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

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Following upon a vocally oriented accessible album "You are what you is" (1981), Zappa concentrated on his further establishment as a composer of modern music for the coming albums. After the "200 motels" recordings he had repeatedly tried to get some more performances of his orchestral scores. Most attempts failed for all kinds of reasons, except for the "Orchestral favourites" sessions (recorded in 1975, released in 1979). In "The real Frank Zappa book" he's using several pages to utter his frustrations about unfulfilled agreements. In 1982 however Zappa had enough means to hire the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and Pierre Boulez commissioned him to compose a piece for the Ensemble Intercontemporain.

The L.S.O. was given a large program of one and a half hour of music, which was originally released in two volumes. The first one of 1983 having new compositions, the second one of 1987 mostly containing large orchestra versions of music stemming from "200 motels" and "Orchestral favourites". With the Ensemble Intercontemporain three pieces of music were recorded, that together with computer performed music were released as "The perfect stranger" in 1984. Most of the new compositions show Zappa's atonal side full blown.
Zappa's music in general is not accessible, often sounding as loose ends when hearing it for the first time. The appreciation of his music is a matter of time and getting accustomed to his rhythmic and harmonic versatility. For the majority of CD buyers, who look for music for direct consumption, his name is familiar, but what he stands for remains obscure and inunderstandable. Inaccessibility applies most of all to atonal music, when you lose all technical grip of music you're acquainted with. The better atonal music starts to work when, after listening more frequently, you start recognizing the structure building elements in it and the composition comes alive. Most of Zappa's atonal music has this effect, in some cases it's more experimental. His atonal music is of the free kind; apart from some early stuff, he doesn't apply preconceived things as serialism.
The current CD release is carries the title "London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I & II" in full. The material was released on two seperate vinyl albums in the eighties, with two individual album numbers in the official Zappa catalogue:
Volume I (1983), release nr. #38: Sad Jane, Pedro's dowry, Envelopes and Mo 'n Herbs vacation.
Volume II (1987), release nr. #48: Bogus Pomp, Bob in Dacron and Strictly genteel.

1.1-2. Bob in Dacron

Noord Nederlands Orkest The friendliest new piece recorded with the L.S.O. is probably "Sad Jane". Though not a regular tonal work, there can be diatonic material recognized in it. Possibly for this reason Zappa used it as the album opener on volume I. It was written however as part II of a two-part ballet with "Bob in Dacron" as part I. On the CD release volumes I and II are mingled and re-ordered. Now "Bob in Darcon" and "Sad Jane" are coupled as originally intended.

Dweezil Zappa performing with the Noord Nederlands Orkest (Northern Dutch Orchestra), 12-1-2017, at Tivoli-Vredenburg, Utrecht. Next to works by Dweezil and Steve Vai, the orchestra performed "Bob in Dacron", "Sad Jane" and "Strictly genteel" as on "The L.S.O." (photo tweeted by "LeQuWeet").

In 2012 a dissertation by Vu Nguyen appeared, with a few bars from "Bob in Dacron" and quite a lot of examples from "Sad Jane" in it. See the literature list for the details.

Bob in Dacron, section (midi file).

Bob in Dacron, section (transcription).
Bars from Bob in Dacron and Sad Jane, lead melody (score).

