ROXY AND ELSEWHERE - YCDTOSA II: METERS AND RHYTHMS
Zappa's use of meters can either be stable, like the "Uncle Meat main title theme", that
is 3/4 for the whole melody, or very versatile like in "Igor's Boogie, phase 1" from
"Burnt weeny sandwich" (see "The Frank Zappa songbook vol. I", pages 36-37; the Burnt weeny sandwich section
contains some bars). Given here are the subsequent bars with their meters:
bar 1-2: 4/4
bar 3: 3/8
bar 4-5: 7/8
bar 6: 5/4
bar 7: 4/4
bar 8-12: 3/4
bar 13: 4/4
His desire for odd meters and rhythms is outspoken. Examples are numerous and dealt with throughout this study and the intention of
this section is not to give examples from all corners in Zappa's rhythmical universe, but only to take a look at sections from
two specific CDs, "Roxy and elsewhere" and "You can't do that on stage anymore, vol. II". The following table
gives an overview of the meters used in all examples in this study. Also
included is a column that marks if an example contains tempo changes.
Table of meters per song (Html page).
Table of meters per song (Excel sheet).
The general picture then is:
- 4/4 and others in 4: 225 examples
- 3/4 and others in 3: 65
- in 6 or 12: 45
- odd meters: 73
The odd meters vary between relatively normal ones as 5/4 and really unusual ones as 33/32 in "Punky's whips".
The general idea may be clear: though 4/4 is also the most common meter in Zappa's music,
his use of meters is highly diverse. It should be noted that meters and rhythms allow notational variants, so
presentations as the table above offer no absolute figures. While the number of sorts of meters for practical purposes is limited,
rhythm can take thus many forms - and with Zappa actually applying them uninhibitedly - that it is virtually undoable
to categorize them. A very general subdivision could be a partition into three as below, with Zappa doing all two or three in
most of his works. Still you need to look at all the individual examples and their comment to get a better idea of the variety in Zappa's rhythms.
1) On beat figures.
On beat is the standard for most music. It's hardly interesting to say that Zappa also does this, I'm just mentioning it
for statistical completeness. Some examples in this study where on beat happens most of the time:
"I ain't got no heart", "Absolutely free", "Agency man",
"Willy the pimp", "Billy the mountain", "Eat that question", "City of tiny lights" 1976 version, theme from "Outside now",
"Promiscuous", "Strictly genteel", "This is a test", "Jesus thinks you're a jerk" 1st example.
Steady bass beats you can find in "Dancin' fool", "Flakes" 2nd example, and "Heidelberg".
2) Syncopic figures and pauses on beats. A series of examples with various of such bars: "Holiday in Berlin",
"Run home slow" main theme, "Mother people", "Bow tie daddy", "Jelly roll gum drop", "Project X", "It must be a camel",
"Eric Dolphy memorial party", "What will this evening bring me this morning", "Tell me you love me", "Sharleena",
"Latex solar beef", "Overture" from 200 Motels, "Kaiser rolls",
"Keep it greasy", "City of tiny lights" 1979 bass lick, "The ocean is the ultimate solution", "Regyptian strut" 2nd example,
"Duck duck goose", "Pick me, I'm clean", "You are what you is", "I come from nowhere", "The mammy nuns", "No not now",
"Night school", "Ride my face to Chicago", "Ruth is sleeping", "Put a motor in yourself".
Three really odd ones are: "America drinks" 1st example, "Another whole melodic section" and "Down in the dew".
3) Irregular rhythmic groupings. In case an odd rhythm is achieved via irregular groupings, the last column in the table above
specifies the type of this grouping (non-improvised and no triplets). The "Be-bop tango" from below is one of the first of a series of
Zappa compositions where
you don't see irregular groupings passing by once in a while, but systematically. Later on pieces
as "The black page", "Manx needs women" and "Get whitey" would turn up. More on this topic in the Zappa in New York section.
