Frank Zappa - Musical Concepts and Xenochrony
Frank Zappa was one of the most prolific composers of the twentieth century. During his lifetime he
released sixty two studio albums and several live albums as both a solo artist and a member of The
Mothers of Invention. His output of music bridged numerous genres including rock, jazz, avant-garde
and classical creating a unique soundscape that to this day goes beyond any formal definition. The
music he composed was technically challenging and throughout his career Zappa strived to create new
grounds by going against conventional music theory and creating music that was placed outside the
norm. As well as a composer, Zappa was an all-round pioneering musician and throughout his life took
on many roles including: band-leader, producer, guitarist, vocalist, record label founder. Outside of the
music world Zappa gained notoriety for his antics both on and off the stage. He is seen by many as a
cult-hero and a figure of pop culture. This, in part, is down to Zappa’s role as a social critic and defender
of freedom of speech. An outspoken musician, Zappa would comment on controversial issues
throughout his career and make it the subject matter for many of his songs. As noted in his biography
page on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website (Zappa was inducted in 1995): ‘Zappa challenged the
status quo on many fronts. As a plainspoken curmudgeon, he confronted the corrupt politics of the
ruling class and held the banal and decadent lifestyles of his countrymen to unforgiving scrutiny.’ One of
his most notable acts (outside of music) was to testify in front of the US senate against the censorship
of the Parents Music Resource Centre which tried to put warning labels on records with ‘explicit sexual
or violent lyrics’.
Considering Zappa’s large output of work was unique and innovative there have been relatively few (in
academic terms) discussions or analysis of his work. One writer who has is Kelly Fisher Lowe who
notes that there are several challenges when studying Zappa’s work which could be a reason for the
lack of interest. Firstly, his music is ‘difficult to label’ and ‘multi faceted’ creating ambiguous conclusions.
Secondly Zappa was a ‘master satirist’ meaning any conclusions drawn may in fact be the complete
opposite of what Zappa was trying to convey. Finally Zappa the person was a ‘frustrating subject’ as he
was so unlike his contemporaries: ‘Zappa lived a long and public life that, for the most part, was, outside
of what he did on stage and in the recording studio, quite boring.’ Additionally, there is a challenge trying
to remain objective when analysing Zappa’s music. Zappa did not compose three minute pop songs
aimed for the mass market. He created a large body of work that in many cases borrowed from itself
creating an intertextual body of music, that to unravel one must become immersed in Zappa’s world.
There are very few casual Zappa listeners. This study aims to unravel one aspect of Zappa’s world and
discuss it in depth.
Xenochrony was a musical technique that Zappa used throughout his career that involved the
extraction, manipulation and re-contextualisation of musical parts. This study will discuss Xenochrony in
depth and find its function in the works of Zappa. Chapter one discusses Zappa’s musical philosophy
which (although rather quixotic) is imperative to understanding any technical aspect of Zappa’s music.
Chapter two notes the meaning and history of Xenochrony in the work of Zappa and discusses the
problems it poses. Chapter three challenges the convention of Xenochrony being defined as a “studio
technique” and looks to re-define the term as a “compositional device.” Finally, chapter four is a case
study of the album Joe’s Garage which extensively uses Xenochrony.
Frank Zappa’s Musical Philosophy: The Big Note and Conceptual Continuity
Frank Zappa’s musical philosophy was complex. Rather than analyze his own work he would often
analogize. For instance, when discussing his own view of composition he stated ‘Composition is a
process of organisation, very much like architecture. As long as you can conceptualize what that
organisational process is, you can be a ‘composer’-in any medium you want.’ This mirrors the views of
Zappa’s biggest influence, the composer Edgard Varèse, whose own music was based on the idea of
‘juxtaposed blocks of sound’. Additionally, when questioned on the subject of his music and
compositional process, Zappa would often respond with a series of ambiguous aphorisms or dismiss
the question entirely. On a superficial level one could put this down to his relationship with the people
who often posed the questions (music journalists) towards whom he held a certain animosity. In an
interview with The Progressive, the subject of Zappa’s musical concept was discussed. The interviewer
noted ‘A lot of people have caught up to the sophistication of your musical concept who were
completely mystified by it when you first started’ to which Zappa responded:
There are some people that have caught up to it to the point where they can tell that it's music. Where they don't reject it anymore. But whether they have caught up to it to the point where they can comprehend it is a matter for further discussion because I don't think they understand it, I don't think they know why it's done, I don't think they know why it works or how it works. I don't think they want it to work, because if they understood what was really going on, then they would have to reject everything else because I think that what I am doing is the best solution to the musical problems that are set up at the time. I am going for optimum solutions to musical problems. And I think I am doing it the right way.