The example above contains bars 243-259 from "Bob in Dacron". It corresponds with 4:21-5:04 from movement II on the "L.S.O." CD. It's a good example to look at for noticing the many ways Zappa is structuring his music, combined with an ongoing desire for variation. It goes as:
- Bars 243-6. A repeated figure in an odd meter and rhythm. On CD the figure from staff 3 starts at 4:11. This figure gets accompanied by a series of other figures. Bars 243-6 are the last one from this series, including a little counterpoint movement in staff 4. The whole is atonal.
- Bars 247-8. For the remainder of the example you can see the following global pattern: two bars in 3/4 with sustained notes, alternated with one bar in an odd meter with melody lines. These bars with odd meters are played by the string section only. All other bars are played by wind instruments. So the instrumentation is used as well as a method to support the alternation. The chord in bars 247-8 is pretty dissonant. It's made up of stacked major sevenths, as a series G-Gb-F-E.
- Bar 249. A bar in 7/8. Here the music becomes diatonic, but without a clear pedal note/tonic it can't be assigned to a specific key. This goes for much of "Sad Jane" too. Like Clement below, Vu Nguyen noted examples of rhythmic variations in his Sad Jane dissertation. Here it concerns the upper descant in staff 1 from the bars with odd meters. This melody line, with a different rhythm, can be found in other parts of "Bob in Dacron" and "Sad Jane" as well (see the lead melody examples above). As happening more often, there can be differences between the score and the CD version(s). In this case they are minor. The three repeated B notes get combined to one dotted quarter note. The final A from bar 249 has either become inaudible or got skipped altogether. Most variations in "Sad Jane" or Zappa's music in general are standard variations, thus being both melodic and rhythmical variations.
- Bars 250-1. The chord from bars 247-8 returns.
- Bar 252. A bar in 5/4. The music is atonal again. The style is homophonic, all parts are moving in the same direction. Something Vu Nguyen noted is that Zappa can let the single notes of his melodies go up and down after each other for longer periods. He's using the term contour interval (INT), that can have the values of + for ascending and - for descending. In this bar it's + - + - + + - + -. Thus apart from one occasion with two times a subsequent plus happening, the remainder is plus and minus alternating.
- Bars 253-4. Another sustained dissonant chord. Here dynamics are used to give it some more variation: the volume decreases and swells again per bar.
- Bar 255. Another melodic bar in 5/4. Here the writing style has become polyphonic. Apart from the parallel thirds in staff 1, the other two melodies are following their own directions.
- Bars 256-7. These two bars are alike bars 253-4, but played louder and with the dissonants coming out more sharply.
- Bar 258. The second 7/8 bar in this example. The writing style is mixed. In bars 255 and 258 you can again see that on the CD the repeated eight notes get joined into a quarted note.
- Bar 259. The final chord of this passage, sustained over a longer period (I let it start in 3/4 again, but can't tell for sure that this is the case in the score). This ending chord is relatively consonant. The only minor second dissonance combination, F#-G, is taking place over a distance of two octaves, thus not that sharp. It clearly serves as a resting point. Consonants can really sound extra beautiful in a context like this.

1.3-4. Sad Jane

As indicated above, "Sad Jane" is the second movement of a ballet, with "Bob in Dacron" as its first movement. Some bars from "Sad Jane" were already shown above. The opening bars from "Sad Jane" contain:
- Bars 1-2. The piece opens with the chord C-E-A-B, accompanied by a repeating harp figure in staff 6. The bass pedal A implies A Dorian.
- Bars 3-4. The bass pedal note switches to G#, thus the scale becomes an A Dorian variant with a major 7th, instead of a standard diatonic scale. Nguyen calls it "A Dorian with a somewhat ambiguous leading tone". It makes the harmony more dissonant. In bar 6 the opening melody ends with G natural, thus normal A Dorian.
- Bars 4-6. Melodic material enters the picture. The music is through-composed with ongoing variations upon a series of motifs. The melody from staffs 5-6 could be called the first motif. As pointed at by Nguyen, the movement in its tail, F#-G#-E-G, with two upward steps followed by a descending step, is the element that gets varied upon frequently during the first movement of "Sad Jane".
- Bars 7-8. These two bars are composed in a so-called hocketing style. On every eighth tick another instrument plays one or more subsequent notes with varying durations. Bar 8 can be seen as a variation upon bar 7. The music is now made up of fragmented diatonic material. Beats 1-2 of bars 7-8 could be interpreted as belonging to one set and beats 3-4 as belonging to another set. Which scales can't be said. There is no key note, it's floating.
- Bars 9-10. Staffs 1-2 contain a variation upon motif 1. It's tail is identical. The other instruments continue to play in a hocketing manner.
- Bar 11. The meter switches to 7/8. The accent switches from the wind to the brass section. Motif 1 turns up in another variation. The variation upon the tail appears in staff 7 in the shape of E-F-A-D.
- Bar 12. Faintly the tail gets varied upon again. The bells from staff 5 play the three upward notes, after which staves two and three continue with a lower chord. So far the rhythm has about all been evenly divided over the meters with the eight note as time unit. For Zappa standards that's uncommon, making the opening sound quite serene and beautifully orchestrated. The example described below shows more diversity regarding the rhythm aspect.

Sad Jane, opening (midi file).
Sad Jane, section (midi file).

Sad Jane, opening (transcription).
Sad Jane, section (transcription/score).

