Last Monday, Don Preston, the keyboardist for Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention visited Cornell to tell stories about being part of such an incredible musical era and play a few new compositions with his trio. Widely credited with mainstreaming the synthesizer, Preston, who also scored the movie Apocalypse Now, now is most interested in electronic music and the boundaries it pushes.
Sun: How did you go from playing with jazzers like Carla Bley and Elvin Jones to Frank Zappa and now to electonic music?
Preston: Well, it really started as pushing the boundaries of classical music. Those classical guys – especially Stravinsky – were taking chords to whole new levels, to the sixth, even the ninth. When I played with the folks you mentioned, they were playing the seventh, and, well, it must have been around the late fifties or early sixties but I started getting interested in all the electronic music that was happening, or had been happening. I think one of the major things that was happening then was that John Cage was coming through Detroit with Merce Cunningham, he was mixing the music in a quadrophonic setting, and things like that were happening everywhere and for some reason I was aware of it. I don’t know why. I started seeking out stereo, people who were actively doing electronic music, and it was all very exciting to me because I had not heard that kind of stuff.
Sun: What was your first experience in trying to make electronic music?
Preston: I hadn’t started trying to make that yet, I was merely listening to it at that point, although I had done a number of concerts in Detroit of sort of music that was using different ways of creating non-diatonic music, that kind of stuff, because that was real exciting.
Sun: What was so exciting about that kind of music?
Preston: Well, I was basically just playing jazz at that time. And then – well, it was a combination of a number of things. My favorite movie as a kid was Fantasia, I think I saw it 28 times, and the main reason for seeing it was to hear The Rites of Spring by Stravinsky. It’s not a very far leap to go from that to electronic kinds of music, or music that was trying to get away from the diatonic system.
Sun: I’ve heard that comparison before, but I’m not sure I understand it.
Preston: Well, if you look through the history of music, you can see that each composer was taking it to the next level, especially if you look at one note and then analyze its overtones. The same steps that the next composer went to — Bach and Mozart using the sixth overtone, Brahms went to the ninth — you can see the progression through the overtone series. Stravinsky took it as far as you could go harmonically. Then you started going in between the notes, like 43 notes to the octave. The next step is electronic music, and even smaller increments between the octaves. Even no increments.
Sun: Does that mean that’s the end of the line?
Preston: Well, not yet, although you’d think so! Actually, what happened is that musicians started coming back to the diatonic system. They came back and divised new ways of presenting that music. I remembered Carla Bley used to get so pissed off, because all these greats coming from the jazz world were doing it. That to me explains the occurrence of electronic music. It was the next step at that particular time.
Sun: What is the listener’s role in electronic music?
Preston: That’s a good question. Basically, as in any music, the listener’s role is to be open-minded about it and not negate something because it’s unfamiliar, as many critics do. They don’t understand it, it’s not a familiar sound, they think it’s bad. But the listener needs to be open about things that are new. That’s the whole nature of music, to try to do something new – that’s my view, anyhow.
Sun: Is that a personal ambition you’ve always had?
Preston: Yes, it is, unfortunately [laughs]. Not making a good living. Nevertheless, it still has been very exciting for me all the time.
Sun: Have you seen a progression in your own career from one step to the next?
Prston: Well, over the years, but we are talking about a lot of years. The musical progression of my career was been what I’m exposed to. I was first interested in Dave Brubeck, and then Bud Powell, and Lenny Tristano. Then I started getting into a style of my own – then starting playing with more important people, and with all the stuff I had been exposed to in the classical world were influencing me in the jazz world. I just heard Miles Davis loved to collect scores by Stravkinsky and connect them and see how they worked. All that stuff influenced by creative abilities so that when I sat down to play a solo with somebody, I could do it with courage.
Sun: How did you get picked up by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention?
Preston: I first auditioned for Zappa in an Anaheim dance hall. Well, we were playing really complicated stuff, in 7/7, and no one was dancing, so I didn’t get the job. I spent the next year playing in various rock bands, and I auditioned again, and Zappa then said, “You got the job!” I was in the band, and I added my own element to the band in terms of electonic music. I had a homemade synthesizer. I had a homemade gong. All those elements were normal routine for me – which was quite different for quite everybody in the rock world.
Sun: Why give a lecture and a concert?
Preston: Well, just by living through those times and being there, I have a lot of information. And some of it is useful, knowledgable, but other parts are entertaining because they’re stories that no one has ever heard about those times. It’s also a means of generating some income – which is of course necessary.
Sun: This tour is filled with college campuses. Was that intentional?
Preston: When you’re setting up a tour, you don’t have the opportunity to make it perfect, but still we’re trying to find people who are interested in hearing us play, which is not always the case, because our music is sometimes strange and unusual — in the sense that this isn’t your current pop music, it’s not even rock n roll, or jazz. It’s a little bit of all of those things, but the nature of our instruments kind of dictates that we’re going to do something that’s not been done or heard.
Sun: Do you enjoy that kind of music as a musician?
Preston: I love it. That’s where I’ve been going my whole life and now I’m finally there.