Later on in the interview when asked ‘As you compose, are you primarily guided by how you want the
music to affect the listener’s spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or physical state, or by the musical
structure-melody, harmony and rhythm?’ Zappa said:
None of the above. It’s more like, how did it turn out? Does it work? And if it works you don’t even have to know why it works. It either works or it doesn’t. It’s like drawing a picture. Maybe there are too many fingers on one hand, and a foot is too short over there. Or you could apply it to a recipe; maybe you’ve got too much salt over here. Or you could apply it to the design of a building. Did you forget to put in a toilet, or are there enough windows on the second floor?
When challenged that ‘these are pragmatic considerations rather than aesthetic’ Zappa replied ‘I don’t
know how to explain it. I just do it. It’s not based on academic regulations. If you take a blank piece of
paper and pencil and just start sketching, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a house and a tree and a
cow. It could be just some kind of a scribble but, sometimes those scribbles work and they are the right
thing for that blank piece of space and you can enjoy them.’ This extract shows how Zappa had a
complex, somewhat arrogant view on his own music and music in general. As with most interviews he
gave, one can not be certain whether Zappa was speaking the truth or “playing” with the journalist. It is
well documented that Zappa was obsessed with accuracy. He would spend sixteen hour shifts in the
studio editing tapes or writing scores. Whereas most bands would practice for two weeks before a tour,
Zappa would rehearse his band for two months. It seems unreasonable, then, that (as he seems to
imply) he had no plan when it came to composing music.
Although he may not have been publicly open about his musical concept and philosophy, two theories
have been described by Zappa that give some reasoning and order to his musical output. Both these
theories have a strong link to “time”, a term that Zappa re-contextualised to fit in with his own musical
The Big Note
The Big Note theory was a term coined by Zappa to describe his belief that every piece of music
created stemmed from one note, (a note, defined by standard tuning a little flatter than B) and therefore
all music is connected. As Germaine Greer notes ‘In Frank's world, every sound had a value, and every
action was part of the universal diapason, a colossal vibration that made energy rather than reflecting it.’
The idea of a Big Note appeared early on in Zappa’s career, (1968) two years after releasing The
Mothers of Invention’s debut album Freak Out. Writing an article for Life Magazine he stated:
Everything in the universe is composed basically of vibrations – light is a vibration, sound is a vibration, atoms are composed of vibrations – and all these vibrations just might be harmonics of some incomprehensible fundamental cosmic tone.
This theory is one of Zappa’s most abstract and interesting, and a number of academics have put
forward their own ideas to try to fully understand its meaning and the role it plays in Zappa’s music.
Writer Kevin Seal notes how parallels can be drawn between Zappa’s Big Note theory and the idea of
“Om” in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Christians believe that God created the universe in seven days,
as told in the book of Genesis. Hindus and Buddhists believe that the universe started with “Om” as a
big bang changed energy into matter. Furthermore, comparisons have been drawn between the Big
Note theory and science. Although Zappa would often make religion the topic of his more satirical
songs, he held science in high regard. His autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book was dedicated to
both his family and professor Stephen Hawking whose most famous work A Brief History of Time was
released a year before Zappa’s own book. Kevin Seal draws comparisons between the two, noting how
Zappa’s Big Note theory, in its very nature, questions the existence of God; a sentiment that Hawking
With the success of scientific theories in describing events, most people have come to believe that God allows the universe to evolve according to a set of laws and does not intervene in the universe to break these laws . . . So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place then, for a creator?
Further scientific comparisons have been made including the work of Nobel Prize winners Penzias and
Wilson who as Deville and Norris note, ‘accidentally discovered the existence of Cosmic Background
Radiation, a residual vibration from the Big Bang which comes to us from all directions’. It is unknown
whether Zappa was aware of these philosophical ideas and scientific findings, and if so, how big of a
role they played in his music and the Big Note theory. One factor of the Big Note that is known,
however, is that it was used as a way for Zappa to unify his collected work. An idea that related to
Zappa’s belief that all his music was connected and therefore it should be seen as one piece of art. For
this idea he created a separate term: Conceptual Continuity.