The second example above are bars 104-112, to be found a little after the beginning of movement II. With a number of corrections from the score the chords can be identified more clearly, so it can be seen better that much of "Sad Jane" is diatonic or made up of scale fragments, next to more atonal episodes. The identification of the chords as sus2 and sus4 chords by Nguyen suggest a diatonic environment. These two chord types are, in case of Zappa, common in his diatonic music. The example goes as:
- Bars 104-5: the chord is Gbsus2 plus F or Db plus Gb. There are not truely tonics operating here. The positioning of the chords give the note, that is played the lowest, a weak suggestion of being the tonic. In this case the implied scale is Gb, with only once an A natural in the melody turning up as an altered note within this scale. The notation is done in an atonal manner with enharmonic variants.
- Bars 106-7: the chord is Bbsus4 and the implied scale Bb. This second excerpt from "Sad Jane" shows a mix of regular and irregular rhythms in a 4/4 meter. The irregularity shows itself in the form of a quintuplet, but more so in the difficult clarinet-drumset part of bars 112-4.
- Bar 108: the chord is Dsus2. The melody uses C/G and C#/G#, making it impossible to assign this bar to one specific scale.
- Bar 109: the chord is a stacked fifth on Eb, corresponding with the notes from Bbsus4, and the implied scale is Eb Lydian.
- Bar 110: the chord is Dsus4 in the score (on CD I don't manage to hear it's positioning for certain, the fourth A-D is the best audible element). The implied scale is D or D Mixolydian.
- Bar 111: the chord is a stacked fifth on C, corresponding with the notes from Gsus4, and the implied scale is C Lydian.
- Bars 112-4: here the rhythm becomes the ear-catching factor. The melody is using D and C only. The timpani offer some more pitches and the whole gets atonal. In case of Zappa it's more a rule than exceptional that CD versions differ from the score (see the Uncle Meat section for an overview). Bar 112 and following got altered during the L.S.O. recording sessions, probably on the spot. All harmony notes got skipped and the rhythm goes differently. The descant pattern is D-C-D-pause-D-pause. In the score all notes and the pauses are of equal length, using eight notes as triplets. It's evenly divided over the beats. This is not the case on CD, where the pattern still exists, but with a much more irregular spreading of the notes over the beats.

The included bars in the dissertation of Nguyen cover:

Bob in Dacron
- Lead melody: bars 234-237, 249-258 and 291-294.
Sad Jane
- Reductions: bars 1-4, 104-116 and 149-152.
- Lead melody: bars 5-23, 35-36, 41-46, 54-64, 66-69, 77-78, 81-85 and 162-167.
- Harmony: bars 94-101.
- Wind ensemble arrangement: bars 27-30, 47-53, 119-121 and 158-160.

1.5-7. Mo and herb's vacation

Zappa's largest composition in the atonal area is the three part orchestral piece "Mo and herb's vacation", for which I'm giving a melody that is repeated and varied upon on different places in the piece. It's an example of a sort of cross-referencing figure on a macro scale (relationship at great distance), that builds coherence in such compositions.

Mo 'n Herbs vacation, part I, 2:18 till 2:25 (midi file).
Mo 'n Herbs vacation, part III, 1:41 till 1:48 (midi file).

Mo 'n Herbs vacation, part I, 2:18 till 2:25 and part III, 1:41 till 1:48 (transcription).

This melody is introduced by a clarinet in part I (starting at 2:18), where it is accompanied by two other clarinets, mainly playing parallel at varying interval distances. It is repeated by a solo clarinet in part III, starting at 1:41 and by a solo violin at 3:54, playing a fourth higher. On a micro scale motif variation can be detected in this melody in bars 4-7. The motif is here constructed as one starting note in the prior bar, one metric accent note, followed by a three times repeated note. The melodic line of the motif is mostly descending. Variations on this motif section of the melody return quite often:

- Part II, 2:46 till 2:57, 3:19 till 3:32, 3:39 till 3:51, 3:59 till 4:07, 5:03 till 5:04, 6:30 till 6:38, 7:21 till 7:43.
- Part III, 3:11 till 3:25, 11:40 till 12:17.

Two variations are given here beneath. The first is from the second movement. Only the lead melody from this example could be properly transcribed. You've got violincellos and contrabasses playing around it, but their notes are difficult to discern straight from CD. The second example stems from the third movement (the accompanying notes in the transcription are left out). It's played slowly at the end of part III, preceding the coda outburst. In both instances the three times repeating note is replaced by a twice repeating note. During the first example you can see that the motif is first played with quarter notes, next with eighth notes. Because of the difficulties in transcribing from CD at this point, I can't do much with this except for noting the motif variations.

