A Brief History of Developments in 20th Century Classical Music, related to the compositional style of Frank Zappa
Throw the record away: the breakdown of tonality
Igor's Boogie: the breakup of rhythm
Turn on the bubble machine: colour and structure
What's New in Baltimore?: Charles Ives and xenochrony
The present day composer refuses to die: Edgard Varèse's blocks of sound
Let's hear it for another great Italian: Conlon Nancarrow's inhuman music
Approximate: John Cage and silence?
Way Down In France: Olivier Messiaen
The New World Order: since World War II
The kind of music that generally conforms to the 'classical' stereotype, i.e., that written (mostly) in the 17th to 19th centuries, was tonal in style and technique. This means it was written in a key, like C major or F# minor, and largely consonant (i.e., not dissonant). Often, a piece would wander off, by modulation, through a few other keys, but it would nearly always come back to the one where it started. This is how all the familiar names like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and so on worked. However, as the 19th century wore on, the musical language developed and the romantic era became the late romantic era, composers did more and more of the wandering part, making the home key less and less obvious. They also used techniques such as suspensions (where dissonances are introduced and then resolved into consonances to create and relieve tension) and interrupted cadences, which made it increasingly unclear which key the music was headed for next - in fact all these modulations became very blurred indeed. This is generally acknowledged to have come to a head with the opera Tristan and Isolde, written in 1865 by Richard Wagner (1813-1883), where the opening in particular is entirely ambiguous with regard to key. Although Wagner was Hitler's favourite composer, there's no getting away from his historical importance for music.
Composers realised that some kind of watershed had been reached, and different composers dealt with it in different ways. One of the first to break the continuum was Claude Debussy (1862-1918), whose Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune (1894) has been described by Pierre Boulez as 'the first piece of modern music'. Instead of following - and developing - the existing traditional logic of musical thought, he struck off in a new direction. His music was still tonal... sort of: he wrote tonal melodies and harmonies, but he used them in ways that broke the existing rules: in particular, by shifting block chords 'sideways' without modulating according to the rules - a kind of 'pan-tonality'. By doing this, the key becomes not so much ambiguous as irrelevant. Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) used similar techniques, and he and Debussy are regarded as the main impressionist composers.
The Viennese Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his pupils Anton von Webern (1883-1945) and Alban Berg (1885-1935) - together known as the Second Viennese School - came out of the late romantic, Wagnerian tradition as powerfully reflected in their early music, where complex modulations are rife. Schoenberg hit a crisis in the early years of the 20th century when he realised that for him tonality had nowhere left to go, and in the last movement of his second string quartet (1908) he finally abandoned key altogether. This was such a significant move for him that the singer he has introduced in the previous movement (unusual enough in itself for a string quartet), now sings: 'I breathe the air of other planets'. He then went through a phase of completely free, atonal composition, with no rules of harmony at all, during which he wrote some of his masterpieces such as Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and Erwartung. This period, however, only lasted a few years, by the end of which he felt the need for a more solid framework on which to hang his compositions. This, combined with the approach of World War I, caused him to stop composing altogether for a time. By 1921 he had arrived at the system which was to make him notorious with the conservative musical establishment, but heavily influential on the more 'cutting edge' composers to come. Here's how it works:
An octave contains twelve different notes - that's all the white and black notes on a piano keyboard from, say, C up to the next B, after which it repeats (we're leaving microtones out of the picture here). When music is in a key, these notes are used in a very hierarchical manner - in fact when it stays strictly in one key, only seven of them are used at all (in C major, the seven white notes). As the music modulates to different keys, different notes are introduced, but always some are more important than others. Schoenberg realised that late romantic developments had gradually eroded this hierarchy, so he decided to codify this in a set of rules. In the original form of this twelve-tone (or -note), dodecaphonic or serial system, the composer organises the twelve available notes into a tone (or note) row (or series), which uses all twelve notes just once each. This is not a scale, but a melodic shape that becomes the basis for the whole composition. No note should be repeated until all the others in the row have been used in the specified order. This is more flexible than it sounds: notes can be transposed by octaves, consecutive notes can be combined into chords, there is complete rhythmic freedom and, more importantly, the row can be used backwards, inverted or both (techniques that composers had in any case been using for centuries) - and all four forms can be transposed to any other pitch, giving a total of 48 available versions of the row, all retaining the original shape and giving the piece a strong underlying unity.
