Subjective metaphorical discussion about music is described by Treitler as “low level criticism”, and begs the question, is the language we use when discussing music reflecting the reality of musical meaning, or in fact constructing our own version of it? Can we indeed transfer musical experiences into the written word? Language therefore, can be considered to have the potential to assist the signification of music, although the signification of their combined forces can still be considered vague, due to the ontological issues highlighted above.

As noted by Leonard Meyer), musical meaning can’t exclusively be located in the music itself, nor what it refers to, but is a combination of both signifier and signified, with the observer involved in a hermeneutic process of evolving meaning with what he or she is listening to. The often-quoted Elvis Costello maxim, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”[4] summarises the epistemological divide in terms of how far we can move into secondary signification/connotation, before musical analysis becomes too vague to be meaningful, or formalism, before it becomes too rigid and descriptive. SLIDE 7

Frank Zappa and the Virtual: The Big Note, Project-Object, Xenochrony and Conceptual Continuity

It is important to note that Zappa regarded all of his individual compositions and recordings as part of a unified whole, which were negotiated principally via three self-titled philosophies: the big note, project-object and xenochrony. Zappa often used these paradigms to indoctrinate a variety of overt and subliminal semiological clues into his compositions, manipulations of time and space and studio/live environments, in addition to providing rationales for his regular reuse of existing material and re-arrangements of compositions. I don’t have time to discuss these in depth here, but as a quick overview and as outlined earlier, Zappa’s overt positioning of music as part of a metaphysical cosmic tone, has some parallels to the thinking of Plato, Augustine, Kepler and Boethius, although there is no concrete evidence to suggest that he considered his music to be an imperfect representation of this heavenly order. However, Zappa did have a lifelong tendency to regard his entire catalogue as a single entity – that was determined by him and open to change. He commented

All the material in the albums is organically related and if I had all the master tapes and I could take a razor blade and cut them apart and put it together again in a different order, it still would make one piece of music you can listen too

It was this he entitled the Big Note

On a more practical level, Zappa incorporated his project-object philosophy to justify the numerous arrangements, remixes, and reuse of his own and others’ recorded material that he incorporated into his music. As I have stated in other essays, Zappa’s persistent reuse of his own material at both a musical and production level, in addition to his numerous references to other composers’ music clearly state that he differentiated between the completed work of art in a recording, and the ongoing challenge of redefining it. This process is not only similar to Joseph Grigely’s notion of how texts are consistently in a state of change as they age,[5] but also the ‘nominalist’ view depicted by Lyndia Goehr (2007), where ‘Types’ (what Grigely describes as a ‘Work’, and Zappa the ‘Object’) are considered the benchmark through which derivative ‘Tokens’ are taken.

The final technique that Zappa incorporated into his creative process was that of xenochrony. SLIDE 9 Meaning ‘alien-time’, this was principally used to synchronically fuse two otherwise incongruent individual textual strands into a single performance. Unlike traditional overdubbing, which focuses on multiple takes being intentionally part of the same composition, Xenochrony incorporates not only takes from incongruent live performances and/or studio takes, but also features takes from incongruent compositions – so any ‘interactions’ taking place between performers has no intentionality on the part of the player – purely taking place in a virtual dimension. This process presents an interesting distinction from John Cage’s work, which aimed principally to eliminate the intentionality of the composer – not the performer.

Philosopher Paul Weiss proposes that any event, such as the development of a mountain range, the growth of a flower, or a musical composition, whatever the length of its ongoing redevelopment, to be ultimately “one single present, not a sequence of presents” as we experience it. Weiss considers it impossible to grasp the full nature of this ‘single present’ because of the impossibility of experiencing all of its instances. Likewise, with compositions such as Frank Zappa’s, that have often been rearranged over numerous years, in multiple times and places, we cannot only experience them as a single entity, but also via snapshots of smaller events, which let us consider or indeed measure the larger whole.

