Zappa and the Avant-Garde: Artifice/Absorption/Expression

Well – I finally did the proof of the index for Zappa And The And this week – it will be published the end of January – so I thought I had better post the final couple of extract chapters before the year runs out. So – this chapter is by my friend Michel Delville – not only a fine academic – but also guitar player. After this – one more chapter to go before the real thing.

In an oft-quoted passage of his poem-essay ‘The Artifice of Absorption’, former Language poet Charles Bernstein, one of the most influential representatives of the post-war American avant-garde, writes that ‘a poetic reading can be given to any piece of writing; a “poem” may be understood as writing specifically designed to absorb, or inflate with, proactive- rather than reactive-styles of reading’. ‘Artifice’, he adds, ‘is a measure of a poem’s intractability to being read as the sum of its devices and subject matters’. Bernstein’s target here is the so-called ‘voice’ poem, which he considers as ‘based on simplistic notions of absorption through unity, such/as those sometimes put forward by Ginsberg (who as his work shows/knows better, but who has made an ideological commitment to such simplicity)’. Bernstein’s attacks against the voice-based poem can be usefully extended to the study of popular music, which perhaps more than any other musical genre relies on the immediacy and transparency of voice as both the origin and the spontaneous vehicle of feeling and self-expression. More specifically, in the context of this essay, Bernstein’s definition of artifice also urges us to reconsider Zappa’s experimental poetics within the history of contemporary radical art, raising the issue of the relationship between alternative, underground pop culture and the avant-garde while simultaneously questioning the boundaries that allegedly separate experimental music from mainstream music. Zappa’s music and lyrics, far from committing themselves to simple notions of unmediated self-expression, rely on complex strategies of manipulation and disfigurement which include the use of various forms of collage, close-miking, bruitism, sped-up cartoon-like voices, found spoken material, rehearsal and backstage conversations, etc. Such techniques of disfigurement are bound to make Zappa’s songs sound foreign and, to extend Bernstein’s metaphor, ‘impermeable’ not only to mainstream audiences but also to his most devoted fans. The latter’s eagerness to follow the meanders of Zappa’s cultural and intertextual labyrinths is often defeated by the sheer complexity and elusiveness of the composer’s dense allusiveness and his private system of references. As Christophe Den Tandt recently argued, another, even more fundamental difficulty encountered in the consumption and study of popular lyrics is that they are ‘expected to function in a way that can withstand, literally or figuratively, high levels of background noise: they are poems performed in material contexts characterised by sonic mayhem, audience distraction, mind-altering substances, uncontrolled commercial reappropriation-conditions that seem indeed highly constraining for lyrical poetry’. From this perspective, it would be tempting to conclude that rock lyrics can be consumed primarily as gesture, based on the assumption that most rock audiences do not understand (or misunderstand) many of the words that are being sung on record or during a performance. As Den Tandt rightly suggests, however, this does not mean that rock lyrics should not be considered outside their performative dimension: ‘approaching rock lyrics as poetry is not a gesture exclusively tied to the necessities of academia: song-books of Dylan’s texts – in some cases, pirated, custom-made transcriptions – have been published on a regular basis from the 1960s’. This is clearly the case with Zappa’s lyrics, which have been amply transcribed and disseminated on paper and on the web and have become the subject of endless speculation on the part of thousands of fans who are not remotely associated with academia and whose blogs reflect a genuine fascination with the diverse meanings that can be attributed to the songs in the context of Zappa’s now famous concept of Conceptual Continuity.


About Paul Carr

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

1 Response to Zappa and the Avant-Garde: Artifice/Absorption/Expression

  1. says:

    Awesome! Its truly awesome post, I have got much clear idea concerning from this piece of writing.


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