Musicology, Zappa and Barthes: More Ideas of how to Listen and Examine Zappa’s Texts

Here is a sort of part 2 of my Barthes post a couple of weeks ago. That post mainly discussed Frank Zappa’s album covers, and the various messages that are potentially within the image. In this discussion I would like to focus more on some ideas based on Barthes’ landmark chapter in Image Music Text, entitled ‘Structural Analysis of Narratives’. Firstly, Barthes’ describes two ‘levels’ of narrative – ‘Intergrational’ and ‘Distributional’ (I would describe these as horizontal and vertical). His description of the former is correlational, and what I would describe as ‘diachronic’ in nature (in that it moves through time). So for example when considering the construction of a piece of music, a musical museme is related to a phrase, which is related a music sentence (the question and answer phrase combined), which is then related to the structural form of the piece etc (For example, verse, chorus, etc).

Another example would be the relation of specific chords to harmonic progressions. As all of these ‘groups’ are on the same level – Barthes would argue that have no specific meaning, but assist the musicologist to describe formalistically how a piece of music is constructed. However, when we consider ‘distributional’ levels,  Barthes would argue that we are then in a position to discuss meaning-

In Zappa’s music, it is interesting to consider how a specific signifier can have numerous ‘signifieds‘. For example, something as seemingly trivial as ‘Patricia The Dog’ (mentioned in my last post), can link in to music such as ‘The Poodle Lecture’ or ‘Stinkfoot’, album covers such as ‘Them or Us’ or ‘The Perfect Stranger’, or Zappa interviews etc. I would argue that he precise meaning of these occurances are open, because the mention of a specific dog not only has resonance to many aspects of Zappa’s portfolio, but also to additional levels, such as dogs in general, animals in general, pet ownership, dog behaviour, Monster Movies, by default 50’s Horror Movies, etc, etc.

Barthes describes a ‘function’ as ‘planting an element that will come to fruition later – either on the same level or elsewhere on another level (89), and Zappa is an expert of this practice – be it via  Object – Project, the Big Note, or Conceptual Continuity. However, it is also important to realise that multiple signifiers can have a single signified. In Zappa’s case, if one considers the ways in which Zappa signifies his political and religious views, sexual preferences, musical influences you will see what I mean.

So, try and listen to Zappa not in a time restricted way, by grouping together what Barthes describes as groups of chronological ‘sequences’, – which are ‘distributional’. Try and read his texts using a Big Note philosophy – to quote Barthes

‘What we call time does not exist, or at least only exists functionally, as part of a semiotic system’ (99). It is important that we listen to his music as being the conduit of multiple narratives, some which are chronological, but also some which transcend time and space. In doing this, it is important in my view to not only consider what these references mean for Zappa, but also what they mean for us. We need to sometimes free ourselves from the confines of the author and look upon his music as being an autonomous entity.

Ok – that’s my half an hour time limit to write the post – More next time…………………….

About Paul Carr

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

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