Webern and Berg adopted serialism eagerly, but with very different treatments. Berg was much more inclined to 'break the rules' by introducing either real or implied tonality, so much so that he even managed to work a quotation from J S Bach into his Violin Concerto (1935), in a serial context - it's actually a very romantic work. Webern, however, was the one that was to have the most significant effect on the composers that were to emerge after World War II, and he is one of the composers that Zappa often cited as an important influence. Webern pared this technique down to its most minimal and rarified form by using smaller groups of notes on which to base his pieces; he also used a great deal of silence and very thin textures where each individual note is of crucial importance.
While Schoenberg was first experimenting with atonality, the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was taking an entirely different approach: he decided to try using more than one key simultaneously. He went through an extraordinary stylistic evolution in the space of the few years during which he produced his three great early ballets, The Firebird (1910), where there's still a lot of Tchaikovsky to be heard, through Petroushka (1911), much of which is based on the use of two keys at once (C major and the one most distantly related to it, F# major), to The Rite of Spring (1913), which uses polytonality. This allowed him to use simple, familiar-sounding, often folk-like melodies in a sometimes highly dissonant context. The Hungarian Béla Bartók (1881-1945) extended his harmonic language in a different way. While still retaining an underlying tonal basis, he used dissonance much more freely, some of it as a result of his exhaustive research into the folk music of Hungary and neighbouring countries, the idioms of which he assimilated into his own style. He went on to develop his own alternative set of theories about relationships between keys. Stravinsky and Bartók are both composers much admired by Zappa: Stravinsky in particular had a very strong influence, which Zappa openly acknowledged in his Igor's Boogie.
Harmony was not the only area where Stravinsky and Bartók pushed the barriers back. Much more than their contemporaries in Vienna, these two pioneered the use of music which didn't always have a multiple of two or three beats (most commonly, four) in a measure. There had been isolated instances of quintuple meters before them: Tchaikovsky's sixth symphony, the Pathétique (1893) has a movement in a slow 5/4 and Ravel's only string quartet (1903) finishes with a wild dance in 5/8 (as does his later ballet Daphnis and Chloë, 1912), but Stravinsky not only used odd or prime meters as an integral part of his style, he changed meters much more frequently than his predecessors. This led to a totally different concept of rhythmic structure, additive rhythm, where measures, phrases or other musical units are built up of different numbers of the smallest unit of time (often a 16th note, which is usually a quarter of a beat). The opposite of this, divisive rhythm, where a standard longer unit (for example, 4 beats) is subdivided into halves, quarters, maybe thirds and so on, is the rhythmic basis of most 'ordinary' classical music. Stravinsky's use of additive rhythm reached its peak in The Rite of Spring, the final pages of which have a different meter in nearly every measure, resulting in a frantically irregular, jerky dance as the sacrificial victim dances herself to death. Bartók too developed a similar form of rhythmic freedom. Frank Zappa used additive rhythm, as well as a highly evolved form of divisive rhythm, in very many of his pieces - Zappa albums with no example of this sort of rhythmic usage are rare. A very clear example is Zomby Woof on Over-Nite Sensation.
Another aspect of music - tone colour and the use of instruments - was rapidly developing, though this began further back and was as much a result of developments in the instruments themselves as of anything revolutionary being done by composers. By the end of Beethoven's life in 1827, the symphony orchestra had grown to something like what we recognise today, though it was still to get a lot bigger in the hands of some composers: 100 players or more was by no means uncommon.
The first composer really to revolutionise the use of the orchestra and make the fullest use of the increasingly wide variety of instruments becoming available was the Frenchman Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). His best known work is the Symphonie Fantastique of 1830, some of which still sounds remarkably modern, almost Stravinskyish, today. His compatriots Debussy and Ravel quickly became masters of orchestral colour, as did Stravinsky, making use of such unusual instruments as the bass trumpet in The Rite of Spring. Schoenberg, meanwhile, developed another new technique whereby each successive chord or single note is scored for different instruments. One of his Five Pieces for Orchestra (1908) is entitled Klangfarbenmelodie (sound colour melody) - now the standard term for this technique - and consists entirely of a series of slowly shifting, differently coloured chords. The actual harmony changes very little, but the sound changes very markedly, thus producing its own drama in the music. This was also absorbed into Webern's style, applied more to individual notes, so that the colour (from a combination of instrumentation, dynamics and attack) is now as important as pitch or rhythmic placement for any particular note. Once again, this occurs a great deal in Zappa's output, but a particularly clear example can be heard in Get Whitey on The Yellow Shark.
