Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Black Page

There is a shared fear among concert musicians of showing up to rehearsal, sitting down, and staring at the “black page”; a piece so intricate and complex, that the sheet of music has more ink than blank space on it. It was this idea that was the inspiration for the Frank Zappa masterpiece, the Black Page and the subsequent, “easy, teenage, disco New York version” Black Page 2. Upon first listen, the piece is unapproachable, discomforting to the listener with its rapid fire tuplets, tuplets within tuplets, and what Zappa himself referred to as “Statistical Density.” However, as one repeatedly listens to the music (which is of the utmost importance with Zappa) it becomes increasingly clear that the structure involved is unparalleled and that the overwhelming complexity of this music is not only accessible, but downright enjoyable.

Before I go further, equating Zappa with the divine, perhaps I should warn the reader that I have a long and drawn out history with Frank that, with its many highs and lows, has settled in a place of a distanced but intense appreciation. My first encounter with Zappa was with my friend Matthew when I was in the sixth grade and we sneakily listened, afraid that the content was too “R” rated, to a copy of his Dad’s vinyl: “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” I remember having the distinct impression that the music was too goofy to be taken at face value, but not ridiculous-sounding enough to be written off as a gimmicky comedy song.

Two or so years later, awash in the stupor of a Napster facillitated illegal downloading binge, I stumbled across a trove of Zappa songs, all equally “R” rated, including Valley Girl, Catholic Girls, Bobby Brown, and Dirty Love. As a mere adolescent male, I was not yet capable of contextualizing the music I was listening to, and again enjoyed it for its bawdy nature. Though my focus lay on the scatological, some tracks from the Shut Up and Play Your Guitar series were able to sneak into my collective awareness of the Zappa oeuvre. Yet, as they were all instrumental, and did not involve somebody’s mother having carnal relations with a poodle, the deviant world of transsexual exploration, or golden showers they appealed not to me. With that said, I still felt that something powerful, “mysterious and deep” to quote the Tempest, was floating within the instrumental music I hear. It was just that I had not yet developed the ability to appreciate it.

At least until I attended a production of that zany comedy The Crucible in ninth grade, where the director, a drama teacher had made the decision to infuse the intermission with Variations on the Secret Carlos Santana Chord Progression. I remember thinking to myself, this sounds familiar, really familiar, then having that moment: this is Zappa! Somebody else likes Zappa? He knows Zappa! And then, damn! The nerdy drama teacher likes the music I do but he has made the decision to use the music that I know to augment his artistic production. But didn’t he know that Zappa was meant for the minds of dirty teenage boys and nobody else? Could there be amongst us those who really enjoy his music on a level beyond some sort of puerile fascination? As it turned out, my musical interests carried me in much different directions over the next few years and this was unfortunately my last dance with Frank for a good while. I wouldn’t rekindle my relationship with the maestro of modern experimental music until the end of my college years.

My next encounter came briefly, in an all night conversation with one of the most fast-paced and capable minds I have ever known. As we debated alternate forms of artistic expression through mixed media, Luke presented me with a copy of Baby Snakes, a montage of concerts from multiple New York shows in 1977 infused with Bruce Bickford’s masterful stop motion clay animation. Like a lot of Zappa’s work, the video is difficult to grasp upon first viewing, and easily puts off the feint of heart with its obscenity, troubling subject matter, and often malaise inducing animations. Yet, after years of coming to understand his work, it is when Zappa initially puts you off that you should dive in head first. Armed with a greater ability to understand Zappa’s artistic tendencies, I notice now that Baby Snakes isn’t just a gimmick or an attempt at a freak out. It, along with the Sheik Yerbouti album most heavily represented in the film, is a thinly veiled acerbic criticism of all things pop in American culture. Zappa mocks not only the consumer based economy as it applies to music, but also as it applies to teenage angst, drug use, and even love. Enjoy this performance of The Black Page #2 from Baby Snakes, an invigorating piece of performance art in which the onlookers (participants in a "dance contest" here) become the art themselves.

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