ClassAction: Frank Zappa as Composer, Social Critic, Teacher 

By Russ Cooper

To some, a nuisance whose music was juvenile and brash: To others, a genius whose clarity and vision rocketed expression to electrifying new heights.

Artist and composer Frank Zappa was many things to many people. And for Concordia students wanting something for themselves, there's Lecturer Mike Pinsonneault's FFAR 398A– Frank Zappa: Composer and Social Critic.

Now in its fourth edition, the class examines the impact Zappa had on popular culture of early- to mid-'60s until his death in 1993 through his revolutionary music and visual art, his outspoken political commentary and dichotomous personality.

During its inaugural year in 2002, the class was under the music department umbrella, gearing primarily towards analyzing Zappa's complex musical structures with an equal helping of context examining his social influence, and culminated with a performance of his work. This year, as with the last three sessions, the class has been offered within a broader fine arts spectrum with less formal musical theory with the hope of expanding Zappa's appeal beyond the musician set.

During Pinsonneault's course, students listen to select cuts from Zappa's vast recording library (Vanier Library having more than 40 of Zappa's 60+ official releases) to glean perspective on Zappa's story. Besides formal essays and listening tests, 20% of the final grade is keeping an on-going blog to document, "a written record of understanding of Zappa's life and career."

And that's where it gets interesting – getting to know Zappa. Complicated and convoluted, Zappa was revered for his technically groundbreaking musical innovation but often disregarded due to his lyrical content, many times deemed immature and/or misogynistic. Upon closer examination, however, Zappa habitually made scalding commentary on American society.

He gained worldwide political recognition by testifying at the U.S. congressional hearings of the mid-'80s in vehement opposition to Tipper Gore's Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and her attempt to censor musical lyrics and impose the ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker to controversial albums.

From the outset, Pinsonneault's class has always been well received, consistently filling to its 60 to 70 student capacity. As for a clear reason why, he can't put a magic finger on it.

"The people taking the class might be doing it because their parents listened to him and want to learn more, maybe because they're die-hard fans wanting to learn something new," he says. "It might even be due to Quebec's strange passion for progressive rock, or it might be totally at random. Whatever it is, his name and work carry weight."

Beyond simply digging his music, Pinsonneault partly credits his own strange passion for Zappa to Loyola High School chum and The Gazette music writer Bernard Perusse, "the guy who always had all the new records."

A professional musician (alto sax/flute/voice) for the majority of his adult life, Pinsonneault has had a fluctuating relationship with Zappa's music. "He falls by the wayside, but I always come back to him. I always need nourishment."

As for the nourishment of his students, Pinsonneault believes Zappa is as pertinent today as it was in his own time and hopes they'll see the knowledge Zappa, obvious or otherwise, imparted on society.

"In a lot of ways, our society has reverted to the mentality of the '50s, the era that helped make Zappa who he was," he says. "Many social issues he touched on are still relevant today. He always questioned conformity, and it's still worth doing it today."


Concordia University