New TTU Course On Frank Zappa

Sep 10, 2019

Frank Zappa wasn’t shy in his criticism. He took on the middle class’ herd mentality and censorship of rock and roll. The music icon created and performed multiple genres from rock to jazz to classical music. And he produced 60 radical, groundbreaking and irreverent albums.

Texas Tech music professor Chris Smith is teaching a course on Zappa this semester.

“Zappa was someone who absolutely refused to permit his thinking to be constrained. He came out of the 1950s at the post-World War II social revolutions that gave us civil rights movement and gave us beat poetry and gave us the cultural revolutions of the 60s and the women’s movement and gay rights.”

“Zappa, more than anything else that’s the aspect of Zappa’s artistic courage that I would seek to emulate which is that he absolutely refused to permit his thinking to be constrained.”

About eight years ago, Smith, who is chair of musicology and the founding director of the Vernacular Music Center at Tech’s School of Music, taught a class on maverick composers who were considered exceptionally influential but who didn’t have conventional university or conservatory training. 

The lives and music of Zappa, Charles Ives and Duke Ellington were explored. Then Smith taught the course with a focus on each musician. This semester is the second such course focused on Zappa.

“He was an intensely morally courageous man. He was afraid; as far as I can tell, he was afraid of nothing, and he was prepared to take stances in his music and in his public expression which very few musicians in any genre in any era have had the courage to take, and that is the part of Zappa that I admire as a human being and as person whose ethics one might aspire to match.”

The class’ emphasis will be on understanding the interaction of content and context of Zappa, who died in 1993 and wrote music in response to many historical moments. Smith says students will learn about Zappa as musician, composer, multimedia artist and political commentator.

Zappa had arguably two big hits. He wrote “Trouble Every Day,” in response to the 1965 riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The other, “Valley Girl,” in 1982 was with his then-14-year-old daughter, Moon Zappa.

Zappa eschewed commercial success as did, to varying degrees, Ives and Ellington.

“What all three of those composers realized in their own individual ways at their individual and contrasted historical moments was that to write the music they wanted to write they were going to have to be extraordinarily self-reliant and that I think is actually; in a culture like ours, I think that is a kind of artistic attribute which is really important.”

Smith has a deep admiration for Zappa, his talents and his music. He says he’s hopeful he can convey that to his students.

“So, I hope that for me, what I take away for Zappa is a great love for a very wide range of his musical expression. He wrote music of great diversity for many different kinds of ensembles.”

“He’s known for his rock and roll music from the 1960s onward, but he wrote electric chamber music, he wrote music for the computer, he wrote music for film and for dance and for theatre, he wrote a Broadway show, he wrote operas, he wrote music for full orchestra. So, he wrote a great deal of music for very diverse performing forces and audiences.”

The course aims to give students an enhanced learning experience that includes musicology, cultural history, performance studies anthropology and geography.

Smith says the music world is incredibly fortunate to have Zappa’s compositions. And he’s looking forward to sharing that with the dozen or so students this semester.

“And I quite like teaching. I often teach large enrollment classes, but I quite like teaching these smaller groups because it makes possible much more interaction and back and forth and people can bring their own perspectives and their own research interests into that kind of a conversation.”