'Frank Zappa’s big note: looking for conceptual continuity' by Ferdinando Boero
On January 31st it was with curiosity that the Berkeleyites gathered at their lair in the Piazzetta of the Greek Church, St. Nicholas of Myrna. What on earth, they wondered, could connect a professor of zoology at the University of the Salento, a true blood Italian, to an American musical genius whose fiery career singed the West Coast of North American and points beyond in the 1960s,‘70s and ‘80s? Ferdinando Boero was going to talk to us about the legendary Frank Zappa, and more specifically about something called conceptual continuity.
Awe overcame curiosity as Boero began to unfold a very personal tale. As a boy in his native Genoa he had been in thrall to the new popular music. He managed to attend concerts by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. However, one figure in particular caught his fancy, and that was the most innovative of them all, Frank Zappa.
Flash forward. While young Boero was earning his academic credentials in Italy, Zappa continued to blaze away in California. An accomplished classical musician, he hobnobbed with masters like Edgar Varèse, Pierre Boulez and Rubin Mehta. But his intellectual exuberance and desire to speak directly in the ear of an audience of his own time moved him to exercise his mastery of rock’n roll and jazz idioms. His raw theatricality needed an outlet, and of course he was one of the greatest ever electric guitarists.
In truth, Zappa also needed to standup to the society around him, even to arm-wrestle it at times. His innovation in music brought controversy. So did his contempt for what he deemed ‘mainstream’ society and its hypocrisy. While lazy minds might lump him with the hirsute and disordered counterculture, he was in fact acidly critical of hippies, psychedelic dreamers, drug culture and a whole generation of West Coast airheads.
Back to Boero, become an active researcher and still fascinated by Frank Zappa and his music. So much so in fact that he set out to do oceanographic research at the University of California near the musician’s stamping ground. When Boero discovered an unknown Californian jellyfish, he asked Zappa if he could name it after him. It was the beginning of a friendship that would last till Zappa’s death in 1993. (You can read about ‘Phialella zappai’ in ‘The Journal of Natural History’, April 1987, under Boero’s signature.)
At this point the tale of friendship took a smooth turn into science. Professor Boero explained just what Zappa meant by conceptional continuity. The musician envisaged his manifold projects in whatever medium or realm as being a single process. Not only did one big note pervade his music, but videos, performances, books, polemics and even interviews were part of the same whole. Zappa himself suggested an easy approach to the idea:
“A novelist invents a character. If the character is a good one, he takes on a life of his own. Why should he get to go to only one party? He could pop up anytime in a future novel.”
Boero, now in his role of marine biologist, then gave the idea of unity-in-diversity another twist. He applied it to the bacteria that in a real sense sustain our world and followed the process that led through minute sea creatures to the smallest fry, and one by one to ever larger fish till we reached a size that would fill our plate. We followed this trajectory in the elegant presentation on screen that had accompanied Professor Boero from his first word. At the end we were all boys again listening to Zappa’s music as if for the first time and falling under its enchantment.