The outchorus of "Big swifty" in the previous section was an example of polyrhythms. Another example of such
polyrhythms can be found in "Echidna's arf (of you)" from "Roxy and elsewhere" live album from 1974.
The timing is equal, but the accents of the melody, played over a 4/4 motif, lie at places mostly different from this accompanying motif.
During the first nine bars of this example I've used 4/4 for all parts and I've indicated the accents of the melody.
The accents notes are also played separately on bells. From bar 10 onwards the melody is played solo, so here the melody
is notated with its own varying meters. The accents notes are here additionally beaten on the bass drum.
The "What will this evening bring me this morning" example of the Weasels subpage is another instance of such polyrhythms.
"Echidna's arf (of you)" fluctuates between Lydian and major. It begins with the chord alternation I-II in E Lydian for bars 1-3.
Next the scale becomes E for bars 4-7 by
changing the A# to A natural. On beat 3 of bar 7 we get back to E Lydian.
The accompanying chords get different, in rock terms B7 (no 3rd) - Asus2 for bars 5-6 and next
a stacked fourth on G# followed by D#m (no third) for bars 7-10.
On beat 3 in bar 4 a figure begins, that lasts 11/16.
Thus here you've got 11/16 played over 4/4. In bar 14 it re-appears alone, now it can only be notated as 11/16. Other examples in this study that contain bars with two meters being
used simultaneously are:
- "America drinks" (second example): 3/8 plus 5/8 over 4/8.
- "King Kong", "Lumpy Gravy" version: 3/8 over 4/4.
- "The little house I used to live in": 12/8 over 11/8.
- "Transylvania boogie" (Ahead of their time): 4/4 over 3/4.
- "Sofa" (1971): 4/4 over 3/4.
- "The new brown clouds": 10/8 over 6/8.
- "Pedro's dowry": 12/8 over 4/4.
- "The crab-grass baby": 6/4 over 4/4.
- "9/8 Objects": 9/8 over 4/4.
- "What will Rumi do?": idem.
Echidna's arf (of you), opening (midi file)
Echidna's arf (of you), opening (transcription)
Zappa liked polyrhythms especially in the shape of irregular rhythmic groupings, where the timing
gets unequal, as already mentioned above. He used it a lot in his guitar solos. Occasionally
he would combine tapes that were recorded independently as in "Rubber shirt" from "Sheik Yerbouti", where the interplay becomes coincidental.
By this time Zappa had brought together a group of musicians, most of them technically well educated and able to read
sheet music, who were willing to invest their time in his music. "Roxy and elsewhere" demonstrated this. By now he had a
band that was able to perform live as good as in the studio and this would continue
to be so for the rest of his career, even though the line-up of the group kept on changing. A lot of new material
could be taken from live performances.
Zappa was pleased with what was going on and considered the material the band had to play the hardest repertoire he had
composed so far. Indeed "Echidna's arf", "Don't you ever wash that thing"
and "The be-bop tango" are for rock band standards extremely complex pieces to play live.
Let's turn to the opening theme block from "Don't you ever wash that thing". This block can be divided in three parts, the first one with unisono figures, the next one polyphonic, then followed by two more unisono figures.
Don't you ever wash that thing, 0:00 till 0:14 (midi file)
Don't you ever wash that thing, 0:00 till 0:14 (transcription)
The first part above is a set of figures of unequal meters, rhythm and length, with variations on the I chord of C. The figures have equal pauses of 5/8 between them, where the percussion plays solo (I've notated the beats without pitch). The four figures as I hear them are:
- 4/16 (2+2), I 7th of C
- 5/16 (3+2), I 5th of C
- 9/16 (4+5), I 5th of C (1st. time); I 5th and VI 7th of C (2nd. time). Descant only, the F by the bass would extend these chords halfway.
- 11/16 (3+3+5), alteration to notes from G Minor; with the last two notes we're back at the I 5th chord of C.
The next example is from the section with two- and three-part counterpoint. It gets very dense here and the band is playing it at high speed, going to the limits of what an ensemble can do. After a year of touring the tempo got even higher on "You can't do that on stage anymore, vol. II". Making a transcription of it is also like walking on thin ice, but I'll give it a try nevertheless.
