Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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On the "Does humor belong in music" DVD "Hot plate heaven" gets interrupted by an interview section and the solo isn't included. The song's lyrics and the interview part are about Zappa's aversion of the Republican Party and his political ideas would become more and more present on his albums and in his other activities. In 1985 he opposed the idea of parental advisory stickers on rock albums, doing many interviews on the subject, and the 1988 tour had an outspoken anti-Republican character. During the turnover in Eastern Europe he was seen by various people as a herald of intellectual freedom, among them the newly elected president Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia. He visited Russia several times, trying to interact for business deals. The zenith became his encounter with Havel, that reached the international press. In 1991 he talked a while about the idea of running for president in interviews and doing a feasibility study. It was expressed at a time when the Republicans were in office for quite a while and the Democrats failed in presenting an appealing alternative. Zappa considered Reagan a moron and abroad Reagan was indeed seen by many as a caricature of the presidency rather than as someone with political insight. Eventually no real steps were taken, nor any program items spoken of. His ill health at that time would have ruled out campaigning anyway. Probably he was more interested in the publicity effect, than that he thought he had any chance.
"Frank Zappa meets the mothers of prevention" contains a large collage piece, called "Porn wars". It contains several passages from the Senate's committee hearing about lyrics on rock albums, with Zappa being one of the artists being interviewed. Apart from Zappa himself you can hear some of the senators speaking. Zappa recorded the event himself with a tape recorder he had brought with him in his handbag. The ZFT would later on release the whole interview on a seperate CD, called "Congress shall make no law", the opening words from the first amendment to the constitution of the U.S.A.

One man-one vote - Aerobics in bondage

The A-B-A construction from "G-spot tornedo" (see the Jazz from hell section) is also used in "One man - one vote" from "FZ meets the mothers of prevention". Whereas "G-spot tornado" is fit for human performance, this applies less to "One man - one vote", because it's deliberately using the synclavier for creating odd rhythms. This piece begins with a bass theme lasting 34/16, with an uneven subdivision, over which the opening theme is played. The opening B in staff 2, the returning B in the lead melody and the constant present Bsus2 accompanying chord in staff 3 can be seen as setting the scale to B Mixolydian. "Aerobics in bondage" opens with two melodies that are alternating each other rapidly (that is when one staff holds a note, the other staff takes over the melody). In the last three bars in the example the two melodies are getting to play more jointly, thus becoming more polyphonic in style. This example apparently has no constant meter, and I can't guarantee what meters Zappa used typing it in. Below I've followed the returning high E note. The eighth note is used as the time unit all through these bars. Harmonically it’s another example that you can interpret either as made up of scale fragments or as atonal/chromatic altogether.

One man - one vote, fragment (midi file).
Aerobics in bondage, opening (midi file).

One man - one vote, fragment (transcription).
Aerobics in bondage, opening (transcription).

The synclavier pieces based upon note entry can be printed out from the machine, so it's kind of useless trying to transcribe much of this material in detail. This fragment from "One man - one vote" is a transcription by myself and not 100% accurate. I also don't have a good reason to subdivide the bass theme that lasts 34/16 in total, the dashed lines are sort of arbitrary.
Several prints have already been handed out to orchestras (see the CDs and scores section).

I don't even care

Johnny Guitar Watson "The mothers of prevention" originally had different U.S. and European LP versions. Luckily it's all united on the current CD version, because it's all worthwhile. The "porn wars" issue was American politics, but understandable for everybody, and likewise discussions are raised elsewhere as well. The CD was clearly compiled for the occasion. It's a mix of unreleased recent material from Zappa's closet without being related, but with enough quality per item. The opening piece "I don't even care" for instance has nothing in common with the two synclavier examples from above.

I don't even care, opening (midi file).

I don't even care, opening (transcription).

It features Johnny Guitar Watson on a Zappa album for the fourth time. Zappa admired Watson as a guitar player; he was one of his examples when he started to learn to play the guitar. On Zappa's albums however Watson was invited for his voice. He could improvise in a funny agitated way and gets credited for the lyrics on this one. He's singing and talking over a vamp all through, in this case made up of a bass movement and a chorus (bars 6-8, staff1) in E Mixolydian. It's accompanied by an ongoing Em chord in 16th notes. Photo to the right of Watson downloaded, source unknown.

What's new in Baltimore?

What's new in Baltimore (1982), 0:32-0:57 (midi file).

What's new in Baltimore (1982), 0:32-0:57 (transcription).

