SHIP ARRIVING TOO LATE TO SAVE A DROWNING WITCH - THEM OR US: THE MODERN ROCK BAND AND INSTRUMENTATION
At the same time as Zappa was busy preparing the recording of his orchestral scores, he was more than ever behaving as the conductor of his rock band on tour, giving highstanding and technically impressive performances. Some of the orchestral pieces also found their way on the rock albums from this period, the "Drowning witch" album (1982) including "Envelopes", "You are what you is" and "Them or us" (1984) both including sections from "Sinister footwear". The latter composition hasn't been recorded yet in its orchestral form, but the scores are available at Barfko Swill.
"Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch" begins with two normal popsongs and then proceeds with
an awe-inspiring combination of Zappa's composing skills and improvising capacities on guitar.
The instrumental parts of the title track are an example of a composition made up of several motifs and
variation parts, played in different tempi as in "Debra kadabra" from the Bongo fury section. Other than
in the mostly unisono "Debra kadabra" track, the bass part in "Drowning witch" is frequently used for
counterpoint movements. It's abstract atonal music, the second example being played in a thrilling high tempo.
The first example deals with playing around the Ab note, varying the rhythm within a 9/4 meter. The second one
contains various forms of sequences in bars 1-8, to end with irregular strings in bars 9-11.
Drowning witch, 2:30 till 2:38 (midi file)
Drowning witch, 2:47 till 3:03 (midi file)
Drowning witch, 2:30 till 2:38 (transcription).
Drowning witch, 2:47 till 3:03 (transcription).
On the album liner notes Steve Vai gets credited for the playing of "impossible guitar parts". Vai
commented that Zappa would frequently come up with try-out scores to see if it was feasible for him
to do things on guitar that Zappa himself thought was impossible. Zappa himself in Guitar Player, February 1983,
confides to us: "What usually happens is this: if I put another guitarist on my album, I hire
that person because he can play things that I can't play. And if the music requires a certain type
of performance, and the composition is the real crux of the biscuit, then you don't want to be unfair
to the composition and play it yourself if you're going to play it wrong. So I get people who can do it.
It's not a matter of being lazy; if there's something on a given song that I think is in my
department, I'm going to play it. But if it's something that will be difficult or impossible for me to do, I'd just as soon get somebody who feels comfortable
with that style and have them do it." I can only take this for granted, I'm a lousy
pianist and I can't play guitar at all. I can only transcribe deducing things - like apparently it goes as
such or so -, but don't ask me to play it.
Next are regular and unorthodox rock 'n roll, following upon each other on the album. The first is "Valley girl", a piece
for which Zappa's daughter Moon suggested the lyrics. Frank took the bait. It has two short rock themes and a vamp, over which
Moon is doing her Encino accent. Moon took an acetate to a radio station and it got that much attention, that it was
released as a single shortly after. It climbed up to number 32 in the billboard top 40, Zappa's only serious U.S. hitsingle.
It opens in C, changing to F in bar 5 till it gets at E Phrygian from bar 11 onwards. Here the accompaniment starts
vamping around the chord progression I-II-VI. The other example is
the opening of "I come from nowhere", rhythmically differentiated and using an accentuated dissonant G sharp plus A.
Varying meters come along, normal 4/4 and some odd ones. The 27/16 bar is a
fast pattern breaking atonal movement, possibly an "impossible one" for Steve Vai.
The middle of the song contains
an unusual chromatic melody formation, sung over
counterpoint bass lines and an ongoing rhythm guitar. A strong guitar solo rounds of this piece.
It's embarrassing to see that some of his own fans didn't follow him during this time. Dominique Chevalier
concluded in "Viva Zappa" that "Ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch" was second rate and the 1982
Geneva concert, released on "You can't do that on stage anymore vol. V", was stopped just before its scheduled
ending because of things being thrown on stage.
Valley girl, opening (midi file)
I come from nowhere, opening (midi file)
Valley girl, opening (transcription)
I come from nowhere, opening (transcription)
The transcription covers the opening bars with:
- Bars 1-4: opening theme in F# Mixolydian, with the chord progression I-VII-I-II-IV in bars 1-2. Over the IV
chord, held in bar 2, the dissonant notes G# plus A natural are played. The subsequent meters are 5/4, 4/4, 5/4 and 2/4.
- Bar 5: an atonal bar in 27/16. First it's a series of six 16th notes, next a sequence of lower thirds, half-way doubled
with descant parallel notes. The movement comes at rest on the closing 5th chord.
- From bar 6 onwards the song becomes more normal rock 'n roll in B minor, mostly in 4/4, sometimes 2/4.
In bars 8-9 a two bar vamp gets introduced, doing the chord sequence B-G-F#m7 in rock terms. Thus first two parallel major
chords with the D altered to D# for the first one (it's a bit ambiguous about its key being B major or minor).
- In bar 20 the sung main melody begins over the vamp from bars 8-9. It's strongly syncopic and with its D always natural, it can be dissonant with
"Sinister footwear II" on "Them or us" contains a section related to "The black page", harmonically and rhythmically
unpredictable. Like "The black page" it includes irregular rhythmic groupings, that in this case are played over 3/4.
Harmonically it's in the grey area between tonal and atonal. The tail of the repeated introductory melody in bars 1-4 is in B minor (with the augmented
7th (A#)). When the lead melody starts it briefly continues in B minor, but soon it gets impossible to assign
sections to keys. Still you can recognize strings from various diatonic scales.
Sinister footwear II, 6:08 till 6:32 (midi file)
Theme from Sinister footwear III, 2:30 till 2:53 (midi file)
Sinister footwear II, 6:08 till 6:32 (transcription).
Theme from Sinister footwear III, 2:30 till 2:53 (transcription).
"Sinister footwear" in total is a three part orchestral work. Its first movement is still
waiting for its premiere on record; part III is built around a written out guitar solo, that
appeared on "You are what you is". The solo itself stems from the 1978 fall tour. It was first known
carrying the title "Persona non grata". It is this exact solo that Steve Vai transcribed for the Guitar book, including
the drum part. The
differences with the "Theme from Sinister Footwear III" as it can be found on "You are what you is" are:
- The whole track got sped up with a minor second, thus moving from E Lydian to F Lydian. The section above is from the part where
Zappa is mingling F major and F Lydian by also using a Bb (via parallels, but also as a separate note). See also the Guitar book, page 212, first half.
- The drum part in the Guitar book is a different one, thus Zappa took the solo from the live track apart and overdubbed a new bass and drum part.
- He had Ed Mann doubling the guitar line on marimba and bells.
"Sinister footwear" got performed in 1984 by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra,
but Zappa wasn't satisfied with this execution. It is this last part III that causes most performing difficulties.
The guitar part, with all its
irregular rhythmic groupings, went literally that way into the orchestra score. Here again there are
doublings prescribed for this part. The best way to get it correctly on CD is in my opinion to proceed the same way
as Zappa did for "You are what you is", namely by overdubbing instruments. To have different people play it at the
same time and be synchronous for the whole track at once, that's asking a lot. The orchestral version of "Sinister footwear"
is in my opinion a masterpiece, one that in this case got officially released in the sense that the score is or
has been available during a certain period. It is known among fans
via the "Apocrypha" bootleg with the 1984 performance and some people who read notes and managed to get a copy of the score
(a sample can be found at the bottom of this page). The Berkeley version
lasts 26 minutes and consists for half of music unreleased on CD. The corresponding section of the above example can be found
at 24:50 through 25:25, beautifully orchestrated. It leaves a dissatisfying aftertaste that the availability of Zappa's modern music
on CD is incomplete. Especially when you take into account that the "Times Beach" wind quintet and the "None of the above" string quartet from 1985
are also only partially released on "The yellow shark" via some of their movements. In 2009 the "Sinister footwear"
bootleg recording became part of "Beat the boots III", downloadable via amazon.com and i-tunes. With the status of this
recording thus turned legal and an acceptable sound quality (for a bootleg), a small step has been taken in bringing
"Sinister footwear" to a wider audience.
"Them or us" opens and ends with a cover song, as earlier on "Burnt weeny sandwich". The ending song
in this case is a Gregg Allman composition, called "Whipping post". Zappa continues in Guitar
Player, February 1983:
FZ: "It started out ten or twelve years ago when some guy in the audience at a concert in Helsinki,
Finland, requested it.
GP: "In English?"
FZ: "Yes. He just yelled out "Whipping Post" in broken English. I have it on tape. And I said: "Excuse me?".
I could just barely make it out. We didn't know it and I felt bad that we couldn't just play it and blow the guy's socks off.
So when Bobby Martin joined the band and I found out that he knew how to sing that song, I said
"We are definitely going to be prepared for the next time somebody wants "Whipping Post" - in
fact we're going to play it before somebody even asks for it". I've
got probably 30 different versions of it on tape from concerts all around the world, and
one of them is going to be the "Whipping Post" - the apex "Whipping Post" of
And so it was done on "Them or us" and "Does humour belong in music" (1985), the
latter with Dweezil joining Frank on guitar. The Helsinki guy requesting it also reached a CD
with "What you can't do on stage anymore, vol. II", introducing "Montana". Zappa's recollection
here wasn't perfect. He actually replied with "maybe can you sing us a few notes so that we can play it".
So the guy in the audience sang "woo woo woo" and Zappa answered that it must have been a John
Marque-Son's chicken is an example of using various themes in odd numbered metres. Melodically he's mixing atonal and diatonic material, as well
as traditional and untraditional chords. The transcribed part below of the written out theme consists of:
- Bar 1: a guitar riff in 13/16, repeated four times, written out for Steve Vai.
It's an atonal progression with some counterpoint and harmony.
- Bars 2-3: an atonal arpeggio figure. Bar 2 in 14/16 gets repeated three times, bar 3 is a final repetition slightly different in 15/16.
- Bars 4-5: a diatonic chord progression in normal 4/4. It begins in E, but ends with altered notes. The higher keyboard chords are regular 5th chords. The bass however
is playing a counterpoint line and extending the harmony to larger chords.
- Bar 6: a short bass riff in 9/16, combining D#-E-F# and repeated four times.
- Bars 7-18: a sequence of arpeggio figures in 10/16, all diatonic and using various scales and chord types.
When you take the bass notes
as key note and root note of the chords, then bars 7-8 are in E Phrygian with a I 13th chord, bars 9-10 are in F Lydian
with the I chord, bars 11-12 are in E minor with a I 9th chord etc.
It's a series
of six variations upon a movement going up and down in the shape of something like a W upside down. The idea reminds me of
the first two preludes from The well-tempered clavier I by Bach; it sounds more modern because of the use of enlarged chords.
Marque-Son's chicken, opening (midi file)
Marque-Son's chicken, opening (transcription).
By 1984 Zappa had his whole family cooperating on his albums in one form or the other. He included rhymes from the still
very young Diva and Ahmet in two of his songs, respectively "Chana in de bushwop" (from "YCDTOSA Vol. III") and "Frogs with dirty little lips".
The music from the latter is transcribed below. It's made up of three themes that are repeated three times. It opens in A minor with a
sometimes syncopic bass riff with some "swamp" accompaniment by the percussion, a descending guitar note and some wooden flute. Over this
riff he's singing the verses with a low nasal innuendo tone (bars 1-6). It's rather dark here. The next 4 bars take the melody upwards, while other
instruments join in. Via various scales the key gets ultimately led to A.
Then the song becomes joyful with the tune from bar 11 onwards. This last theme of four bars is used for the coda.
During this coda it keeps getting repeated with the vocal part gradually withdrawing. In bar 18 higher keyboard
movements enter the picture, played via chords with fourths and fifths. At the end it's all instrumental with these extra little
keyboard sequences, that are emotionally touching. The midi file suffers a bit from that my editor can't play glissandos.
Frogs with dirty little lips, 1:11-1:59 (midi file)
Frogs with dirty little lips, 1:11-1:59 (transcription).
SOUND AND INSTRUMENTATION
"Nothing beats two guitars, bass, drum", Lou Reed says in his "New York" CD liner notes, describing the basic rock
band sound. By just looking at Zappa's rock group through the years you'll always see that Zappa wanted more than the
basic sound. He would only go on tour with at least a five piece band. You can mostly see keyboards, wind instruments
and percussionists added to the basis of guitar, bass and drum. What is specifically Zappa is that the less common
instruments are not there to fill in the sound, but to play lead melodies and solos all equally important as the standard
Many Zappa compositions have a single melodic line as their origin, a written out lead sheet. The "Uncle meat" and "King
Kong" scores as presented in the "Uncle meat" CD booklet are two examples: the plain melody with chord symbols, of
which the root can be taken as pedal note.
For each band that played these pieces the instrumentation got redefined anew. All "Uncle meat" executions have a different
set up. The pitch may differ, the pedal notes may differ, the harmony and counterpoint are filled in each time anew. First
Zappa often doubles the melody by having more people play or sing the same part. It can be unisono, parallel octaves and
sometimes thirds and fourths. Every now and then other intervals can be encountered as well.
Characteristically he doesn't want the doubled parts to blend, but to remain individually audible, like guitar and vibes
or keyboards and brass. For the singers you'll hear that they usually don't sing unisono, but in parallels. Secondly you
get a harmony fill in. The on beat chords in "Uncle meat", as shown in the
corresponding section in this study, follow the lead sheet literally. Thirdly there are counterpoint figures. When I started this study I took over "Uncle meat" from
the Songbook (melody, chords and pedal notes), doubling the melody for the stereo effect. When I relistened and wondered
why the CD version sounded so much better, I noted I missed a complete part, namely the counterpoint figure that's now
When Zappa wrote for an orchestra he took this same attitude with him. In the 19th century orchestras were getting bigger
and bigger and orchestration was becoming a discipline by itself, involving which groups of instruments could be combined,
which instruments could be used for certain effects within a context and which instruments shouldn't be used at the same
time. Richard Wagner was in expert in intoxicating his audience with infinite variations upon his main themes, at some points
intimate, elsewhere leading to a big orchestral blast as with the 2nd theme from Parsifal in bars 69-72 of the Overture. From
this romantic perspective most people are used to, Zappa's orchestration can be seen as careless, not making full use
of the possibilities of a symphony orchestra.
It is this subject an article by Arved Ashby in The Musical Quarterly, winter 1999, is about. It carries the title "Frank Zappa
and the anti-fetishist orchestra" and demonstrates how Zappa deliberately departed from the traditional orchestra sound. You'll have
to wrestle through the pile of intellectual baggage some academics deem necessary, but otherwise this article is sincere and worthwhile.
In pieces as "Bogus pump" (called cheesy fanfare music by Zappa on the L.S.O. vol. II cover) or "Strictly genteel", a big
closing waltz, Zappa still had an eye for traditional orchestration, as he had also done very early in his career
in the closing part of "The world's greatest sinner" orchestra score. In his later completely atonal works as "Mo 'n Herbs
vacation" and "Sinister footwear I" this is mostly gone. Next are two sections from Sinister footwear I in a reduced form. The
first one is a piano reduction. See Ashby's article for the full orchestra sheet of the second example.
Sinister footwear I, bars 1-11 (midi file)
Sinister footwear I, bars 20-27 (midi file)
Sinister footwear I, bars 1-11 (notes).
Sinister footwear I, bars 20-27 (notes).
The first movement from "Sinister footwear" opens with variations around a rhythmical figure in different meters and tempi.
In bar 20 a small theme or motif gets introduced that gets varied upon over a larger period, thus forming a large sequence.
The set-up in bars 20-27 shows what Zappa does a lot in his later orchestral works. There's a lead melody led rapidly over various instrumentation groups,
that are individualistic rather than moving fluidly from one group into the other. There are longer harmony notes, lasting
over more than a bar. Dissonant strings in bars 21-23 ultimately are leading to a consonant combination of saxes and harp in bar 27.
There is some counterpoint movement present in the bass guitar part in bars 24-27.
"Naval aviation in art?" is an exceptional work in Zappa's output, because it's specifically dealing with instrumentation all through this composition. The central element
are held notes, that every few bars change position via a string of (mostly) 32nd notes (staffs 1-2 of the "Orchestral favorites" example and
and staffs 6-7 of the "The perfect stranger" example). These notes are called the melodic notes in the tables below. It can be seen as a huge sequence.
The other parts hardly play melodic lines, but harmonise this sequence via single notes coming up and disappearing again. The wealth of atonal chords and sound combinations is amazing. When Zappa
wrote for orchestras, larger ensembles or jazz big bands, it always sounds thus natural as if he had been doing so all of his life. The actual number of instances that
he could work in this way are relatively few. His financial means grew through the years, but there's no real juvenile and mature Zappa. He could step into
things straight ahead.
Naval aviation in art? (Orchestral favorites), bars 1-7 (midi file)
Naval aviation in art? (The perfect stranger), bars 1-12 (midi file)
Naval aviation in art? (Orchestral favorites), bars 1-7 (notes).
Naval aviation in art? (The perfect stranger), bars 1-12 (notes).
According to Gail Zappa "Naval aviation in art?" stems from the "200 Motels" period, with the title taken over from
a magazine photo featuring navy employees in a specific line-up (liner notes from the "Greggery Peccary & other persuasions" CD by the Ensemble Modern).