Don't you ever wash that thing, 0:20 till 0:29 (midi file)
Don't you ever wash that thing, 0:20 till 0:29 (transcription)
It starts with the trumpet and bass playing repeated motifs against the trombone. In the second bar we get to three-part
counterpoint with short melodic lines. While the base guitar is playing eighth notes diatonically, the other instruments
start playing through the chromatic scale. The vibes are playing the upward movement in a straight line. The two downwards
movements are played by brass instruments. It's difficult to hear every individual note for these two lines and I'm not
positive about the correctness of each single note in my transcription. Probably the following order has something to do
with the sequence best fit for fast playing on these instruments. Possibly the idea is the same as with the crotches of “Approximate”.
This bar is followed by bars with two-part counterpoint. Eventually the bass gives in and joins the chromatic frenzy of the other instruments.
Zappa playing guitar, mid seventies.
Photo by Jorgen Angel, used with permission.
Zappa always played several guitar solos during a concert and included three of them for the "Roxy and Elsewhere" album.
"Son of Orange County" and "More trouble every day" were recorded in 1974, thus contributing the "elsewhere" part to the album. Apparently
the recording conditions were less, for they are in mono. Zappa's decision to release them anyway must have depended upon the fact
that the guitar solos in them worked out well. The next fragment is from the "Son of Orange County" guitar solo (pitch level notation as it sounds; accompaniment left out). The accents of the solo phrases sometimes follow the rhythm of the accompaniment, but often the accents lie at other places.
Orange County, guitar solo excerpt (midi file)
Orange County, guitar solo excerpt (transcription)
During his solos Zappa liked to keep playing in one key, but he took no limits as it comes to chord formation and rhythmic figures. About the chords he once remarked that the fun doesn't start until you'll get to the ones larger than the 5th and 7th, like 11th chords.
The example above shows traditional and untraditional chords going hand in hand. The key is E Lydian,
given by the accompanying scheme, which is I and II 5th/7th alternating every two bars in a 4/4 meter (the excerpt above starts
with I in bar 1).
The chords as formed by the melodic line of the guitar are:
- VI 7th (four times)
- V 5th (three times the chord of resolution; G sharp as passing through note in its tail)
- E, D sharp, B, A sharp: second plus third plus second movement, part of (for instance) IV 11th
- E, G sharp, F sharp, C sharp, D sharp, A sharp: seconds, thirds and quarts movement, part of VII 11th
- A sharp, F sharp etc. till the end of the example: string that is part of II 11th.
In 1974 this band was touring in Europe where "You can't do that on stage anymore vol. II - The Helsinki concert" was
recorded. Some gigs were also videotaped for TV specials. In the eighties Zappa edited "The dub room special". It's a combination
of footage from a 1974 concert and the 1981 "You are what you is" MTV-concert, augmented with interviews and
clay animations by Bruce Bickford. Both on the "Helsinki" concert and the "Dub room special" is a performance
of "Approximate". The "Helsinki" CD has the complete execution, but the "Dub room special" has as a special treat
that parts of Zappa's handwritten scores are shown.
"Approximate" is a piece with four ultrafast written themes and four improvised solos. These written melodies have irregular rhythms played over 4/4
and the idea of the composition is that these themes can be played thus fast, that the pitches of the notes with crotches
don't have to be accurate, as long as the rhythm remains correct.
First the opening theme is played instrumentally, next sung and then danced. It's quite funny on the videotape. The "Helsinki"
recording thereafter continues with an entire performance:
- 3:26 Theme 1.
Approximate, opening (midi file)
Approximate, opening (notes/transcription)
- 4:03 Guitar solo 1.
- 4:39 Theme 2.
- 4:44 Drum solo.
- 5:20 Theme 3.
Approximate, third theme (midi file)
Approximate, third theme (notes/transcription)
- 5:25 Keyboard solo.