Mo 'n Herbs vacation, part II, 3:19-3:34 (midi file)
Mo 'n Herbs vacation, part III, 11:40 till 12:19 (midi file)

Mo 'n Herbs vacation, part II, 3:19-3:34 (approximation).
Mo 'n Herbs vacation, part III, 11:40 till 12:19 (transcription).

During his lifetime Zappa never ceased expressing his admiration for Edgar Varèse, so it might be obvious that biographers and researchers attempt to compare Zappa's music with the music by Varèse. An essay by Allan Wright can be downloaded at This article collects some people's statements about this matter and further investigates them. His main conclusion on page 65 is that "although it is easy enough to indicate areas of his music that evoke some of Varèse's sounds, it would be a stretch to conclusively say that Zappa adopted Varèse's techniques of composition". Next is the opening page of the "Mo 'n Herbs vacation" score, as reproduced in Allan's essay (pick-up bar and bars 1-2).

Mo 'n Herbs vacation, part I, 0:00 till 0:10 (midi file).

Mo 'n Herbs vacation, part I, 0:00 till 0:10 (score).

It's exemplary of the rhythmic variation and the outspoken atonal atmosphere to be heard in this composition. All is chromatic and the chords formed offer a wealth of dissonant harmonies. In these two bars, the following chords can be heard (bottom up, and ending with the intervals indicated as the number of minor seconds):

- Pick-up bar, beat 1: (C)-C-Db-E-Ab-Bb-Eb-G (chromatic 7-note combination), 1-3-4-2-5-4.
- Pick-up bar, beat 2: (C)-C-E-G-A-Bb-Db-F# (chromatic 7-note combination), 4-3-2-1-3-5.
- Bar 1, beat 1: (D)-D-Eb-Gb-Bb-C-F-A (chromatic 7-note combination), 1-3-4-2-5-4.
- Bar 1, beat 2: Bb-D-A-E-F-C-G (Bb Lydian scale), 4-7-7-1-7-7.
- Bar 1, beat 3, chord 1: Db-Ab-A-E-B-Eb-F# (Db Aeolian scale), 7-1-7-7-4-3.
- Bar 1, beat 3, chord 2: F-Bb-C-Db-Ab-Eb-G (F Aeolian scale), 5-2-1-7-7-4.
- Bar 1, beat 4: A-D-F-Gb-Bb-C-E-G (chromatic 8-note combination), 5-3-1-4-2-4-3.
- Bar 2, beats 1-2: Eb-G-Bb-C-Db-E-F-A (chromatic 8-note combination), 4-3-2-1-3-1-4.
- Bar 2, beats 3-4: (A-Db-E-F)-Db-E-F-A (chromatic 4-note combination).

For the human ear it's virtually impossible to identify each note in such a chord without having the score. Most chords are chromatic, but it can also happen that they can form a (part of a) diatonic scale. In this case Lydian and Aeolian, but it occurs upon different bass notes. With that many notes altering, the overall sound remains chromatic. The dissonant chords are dominating thus persistently that the few spots with consonants are notable, as at 9:27 through 9:38 at the end of movement II. Clarinet player David Ocker features as the protagonist of "Mo 'n Herbs vacation", most specifically in movement I. Using traditional terms, this three part work holds the middle between a symphony and a clarinet concert. Movement I is getting some attention in two other academic studies, the one by B. Clement (Cl.) and M. Herraiz (H.). See the left menu for the details. The included bars are:

- Reductions: bars 3-4 (H.).
- Clarinet "lead melody": bars 1-4 (Cl.), 7-8 (H.), 13-14, 25-26, 37-39, 45-48, 56-59, 63-66 and 72-74 (Cl.).

These examples are sufficient to get an idea about the clarinet solo part during the first movement, being full of irregular rhythmic groupings and odd subdivisions. Next are bars 25-27.

Mo 'n Herbs vacation, part I, 1:43 till 1:53 (midi file).

Mo 'n Herbs vacation, part I, 1:43 till 1:53 (score/transcription).