"The mothers of prevention" album sleeve hardly gives any information about the recording dates. The personnel stems from both the 1982 and 1984 tours. Apparently Zappa didn't feel like including live material from the 1984 tour, for which he already had a CD in mind. "What's new in Baltimore" exists in three versions. One from the 1982 tour, one from the 1984 tour and the one on "The mothers of prevention". According to the bootleg collectors this last version is the way the band played the song during the 1981 tour. There are also two musical reasons for why this version precedes the other two. First it's played closer to the draft score as Zappa probably wrote it down. That is a lead melody, bass pedal notes and chord indications. The Ludwig study includes a transcription of the "The mothers of prevention" version in this form. The 1982 version, transcribed here, already includes an amount of freedom that you can take when you're playing it for a while. The bass opens a bar with a pedal note, the vibes take care of the lower notes of the melody and the keyboard has its accents on the higher notes. For the remainder the parts don't have to be in exact parallels. Secondly the 1982 version is played a bit faster and the 1984 version considerably faster. The metronome tempos of a quarter note are approximately:
- The mothers of prevention (1981): 150.
- YCDTOSA V (1982): 155.
- Does humor belong in music? (1984): 175.
The song is made up of two almost unrelated halves. The opening part is a sequence of various shorter melodies in meters and keys that keep changing. The transcribed part shows the use of 5/8, 4/8, 3/4 and 7/8. The opening melody (bars 1-6) is in E Dorian. Bars 7-8 are making a transition. The second theme (bars 9-16) is in E. Bars 17-20 offer an atonal/chromatic variation upon the opening theme. Bars 21-22 get repeated. They are diatonic again, but without a clear key note. The second half of the song on the other hand is a guitar solo in normal 4/4 with only the last chord of the first half making a link.

Alien orifice

"Alien orifice" belongs to the series of scores that the ZFT offers (or used to offer) for rent to ensembles that want to perform Zappa's music. For private persons the availability of these scores has become more and more difficult, which leads to the awkward situation that for this study I'm sometimes forced to transcribing something that some other people already must have lying on their shelves. In this case the lead melody from the opening is present in the Ludwig study and I've transcribed the remainder rather detailedly from the performance on "FZ meets the Mothers of Prevention". There are obviously version differences between this execution and the 1981 live version that got released on YCDTOSA vol. VI, though the sections below are relatively similar. Probably there are also differences with the sheet music. The number of examples in this study, that compare the sheet music with the albums, show that it is more a rule than exceptional that album versions differ from the sheet music (see also the Uncle Meat section). "Alien orifice" is made up of five instrumental blocks, with the final block being a reprise of the opening block followed by a coda. The opening block contains the main theme, played twice. It's made up of four phrases of four bars each, that every time begin with the same rhythmic figure for their first bar. What makes this theme interesting is that all phrases get harmonized in a different way. To be sure I have the scales correctly identified, I had to transcribe the slow arpeggio-like figures in the second example as well. The opening block has something of a triple tonality. The theme itself has A as its central note (in the Ludwig study it's presented as an example where Zappa is repeating notes in a melody). Next you've got an ongoing Gsus2 chord by the rhythm guitar. The bass follows a jazz-type walking bass, thus the pedal notes are relatively weakly present. Taking these pedal notes as tonic you get:

Opening block, first statement of the central theme:
- Bars 1-4: Eb Lydian. Apart from the Gsus2 etc. chord for the rhythm guitar, no other chords are used. It's audible lightly in the background, and you have to listen carefully to notice that it changes a couple of times. The harmonic climate, that surrounds the melody, is thus more determined by the bass line.
- Bars 5-8: E minor (Aeolian).
- Bars 9-12: C Lydian.
- Bars 13-16: G Dorian.
Repetition of the central theme:
- Bars 17-20: Eb Lydian. The melody now gets played in the form of a series of 5th chords. The A now appears as the highest note of the F chord. The transcription stops at bar 19. I'm continuing below with describing what you can hear on album.
- Bars 21-24: E Dorian. During bars 5-8 the C appears only once as natural. Here the A becomes part of the F#m chord with a C#, thus here it's E Dorian.
- Bars 25-28: C Lydian. The A becomes the D chord.
- Bars 29-32: G minor (Aeolian) and Dorian. The A becomes the F chord at first, but at its off-beat second appearance in bar 29 immediately turns over to Faugm, where it stays till bar 31, beat 1. Next you get the progression F-Eb-Gm-F-Eb-Gm-Em-Dm-Bb etc.

Alien orifice, opening (midi file).
Alien orifice, section (midi file).

Alien orifice, opening (transcription).
Alien orifice, section (transcription).

Return of the central theme during the final block (2nd example):
- Bars 1-4: G minor (Aeolian). The Gsus2 chord does not return. The bass is now more clearly playing pedal notes. Here you've got chords/scales as strings in the form of arpeggios, and some uncommon wider chords. In bar 1 it's II 7th (or Am7-5). In bars 2-3 it's VII 9th.
- Bars 5-8: Bb minor variant. The series of notes used here is Bb-C-Db-Eb-Fb-G-A, thus no standard diatonic scale. In bar 8 the F, as played by the bass, becomes natural again.
- Bars 9-12: A Mixolydian. Some chromatic elements are added: the Eb in the figure from staff 1 in bar 10, and the Bb in staff 2 in bar 11.
- Bars 13-16: C Dorian. Again a chromatic element turns up by the F natural switching to F# in bar 16.
After this bar the coda begins. "Alien orifice" and more specifically "Aerobics in bondage" have wild codas. Since both pieces are multi-scale, there is no standard coda to end with. It could end in every manner and Zappa takes advantage of this by also letting the coda jump through a number of scales. At the end it looks likes Zappa wants to close this piece in E minor, but the final chord is simply the D chord (VII in E minor or moving over to I from D Mixolydian).

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