Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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THE YELLOW SHARK - EIHN: COUNTERPOINT #2

Zappa's late projects show an increasing counterpoint contribution. The late projects being the three synclavier albums and the successful "The yellow shark" project featuring the Ensemble Modern from 1993. Take for instance the bass line, that plays through most of "G-spot tornado" (better audible on "Jazz from hell" then on the "The yellow shark" version; see also the fragment from the Synclavier subpage), the second half of "While you were out II" and sections of "Xmas values" and "Times beach II".

This section works in conjunction with the "Weasels ripped my flesh: counterpoint #1" section, filling in the picture with some examples from Zappa's late works.

1) Classical counterpoint.

An example of the classical use of counterpoint is included in the counterpoint #1 section.

2) Counterpoint including complementary harmony.

In the Orchestral favorites section, I mentioned "Strictly genteel" as a composition where Zappa is applying classical structures. In this case the variations form. A couple of sections from "Strictly genteel" are present in the L.S.O. section. The third counterpart example includes complementary harmonies.

3-4) Counterpoint through multiple layers and counterpoint with shifting harmonies.

9/8 Objects - T'Mershi Duween - What will Rumi do?

See also the counterpoint #1 section. Next is another example of counterpoint with shifting harmonies, where the melodic lines are playing in a different meters. It's an exercise for playing 4/4 and 9/8 simultaneously. The drumset plays a steady 4/4 beat, over which the marimba and celli play a 9/8 figure in the same tempo. After a while the flute and clarinet join in with arpeggio figures in 4/4. Brass instruments are playing in triplet time, while Shankar is improvising on violin. Its recording got released in 1999 on the Zappa Family Trust release "Everything is healing nicely" (see also the Ensemble Modern section of the left menu). The excerpt below is from the most dense section, when all parts are playing together. The scale is C Phrygian. The chord formed by the 9/8 figure is a fifth plus a diminished fifth on C or Cm7-9 without the 3rd and 7th.
The notation here is done so that it shows the 9/8 over 4/4 effect, otherwise I would have notated 4/4 for all parts and let the 9/8 figure shift through it (like in Echidna's arf (of you)). I've chosen to let the 9/8 meter start at the first drum beat, but one might just as well opt for letting the figure start right with the first notes (at the beginning you have a similar situation).
The first staff is the 9/8 object, the second is Shankar on violin (at first only a vague indication between brackets, because I can't hear this part properly with everyone else playing). The third staff contains arpeggio figures, played by a flute, oboe and a clarinet. The fourth staff is played by the brass. The fifth line is the bass drum beat of the drumset part.

9/8 Objects, section (midi file)
What will Rumi do?, end (midi file)
T'Mershi Duween (1991), section (midi file, tempo change not included)

9/8 Objects, section (transcription)
What will Rumi do?, end (transcription)
T'Mershi Duween (1991), section (notes/transcription)

Rumi Ogawa "What will Rumi do?" is another example of such a 9/8 object over 4/4. Here the 9/8 figure is played by the piano. The composition was made up by Zappa during rehearsals by assigning melody lines to the various sections of the ensemble. It gets build up layer over layer. The fragment from above is from the end, when everybody is playing. It's going from the bottom staff of the transcription playing solo, with every few bars a new bar added bottom up. Rumi, being the percussionist Rumi Ogawa, joins in for the toms part (image of her to the right). At the top the ultimate three bars closing melody is represented. The piece has premiered on the Ensemble Modern CD called "Greggery Peccary & other persuasions". "What will Rumi do?" is one of the clearest examples of Zappa creating a harmonic field. In the final bars you've got all notes from E Mixolydian mingled, except for the C#. The 9/8 bar extra forces this field formation upon it, because, with its unequal length, it very deliberately seeks to form any harmonic combination with the other parts.
On "EIHN" a variant upon "What will Rumi do?" is included in "T'Mershi Duween". This latter piece was part of the 1974 band repertoire, only to appear on CD 15 years later on "YCDTOSA II". Its main melody lasts 23/16 in total. A performing difficulty lays in its reappearance halfway, to be played a tiny bit faster over a 6/4 accompanying figure, thus creating a 23:24 relationship. The transcription above includes some sections from the 1992 "EIHN" version, performed as follows:
A: The 23-tuplet bar in D Dorian, to be played twice.
B: A figure in 10/16, repeated various times and swelling via doubling and parallel playing. It starts just on F sharp and ends as indicated in the transcription, sort of in B minor.
C: After block B has reached its max, the ensemble moves to the "What will Rumi do?" variant, block C. This one also gets build up in layers, the closing melody of the top staff being played only once just at the end. Next most of the C figure goes to mezzo-piano and gets used as a vamp for the returning "T'Mershi Duween" melody. The vamp itself is in E Dorian, the top staff uses the G# from "What will Rumi do?" in E Mixolydian.

