On April 5, 1984 at the Fawcett Center For Tomorrow, Frank Zappa delivered the keynote address at the 1984 convention of the American Society of University Composers (ASUC). Fortunately, I heard about the speech in advance. I grabbed my copy of Frank's Hot Rats album hoping to get it autographed and went to the center. I managed to get a front row seat sitting next to someone holding a stack of Zappa albums (making me feel better). The speech, entitled "Bingo! There Goes Your Tenure!" was incredible, but I really doubt it was what ASUC had in mind. Frank ripped modern composers, the music industry and ASUC itself to shreds. Afterwards, about two dozen fans managed to get "back stage" and get autographs, shake hands, etc. One guy who hadn't planned ahead had Frank sign his algebra notes, to which Frank replied (paraphrased) "So this is algebra? Sure you want me to sign this? You'll probably fail." I got my album signed and hung out in the back for a bit. Then someone asked Frank if he could have the index cards with Frank's notes for the speech. "Sure, here you go". DAMN. I wish I had thought of that!
In 1989, Frank Zappa wrote The Real Frank Zappa Book in response to all of the biographies that had been written about him over the years. Basically, Frank wrote, and Peter Occhiogrosso cleaned things up for him. As I read it, I found that an edited version of the ASUC speech was included. Very cool. Very, very cool.
Well, a few weeks ago, I bought a scanner and I wanted something to try the OCR software on. Hence this page. Here's the text of the speech, complete with Frank's liberal use of italics, bolding, etc (which are really necessary for the full effect).
The book is definitely still in print, and absolutely worth picking up. Go! Buy it now!
Follow-up: In 2006, I received an email with the full text of Frank's speech. Click here to read it.
Bingo! There Goes Your Tenure!
I do not belong to your organization. I know nothing about it. I'm not even interested in it - and yet, a request has been made for me to give what purports to be a keynote speech.
Before I go on, let me warn you that I talk dirty, and that I will say things you will neither enjoy nor agree with.
You shouldn't feel threatened, though, because I am a mere buffoon, and you are all Serious American Composers.
For those of you who don't know, I am also a composer. I taught myself how to do it by going to the library and listening to records. I started when I was fourteen and I've been doing it for thirty years. I don't like schools. I don't like teachers. I don't like most of the things that you believe in - and if that weren't bad enough, I earn a living by playing the electric guitar.
For convenience, without wishing to offend you membership, I will use the word "WE" when discussing matters pertaining to composers. Some of the "WE" references will apply generally, some will not. And now: The Speech. . . .
Is 'New Music' Relevant in an Industrial Society?
The most baffling aspect of the industrial-American-relevance question is: "Why do people continue to compose music, and even pretend to teach others how to do it, when they already know the answer? Nobody gives a fuck."
Is it really worth the trouble to write a new piece of music for an audience that doesn't care?
The general consensus seems to be that music by living composers is not only irrelevant but also genuinely obnoxious to a society which concerns itself primarily with the consumption of disposable merchandise.
Surely "WE" must be punished for wasting everyone's precious time with an art form so unrequired and trivial in the general scheme of things: Ask your banker - ask your loan officer at the bank, he'll tell you: "WE" are scum. "WE" are the scum of the earth. "WE" are bad people. "WE" are useless bums. No matter how much tenure "WE" manage to weasel out of the universities where "WE" manufacture our baffling, insipid package of inconsequential poot, "WE" know deep down that "WE" are worthless.
Some of us smoke a pipe. Others have tweed sport coats with leather patches on the elbows. Some of us have mad scientists' eyebrows. Some of us engage in the shameless display of incredibly dramatic mufflers, dangling in the vicinity of a turtleneck sweater. These are only a few of the reasons why "WE" must be punished.
Today, just as in the glorious past, the composer had to accommodate the specific taste (no matter how bad) of THE KING - reincarnated as a movie or TV producer, the head of the opera company, the lady with the frightening hair on the 'special committee' or her niece Debbie.
Some of you don't know about Debbie, since you don't have to deal with radio stations and record companies the way the people from The Real World do, but you ought to find out about her, just in case you decide to visit later.