Zappa’s own idea of time was very different to the norm. He approached Conceptual Continuity with the
view of eviscerating time, ‘It’s al about random sequencing’ he told Goldmine Magazine. When
interviewed by Don Menn and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening in The Mother of all Interviews,
Groening asked for Zappa’s view on time: ‘Well, I think that everything is happening all the time, and the
only reason why we think of time linearly is because we are conditioned to do it [...] That’s because the
human idea of stuff is: it has a beginning and it has an end. I don’t think that is necessarily true . . . What
something is depends more on when it is than anything else. You can’t understand something
accurately until you understand what it is.’ Later on, Menn comments that Zappa sounds ‘very mystical’.
Zappa explains ‘No, the shape of the universe is a Moebius vortex. I believe that. Time is a spherical
constant. Now imagine a Moebius vortex inside a spherical constant, and you’ve got my cosmology. But
when is very important.’ By freeing himself from the constraints of time and emphasizing the “when”,
Zappa was able to view his work as a whole rather than as linear moments, meaning each song, album
and interview is connected in a larger macro-structure, the order of which is not important. During a
contractual dispute with Warner Bros In 1971, Zappa sent a memo to the executives of company that
explains this theory further:
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Mothers’ work is the conceptual continuity of the group’s output macrostructure. There is, and always has been, a conscious control of thematic and structural elements flowing through each album, live performance and interview. Do you know about Earth works? Imagine the decades and the pile of stuff on them subjected to extensive long-range conceptual landscape modification. Houses, Offices. People live there and work there and not even know it. Whether you can imagine it or not, that’s what the deal is.
Conceptual Continuity was further conceptualized by the Project/Object which Zappa explained as:
Project/Object is a term I have used to describe the overall concept of my work in various mediums. Each project (in whatever realm), or interview connected to it, is part of a larger object, for which there is no technical name.
He goes on to note how Rembrandt got his “look” by mixing a little brown into every colour ‘The brown
itself wasn’t especially fascinating, but the result of its obsessive inclusion was that ‘look’.
Project/Object is similar in that by including references whether it be lyrical content, melodic hooks or
‘pictorial images’. He could (similarly to the function of the Big Note theory) unify his work to create one
piece of art. Additionally, Project/Object can be viewed not only as a system that includes Zappa’s
finished pieces, but also the ways in which he re-defined them. Zappa would often revive old material
and overdub or re-mix certain elements. Most notably in the 1980s. Zappa added digitally recorded
drums and bass onto We’re Only in it for the Money and Ruben and the Jets. Zappa put this down to
‘negative criticism’ he had received from people. However, it has also been noted that after
re-recording parts on these albums he refused royalties to the original Mother’s of Invention line-up,
resulting in a thirteen million dollar lawsuit.
Although much has been written on Conceptual Continuity, the Big Note and the musical philosophy of
Zappa, an absolute conclusion has not been drawn explaining why he used these theories in his work. It
is evident that he was very secretive when it came to discussing the finer details of his compositions
and the thought process behind them. Whether he truly believed in these ideas or merely used them as
a way to keep a shroud of mysticism around his work and to deflect academics and journalist trying to
find “new meaning” within pieces Zappa stuck by these theories throughout his career creating an
intricate framework of music that enticed his fans. Musicologist Christopher Smith notes that by using
Conceptual Continuity in his work, Zappa was enabling fans to make connections between albums and
songs, creating a musical experience:
[…] Explicitly and intentionally situated in a referential context. It is targeted at a certain group of listeners with some range of musical experience held in common, and it presumes that such listeners will hear allusions and make sonic connections.
Kelly Fisher-Lowe agrees with this statement. Commenting how ‘The more you listened to his music,
the more you got it. The more you got it, the more “in” you felt. The more “in” you felt, the deeper your
bond with Zappa.’ To this extent, the more involved you were with the Conceptual Continuity and the
content of Zappa’s oeuvre, the more you were able to understand and fully appreciate his music.