5) Free counterpoint movements.

This is a test

"This is a test" was handed over to the Ensemble Modern the first day of rehearsals in 1992 because it's easy to perform and fit for sight reading. Zappa didn't intend this composition to be officially released. It's a relaxed easy going miniature though and its recording also landed on "Everything is healing nicely".

This is a test, bars 1-2 (midi file)
This is a test, bars 9-13 (midi file)

This is a test (transcription)

It's a variation piece, where the theme is presented in the first two bars. Then this melody gets varied upon till the end, leading it through all kind of diatonic scales. The bass part, played by the brass, is blowing chromatic counterpoint notes through it to season it. See below at "Exercise #4" for another example of free counterpoint movements.

Ensemble ModernThe 1993 "The yellow shark" CD is a sort of a suite for an ensemble, though not written with that intention, with pieces that are highly diverse in their instrumentation, form and accessibility. The release contains some of Zappa's most difficult music, written for wind sextet and string quintet, as well as easier pieces to listen to like "Outrage at Valdez". Three concerts were held in Germany and Austria. To the right a still from the ZDF TV registration with Zappa and Peter Rundel during applause in front of the Ensemble Modern. On the program were also some rearrangements of earlier pieces. From the counterpoint point of view the final version of "Pound for a brown" (first appearance on the "Uncle Meat" album) is very interesting because of the different sorts of counterpoint in it: motifs played against a melody at the beginning, bass and descant playing against each other in the middle section and repeating melodies at the end going from one melody to two and three part counterpoint in layers.

6) Counterpoint in an atonal field.

See for instance below at "Times beach" and the next section at "Gross man" and "Overture to Uncle Sam". The last composition stems from the ZFT release "Frank Zappa for president". This CD contains another example of atonal counterpoint, called "Medieval ensemble", a rather frenetic example.

1. Intro

The actual concert, as broadcasted on ZDF TV, began with a nine minutes improvisation piece, presented as the "Overture". First the members of the ensemble come on stage improvising. Next Zappa walks on stage, all in black, with taped synclavier music being played. He starts with conducting the ensemble. A mixture of directed improvisations and synclavier outtakes follow. Next Zappa introduces Peter Rudell. The intro from the CD is from another concert, where Zappa is giving the audience a secret word for the evening one more time. It's some conceptual continuity type of fun for the Zappa fans in the audience, because he had done this before during his 1971 tour.

2-3. Dog breath variations - Uncle Meat

The opening of the specific "Yellow shark" version of "Dog breath variations" gets dealt with in the Uncle meat section of this study, next to earlier versions.

Uncle Meat (1992), 0:00-0:33 (midi file).

Uncle Meat (1992), 0:00-0:33 (transcription).

Around 1972 Zappa re-arranged "Uncle meat (1969)" and "The dog breath variations" for his jazz ensemble as "Dog/Meat". This version was also used for the 1974 execution on "YCDTOSA vol. II" and this performance on "Yellow shark". "Uncle meat" remains relatively close to the original version from 1969. The main differences are the coda and a different positioning of the accompanying figure for theme 1. In the transcription you can see that the woodblocks deviate from the lead melody during theme 2 (bars 17-21). I don't have the original score, so I can't tell for sure if this was prescribed in detail. "Uncle Meat" gets a lot of attention in the Clement study from 2009, that I consider a mix of correct findings and lesser conclusions. See the left menu for this study and my discussion with Clement. Here I'm briefly summarizing things with some additional remarks.
- The 1992 version replaces the sustained bass pedal D by a vamping figure on G. Therefore the key changes from D major/Ionian to G Lydian for theme 1. The notes involved in the vamp are G-D-E-A, while the figures from staves 2-3 of my 1969 example touch upon all notes of the Ionian scale except C#. Theme 1 can also be heard in C Mixolydian during the "Uncle Meat variations" from Uncle Meat (see my Uncle Meat section). Clement calls the later Lydian version a "correction", because that version is much more in line with his theory (preference for Lydian, general avoidance of Ionian, etc.). You can listen to the 1969 and 1992 versions yourself and check if it sounds as a correction. Secondly you might then ask why Zappa didn't "correct" theme 2 from major to Lydian too.
- Clement noted that there's a strong tendency not to use the Lydian tonic in the melodies played on top of this tonic. In the G Lydian version of theme 1, the melody of theme 1 indeed doesn't contain a G. He gives no musicological reason why Zappa would do that. He just noticed it and the G Lydian version would be in line with it. According to my finding there's only a weak tendency to do so, thus not strong enough an argument. There maybe a relatively lesser occurence of tonics in melodies not only in Lydian. Classical music is quite persistent regarding the necessity to confirm the tonic with harmonic cadences, especially as it comes to how to close a piece. In Zappa's music such necessities don't exist. You've got pieces like the beginning of "Good Lobna" (see the Guitar section), where the tonic doesn't get confirmed in any manner. Neither melodically by the guitar, nor harmonically by the keyboards. See also Zappa's own comment upon "Heay duty Judy", that I'm citing in the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section.