The Clement analysis concerns the melodic formation of bar 25, noting:
- Beat two is a transposition of beat one, starting a minor second up.
- Beat three is a vertical mirror movement of this figure.
- The string of notes from bar 25 returns in bar 63, in a different rhythm and transposed up with a tritone.
David Ocker A peculiar phenomena remains that there are always version differences between the scores and the CD recordings. During beat four of bar 25 the written notes can be heard, but in a different rhythm. The F has become a grace note, the first two notes last longer than the others and a G natural got added in. The whole has become an 11-tuplet instead of eight even 32nd notes. David Ocker plays everything else from this example exactly as prescribed, so this must have been a conscious move by Ocker and Zappa. Zappa was present during all recordings. To the right a photo of David from the site. In bar 26, as well as bars 1-2 from above, you can see Zappa's rather dense writing style, here being between homophonic and polyphonic. The staves follow their own melodic lines. Since their rhythm is the same, the whole also sounds a bit like a series of chords. You have to listen carefully to recognize the individual melodies.

2.1 Envelopes

"Envelopes" was first released the year before in a rock band version. The differences between the orchestral and rock band version are numerous. Just to mention some, the rock band version goes much faster: 2:25 against 4:04. Secondly this version knows far more counterpoint lines, whereas the orchestral version is more dealing with harmonies. In the transcribed section however the orchestra is also playing three part counterpoint, as the rock band does from the beginning. It's all atonal here. Bars 9-11 offer a variation upon the material in bars 1-3. Bars 15 and 16 follow the chromatic scale with parallel playing, leading to the repeated figure of bar 17.

Envelopes, 1:38-2:22 (midi file).

Envelopes, 1:38-2:22 (transcription).

"Envelopes" first appears in setlists from bootleg recordings from the 1977 fall tour. At one point it had lyrics, as you can hear on the 2010 "Hammersmith Odeon" release by the ZFT. The composition since then developed into three directions simultaneously. The ultimate rock band version from 1982, the orchestral version and a version for wind quintet. The last one gets mentioned by Jonathan Bernard in his article "Frank Zappa's crossover pieces".

2.2 Pedro's dowry

The tone for "Pedro's dowry" is set right at the beginning. Instead of developing a melody, it opens with a dissonant chord followed by various individual notes and percussion. Quite bizarre to begin an orchestral piece this way. The whole piece is extremely versatile, up to being aggressive, with all sort of sections following upon each other overnight. It can be calm chamber music at some moments, in other bars half the orchestra is playing dissonants along an energetic drum part. The following section shows a larger theme in 4/4 over a vamp, out of the blue followed by a chord in bar b). At this point it's polyrhythmic. The drumset and the brass part #2 continue in 4/4, while the woodblocks and the brass part #1 are playing in 12/8. The sustained notes can be notated in both ways. In all probability Zappa took one meter as leading to improve the readability, but I don't know which one (a couple of examples with the L.S.O. in this study are transcribed; the original scores are available at Barfko Swill).

Pedro's dowry, 1:35-2:18 (midi file).

Pedro's dowry, 1:35-2:18 (transcription).
Pedro's dowry, sample bars/staves (score).

Three samples from the original score can be found in the Herraiz study, of which I'm reproducing some bars/staves in the second example. The examples from this section and the 200 Motels, the Perfect stranger and the Yellow shark sections show that Zappa's writing style for orchestras and chamber music ensembles is often a mixture of approaches:
- Monodically: a melody being played as a single line or in parallels, with maybe only some background accompanying notes.
- Harmonically: a lead melody with chords or all music forming a series of chords.
- Hocketing: (sections of) instruments alternate with each other for playing the melody or chords.
- Polyphonically: two or more parts follow their own melodic line.
Their are no hard bounderies between the definitions of these approaches. Sometimes it's clear the one or the other. Sometimes it's more a mixture and it's getting subjective where you would like to put the accent. This comes out in for instance the manner Herraiz describes the sample bars from above:
- bars 91-92: "despite of the polyphonic texture, every block constitutes a clearly delimited sonority".
- bar 117: "closed hoqueting, creating a feeling of polyphony".
- bar 151: "example of polyphony without rhythmical dissonance, the parts not being completely independent".

So it's mixed, that's for certain.

Opening page of the viola II part. Screenshot from the L.S.O. rehearsing "Pedro's dowry" (Eat that question DVD).

