Frank Vincent Zappa (December 21, 1940 – December 4, 1993) was an American musician, composer, activist and filmmaker. His work is characterized by nonconformity, free-form improvisation, sound experiments, musical virtuosity, and satire of American culture. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Zappa composed rock, pop, jazz, jazz fusion, orchestraland musique concrète works, and produced almost all of the 60-plus albums that he released with his band the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist. Zappa also directed feature-length films and music videos, and designed album covers. He is considered one of the most innovative and stylistically diverse rock musicians of his era.
As a self-taught composer and performer, Zappa's diverse musical influences led him to create music that was sometimes difficult to categorize. While in his teens, he acquired a taste for 20th-century classical composers such as Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern, along with 1950s rhythm and blues and doo-wop music. He began writing classical music in high school, while at the same time playing drums in rhythm and blues bands, later switching to electric guitar. His 1966 debut album with the Mothers of Invention, Freak Out!, combined songs in conventional rock and roll format with collective improvisations and studio-generated sound collages. He continued this eclectic and experimental approach, irrespective of whether the fundamental format was rock, jazz or classical.
Zappa's output is unified by a conceptual continuity he termed "Project/Object", with numerous musical phrases, ideas, and characters reappearing across his albums. His lyrics reflected his iconoclastic views of established social and political processes, structures and movements, often humorously so. Zappa's often comedic lyrics led AllMusic to describe him as the "godfather" of comedy rock. He was a strident critic of mainstream education and organized religion, and a forthright and passionate advocate for freedom of speech, self-education, political participation and the abolition of censorship. Unlike many other rock musicians of his generation, he personally disapproved of drugs and never used them again after briefly trying marijuana, but supported their decriminalization and regulation.
During Zappa's lifetime, he was a highly productive and prolific artist, earning widespread acclaim from critics and fellow musicians. He had some commercial success, particularly in Europe, and worked as an independent artist for most of his career. He remains a major influence on musicians and composers. His honors include his 1995 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the 1997 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2000, he was ranked number 36 on VH1's 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him at number 71 on its list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time", and in 2011 at number 22 on its list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time".
When Frank Zappa delved into the realm of classical music, he was certainly not simply a rock musician orchestrating his rock songs for a classical orchestra. Zappa's interest in composing classical music actually predated his writing popular music by a couple of years. He had acquired a fascination with the music of Varese while still in his teens. Zappa despised rules, restrictions, expectations, and compartmentalization and had none of the reservations of other composers about borrowing freely from almost every modern idiom. You can find in Zappa's music stylistic flourishes derived from doo-wop, blues, country and western, jazz, punk-rock, heavy metal, reggae, bluegrass, cabaret, fusion, and classical domains, not to mention the vaudeville kind of musical satire championed by Spike Jones. Although Stravinsky, Bartok, and Mahler all brought non-classical influences into their works, no other composer in history had the ability to incorporate as disparate a range of influences into their music as Zappa, without sometimes sounding out of their element.
Although Zappa's music was unique, it was not entirely divorced from the major trends in twentieth century classical music. He wrote mainly in the free-form atonal style developed by the likes of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg in the opening decades of the twentieth century, but also incorporated the driving rhythms characteristic of Stravinsky. He integrated the popular music forms indigenous to his time and place, much in the manner of Bartok, Kodaly, Smetana, Villa-Lobos and other nationalist composers. Like Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, he advanced a distinctly American variety of classical music, rather than merely imitating European forms. His music evidences shades of Varese, Orff, and Weill, among others. You can find in some of Zappa's music the minimalism of Philip Glass or the mechanical precision of Conlon Nancarrow. Yet, despite all those influences, Zappa's music is distinctly his own. Astute listeners can usually recognize Zappa's personality in each of his works.