4. Outrage at Valdez

There are two quite different pieces that Zappa composed as "Outrage at Valdez" on behalf of the Jacques Cousteau documentary with the same title. See the previous Documentaries section for examples from both pieces.

5-6. Times Beach II - III Revised

I'm getting towards the end of this study with sections from one of Zappa's most inaccessible pieces, the sextet "Times Beach" from "The Yellow shark". The members of the Ensemble Modern, who are playing it, first thought of it as just another modern atonal piece, but started to appreciate it in the long run.
The first example contains two bars from the second movement, that comprehend flute and clarinet (untransposed "C-clarinet" notation) playing counterpoint figures. This fragment is too short to give an idea of the piece as a whole but on a microscale the second bar gives a variation on the movement in the first bar.

Times Beach II, fragment (midi file).

Times Beach II, fragment (transcription).

Another example from "Times Beach" is included below at track 13, the third movement from this sextet. "III Revised" is a movement from the string quartet "None of the above". See below at track 10 for this composition.

7-8. The girl in the magnesium dress - Be-bop tango

Two smaller examples from the score of "The girl in the magnesium dress" are presented in the L.S.O.-Perfect stranger section.
The opening of the specific "Yellow shark" version of the "Be-bop tango" is coming by in the Roxy and elsewhere section, where I've included a subsection about Zappa's tangos.

9. Ruth is sleeping

"Ruth is sleeping" is the first composition Zappa started with on the synclavier in 1982-3. Rather than beginning with something easy, he immediately went ahead exploring what a machine could do what would be difficult for humans. At the time it could operate with sampled sounds, he chose it to become a piano movement and started reworking upon the score. Technically the score below can be played on a single piano, but then it would become a circus act. It would mean that you would have to keep two to four balls in the air with each hand. The balls in this case are the four to eight melodic lines, that for performing purposes are divided over two piano parts of two staffs. Each staff is doing sometimes one, sometimes two melodic movements. The meter in these opening bars is 3/4 with the melodic lines moving through it irregularly. There are just as much notes on beat, off beat, before beat and after beat. The meter then only serves for a time unit, there is no downbeat. The formation is such that there about two sequences of two 16th notes per bar, whereas the other sequences are slower. It's going from piano to forte, at the end a bit faster. Here it's completely free atonal music, passing through all registers of a piano.

Ruth is sleeping, opening bars (midi file).

Ruth is sleeping, opening bars (score).

The piece changes in character however frequently. There are for instance sections that sound like a modern jazz improvisation and sections with larger sequences, where melodic motifs are getting varied upon. This is happening for instance during bars 57-65, to be continued in bars 69-72 (1:11-1:27 on the CD). The piece ends with another example of sequences, bars 269-282 (5:15-5:31 on the CD). An example of a recurring motif at different spots are the cells with repeated 16th notes in bars 18, 34-35 and 38. This becomes notable, because repeating notes aren't happening elsewhere in this composition in this manner. The next example are bars 237-245 (4:33-4:44 on the CD). This section might be called an exercise for playing seconds (etude in French). It's made up of two bass lines plus two held notes by the descant at first. These two lines are alternating. While one is taking over playing the melody, the other is holding its last note. You can see little melodic cells that get varied upon. The mostly used interval is the minor second. Second comes the major second, as in the recurring F-Gb-Ab-F-G natural figure in bars 241-2. Only occasionally other intervals turn up. Bars 237-239 are played in the lower registers of the piano, bars 240-244 in the lowest registers, going down to C1 in bar 243.

Ruth is sleeping, bars 237-245 (midi file).

Ruth is sleeping, bars 237-245 (score).

To the example I've added the intervals between subsequent notes as the number of minor second steps, as well as I've indicated cells with letters:
- a: little Eb-E step. The Eb always lasts a 16th note, while the length of the longer E note varies and the E can get repeated.
- b: a F-Gb figure at first, with varying tails getting added to it during its returns.
- c: plain chromatic movement, downwards or upwards.
- d: figure around E-Eb-E.
- e: two times a cell with a downwards minor second and minor third, beginning on E and B respectively.
- f and g: two more little figures, not directly related to the previous, as a transition to bar 245. With bar 245 the climate changes again to the free atonal music as in the opening bars.