Weiss believed that a work of art can be examined from a formal, transcendental, intentional, psychological or ontological perspective, but it is proposed that all are a virtual means of assessing what the work actually is. As indicated during the introduction of this paper, the ontological space between the actual properties of an artefact and what we know about it is virtual by nature. Zappa was instinctively aware of this, and presented his music within this dimension, often relying on the audiences’ interpretation to provide personal meanings, as opposed to specifics.

In his autobiography, Zappa makes a comparison of moving mobiles and sound sculptures to composing music – an analogy that can be extended. Just as a sculptor stands back from his work to examine it from various angles to ensure it not only works as a whole, but has various meanings depending on the perspectives one views it from, so Zappa, with his manipulation of space, time and place, facilitates the listener to experience music without the constraints, expectations and impacts of image, style and genre, making the virtuality of his music all the more profound. Most importantly, although a sculpture can be appreciated from multiple angles, the artist often positions it within a space where the most pertinent view is initially seen by all. This is something that was carefully manipulated by Zappa, who used rock music as the centripetal pull, off which numerous other styles and genres were subtly, often subliminally introduced to listeners.

As indicated in this paper, Zappa’s compositional processes engaged with a reality as proposed by much speculative philosophy – merging time, space and place, ultimately representing a reality which is beyond what we normally perceive. Although much popular music occupies an abstract space by default due to its incorporation of technology, lyrical content and polysemic interpretation in particular – Zappa’s approach was overtly purposeful, intensifying, manipulating and dissecting the space of our everyday experience into arguably a higher reality – which is only available through art.

If it is the nature of all art to make impossible/imperceptible things appear real – then some of Zappa’s work fulfils this objective. In his autobiography, he discusses placing his work into a “virtual frame”, believing that “without this humble appliance, you can’t know where the art stops and The Real World begins”. He continues to assert that “anything can be music, but it doesn’t become music until someone wills it to be music, and the audience listening to it decides to perceive it as music”. Following in the footsteps of artists such as John Cage, is this a space where reality as we experience it has the potential to be suspended and a virtual space begin? In the case of Zappa’s virtual picture – the distance between the artefact and the spectator could sometimes appear close and sometimes wide, with his use of recording technologies having a particular impact on the latter. To quote Marcell Cobussen: “music represents itself as and presents itself at the junction between the here and the there, the threshold where one sheds the mastery of the eye”. This represents Zappa’s idiolect perfectly.

[1] For example Plato’s notion of the World of Forms, the perceived inherent emotional content of the Greek modes, or the transmission of ethical content in music.

[2] Who was attracted to music because of its ability to represent eternal beauty, but was also wary of its tendency to conjure up ‘earthly’ sensory pleasures. According to Lewis Rowell, Augustine’s analysis of musical rhythm included ‘earthly’ durations and sounds which were perceived by the listener, how these sounds resonated with the soul of both performer and listener, which then enabled us to contemplate ‘perfect, eternal rhythm’. Lewis Rowel, Thinking About Music: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Music (Massachusetts: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1983), 90.

[3] Influenced by Augustine, Boethius believed there was no dualism between mind and soul – with ‘the seeker of knowledge inevitably arriving at spiritual understanding as well’ (Jamie James, The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and the Natural Order of the Universe (London: Abacus, 1995), 74) – as music was a representation of the eternal. Boethius is credited with establishing the Pythagorean concept of the division of mathematics into the areas of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music – a combination which he entitled the quadrivium. He summarises this union of mind (including the intellect and logic), body (feelings) and spirit in what he entitled musica mundana (the music of the spheres), musica humana (the harmony between our body and soul) and musica instrumentalis (the music made by man – which is an imperfect representation of musica mundana).

[4] David Bracket, Interpreting Popular Music, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995 ), 157.

[5] Joseph Grigely, Textuality: Art ,Theory, and Textual Criticism (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1995).


About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in Musicology, Zappa and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to An Analysis of Virtuality in the Creation and Reception of the Music of Frank Zappa

  1. Pingback: An Analysis of Virtuality in the Creation and Reception of the Music of Frank Zappa | Paul Carr

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