The posthumous reputation of Frank Vincent Zappa has taken an interesting turn. Now safely dead (he died 17 days short of his 53rd birthday, in 1993, from cancer of the prostate), Zappa has become a composer whom classical promoters love to programme. His tricky, late-modernist scores (with their wisecracking and/or scatological titles, such as Orchestral Favorites or Alien Orifice) have become genuine orchestral favourites. Or at least that is how it would appear from the sheaves of promotional literature pouring out about "Frank Zappa and the Fathers of Invention", a three-concert series of music by eight "American" composers - Zappa, Stravinsky, Nancarrow, Reich, Varese, Copland, Ives and Cage - being launched by the Britten Sinfonia, under Stefan Asbury, at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge, this Thursday.
People still think of Zappa as the guy on the toilet on that famous poster, or the author of salacious ditties like "Titties and Beer". Musicians, on the other hand, have always taken him seriously. Pierre Boulez once recorded a whole LP of his works, while Kent Nagano, the US-born music director of Manchester's Halle Orchestra, conducted Zappa's music with the LSO in the early 1980s and was enthusiastic about the composer's talent. "No one ever complains about his notation," wrote Nagano, pointing out that Zappa's writing may be complex but it's also clear and ultimately playable, a satisfying challenge to good musicians.
In The Real Frank Zappa Book, in a long, articulate chapter entitled "All about music", Zappa himself puts forward some very practical theories about the construction and realisation of his scores. You get the impression that he treated the guitar-playing side as his day job, and the orchestral composition as his vocation.
Zappa started writing music at the age of 14 - because, he said, he "liked the way it looked". He listened to Edgard Varese - the pioneering French emigre exponent of "organised sound" -and then discovered Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer, the pioneer of musique concrete. Largely self-taught, he struggled with the rules of harmony and counterpoint before opting for a primitive 12-tone system. By his late teens, Zappa finally heard his work played and decided he didn't like the sound of strict serialism, so he developed a more eclectic approach. When he at last got his hands on a professional orchestra, courtesy of 1960s rock stardom, Zappa had hit a mature style that he worked in for the next 25 years, later using digital technology to extend his imagination.
Zappa eschewed classical structures like the symphony and concerto, declaring that such forms were inflicted on composers "so that people with limited imaginations could comprehend what the composer was intending to do". Most of his work follows a loosely programmatic or song-based form.
Zappa loved "putting little black dots on music paper". He once wrote: "To be able to write a piece of music and hear it in your head is a completely different sensation from the ordinary listening experience." He poured thousands of dollars into securing performances, recordings and decent rehearsal periods for his orchestral works. The money other rock stars shoved up their noses, he once quipped, went in his ears.
Yet you don't find his name in any of the classical reference books: John Warthen Struble's huge tome on American composers (and he includes hundreds of them) fails to mention Zappa once. So for the Britten Sinfonia to be placing Zappa at the heart of their "whirlwind journey through the diverse musical landscape of the 20th century" seems, on the face of it, an extraordinary move for a conventional classical band to take.
"Get Whitey [from The Yellow Shark] is a real masterpiece," says Cashian, "a kind of passacaglia with lines spinning around, with an Italian feel to it... like a huge mechanism turning." Nicolas Slonimsky, author of the celebrated Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, once observed that "Zappa sticks to 12 different notes and 11 different intervals. What he does with them in terms of organisation is... the secret of his greatness... He is a classicist and a constructionist. Why should he have to know formal harmony or counterpoint? Webern never finished a counterpoint book."
Zappa was a hard taskmaster, who insisted on long rehearsal periods and the kind of improvisational flexibility that was second nature to virtuoso jazz and rock musicians such as George Duke or Vinnie Colaiuta, but rarely expected to be in the skill set of an orchestral player. Played by small ensembles, his work can sound merely clever, dry and tricksy; with the right combination of large forces and commitment, from a soloist or conductor, the music springs to widescreen life, bearing out Kent Nagano's claim that Zappa communicated a distinctly "American concept of harmony and melody, an American concept of humour and irony." Yet the gap between his day job and the "serious music" was a false one: Zappa regarded all music as entertainment. Listen carefully to his rock stadium recordings, and you can hear all the same qualities of musicianship, harmonic originality and melodic invention that characterise his orchestral work. It's all there, alongside the bawdy lyrics about Jimmy Swaggart or vibrators. Zappa's late-1980s "reggae" version of Ravel's Bolero has the kind of literate musical humour that would liven up the Last Night of the Proms no end. And I have a sneaking suspicion that classical players enjoy seeing Zappa's rude titles on their programme sheets: after seasons of well-behaved run- throughs of symphony this and concerto that, there must be an illicit thrill in blasting out the throbbing motifs of the G-Spot Tornado.
'Frank Zappa and the Fathers of the Invention': Thursdays 12 Feb, 26 March and 23 April, Cambridge Corn Exchange. Booking: 01223 357851