Ruth is sleeping, bars 44-53 (midi file).

Ruth is sleeping, bars 44-53 (score).

During bars 44-45 the piece changes in a second from free atonal music to a brief moment of diatonic music. The harmony of bar 45 sounds surprising. It's the Em7 chord from E Dorian with the descant using this scale as well during bar 45 and the first beat of bar 46. In this example it's mostly the descant from staff 1, that continues playing a lead melody. Here it's done in a quasi-improvised jazz type manner. From the second beat of bar 46 the music is atonal again. While the previous two examples are notated in 3/4, here Zappa is using 9/8 (one time only), as well as 2/4 (as for several blocks). Bars 44-53 correspond with 1:00-1:09 on the CD.

10. None of the above

None of the above"None of the above" was orginally composed as a four-part string quartet for the Kronos Quartet, who premiered this piece in 1985. As is in the case of "Times Beach", "None of the above" is available for only two of its movements. Image to the right: Zappa in front of a page from "None of the above" (Yellow shark booklet). Both pieces are still waiting for a complete recording (see also the On the shelves section of the left menu). The corresponding tracks are:
- String quartet mvt. I => "None of the above" for string quintet.
- String quartet mvt. II: exists as sheet music only.
- String quartet mvt. III => "III Revised" for string quintet.
- String quartet mvt. IV: exists as sheet music only.
Related are:
- "Questi cazzi di piccione": another string quintet piece from "The yellow shark", regarding style related to "III Revised".
- "None of the above (revised & previsited)": rehearsal sections from "EIHN", starting with the opening of "III Revised". Next this track continues with string quintet music with additional chamber orchestra embellishments. It sounds like it is recorded in a rather fragmented way with many pauses. The CD liner notes suggest that next to the expansion for string quintet, some sections were also rewritten for string quintet plus chamber orchestra.

In 1992 The Ensemble Modern had five string players, the reason why Zappa adapted "None of the above" for a string quintet. It's for two violins, and one viola, violincello and contrabass. The scores of "Times Beach" and "None of the above" are only for rent for ensembles, nor have I found examples elsewhere. It's difficult music to transcribe, because the meters are mostly only functioning as time units. There's a lot of counterpoint happening in "III Revised" and "Questi cazzi di piccione", as well as hocketing. Compared to these two movements and "Times Beach", "None of the above" is much more accessible, even though also this section is all atonal. This is accomplished by the formation of sequences and the more homophonic writing style.

None of the above, section (midi file).

None of the above, section (transcription).

The example above is from the middle part of this piece, where the cello is taking the lead. It's not possible for me to be sure who's playing which note, so I've notated this with three staffs corresponding with ranges. One staff for the higher descant notes, one for the alt range and one bass staff. The cello is playing a sequence of mostly downwards moving strings of four notes per bar. The others are complementing the cello part with mostly harmony notes and occasionally some light counterpoint movement. About the whole example, bars 1-11, is played accelerating little by little. If I'm not mistaken, it ends with a held chord, preceded by a bar in 9/8. It's a broad chord, containing Gb-C-Ab-E-Eb, spread out over four octaves.

11-12. Pentagon afternoon - Questi cazzi di piccione

Zappa himself calls "Pentagon afternoon" a tone poem in the CD booklet. The ray guns, he's talking about, can actually be heard on stage during this piece. Peter Rundell says this track is only part of a bigger piece, where they did a lot of work on. Some subdued annoyment about Zappa's decision to eliminate most of it can be detected. "Questi cazzi di piccione" belongs to the abstract atonal works. On this occasion the string players conducted themselves, using taps to keep the time. Zappa proposed they should do this on stage too.

13. Times Beach III

The next example stems from the third movement of "Times Beach". It's one of the fast passages in this mostly adagio movement. See "Igor's boogie", "Greggery Peccary" and "Envelopes" for other such examples in this study.

Times Beach III, fragment (midi file, tempo change not included).

Times Beach III, fragment (transcription).

