Frank Zappa’s Genre-Defying ‘Civilization Phaze III’

‘Released following the musician’s death in 1993, the album is an extraordinary swan song: morose, comical and utterly preposterous’

Frank Zappa, Civilization Phaze 3, 1994, album cover. Courtesy: Frank Zappa and Barking Pumpkin Records 

‘Genre-defying’ is a term often used too permissively, yet even for the dissident musician Frank Zappa, his double-CD album Civilization Phaze III (1994) breaches categorization with delinquent aplomb. It comprises almost two hours of speech and music for what he described as an ‘opera-pantomime with choreographed physical activity’. The ramblings of a ragbag group of people who, we imagine, have sought refuge inside a colossal grand piano are interleaved with a startlingly sui generis breed of digital chamber music with ludicrously complex rhythmic variations and gloriously angular harmonics. The dystopian world outside the safety of the grand piano is populated by yuppies who inexplicably mutate into militant groups of pigs and ponies. Stage directions for this outlandish tragicomedy of rogue science, ecological catastrophe, fascist politics and religious fanaticism include ‘the center tableau is now a cubistic collage of badly imagined Bible stories’ and ‘pigs and ponies battle each other for exciting cash prizes’.

For his first sixty-two official albums, Zappa’s mastery of the outer limits of atonal classical music composition, and his affection for figures such as Edgard Varèse, had for the most part been inveigled into everything from hippy satire and stadium rocking to jazz fusion, repartee, big band numbers and virtuoso guitar solos. Zappa was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in 1990 (‘tobacco is my favourite vegetable,’ he once quipped), and, in his last years, he enthusiastically collaborated with the Ensemble Modern in Europe, while continuing to forge an entirely synthetic acoustic universe for his technically demanding compositions in his Los Angeles studio. The apogee of this orchestral-digital fusion, Civilization Phaze III was the first Zappa album release following his death in 1993 – an extraordinary swan song that is morose, comical and utterly preposterous.

 

Zappa edited and composed the album using the Synclavier Direct-To-Disk, an early digital synthesizer and recording system. Sections from live orchestra sessions, samples of conventional symphonic instruments as well as conch and didgeridoo were interwoven with simulated notes and sounds from textural gurgling to eerie plucking. The track ‘Dio Fa’ features the unnerving resonance of throat singer Kaigal-ool Khovalyg. The Synclavier had overcome the technical barrier of digital timbre, and it enabled Zappa to laboriously programme compositions that, impossible to even notate, had only previously existed in his imagination. These ‘arias’ often lurch from plausible orchestral intensity to blisteringly fast and exhilaratingly irregular patterns, giving the impression of superhuman performance or a maniacal arcade game, including the voices of 1960s groupies, Ensemble Modern players and Zappa’s daughter. What starts as stoner pseudo-philosophy around smoke, motors and the confusion of life within vibrating piano strings soon turns sour as German- and Turkish-speaking characters argue with Americans about MTV, language and privacy.

Civilization Phaze III is crammed with demanding music and sardonic staging that casts the near obsolescence of contemporary classical music as an allegory for the veritable collapse of ecological, social, cultural and political systems. It also shows the very possibility of ‘serious’ music’s technological redemption. The album culminates with the unsettling, nine-movement ‘Beat the Reaper’. It starts with a clap of thunder, is drenched in rain throughout and is supposed to be accompanied on stage by dancers illustrating ‘life-extending’ diets and exercises. In the continuing storm, along with distant gunfire and barking dogs, ‘Waffenspiel’ concludes with the arrival of the personification of death, and as a crop-dusting plane sprays the audience with poison, birds begin to chirp. Zappa often repeated a quotation attributed to Varèse: ‘The present day composer refuses to die’. With Civilization Phaze III, Zappa was making his mischievous preparations for a secular-humanist afterlife.

Max Andrews is a writer, curator and co-founder of Latitudes, Barcelona, Spain.  He is a contributing editor of frieze

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