Debbie is thirteen years old. Her parents like to think of themselves as Average, God-Fearing American White Folk. Her Dad belongs to a corrupt union of some sort and is, as we might suspect, a lazy, incompetent, overpaid, ignorant son-of-a-bitch.
Her mother is a sexually maladjusted mercenary shrew who lives to spend her husband's paycheck on ridiculous clothes - to make her look 'younger.'
Debbie is incredibly stupid. She has been raised to respect the values and traditions which her parents hold sacred. Sometimes she dreams about being kissed by a lifeguard.
When the people in the Secret Office Where They Run Everything From found out about Debbie, they were thrilled. She was perfect. She was hopeless. She was their kind of girl.
She was immediately chosen to become the Archetypical Imaginary Pop Music Consumer & Ultimate Arbiter of Musical Taste for the Entire Nation - from that moment on, everything musical in this country would have to be modified to conform to what they computed to be her needs and desires.
Debbie's 'taste' determined the size, shape and color of all music broadcast and sold in the United States during the latter part of the twentieth century. Eventually she grew up to be just like her mother, and married a guy just like her Dad. She has somehow managed to reproduce herself. The people in The Secret Office have their eye on her daughter at this very moment.
Now, as a serious American composer, should Debbie really concern you? I think so.
Since Debbie prefers only short songs with lyrics about boy-girl relationships, sung by persons of indeterminate sex, wearing S&M clothing, and because there is Large Money involved, the major record companies (which a few years ago occasionally risked investment in recordings of new works) have all but shut down their classical divisions, seldom recording new music.
The small labels that do, have wretched distribution. (Some have wretched accounting procedures - they might release your recording, but you won't get paid.)
This underscores a major problem with living composers: they like to eat. (Mostly what they eat is brown and lumpy - and there is no question that this diet has had an effect on their collective output.)
A composer's job involves the decoration of fragments of time. Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid. Living composers are entitled to proper compensation for the use of their works. (Dead guys don't collect - one reason their music is chosen for performance.)
There is another reason for the popularity of Dead Person Music. Conductors prefer it because they need more than anything else to look good.
By performing pieces that the orchestra members have hacked their way through since conservatory days, the rehearsal costs are minimized - players go into jukebox mode and spew off 'the classics' with ease - and the expensive guest conductor, unencumbered by a score with 'problems' in it, gets to thrash around in mock ecstasy for the benefit of the committee ladies (who wish he didn't have any pants on).
"Hey, buddy, when was the last time you thwarted a norm? Can't risk it, eh? Too much at stake over at the old Alma Mater? Nowhere else to go? Unqualified for 'janitorial deployment'? Look out! Here they come again! It's that bunch of guys who live in the old joke: it's YOU and two billion of your closest friends standing in shit up to your chins, chanting, 'DON'T MAKE A WAVE!'"
It's the terror of a bad review from one of those tone-deaf elitists who use the premiere performance of every new work as an excuse to sharpen their word skills.
It's settling for rotten performances by musicians and conductors who prefer the sound of Death Warmed Over to anything scribbled in recent memory (making then 'assistant music critics,' but somehow more glamorous).
It's clutching the ol' Serial Pedigree, secure in the knowledge that no one checks anymore.
Beat them to the punch, ladies and gentlemen! Punish yourselves before they do it for you. (If you do it as a group, the TV rights might be worth something.) Start planning today, so that everything will be ready in time for the next convention. Change the name of your organization from ASUC to "WE"-SUCK, get some cyanide and swizzle it into the punch bowl with some of that white wine 'artistic' people really go for, and Bite The Big One!
If the current level of ignorance and illiteracy persists, in about two or three hundred years a merchandising nostalgia for this era will occur - and guess what music they'll play! (They'll still play it wrong, of course, and you won't get any money for having written it, but what the hey? At least you didn't die of syphilis in a whorehouse opium stupor with a white curly wig on.)
It's all over, folks. Get smart - take out a real estate license. The least you can do is tell your students: "DON'T DO IT! STOP THIS MADNESS! DON'T WRITE ANY MORE MODERN MUSIC!" (If you don't, the little stinker might grow up to kiss more ass than you, have a longer, more dramatic neck-scarf, write music more baffling and insipid than your own, and Bingo! there goes your tenure.)
The preceding text was reproduced without permission from The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa with Peter Occhiogrosso.