- 6:01 Theme 4.
- 6:09 Guitar solo 2.
- 6:47 Theme 1.
Other than the pieces from above "Pygmy twylyte" is a song easy to perform. It's mostly in 4/4 and its main
theme is a single melodic line without rhythmical difficulties. The theme is in Bb Lydian for bars 1-12. The sax is at some points blowing some chromatic notes,
along with indeterminate guitar noise. Next the guitar part from bars 13-14
modulates the song to a G minor type of scale, where it stays till bar 28 (except for the guitar solo bars). The D is altered to Db during these bars. So it's not exactly G minor,
but a minor variant (the A/Ab and E/Eb aren't used, so the exact complete scale can't be identified here). For the guitar solo bars (19-22),
the pedal note changes from G to C. Here Zappa is using both D and Db, again making it difficult to assign the notes to a scale (there is some keyboard
harmony in bar 19 here, with a C plus E chord).
After this solo you've got a one time only bar in 3/4. The 8 minutes 1974 Helsinki version is quite enriched
compared to the 3 minutes 1973 Roxy version. It has additional themes and a fine guitar solo in it.
Pygmy twylyte (1974), opening (midi file)
Pygmy twylyte (1974), opening (transcription)
Zappa wrote two tangos during his lifetime, the "Sheik Yerbouti tango" and the "Be-bop tango". The next
section is about this item. I've made a translation into Spanish of it because of the Latin origins
of the tango. Maybe I can get Zappa added as a tango composer in general tango sites.
The English version continues below as normal.
Los tangos de Zappa (texto en Español)
Tangos have characteristic syncopic movements in a 4/4 or a 2/4 meter, as well as melody
formations and instrumentations that can be associated to the tango style.
The tango as a dance had some reputation for being erotic, over which Zappa
dwells in his preambule on "Roxy and elsewhere". The "Sheik Yerbouti tango"
is a guitar solo in F minor over a typical tango progression all through (as indicated by the drumset pattern).
Sheik Yerbouti tango, opening (midi file)
Sheik Yerbouti tango, opening (transcription)
The "Be-bop tango" opens with specific tango bars, followed by the theme
itself in bar 9.
When this theme enters, the be-bop element starts to
dominate, with untraditional harmonic progressions and irregular rhythmic
groupings. Rightfully Zappa calls this piece a hard one to play in the preambule to it. The tango theme opens with the figure George Duke later on sings
on the "Roxy" version with the text "This is be-bop, even though it doesn't
sound like it". The "Be-bop tango" today exists in four versions. For the
more complex songs for his rock band Zappa would normally write out a one or
two staff lead sheet. There was no point in adding the instrumentation or
further details, because the composition of the band was on a permanent
change. Who specifically would play which notes would be determined during
rehearsals and for each tour Zappa would add in extra bars or alter some
bars. The main tango melody in all "Be-bop tango" versions is the same, the
differences lie in the additions and the solos.
On the first two occasions this tango was incorporated in a larger piece
called "Farther O'blivion". The "r" from farther in it makes a
difference with the "Apostrophe (')" song with almost the same title, to which it is unrelated. It is performed
this way on "Imaginary diseases" and the "Piquantique" bootleg. On
"Imaginary diseases" it's played relatively slowly by the 10-piece "petit
wazoo" band. At the end of 1972 Zappa formed what would become known as the
"Roxy" band. During the fall of 1973 this latter band hand been playing the
tango for some months, so the tempo could be speeded up, most specifically
on "Roxy and elsewhere". The "Farther O'blivion" tango had a straightforward on beat
4/4 opening. The opening on the "Roxy"
album however goes as:
The be-bop tango (Roxy, 1973), opening (midi file)
The be-bop tango (Roxy, 1973), opening (transcription)
On "Imaginary diseases" and "Roxy and elsewhere" the tango is followed by a
trombone solo by Bruce Fowler, a normal jazz improvisation over a vamp of
its own. The solos on "Piquantique" are more extensive and different in
character in the sense that the solos remain more close to the tango idea.
