ROXY AND ELSEWHERE: 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: 240 examples
- 3/4 and others in 3: 69
- in 6 or 12: 52
- odd meters: 78
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 section 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.
- "Drowning witch": 6*3/16 over 9/8.
- "The crab-grass baby": 6/4 over 4/4.
- "King Kong" ("YCDTOSA III" version): 9/16 over 12/16.
- "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), section (midi file)
Echidna's arf (of you), opening (transcription)
Echidna's arf (of you), section (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.
The second example above stem from the middle of this song. Like Zappa mingled Lydian and major in the first example, here he is mixing B minor (Aeolian)
and B Dorian. Beats 1-2 in bars 1-4 are following minor with a G natural. For the chord during beats 3-4 Zappa switches to Dorian with a G sharp. The chords
are an alternation between Bm and C#m, so a form of parallel playing he does more often. Next you've got a four times repeated melody of
four bars. The meters in this example keep changing: 12/8, 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, 2/4, 12/8, 3/2 and 2/2. The C# of the bass serves as the tonic for bars 6 through 20.
Bitonality occurs most often in Zappa's music in a mild form: the bass sets a pedal note as tonic, but the lead melody may very well
take another note as the central one for a certain period. Here it happens more outspoken in the sense that two scales are used simultaneously. The C# of the bass sets the scale of the descant melody to C# minor (Aeolian),
but the bass itself follows the chromatic scale for bars 5-12. Next the whole-tone scale is followed for bars 13-20 (as noted by Elmar Luksch, see
the Sheik Yerbouti tango below for more on this scale). The bass plays six notes during the four-bar
melody, thus exactly the amount to play once through the twelve notes of the chromatic scale and twice through the six notes of the whole-tone scale. Only
at the end in bar 20, with a Bb instead of a B natural, it moves over to another figure in bar 21. Here the scale becomes A Mixolydian for bars 21 through
24, though the bass begins chromatically. While the bass holds its final A as pedal note, the melody forms a series of chords. These chords
come into being by combining three melodic lines of single notes, played by different instruments. Some of these chords are uncommon, more modern music than rock music.
So you've got combinations as F#-G-C# (VI 9th of C# Mixolydian or F#, no 3rd, add M2).
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.
The Roxy concerts also got filmed, but Zappa only used some samples for his later videos. Three more tracks from the Roxy gigs were included in the "YCDTOSA" series.
"Dickie's such an asshole" is a song from the Watergate era, but only premiered in the political context of "Broadway the hard way" from 1989. Next are two examples
from this song from the Roxy version, that you can find on "YCDTOSA Vol. III". The larger part of "Dickie's such an asshole" is based upon blues schemes. The first
example below is blues in B Dorian, on some steps of the scheme also using B major, a common practice in minor type blues. The standard scheme gets extended with a number of additional chords.
Dickie's such an asshole, section #1 (midi file)
Dickie's such an asshole, section #1 (transcription)
The blues scheme appears in the following manner:
- Pick-up bar: I. The song begins with the band singing over the I chord. Only its tail is included in the example above.
- Bars 1-2: IV. In bar 2 you can see that Napoleon is singing this song in a rubato manner, leading to figures that can look odd on paper, as in bars 4-5.
- Bars 3-4: I. On beat 2 a lick enters the picture, that keeps returning during this song.
- Bar 5: The standard V from the blues scheme becomes II-III-V. This is the bar where the scale used has become B major instead of B Dorian.
- Bar 6: The standard IV from the blues scheme becomes I-II-IV. We're back at B Dorian. Step IV is only briefly present and the harmonies get extended via
combining the bass E with Bm7. When this 7th chord resolves to E, the bass is already chromatically moving over to B.
- Bars 7-8: I. These bars contain repeated notes in an irregular rhythm, like a radio or TV news jingle.
The next example appears half way this song. Here the blues scheme is left and F# becomes the tonic for a longer period. Many examples in this study include
details, whether improvised or not. For analytical purposes it's sometimes necessary that at least you listen to them, or else you might identify the scales
and chords wrongly. Zappa's music is highly flexible in this aspect, leading to many version differences. For the composed rhythms this is different. He seldom
changed the rhythm of his songs and would not allow any deviation from what he prescribed. Via the details in the section below you can see that this
part is simultaneously using F# minor
and F# Dorian. The difference lies in the D from the minor scale and the D# from the Dorian variant. The repeated bass patterns goes as I-II-III-II in 12/8.
It gets interrupted by bars 5-6 with just the Dm7 chord (the instruments together), add F# (Napoleon).
- Staff 1, Napoleon: F# minor.
- Staff 2, FZ: F# minor (bars 1-6), F# Dorian (bar 7).
- Staff 3, George: F# Dorian.
- Staff 4, Ruth: F# Dorian.
- Staff 5, Bruce: F# minor.
- Staff 6, Tom: indeterminate (the D/D# isn't used).
Dickie's such an asshole, section #2 (midi file)
Dickie's such an asshole, section #2 (transcription)
Fans have been pressing the ZFT for years to release the Roxy footage. Apparently there were some problems with the synchronicity and the ZFT has been
seeking means to raise funds. At the end of 2012 they gave fans an opportunity to buy a copy of the mastertapes with a right to distribute it, under
condition that the ZFT would receive a royalty per sold copy. Next the release on CD is announced for September 2013, as "Roxy by proxy", to be followed by a DVD the next year.
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 beginning in F minor over a typical tango progression all through (as indicated by the drumset pattern). This
solo is included in The Frank Zappa Guitar Book on pages 270-274. On the "Sheik Yerbouti" album this track got sped up with approximately
a minor second. In the Guitar book you'll encounter the solo at its original speed, thus E minor instead of F minor. The first example
below presents the opening, steadily in F minor. It stays there till bar 24 at the bottom of page 270 of the guitar book. Next the solo
modulates and the use of scales becomes wilder with a lot of chromaticism. The rather elementary drum pattern continues unaltered, but
Zappa's handling of the chords and scales could be called brutal compared to traditional tangos.
Sheik Yerbouti tango, opening (midi file)
Sheik Yerbouti tango, end (midi file)
Sheik Yerbouti tango, opening (transcription)
Sheik Yerbouti tango, sections (transcription)
During this solo various instances can be noticed where Zappa is applying the whole-tone scale. It stems from Indonesian gamalan music. By western
standards this scale sounds awkward. It has a tritonus and an augmented fifth, but no natural fifth. Since there's no minor second in it, it's impossible
to form any form of sharper dissonants with it. The scale got applied a few times by Claude Debussy at the beginning of the 20th century (like the piano pieces
"Voiles" from Preludes I and
"Cloches à travers les feuilles" from Images II). Sections with the whole-tone scale in the "Sheik Yerbouti tango" are:
- bars 29-31.
- bars 35-37.
- bars 40-41.
- bars 43-44.
- bars 46-47, beats 1-2.
- bars 54-57.
Bar 87 is the last bar with a normal meter. Next the drumset disappears, on the album at 3:04 seconds. Another instance of the whole-tone scale
happens at the end, as above in the second midi example. In the transcription I've pointed the start and end of the use of the scale in this section with arrows.
For the chords you can see a series of parallel augmented fifths, the only form of triads that the whole-tone scale supports.
This is the example Elmar Luksch points at in his site for the use of the whole-tone scale (see the links). Another example he found is the bass line
in "Echidna's arf (of you)" (2nd example above; 1:28 till 1:34 on the "Roxy and Elsewhere" album).
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