Somewhat related to all this was a new approach to musical form and structure, again pioneered to some extent by Debussy. His 1912 ballet Jeux (Games) makes use of what we now think of as a cinematic device: jump-cuts. He no longer felt it necessary to use smooth transitions from one section - or even style - to another; he would make abrupt changes instead. Stravinsky did a similar thing, only more so. It happens to some extent in The Rite of Spring, but his Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) seems to anticipate in an uncanny way modern techniques of tape or digital editing: he composed a number of separate pieces of musical material with quite distinct characters, then intercut them. This is worth comparing with the way Zappa put together his album We're Only In It for the Money.
So far, all the developments described have been in Europe, where the classical music tradition was strongest, the USA still being a relatively young country in the 19th century. But while these various logical threads were being followed in Europe, the 'frontier spirit' was in evidence in America, especially in the person of Charles E Ives (1874-1954). He was born in Danbury, CT and always acknowledged the importance of his father to his musical thinking. George Ives was the archetypal 'town musician' - playing the piano for dances and the organ in church, running the town band, giving music lessons, doing some small-time composing and arranging - but with an important difference: he had an insatiable curiosity and open-mindedness about sound, which he also encouraged in Charles. As a result, Charles would get to experiment with such things as a quarter-tone piano and to hear the effect of two bands playing different music (in different keys, meters and tempi) simultaneously while marching across each other's paths. This is an example of xenochrony, a concept that became central to his compositional style. Heeding his father's advice, Ives did not compose for a living - he sold insurance, in which he passionately believed and at which he became very successful. Partly as a result of his part-time status, but mainly because the classical music establishment were baffled by what he was doing, most of his pieces were not performed until long after their composition - in fact in most cases, long after he more or less stopped composing altogether, in the early 1920s, largely due to ill-health. There is no doubt that while it may have been disappointing not to hear his music performed, this isolation, coupled with the fact that he was earning a good living from another career, allowed him a freedom to develop his own aesthetic that he might not otherwise have enjoyed. There is no shortage of examples of xenochrony in the Zappa oeuvre, and as recording devices and sound manipulation became more sophisticated so did Zappa's use of this technique. An excellent example is Rubber Shirt from Sheik Yerbouti, where he takes bass and drum tracks from two entirely different contexts and superimposes them to superb effect.
In many ways, Ives was one of the first 'American maverick' composers, not belonging to any musical tradition or school, or following any particularly logical developmental trend. Ironically, the other great early figure in this general category was not American but French, although he did move to New York early on in his career. This was Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), the composer with whom Zappa was obsessed from an early age and who is central to any understanding of Zappa's music. After rebelling against the prevalent musical conservatism in Paris as a young man and being expelled from the Paris Conservatoire by teacher/composer Gabriel Fauré, he was befriended by Debussy who encouraged him to go his own way. He was on the road to a promising career as a conductor and composer, but all this was lost - including all his early scores - when World War I started. Once in America, he could again have had a glittering career if he had been willing to go along with the current fashions in music, but he was never one to compromise. He wrote relatively little - his complete works fit on two CDs - but what he did write was enormously significant, though unrecognised as such at the time he wrote it. He used blocks of sound, juxtaposed in different ways to create different dramas and tensions in the music. There's virtually no reference at all to traditional harmony or rhythm, and his melodic material is often no more than short, frequently-repeated fragments. As a consequence, Varèse's output was mainly considered noise - especially Frank Zappa's favourite Ionisation, (1929-31) a 37-instrument showpiece for 13 percussionists. After he completed the solo flute piece Density 21.5 in 1936, it's often said that Varèse stopped composing for over ten years. This is very far from the case, but he was so busy experimenting and looking for alternative means of sound production to express his inner thoughts that he didn't complete any projects during this period. It was only after he was introduced to the idea of Musique concrète, taking recorded natural sound (whether musical, spoken or environmental) and manipulating it in a variety of ways, that he felt he had the means he had been looking for and triumphantly brought forth Déserts (1950-54), which alternates sections of chamber orchestral music with concrète 'interpolations' of what he called 'organised sound' on tape. This was followed by Poème électronique, combining concrète and pure electronic sounds, which was played through more than 400 loudspeakers inside the Philips pavilion designed by the French architect Le Corbusier for the 1958 Brussels World Fair. The use of musique concrète (The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny on We're Only In It for the Money) and Varèsian stylistic elements (much of Lumpy Gravy is a good early example) became essential elements in Frank Zappa's body of work. As an aside, when Frank Zappa appeared on the BBC Radio 1 show Star Choice in the UK around 1980, he segued The Channels' doo-wop number The Closer You Are (later covered on Them Or Us) directly into Varèse's Hyperprism.
