Creative Commons image by Jean-Luc Ourlin
When we think of 60s avant-gardism, we likely think of literary figures like William S. Burroughs or John Barth, filmmakers like Stan Brakhage or Kenneth Anger, and art stars (and perhaps inventor of the "art star") like Andy Warhol. In music, we may drop names like La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Sun Ra, or even Ornette Coleman, who began developing his improvisatory theory of "harmolodics" in the late sixties, changing the way many musicians—in every possible style—approached their own experimentalism.
We may not often be inclined, however—as students of the avant-garde—to include the name Frank Zappa in the company of such "serious" artists. There are many reasons for this, many of them attributable to deliberate choices Zappa himself made to occupy a space in-between that of a serious experimental composer and a popular rock and roll provocateur whose music and lyrics parodied the counterculture and whose impossible-to-classify albums skirted novelty status.
And yet, writes Allmusic, Zappa's "comic and serious sides were complementary, not contradictory… most of all, he was a composer far more ambitious than any other rock musician of his time and most classical musicians, as well." You don't have to take my word for it—or the word of such a standardized reference guide as Allmusic. You can hear for yourself, for free, a playlist of Zappa-as-composer, thanks to Spotify Classical Playlists.
Yes, you do have to download, if you don't already have, the free Spotify software. But the rewards are great. You'll hear interpretations of Zappa in New Orleans-style jazz and funk in tracks like "Zomby Wolf," performed by Asphalt Orchestra; musical manifestos against conformism in "Hungry Freaks Daddy," performed by the Frank Zappa Meridian Arts Ensemble; satirical, dystopian collages like "Food Gathering in Post-Industrial America, 1992," performed by The Yellow Shark.
The catalog is vast and impossible to summarize, the music performed by jazz and classical ensembles of all kinds. Fans of canonical Zappa will be equally well-served by another Spotify Classical Playlist which aims to make all of the eccentric guitarist/composer/bandleader/shameless self-promoter's recorded output with his band The Mothers of Invention (or just The Mothers) available to stream in a chronological discography.
Depending on your location—and the date you're reading this post—you will be able to hear most or all of 917 tracks over 56 albums, from the debut 1966 album Freak Out! to the posthumous 1998 compilation Mystery Disc. Read more about Zappa-as-composer and the complete Zappa discography project at Spotify Classical. For those with objections to streaming music services, Ulysses—compiler of the Spotify Classical Playlists—observes that "the man himself came up with an idea for music subscription in 1983." Like Zappa's music, and like the man himself, his proposal was completely ahead of its time—and perhaps ahead of ours as well.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness