Frank Zappa's musical language
Frank Zappa's musical language
A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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In 1983 Zappa achieved a synthesizer that could play computer-programmed compositions, called a synclavier. The synclavier provides means to execute high tempos and the constant repetition of accompanying figures, which would become fatiguing to impossible for human players. Zappa in The real FZ book: "Anything you make up, can be played or typed by the machine. One of the things I'm using it for, is the creation of complex rhythms, that I can have executed accurately by different groups of instruments. With the Synclavier you can have every imaginable group of instruments play the most complex passages because the little fellows inside will always play it with a millisecond precision degree... Some things live musicians do and machines don't are good and some are bad. One of the good things live musicians do is improvise. They respond to the moment, and can play with more expression than a machine. (Not that a machine knows no expression, but I have to type in a lot of numbers to instantly get the same amount of expression as of a well rehearsed band)...Machines don't get drunk, stoned, or fired and don't need help to carry their families with them from here to everywhere in cases of emergency."
The synclavier was first used for accompanying the spoken parts of "Thing-Fish". Next compositions performed on it appeared on "The perfect stranger" and the 1985 release "FZ meets the mothers of prevention". With the exception of one guitar solo the instrumental album "Jazz from hell" (1986) is all composed on the synclavier. The album makes full use of the instrument to get perfect high tempo recordings of complex compositions. It's the first one from three official CDs by Zappa himself with mainly synclavier music on it. Additional material has been released by the ZFT.

The synclavier

Two stills from the Ivo Niehe interview with Zappa, TROS television 1991. The synclavier was positioned in the studio area of Zappa's house, where also the mixing panel stood. The room was called the Baby milk factory.

1. Night school

"Night school" from "Jazz from hell" has something of a written out improvisation, for it's an ongoing melodic movement without returning themes. It's played over a repeated bass motif, sometimes interrupted for a bar to make change. The section below is from the part where the motif is moving from C pedal to A flat pedal. The basic scale is Lydian in both cases, though you have a lot of chromaticism going on. In the A flat part you have for instance the Ab and Ab augm. 5th chords alternating.

Night school, section (midi file).

Night school, section (transcription).

The title "Night school" refers to an idea Zappa had for a television programme to discuss how news items can get edited. It's being described in the Neil Slaven biography, chapter Once again, without the net. Despite of all the new possibilities the instrument was giving him, the coming years saw a relative decrease in the flow of new compositions and the accent shifted to the compiling of already recorded material. We'll continue with the synclavier in the Civilization Phaze III and Dance me this sections.

2. The Beltway bandits

"The Beltway bandits" begins suggesting a diatonic composition. You might call the G# the central note and, apart from some passing notes, the chord formed is the G#sus4 chord. It's played in layers and built up irregularly. The piece begins with a bar in 11/16. Next the example below continues in 10/16. It belongs to a group of compositions without clear downbeats. The meter notation is only there as a time unit. It gives these pieces a certain charm of their own, making them sound as an ongoing stream. When you try to nod your head to it, you'll find it won't work. This goes for several synclavier pieces, but there are also original compositions on paper where Zappa keeps changing the meters all the time or where he's applying syncopes half of the time. In a practical audible sense, these pieces get meterless: they are there on paper, but you can hardly experience them when only listening. This goes for instance for "Igor's boogie" (changing meters) and "The perfect stranger" (syncopes). There are also some solos where Zappa is playing without a rhythm section and not thinking about a meter. Any attempt to notate meters nevertheless in such cases is technically possible but futile. It would get arbitrary, looking weird. Like Steve Vai in the FZ Guitar book, I prefer to notate this as "no meter" rather than attempting some forced meter subdivisions. This is for instance happening during the opening of the "Yo' Mama" solo and in part of the "Heidelberg" solo. In my "Heidelberg" example you can see that at some point Zappa starts playing in a recognizable 4/4 meter, a little before the rhythm section joins in. It's sort of a directing with a guitar instead of a baton.

The Beltway bandits, opening (midi file).

The Beltway bandits, opening (transcription).

I can't guarantee Zappa used 10/16 himself, but it's getting likely by the pattern of the repeating G# note in my staff 4. When the lead melody enters the picture in bar 7, the first impression of a diatonic composition is swiftly diminishing. The accompaniment can sound diatonic, but the lead melody is chromatic. It's played by a number of instruments, for as far as you can call it that way on a synclavier. Rhythmically they are following the same pattern, but the intervals between the notes vary all the time (with maybe some accent on thirds). So you're getting a sequence of chords as well, which makes the overall sound a bit awkward and undefinable.

Most synclavier pieces from "Jazz from hell" are humanly performable. For instance on the 4th and 6th of December 2003, the Asko Ensemble played:
- Outrage at Valdez
- Outside now again
- Get whitey
- The Beltway bandits
- Night school
- Jazz from hell
- G-spot tornedo
The arrangements for this specific occasion are delivered by Ali Askin, Django Bates, Ron Ford and Corrie van Binsbergen. Some more details can be found at

3. While you were art II

All synclavier music from "Jazz from hell" is based upon note entry, so the sheet music could be printed out from the machine. The sound effects from "Massagio Galore" are probably the only exception, being overdubbed samples. That scores indeed exist has been proven by the orchestrated versions that have been used by a couple of ensembles. At the beginning of the Frank Scheffer documentary about Zappa you can briefly see an orchestra playing "Night school" (see my left menu, miscellaneous items). A human performance of "The Beltway bandits" can be found on the "Greggery Peccary and other persuasions" CD by the Ensemble modern. Best known is of course their "G-spot tornado" execution on "The yellow shark".
Zappa himself talks about this in the Real FZ book, chapter All about music. In the La machine section he notes that music could be typed or played into the synclavier. So the synclavier supported some form of music notation. In the While you were art section he continues with stating that one of the features of the machine was to facilitate that it could be printed out as score. He did this with "While you were art II" for an ensemble assembled by Art Jarvinen. They didn't succeed in playing it on short notice and decided to do a fake performance by playbacking it. Wires to amplifiers were attached to the instruments to explain the more electronic sounds of the tape being played. Later on sampled examples of acoustic instruments were added to the synclavier repertoire, so even that wouldn't be necessary anymore. In case of "Civilization phaze III" from 1994, with the Ensemble Modern contributing, it became impossible to tell when humans or the synclavier is playing.

Zappa used the score of his "While you were out" guitar solo as the starting point (see also the Shut up 'n play yer guitar section). This solo has been transcribed in full in the FZ Guitar book. "While you were art II" is using diatonic material from different scales, mostly without clear tonics. At 3:47 an acceleration is taking place. All is played by a number of instruments in a fragmented, hocketing way. It's energetic and emotionally touching with some progressions sounding melancholic. Compared to the original solo this composition got thus thouroughly re-arranged that it gets difficult to recognize the similarities when just listening. Replaying bars with the score on your desk makes it possible to detect the notes from "While you were out", as I'm showing with the next fragments.

While you were art II, 0:11-0-15 (midi file).

While you were art II, fragments - While you were out, bars 5-11 (transcriptions).

- Snippet #1 (0:11-0:15): as you can see only the notes by Zappa's own guitar part are roughly recurring. The accompanying chords by Warren aren't used. Instead you've got a pretty different arrangement. The returning notes are (F)-G-A and B-A from bar 5 (the first F stems from bar 4). Straight from CD it's impossible to know what meters are used during "While you were art II". So I've refrained from a meter notation, using only dashed lines for a better readability. At this point there's a D pedal as in the original, so the key can be identified as D Dorian.
- Snippet #2 (0:17-0:20): several notes from bars 7-9 can be detected. It's played in a hocketing way.
- Snippet #3 (0:22-0:24): the descending D-C-G movement can be readily recognized, though also played an octave lower.
I've limited myself to only these fragments. I feel uncomfortable transcribing existing scores, especially really complex ones, just because they are unavailable to private persons. On the other hand I can't omit them. It wouldn't do justice to Zappa and give this study something of an incompleteness. So some examples are included, that are terrible to transcribe directly from CD. When rhythms are getting as irregular as in this case, it's not even transcribing anymore in its standard meaning. It's more like figuring out some sort of notation to get things even.

Below screenshots from, concerning a performance of Zappa's music by the Czech National Orchestra, June 2016. The orchestra, assisted by former Zappa collaborators, was temporarely re-named as The Orchestra en Regalia. Sarah Hicks was conducting. Notice the inclusion of "While you were art II". This is the first human performance of this composition.

While you were art II Prague proms Sarah Hicks

4. Jazz from hell

Of the three atonal/chromatic compositions on "Jazz from hell", the title track is the most complex one. To a degree Zappa here does try to let the instruments sound as a jazz ensemble. There's an upright bass playing a counterpoint line and there are brass-like instruments. The other synclavier pieces are using undefined computer-generated sounds. In the "Greggery Peccary and other persuasions" CD liner notes, Gail Zappa tries to give some comment upon the title. As usual rather cryptic. Some remarks by Zappa himself can be found in the Neil Slaven biography at the end of chapter XIX. Though entirely instrumental, all titles of the tracks seem to refer to actual events as if Zappa wanted to say something nevertheless. In case of "While you were art II" this reference is musical.

5. G-spot tornado

The following fragment is the opening from one of the albums more accessible pieces, G-spot tornado, that also has been orchestrated to serve as the finale for "The yellow shark" (see the Counterpoint #2 section).

G-spot tornado, bars 2-6 (midi file).
G-spot tornado, 2:08-2:22 (midi file).

G-spot tornado, sections (notes).

This section is in B Dorian and harmonically basically regular. You could accompany it with for instance I 7th in the first bar, I 7th-II 5th-I 7th in the second bar etc. The general structure of "G-spot tornado" is A-B-A. In A the main melody is played over a repeated bass counterpoint melody (or extended vamp, or it's a passacaglia in baroque terms, if you like), B is the free variation part and the theme returns at the end. The second example is from the middle B block, following all harmonic formations, though using the notes of one scale. There are no clear key notes in this part. The bass is making an irregular quasi-improvised movement, using G natural as opposed to the G sharp of the main melody. Because of the large register difference between the low G of the bass and the descant melody, the dissonance effect of this difference isn't conspicuous. For the later "Yellow Shark" version this whole bass line from the middle block eventually got left out. As it comes to sound, instrumentation and the human element, the "Yellow shark" version is far richer. As a composition however, "G-spot tornedo" is more articulate on "Jazz from hell", being a good example of the use of free counterpoint.

Both "G-spot tornado", at the period of the second example from above, and "Massagio Galore" offer many examples of Zappa applying fourths and fifths, as parallel chords or as melodic fragments with these intervals stacked. In traditional harmony that's uncommon, in harmony classes even referred to as "errors". Zappa however liked such progressions and you can find many examples throughout his music, but not in the sense that you might call them typically Zappa. It's just one of the many ways he looked for harmonic freedom.

G-spot tornado, 2nd example:
- Bars 1 and 5: stacked fourth (F#-B-E).
- Bar 2, beat 1: stacked fifth (G#-C#-F#-B).
- Bar 4: stacked fourths (G#-C#-F# and B-E-A).
- Bars 9-15: large series of parallel fourths.

Continued below at Massagio Galore.

6. Damp ankles

"Damp ankles" is an atonal composition of the free kind. As "Night school" it has no thematic structure. It moves on slowly in many layers over an ongoing accompanying figure (the diminished 5th notes from staff 3).

Damp ankels, opening bars (midi file).

Damp ankles, opening (transcription).

Its beat is clear, the downbeats not. I've notated 4/4 in the example because it's the most common meter, but Zappa may very well have used other meters. It begins and ends with the sound of water waves and seagulls, suggesting a naval environment.

7. St. Etienne

"St. Etienne" is the only humanly performed piece on "Jazz from hell", giving the whole an extra dimension. It's a solo from the 1984 tour, simply named after the venue, where it was recorded. It's a pedal note solo in B Dorian. Towards the end you can hear Zappa picking notes as fast as he can. He did something comparable during his Budapest solo. See the Documentaries section for how this looks on paper.

8. Massagio Galore

Continuation of above (at G-spot tornado):

Massagio Galore:
- Bar 1, beat 4, of the vamp: upgoing series of fifths (C-G-D-A).
- Bar 2, beat 1, of the vamp: downgoing series of fifths (Bb-Eb-Ab-Db).
- Bars 2, 4, 6 and 8: fourths for the harmony.
- Bars 8-9: the lead melody begins with a series of stacked fourths (D-G-C-F).

Massagio Galore, opening (midi file).

Massagio Galore, opening (transcription).

"Massagio Galore", the closing track from "Jazz from hell", is made up of a two-bars vamp in G minor, over which a slow lead melody is played. The example above shows the opening with the lead melody entering in bar 8. All through this track you've got various sound effects, that I've also included in the transcription and, to a lesser degree, in the midi file. It's hard to simulate such effects in midi format. The stacking of fifths in the vamp leads to two altered notes on beat 1 of bar 2, Ab and Dd. If you would interpret this as a modulation, it would mean that you're here getting at an obscure scale, namely G Locrian.

Philip Michael Thomas Zappa and Philip Michael Thomas. Source: NBC television, publicity photos.

At the time of the "Jazz from hell" release in 1986 Zappa had a guest appearance in the Miami Vice TV-series as the drug dealer Mario Fuentes. Fuentes was living on a boat just outside the territorial waters of the U.S., so that he couldn't be taken into custody by the Miami Police. A set up was constructed, where detective Crockett and a FBI agent could take action against Fuentes (I don't recall what the idea behind it was). But on their way towards Fuentes' boat Crockett found out that the FBI agent was corrupt and that the plot was actually against himself. He just managed to shoot the agent before the agent could shoot him. That was the end of the episode.

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