Another 'one-off' to appear on the American scene was Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) from Texarkana, Arkansas. He started out as a jazz trumpeter and studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory between 1929 and 1932. Moving on to Boston, he studied with Nicolas Slonimsky, Roger Sessions and Walter Piston. His music from the 1930s is an intriguing mixture of Stravinskyan neoclassicism and jazz/blues melodic phrases and harmonies, perhaps with a little dash of Gershwin. Starting in 1937, Nancarrow served a nearly three-year stint with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War against General Franco. This brigade was considered Communist-affiliated by the US government, leading to his inability to obtain a passport in 1940. Seeking political asylum in the early '40s, he moved to Mexico City, where he lived until his death, finally becoming a Mexican citizen in 1956. Through the 1930s and '40s, Nancarrow's mainly chamber music became increasingly complex rhythmically and as a consequence harder to play. The move to Mexico, combined with the lack of good performances of his music, was the catalyst he needed to seek other ways of realising his compositions - there is a strong parallel here with Frank Zappa's adoption of the Synclavier. Unfortunately, there were no Synclaviers in the 1940s, so Nancarrow had to turn to mechanical means, rather than electronic. First, he built his Orchestrion, a percussion machine, but it never really worked properly, so he turned instead to the player piano which (like the closely related pianola) plays from punched paper rolls, the notes being triggered by air blowing through the holes in the paper. He quickly became adept at punching these rolls by hand, and very soon saw the tremendous potential of this instrument to play music that was way beyond what human players could do, both in the sheer quantity of notes that could be played and in the complexity of the rhythms. From the mid-'40s to late '80s, Conlon Nancarrow completely devoted his compositional labours to this unique instrument - and labours they were: the process of punching the holes with a hand-operated device was such that through most of this period he averaged about four minutes of music per year. Leaving aside the actual composition part of the process, many of his fifty or so remarkable Studies For Player Piano can be realised in a few hours using modern sequencer software, as opposed to the months it took to punch the holes.
Right from the start, most of these studies employ simultaneous different tempi and meters. In some of the early pieces the relationships are fairly simple, allowing them to be arranged for chamber ensembles - albeit at much slower tempi - as they have been by Yvar Mikhashoff, but once past Study #20, they become completely unmanageable by any human forces. There are now several parts going on at different tempi, and not with easy ratios like 2:3 or 3:4, but much closer ratios like 14:15:16. Later on he started using irrational tempo ratios: one of the studies uses a ratio of e (2.7182818...) to pi (3.1415927...) between the tempi! He devised a system of 'aggregates' - usually very rapid strings of notes, sounding superficially like glissandi, but fully notated - which created dazzling aural effects. He also tended to favour extremely fast tempi. Though Nancarrow was completely unknown, an LP of these studies was released in March 1969 (Columbia Masterworks MS 7222) and revealed his genius to the general public - including Frank Zappa. In spite of that, though, he remained in relative obscurity until the prominent Hungarian composer György Ligeti heard his music in the early 1980s and pronounced it 'the best music by any composer living today,' after which he finally gained the recognition he deserved. Frank Zappa's music, especially that for the Synclavier, became increasingly influenced by Nancarrow in his last decade or so, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the pair of tracks Little Beige Sambo and Aerobics in Bondage on Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention.