2.3 Bogus pomp (1983)

One of the examined pieces in the Allen Wright study (see above) is "Bogus pomp" (L.S.O. version), where he looks at the orchestration. In his opinion "Bogus pomp" is made up of smaller blocks of around two minutes with various types of orchestration. He notes that it is "the recurring deployment of a given orchestration [that] provides a sense of overall continuity to the piece". My study hardly deals with this subject so it offers a quite different angle to look at Zappa's music. He also notes that "Bogus pomp" is highly sectional, having a lack of thematic form. It is true that this piece was composed in blocks, as indicated in the tracklist from "200 Motels" and the scores then used. The "Overture" and "Centerville" sections, that were added to the 1983 version, are unrelated separate blocks. They now serve as some sort of prelude to the 1975 version, but could just as well have been indicated as separate movements. I agree with Allan's conclusions, though I feel uncomfortable with the assertiveness of his choice of words. I'd rather say that the unity in "Bogus pomp" comes from various elements equally important as motivic relationships (in the Orchestral favorites sections I've presented some of them), stylistic continuity (Zappa talked about "cheesy fanfare music") and the orchestration.

David ocker was also asked to re-orchestrate "Bogus pomp". Zappa could neither apply the "200 Motels" nor the "Orchestral favorites" scores one on one to the L.S.O. Sections from "Bogus pomp" aren't in present in "200 Motels" and the "Orchestral favorites" orchestra was much smaller than the L.S.O. orchestra. So the "Bogus pomp" (1975) piano variation, as presented in the "Orchestral favorites" section, now gets spread out over the string sections from the L.S.O. The notes are identical, the sound is much different.

Bogus pomp (1983), section (midi file).

Bogus pomp (1983), section (transcription).

The material from "Bogus pomp" was built up in a couple of phases:
- Zappa started composing themes from "Bogus pomp" around 1968 and several pieces were performed by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in that year. In this study a section from "The rejected Mexican pope leaves the stage" is an example from this 1968 execution. That particular section is a variation upon one of the themes from "Bogus pomp", that later on would get skipped.
- In 1970 Zubin Mehta conducted the L.A. Philharmonic, playing some of the scores Zappa had prepared for his upcoming "200 Motels project", including parts from the later "Bogus pomp". The opening bars from "Dance of the just plain folks" are present in the Fillmore East 1970 section.
- The scores for "200 Motels" and "200 Motels - the suites" contain most of "Bogus pomp". See the 200 Motels section for the "Overture" and "Centerville", that in 1983 came to serve as the opening block of "Bogus pomp". The larger part of "Bogus pomp" corresponds with "This town is a sealed tuna sandwich" from 200 Motels, of which a few sample bars are included in that section too. The 1983 version of "Bogus pomp" does have a newly composed coda of its own.
- See the Orchestral favorites section for variations upon the "This town is a sealed tuna sandwich" theme, the theme that returns the most during "Bogus pomp". The piano variation already got mentioned above.

2.4 Strictly genteel

"Strictly genteel" returns a couple of times in Zappa's output in different settings:
- "200 Motels, the suites": original version including lyrics.
- "200 Motels" (CD): idem, plus an ending with a rock piece, followed by some deliberately chaotic music.
- "Orchestral favorites": instrumental version for smaller orchestra.
- "L.S.O.": instrumental version for large orchestra.
- "Make a jazz noise here" and "YCDTOSA vol. VI": instrumental version for rock band.
This piece can be used as an example for many aspects of Zappa's music, for instance its instrumentation, its waltz meter or being diatonic orchestral music. This title is also getting attention in three academic articles/studies, the ones by J. Bernard, A. Ashby and B. Clement (see the references for the details). Here I'm looking at it for its form, using the L.S.O. version for the transcriptions. It's a variation piece with a central theme and a number of side themes. First its opening with the main theme:

Strictly genteel, opening-main theme (midi file).

Strictly genteel, opening-main theme (transcription).

Bars 1-4 serve as the introduction for the main theme, letting the piece begin in D with the progression D-A-Em-D-E. Bernard calls the piece "nominally D major, but given a somewhat peculiar coloring by the repeated emphasis upon an E-major triad of ambiguous function. i.e. not V of V" (Listening to Zappa, page 88). During these opening bars you can see that G natural and G sharp are used next to each other, next to a one time only A sharp. Within the context of Zappa's music this can also be seen as a blending of D major and D Lydian. Using closely related scales next to each other is common in Zappa's music. B. Clement can correctly call bars 4-7 D Lydian and identify the remainder as "functional D major harmony" (page 162 of his study). As indicated by Bernard, the chord progression of the main theme is D-A-E-F#-D-G-A. As I'm hearing it the second D chord should be a Bm chord, as also noted by Clement, the total progression thus being D-A-E-F#-Bm-G-A. Another thing you can notice, is that it is mostly a parallel movement of major triads. Such parallel movements occur more often in Zappa's music and can cause an ambiguity towards which scale they are in by themselves. See also my discussion of "The idiot bastard son". So there is no unique way of looking at "Strictly genteel".