Zappa: ""Times Beach" was commissioned by the Aspen Wind Quintet, and it was in five movements, one of which seemed to be unplayable at the time that they gave their premiere performance in Alice Tulley Hall in 1985. Nobody has played it (in full) since they tried it. The title refers to our special little toxic town-you know, Time's Beach, the dioxin-infested town that was the first major U.S. environmental disaster where they had to remove everybody out because of the dioxin." Peter Rundel, conducting the Ensemble Modern: "We had already prepared other pieces, but we needed something more. The musicians opposed it, but I said maybe we should try that again. Frank said, "Why not, let's do it", and it became very clear how to play it. It had no dynamics, no articulation-just plain notes. Frank sang the phrases for us. Suddenly it became very lively, and the character of the music came out. It was not an abstract kind of music anymore" (CD Booklet).

14-15. Food gathering in post-industrial America - Welcome to the United States

"Food gathering in post-industrial America, 1992" and "Welcome to the United States" have their outlines written out, while the details can be improvised. Because of the cliche type of intro from the second track, I've include two examples from it in the Broadway the hard way section. The first is the fanfare type of opening (not part of the score), the second is the opening from the score itself as reproduced in the CD booklet.

At the start of 2014, the Ensemble Insomnio managed to get a permission the play the larger part from the Yellow Shark program anew. Below are two photos from their concerts at the Lantaren, Rotterdam, and at the Muziekgebouw Het IJ, Amsterdam (photographer unknown).

16-17. Pound for a brown - Exercise #4

"Pound for a brown" is the oldest piece from "Yellow shark", dealt with in the Zappa's teens section of this study.
"Exercise #4" appears three times in the official catalogue. The set-up of the "Yellow shark" version is as follows:
0:00 Theme 1. A melody in G Mixolydian, played via parallel fourths over a repeating chord (Gsus4 add m7).
0:09 Theme 1 gets repeated, transposed a minor second down.
0:00 Theme one on G again. Here my transcription starts. Rhythmically it has the lead melody played as four times 3/16, while the chord is repeated as standard 6/8.
0:18 Counterpoint block. Here it's getting irregular. The homophonic and polyphonic writing styles get mixed and the notes are sometimes forming parts of a diatonic scale, while at other moments it's more atonal. Theme 1 is in 6/8. This section has no clear downbeat pattern. I continued notating in 6/8, but it's possible that Zappa notated this differently. My transcription stops towards the end of this block.
0:29 Theme 2. A motif that gets varied upon. There's a light form of counterpoint included, because the two melodic lines can move into diverging directories.
0:40 Variations upon the earlier counterpoint block.
0:53 Outro with repeating chords.
1:06 Applause.
1:37 End.

Exercise #4, 0:13-0:25 (midi file).

Exercise #4, 0:13-0:25 (transcription).

"Exercise #4" premiered as the intro for the "Uncle Meat variations" from the 1968 "Uncle Meat" CD. Here only themes 1 and 2 are played, much slower than on the "Yellow shark". "Exercise #4" is not directly related to "Uncle Meat", but stylistically they belong to the same category: modern diatonic music, not using traditional harmony patterns. Interesting is the "Road tapes, venue #2" version with a 1973 performance. This one actually starts with "Uncle Meat" variations - that is variations upon the melodic material from "Uncle Meat". The variations as present in the 1968 "Uncle Meat variations" are basically the theme replayed as a series of different instrumentations. This one features theme 1 and has an interlude of its own.

18-19. Get whitey - G-spot tornado

"Get whitey" is an example of a composition where Zappa is using the synclavier for playing extremely difficult irregular rhythmic groupings. See the next section for an example. The Ensemble Modern succeeded in approaching it.
"G-spot tornedo" is another synclavier composition. This one can be performed by humans without much difficulties. See the Jazz from hell section for two examples.

Other tracks from EIHN

Apart from the intro, all titles from "The yellow shark" know scores. Most are for rent on the list of Munchkin Music at www.zappa.com. "EIHN" is a combination of composed music, themes made up on the spot and improvisations. Some compositions, like "T'Mershi Duween", are also on the Munchkin Music list.

- "Strat Vindaloo": this title features members from the Ensemble Modern, improvising Indian music with Zappa and Shankar. See the previous documentaries section.
- "Amnerika": See the Civilization Phaze III with a vocal version from around 1983.

The left menu of this site has a section with the tracks that have appeared on the three Ensemble Modern CDs with music by Zappa, 42 in total. Many note examples from these pieces are dealt with spread out over this study. In case of their last "Greggery Peccary and other persuasions" CD it concerns the following titles:

- Moggio: The man from Utopia section.
- What will Rumi do?: above.
- Night school: Jazz from hell section.
- Revised music for low budget orchestra: Orchestral favorites section.
- Put a motor in yourself: Civilization part III section.
- Peaches en regalia: Hot rats and Tinsel town rebellion sections.
- Naval aviation in art?: The perfect stranger section.
- The adventures of Greggery Peccary: Orchestral favorites section.

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