There is one other American pioneer who, though less central to Zappa, is worth mentioning: John Cage (1912-1996), who also wrote pieces for nothing but percussion - his series of Constructions in Metal - back in the 1930s. He also pioneered the prepared piano, most notably in his Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48). The piano is 'prepared' according to a detailed diagram by placing objects like screws, rubber bands, coins or screwdrivers on and between its strings, and can produce a remarkably beautiful sound, evoking some kind of imaginary oriental percussion music. Into the 1950s, Cage went to extremes of experimentation with randomness and ambient sound. The 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence in Cage's three-movement 4'33" created a tremendous uproar in music circles with its first performance in Woodstock, NY on August 29, 1952. For 4'33", pianist David Tudor was instructed to sit at a piano bench for the determined length of each movement and anything else that happened (such as a paper falling from the piano's music stand) was considered a random event that was an integral part of the musical experience. Whether silence (or any other sound) was actually music was called into question. Taking this concept to the extreme, Cage said that his later 0'00" could be "played" by anyone in any way. What tends to be ignored in all this is that Cage also had a well-developed sense of humour! Other experiments included the use of various kinds of graphic scores and charts which players had to interpret according to a certain set of rules (or no rules at all), making use of the blemishes in cheap music paper to provide the notes, and using the I Ching to determine the course of the music. With Lowell George's group The Factory, Frank Zappa used a screwdriver-prepared piano on the track The Loved One. One of the last recordings issued in Frank Zappa's lifetime was his recording of Cage's 4'33", including minor thumps (hopefully random!) throughout the piece.
Meanwhile, an increasingly important figure on the European scene, as both composer and teacher, was Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). To some extent he shares the 'maverick' tag with those Americans, in that he developed his own very distinctive way of thinking about music. As well as being a deeply religious man - his Roman Catholicism is reflected in some way in all his music - he was a synaesthetic, something those of us who aren't find very hard to grasp: his senses overlapped, which meant in particular that when he heard certain harmonies he 'saw' them as distinct colours. These colours are often marked in his scores. Another passionate interest that became central to his music was birdsong. He would walk through the forests wherever he happened to be, notating as best he could each birdsong that he heard. These feature very heavily in his music, especially into the 1950s. His other great interest was oriental music and mysticism - this too affected his musical style. All these elements are there in large measure in his colossal Turangalîla Symphony, which he wrote between 1946 and 1948. This is in ten movements and features, along with a huge orchestra with masses of percussion, solo parts for piano and ondes martenot, an electronic instrument developed in France in the 1930s (Varèse also used this instrument, having first experimented with another early electronic instrument, the theremin, which most people mistakenly think was used on the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations). While not directly relevant to Zappa, Messiaen is an important figure in the development of 20th century music and, possibly coincidentally, he and Zappa share one particular stylistic trait, the use of a lot of rhythmic unison: a number of different parts in the music play different notes, but in the same rhythm, sometimes very fast, resulting in a series of rapidly moving block chords. Two clear examples of this can be heard on Zappa in New York (or Läther): The Black Page #1 and the ensemble sections of The Purple Lagoon.
World War II, like its predecessor, caused everything to stop in Europe, including musical development. It left behind a feeling that a fresh start was needed, especially among the rising generation of composers. Two of the first to emerge were the Frenchman Pierre Boulez (b.1925, later to conduct Zappa's own music) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (b.1928) from Germany, both of whom were pupils of Messiaen (along with many other luminaries). Initially, they and their contemporaries led music in the direction of total serialisation, where not only the pitches but every other parameter were governed by a numerical scheme. This turned out to be a dead end and other avenues were explored, some following Cage's lead by introducing elements of chance, freedom and improvisation into the music. One notable figure who rejected both these paths was the aforementioned Ligeti (b.1923) whose ground-breaking 1961 orchestral work Atmosphères (later included without his knowledge on the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey) could be seen as the ultimate in Klangfarbenmelodie.
It was only in the 1950s that the true importance of both Ives and Varèse was acknowledged. It is hard to find any composer at the cutting edge from this period onwards who does not cite one or both of these giants as a primary influence. It is probably still too early to assess the significance of many of the postwar generation of composers properly, and their effect on Frank Zappa's music is generally less marked than that of Stravinsky, Nancarrow, Webern, Bartók and, above all, Varèse.
[At this point, Greg inserts a modified version of his original paragraph about Nicolas Slonimsky -
but you'll have to buy the book to read that.]
Among musicians usually seen as coming from the rock 'side of the fence', Frank Zappa is unusual if not unique in embracing the whole range of 20th century musical techniques, including the most avant-garde end of the spectrum. Other rock musicians with 'classical' pretensions have tended to keep to a tonal style, in keeping with the essentially tonal vocabulary of rock music itself, and even the most adventurous among them have rarely advanced stylistically beyond the first half of the 20th century. Zappa, on the other hand, used every technique he could lay his hands on - free improvisation, numerical techniques, irregular and simultaneous meters and tempi, atonality, unusual instrumentation, unorthodox instrumental techniques, concrète and electronic sounds... and yet it always remains quintessentially Zappa.
Chris Sansom, June 1999
with minor revisions December 1999