Frank Zappa Showing How To Deviate From The Norm
As you hopefully know, Zappa (1940-1993) was one of the most innovative musicians of the 20th century. He led the sixties California psychedelic music scene and then went on to compose mind bending jazz and classical compositions. He was a prolific composer and also a hero of free speech by speaking out against proposed censorship laws in the ’80’s.
Frank Zappa was one of the first to try tearing down the barriers between rock, jazz, and classical music. In the late Sixties his Mothers of Invention would slip from Stravinsky’s “Petroushka” into The Dovells’ “Bristol Stomp” before breaking down into saxophone squeals inspired by Albert Ayler
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll
On The Steve Allen Show
Recently I came across this old television broadcast of Frank Zappa appearing on the Steve Allen show in 1963. On the show, Zappa demonstrates and conducts an orchestra around making ‘music’ with a bicycle. I had to share this video because there is so much in it for learning about creativity.
In 1963 The Status Quo Ruled
Think about the time period of when he appeared on the show, 1963! The Cuban missile crisis (1962) had just happened, no one had gone to the moon, the Beatles hadn’t taken LSD yet and America was a pretty stiff place. Status quo ruled and you can hear its vibration in the audience as they laugh at Zappa’s demo. The counterculture, innovation and exploration of the sixties was a couple years away and yet there’s Zappa confidently experimenting with sound and seeming to not care what people think.
Check out the video clip and then the key points below of how it relates to creativity
Asking What Else Can I Do With It?
The sounds Zappa demonstrates are likely not going to be appealing in any kind of melodic, traditional way. What is quite striking in terms of creativity is how Zappa takes something like a bike and wonders how he could get interesting sounds out of it and then experiments and plays with the whole thing. This is what creative innovators do, they look at something from lots of different angles and wonder things like, what else can I do with it? Creative play may seem absurd at first because it’s new, maybe awkward and doesn’t fit a known pattern, but it’s something that leads to people eventually finding useful insights to act on. So, be confidently weird and think about things in ways others have never dared to explore.
The odd music Zappa makes on the show also might cause you to wonder what music really is and why we consider the odd sounds coming from the bike not to be music. Is it not music because it doesn’t sound like something we’re used to? Really, what makes us know a sound is music? Creative people question their assumptions and biases so that they can open up new thinking. So, we can remember Zappa’s example and apply critical thinking and questioning when we catch ourselves seeing the world the same old way.
Fearless Creative Confidence
Notice how confident Zappa is when describing to Steve Allen what he’s going to do and with how confidently he “plays” the bikes. He’s totally confident and admits he’s only played “the bicycle” for 2 weeks. It’s hard to be creative when fear is dominant and sometimes a way around it is just jumping in and confidently experimenting and improvising. You have to not care about failing. Zappa was so fearless he went on a TV show as a composer in his early career and messed around with making music from a bike. That’s impressive. Zappa never went on to be a great bicycle musician, but he did go on to be an innovative musician that changed music history.
Zappa seems to be having a blast amusing himself and the host by playing around with the bikes. Notice how he’s spontaneous, embraces the unexpected and experiments. Those are qualities of creative play that can lead to new ideas and possibilities. In the creativity and design realm you hear terms like Serious Play thrown around to describe the qualities of how innovators and inventors explore new possibilities. When it’s called serious play it’s not stiff and serious it just means that you’re aware and value play as a way to get to better ideas and solutions. Zappa was a Jedi of creative play throughout his whole career. It’s also important to say that play is not about being lazy or reluctant to work. Zappa worked his ass off and in fact it was rumoured that in his last few years he worked over 20 hours a day in the studio. Play while you work and you’ll be more creative and have fun while doing it.
So, keep deviating because if we deviate from the norm like Zappa from time to time, we’ll keep progressing, learn, be creative and eventually create relevant innovations.
Classic Track From Zappa’s First Album Freak Out
Zappa Live in London 1968
By Think Jar Collective founder Ben Weinlick