Block I: Exposition of the main theme.
- 0:00 Intro.
- 0:09 Main theme.
- 0:34 Main theme with minor melodic changes plus some extra bars.
- 0:51 Main theme with some more melodic changes, the chord progression still being kept.
- 1:16 Side theme #1.
- 1:23 Side theme #2.
- 1:33 Side theme #3.
Block II: Character variations upon the main theme.
- 1:49 The main theme returns in a different set-up (form A). The melody changes again, while some of the chords get skipped. Here it has become a variation made up of two phrases, both using the chord progression D-A-G-A. The final A chord gets extended to A11. By character variations I mean variations that aren't varying the whole theme, but taking over some of its characteristics.
- 2:14 The main theme returns in yet another set-up (form B), this time with the progression D-C#m-F#-G-A. Compared to the initial form, some chords are skipped again and the E chord is replaced by a C#m chord. Zappa keeps changing the melody to the point that only the global outlines of the original are still recognizable: the rhythm and the downwards-upwards directions.
Block III: Re-exposition of the main theme.
- 2:35 Re-exposition of the main theme with the progression D-A-Bm-F#-Bm-G-A, more simular to block I.
- 2:55 Main theme with a different tail.
Block IV: The character variations upon the main theme return.
- 3:13 Re-appearance in form A. With every variation Zappa keeps changing the instrumentation. Tempos can also change. At this point the orchestra is playing in full. With the orchestra score unavailable to the general public, reproduced examples come in handy. Bars 94-99 can be found in the article by A. Ashby. These bars correspond with 3:13-3:24 on the CD. Now you can see every detail of the orchestration, ass well as that the chords are bigger than just triads, at least at this point. The D is Dadd2 or D9 (without #7), etc. Ashby comments as follows: "In all contexts and groups, electric or acoustic, an obvious "orchestralness" comes across; the work is an orchestral showpiece, a kind of Zappaesque Bolero, where the strophic repetitions display sections of the orchestra in turn (harp, percussion, woodwinds, trumpets etc.)" (anti-feteshist orchestra article, pages 593-595).

Strictly genteel, character variation (midi file).

Strictly genteel, character variation (notes).

- 3:33 Re-appearance in form B. This is the fragment that has been in this study from the second edition onwards as an example of counterpoint, where two melodies are played by the bass and descant. The bass line was at first played lightly in the background, but is now coming out clearly to the fore. At several points the harmonies become complementary, while at other instances they are moving more separately. As in all of "Strictly genteel", both melodies are in a straight 3/4 time. (The tonal ambiguity has already been spoken of above. In the previous editions, with only this example, I wrote: Since there are no clear keynotes here (in major the melodies are using notes of D, A and B), the chords can better be identified unrelated to keys. In the first bar for instance, the bass and descant are playing through the D chord. In the second bar they are playing mostly through the C#m chord. The progression in total goes as D-C#m-F#-G-A.)

Strictly genteel, counterpoint variation (midi file).

Strictly genteel, counterpoint variation (transcription).

Block V: Interlude
- 4:00 A D-E chord alternation passing through a wide range of different positions (see below at this paragraph). Throughout the piece D major and D Lydian keep returning as the main scales. While the previous character variation (form A) is in D major, this interlude is in D Lydian. The relationship with the main theme is still remotely present in the sense that these two chords are occurring at the start of the main theme.
- 5:13 Coda for this block, playing around Bb-C#-G-Aadd2.

Block VI: Finale
- 5:37 Another character variation, itself being a variant upon form B. This is a melodic-harmonic variation, with the chords as shown in the following example:
bars 1-2: final Aadd2 chord from the preceding.
bar 3: D.
bar 4: A.
bar 5: Bm-A-Em7. So far this variation is in D major.
bar 6: G-C-A. From bar 6 onwards, notes are getting altered, making the music glide through different scales in a rather indefinite form. The implied scale of bar 6 is D Mixolydian.
bar 7: Gmaj7-Eb add2-E (in the example the Eb is notated as D#).
bar 8: F#m-5-C+5-F7.
bar 9: Dm7-E7-Dm7. The A# by the bass during the third beat can be seen as a chromatic passing-through note. The writing style is getting mixed. All parts combined form the mentioned chords, but their individual movements are going into different directions. Staff 2, staves 3-4 and staff 5 follow contrary paths.
bars 10-11: G add2-G+5-Dm7. With this last Dm7 chord, the example below stops and we're getting at the final theme.

