Today’s video features a young (and largely unknown) Frank Zappa on the Steve Allen show in 1963. He’s performing an improvised piece for bicycle, “pre-recorded electric noises” and orchestra. That’s right, bicycle. He’s blowing through the handlebars, tapping on the frame, bowing the spokes and more. Now, from an instrumentation standpoint, this isn’t totally revolutionary stuff, even for 1963. John Cage’s Third Construction had been around for over twenty years already. Still, to the average television audience, Zappa must have seemed like he was from another planet.
Right off the bat, it’s pretty clear that Frank’s appearance on the show was intended as comedic relief (get a load of this guy playing the bicycle!) Steve Allen cracks jokes, the audience laughs. To be fair, it is strange. The studio audience has probably never seen anything like it before. It’s easier to digest it as comedy, and so the idea of it having musical, experimental or artistic value is dismissed.
But that was 1963. Would it be different today? Considering the popularity of percussion as an area of study and the growth of chamber percussion in general, I would hope so! Give it a watch and let us know what you think.
I know that’s not quite contemporary percussion, but it’s interesting to think about whether a performance like that would be received any differently today. Someone playing a bicycle, or a tin can, or blowing into a conch shell really isn’t that strange anymore, is it? What do you think?