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Zappa's Outermost Phaze

By Stephen Homan

Zappa's fully powered Civilization, Phaze III will stun you. 

* * *

Deep within his Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, Frank Zappa created a startling, 115-minute masterpiece marked by the most intricate and painstaking musical alchemizing of his inventive career. The posthumously released Civilization, Phaze III is perhaps his greatest work ever.

Composed on his special musicians-in-a-box Synclavier -- a high tech, computer-driven synthesizer, which is able to produce just about any sound, musically or otherwise -- the music of Civilization, Phaze III (or CPIII) is essentially orchestral in structure. In the last 10 years of his life, which ended December 4, 1993 after being diagnosed with cancer in 1990, Zappa conceptualized CPIII and fine tuned its music just prior to his death. 

"I think it's very much about finishing his life," says Gail Zappa, his widow, in a recent interview. After he finished this,he said, "I've done everything that I can." 

CPIII has a slinging, often frightening, in-your-face texture. While it does objectify the underpinnings of Avant-garde's Edgar Varese, Igor Stravinsky, Conlin Nancarrow,and Anton Webern, CPIII, with its cutting-edge technology, is richly new and contemporary.

CPIII could be considered a 28-year sociological review using music. Zappa successfully and effectively joined music with language and with theatre by combining 19 pieces of music with the running inside-the-piano recorded dialogue from the 1967 avant-garde "Lumpy Gravy" and "We're Only In It For The Money" to an updated dialogue in CPIII, which includes his daughter, Moon Unit Zappa and son, Dweezel. 

As explained in his liner notes, Zappa writes, "What emerged from the (1967) texts was a vague plot regarding pigs and ponies, threatening the lives of characters who inhabit a large piano. In Civilization, Phaze III, we get a few more clues about the lives of the piano dwellers and note that the external evils have only gotten worse since we first met them." 

N-Lite -- a hauntingly magnificent 18-minute, six movement composition -- is the nerve center of CPIII that supplies the work's centrifugal force. This carefully arranged piece contains music and organized sounds only Zappa could integrate successfully. You don't need an empty, white room overlooking Central Park to enjoy N-Lite. I would suggest that you invite a friend over, though. 

While the dialogue does provide the social ills of our society, it is the music's haunting denseness and enigmatic texture of CPIII that forces you to sleep with one eye opened. "Beat the Reeper" and "Waffenspiel," two title tracks, seem to address Zappa's cancer prognosis and perhaps death to society as well. In Waffenspiel, you hear the reports of automatic weapons fire in the streets during a rainstorm, while the Reeper claims its victims, and drives away in its car. 

It's interesting to note that, in Waffenspiel, Zappa incorporated the hammering of construction workers he hired to remodel his kitchen. In German, Waffenspiel means gun play. If you replace the ffs with tts, you have Watt, which recalls the violent riots of the Watts district of the 60's to those that occurred during the Rodney King riot several summers ago. Zappa stated in a radio interview that the only difference between the two riotous episodes is that today the criminal element uses automatic weapons. 

"Listening to it," say Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons" and longtime fan of Zappa's music, who later became friends with the late composer,"it feels like Frank was trying to cram as many musical ideas as possible, one after the other, into this piece. It's very thick and dense and overpowering as a listening experience. Even if you think you know Frank Zappa's music, I don't think anybody could be sufficiently prepared for the powerhouse that this thing represents." He adds, "This music should finally get Zappa taken truly seriously as a composer." 

Zappa described in his liner notes that CPIII is an opera-pantomime, with choreographed physical activity (manifested as dance or other forms of inexplicable sociophysical communication). He further explained his threatrical concept to chorographer Jamey Hampton of the 150 Dance Troupe and Groening, who are planning the production.

Some information reprinted with permission from the following: Rip Renses article (Posthumous album shows Frank Zappa in his final Phaze, dated 12/21/94) from The San Francisco Examiner. 

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