Strictly genteel, harmonic variation (midi file).

Strictly genteel, harmonic variation (transcription).

- 5:53: Final theme.
- 6:27: Closing chords, D-A-E, fading out.
- 6:56: End on the L.S.O. CD. The version differences of the above mentioned "Strictly genteel" recordings are described by Bernard in his other "crossover" pieces article, pages 166-167: the final bars 181-4 were skipped in the L.S.O. version, but present in the 1988 rock band edition. On "Make a jazz noise here" they are played during 6:01-6:13.

"Strictly genteel" can be called classical in a number of aspects. It's a classical example of applying the art of variation, it's classical in its way of orchestration and it's classical for its quality, though the last is not just for me to decide. Bernard writes that "As the piece progresses, this material [1st example from above] is subjected to minimal variation, with occasional chromatic digressions that somehow never manage to eclipse the overriding sameness; the oom-pah-pah of the main theme closes the piece" (Listening to Zappa, page 88). I can (only) follow this as it comes to the rhythm. As I've been pointing at in the Roxy section, Zappa follows any method as it comes to rhythmic diversity and this can also mean emphasizing standards. Here it's plain 3/4 with never any form of complexity within this meter. Ashby starts his article with quoting Zappa about, among others, Beethoven's fifth: "How many times do you want to hear Beethoven's fifth? [...] it's all tweedlydeedlydee" (anti-feteshist orchestra article, page 557). See also my FZ quotes section from the left menu for some nuances. This shows that it's virtually impossible to form theories about Zappa, and Zappa's own remarks often only contribute to the confusion. In "Strictly genteel" it's Zappa himself doing "tweedlydeedlydee" or "oom-pah-pah", and this is not exceptional nor should it be explained away as parody music.

Strictly genteel

Sample page from "Strictly genteel" in Zappa's 1971 handwriting (the meter is 3/4). The CD booklet of "200 Motels" contains another sample in a thumbnail format

Strictly genteel, opening of the interlude (midi file).

These are the opening bars of the interlude, 1971 version including the chorus. Over a D pedal you can hear the D-E-D-E progression going upwards. Because of the sustained notes, these two chords get to a degree mingled. On the L.S.O. CD these bars correspond with 4:00 through 4:14 with this episode being played twice.

Kent Negano The performances of Zappa's orchestral works were haunted by low budgets, limited rehearsal times and union regulations. The first recording stems from 1961 with the Pamona Symphony Orchestra performing music for the "World's greatest sinner" movie. It had a very poor budget and the whole orchestra went on a single track. Zappa called the result rancid (regarding sound quality I presume). Otherwise it's pretty interesting material with some examples being included in this study. The recordings for "Lumpy gravy" and "200 Motels" also suffered from low budgets. At the end of the seventies talks were held with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Residence Orchestra of The Hague for doing sponsored concerts. In both cases Zappa got confronted with unannounced extra costs along the way. The projects were annulled, but Zappa had by now all his scores copied at his own expense.
After the ill-fated 1982 European tour, he decided not to wait for another chance, but aimed at getting his scores performed one way or the other by hiring an orchestra himself. The L.S.O. was a self-governed orchestra that volunteered to take this opportunity. In Kent Nagano Zappa had found an enthusiastic conductor (photo to the left by KassKara). The way Zappa describes the event in The real Frank Zappa book is good reading stuff but tendentious. The aim was to get as much recordings as accurate as possible in the about eight days that were available. That was an inner conflict of course. It came to a head during the last hour that was reserved for the final take for "Strictly Genteel". The trumpet section came in 15 minutes late after a break in the pub and Zappa, who was paying for every minute, hated it seeing the chance for a better performance lost. It's a pity that this has become to overshadow that in general everything went well:

The London Symphony Orchestra back cover

Part of the original 1983 album back cover, also included in the CD booklet, with Zappa thanking the membership of the L.S.O.

I personally consider Vol. I a masterpiece. Zappa had impeccable ears and apologizes for the mistakes in the recordings, but the average listener probably won't notice (including myself). His sense for accuracy also inhibited some further performances to appear on record as the concert including "Sinister Footwear" by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra in 1984. When rehearsal times were too short, he wouldn't even allow a performance at all.

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