Not only the tango vamp keeps being played, the solos are as well using
phrases that stem from the written theme. The sound - distorted clarinet,
electric violin and guitar - is remarkable. It's a pity this version is only
available with bootleg sound quality. This Stockholm concert was filmed for
TV and I was quite surprised to see a copy on YouTube with a normal sound
quality. The transcription below includes the end of the guitar solo in the uncommon C Phrygian key. The "Piquantique" version is of
interest as well for the return of the theme in a different shape, played on
marimba by Ruth Underwood (to the right a still from the TV show).
She was the only band member who wouldn't perform solos:
Farther O'blivion: the be-bop tango (Piquantique, 1973), section, 13:56 through 14:36 (midi file)
Farther O'blivion: the be-bop tango (Piquantique, 1973), section, (transcription)
This variation for marimba is made up of the same notes as the main theme,
but various beats get played half speed, whereas most pauses get skipped.
The "Roxy" version then continues with the be-bop tango dancing event, where
people are invited to dance to the ultrafast be-bop notes sung by George
Duke, instead of the ongoing pedestrian beat.
For the 1992 version for The Ensemble Modern Zappa returned to the original
opening bars as on "Imaginary diseases" (photo below, ZDF tv). Now all parts got fully scored out
The be-bop tango (Ensemble modern, 1993), opening (midi file)
The be-bop tango (Ensemble modern, 1993), opening (notes)
The scores of the lead sheet (published in 1984) and the 1993 version have
been analysed extensively and extremely detailed in an academic dissertation
by William Morris Price called "An analysis of the evolution of Frank
Zappa's Be-bop Tango". William describes this piece as a multi-scale
composition, rather than atonal, pointing at many melodic cells that can be
related to the use of scales and larger extended "be-bop" chords as
augmented 11th chords. The construction of the tango is put under a
magnifying glass, showing what order exists in something what at first
hearing can seem chaotic. The study can be downloaded via
http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-12092003-121423/. It includes the
complete (reduced) score, spread out over the various pages. The permission
by Gail Zappa to do so is included.
Though the 1993 be-bop tango version is on the verge of being atonal, the
idea that this tango was composed as a multiscale composition gets
corroborated by the marimba variation in the "Piquantique" version. Here the
accompaniment is performing a progression that more or less coerces a tonal
climate upon the piece.
First a quote from William Price's analysis of the 1993 tango (pg. 142):
"The first sonority in bar 9, Ab-C-D-Eb (or an Ab major triad with a raised fourth),
is the most important sonority in the Be-bop Tango; it is used as the home key area [...].
The raised fourth can be analyzed as a common tone held over from the previous Bb major
triad with a raised fourth, Bb-D-E-F [...]. Additionally, when the Bb major triad, Ab major triad,
and their respective raised fourths, E and D, are combined they form the Ab Lydian collection [...]."
William's dissertation is specific for the 1993 version. In the transcribed "Piquantique"
bars it goes on differently and far more straightforward. In bars 7-8 the accompaniment plays
the C7 chord. It's possible to combine the melody with this accompanying chord as an enlarged chord
of C Mixolydian. A-G-A-Bb ("This is be-bop") with the root C in the bass can be seen as I 13th. The chord and
the septuplet in bar 9 form the string C-(D)-E-F-G-Ab-B, something of a mix of C and C minor. Beats 2-4
of bar 9 are a normal I 5th chord. In bars 10 through 15, the harmony is making a parallel down and upward movement, the root note going from
C to Bb to Ab etc. In bar 13-14 you can also see a variation upon the earlier "This is be-bop" phrase.
One can go on almost indefinitely pointing at characteristics in Zappa's compositions this way and the William Price
study actually does so for over a 100 pages for the Be-bop tango. Many people will find such material unreadable. The
benefit from it is that, no matter how unorthodox a composition is, when it sounds coherent
it's always possible to detect why.
An external link for tangos in general:
Ernesto's tango page