It first appeared on "Orchestral favorites" and got recorded again for "The perfect stranger" in a much different version. The first thing that's directly
noticable is the tempo difference. Bars 1-12 from above last 27 seconds on "Orchestral favorites" and 47 seconds on "The perfect stranger". Other
differences are numerous. "Orchestral favorites" begins with a pick-up bar with 32nd notes and a 16th note by the flutes (two flutes are used for the stereo field).
The 32 seconds
notes in bar 1 and 3 are by a single
violin, thus no clarinets, and played an octave higher than the viola on "The perfect stranger". The 32 seconds notes by the flutes are present again in bar 4 with no
comparable notes on "The perfect stranger". The harmony notes from bar 6 onwards are played by different
Bar number ||Melodic notes ||Harmony notes
- Bar 1|| Ab, D#
- Bar 2|| Ab, D#, B
- Bar 3|| A, D#, B
- Bar 4|| A, D#, E
- Bar 5|| Ab, D#, E
- Bar 6|| Ab, D#, B ||F, E, C#, D
- Bar 7|| A, D#, B ||F, E, C#, G, C, D
Bar number ||Melodic notes ||Harmony notes
- Bar 1|| Ab
- Bar 2|| Ab, B, D#
- Bar 3|| A, B, D#
- Bar 4|| A, E, D#
- Bar 5|| Ab, E, D#
- Bar 6|| Ab, B, D# || E, C#, D, C, F#
- Bar 7|| A, B, D# ||F, E, C#, D, C, F#, G
- Bar 8|| A, E, D# ||F, E, C#, D, C, F#, G
- Bar 9|| Bb, E, D# ||F, C#, D
- Bar 10|| Bb, D, E, C# ||F, G, C#, D, C
- Bar 11|| B, D, E, C# ||F, G, Bb, C, B
- Bar 12|| B, F, G, E ||A, G, C
Both versions begin calmly with three notes sounding for bars 1-5. From bar 6 onwards things are getting dense. The number of notes sounding
incombination varies between 6 and 10. In bar 7 from the 1984 version you're approaching the whole chromatic scale being played at once. It is
to be noted that Zappa little doubles the parts. Most instruments play their own notes. The permanently changing instrumentation, combined with the extensive use of dynamics,
makes that the composition remains transparant.
This piece gets dealt with extensively in the Martin Harraiz study, pages 211-227 (see the literature section). It begins with noting that
this piece is indeed exceptional in Zappa's output:
""Naval aviation in art" is an atypical work of Zappa. By this we mean that most of the
more or less general principles observed thus far are not present in this work: there is no particular 'melodic line',
nor are the striking rhythms present, that are often speech influenced and dense. It not only contradicts
his compositions for orchestras but for virtually any medium." So Martin doesn't interpret it as a sequence as I did above, but
also takes the notes I indicated as melodic as to be seen as just held notes. This study is in Portuguese, so it's translated
here with some liberty.
Next the origins of this work and its different versions get commented upon, starting with: "Like most pieces of Zappa, it's
difficult to pinpoint the exact date when this work was composed: its first version
is best known as a recording from 1975 (included in Orchestral favorites album, released in 1979), but could already
be heard, much larger in instrumentation, as background music in a dialogue in the movie 200 Motels (1971). A catalogue of
the 1990s by the publisher Boosey & Hawkes brings information about a version of the piece for large orchestra,
probably the same that was used in the film (composed in the late 1960s, therefore, but already carrying
the final title)." In a note Charles Ulrich gets thanked for sending him this information.
As indicated in the http://globalia.net/donlope/fz site there's indeed a section from "Naval aviation in art?" audible in the movie version
of "200 Motels", the conversation part between Rance Muhammitz and Jimmy Carl Black, that follows upon "Lonesome cowboy Burt". It's
too vague to verify to what extent this orchestra version might differ from the next "Orchestral favorites" performance.
The analysis in the Herraiz study begins with
the initial bars from "The perfect stranger" (as presented above):
"The main elements that go to constitute the entire piece are presented already in this initial fragment. Its texture
can be schematically described as consisting of three layers. The third layer, which begins to act only
in bar 6, consists basically of long notes, sustained, generally
by several measures, whose points of entry and exit not follow any apparent pattern. The first two
layers however (which correspond respectively with staffs 8-9 and staffs 6-7, overlapping
homophonically, represented in this excerpt by starting with two clarinets and two violas), behave
clearly more regular and 'predictable'." The first two layers are then the ones I called "melodic" and the third layer are my harmony notes.