Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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The co-operation with the Ensemble Intercontemporain worked well for both sides for the publicity aspect, but not for building a good relationship. Some members had expected arranged pop music and doubted whether Zappa could write scores himself. The atmosphere changed to the bad when the ensemble found itself sweating on the compositions and Zappa demanded perfection, sending away musicians that weren't performing up to his standards. The European continental world of modern music used to be full of intellectualism and leftism. It only survived on government subsidies. In 2001 Karl-Heinz Stockhausen was videotaped calling the September 11th attack a masterpiece of art. Flirting with communism was fashionable among European intellectuals during the seventies and the death rates under Mao and Pol Pot only became better known in the nineties.

1. The perfect stranger

DoelenensembleThe piece that Pierre Boulez originally commissioned and got the project going. It follows directly upon the material on "The LSO Vol. I", stylistically and in orchestration. It's more loosely constructed than the LSO pieces and Zappa left his drumset home this time. In October 2011 The Doelenensemble played some pieces from "The perfect stranger", including the title track. To the left you can see them during their concert at The Doelen, a concert hall in the city of Rotterdam, Holland. The scores are today only for rent for public performances. A flash file on Youtube makes a transcription much easier, because one now has the opportunity to follow their conductor. The following is 1:18-1:40 from their performance, that corresponds with 1:02-1:21 on the Boulez album (the time difference is due to an opening pause). Again there are version differences, as happens more often in Zappa's output. Because I don't have the original score, I can't tell what causes it. There might very well be different versions of the score itself, because there are various examples of Zappa revising his compositions. If this is not the case then either during the Boulez recordings adaptations were made or during the Doelenensemble rehearsals. It's theoretically also possible that Zappa edited the tape in his studio after it got recorded. The CD I have carries the edition number Rykodisc RCD 10542, referring to a master tape, approved by Zappa in 1993. In the Boulez version the irregular groupings within a 9/8 meter may look awkward, but it's something Zappa could do, also for his rock band (see the second "Drowning witch" example with the figure for "she could mutate insanely").

The perfect stranger, 1:22-1:40 (Doelenensemble) (midi file).
The perfect stranger, 1:02-1:21 (Boulez conducts Zappa) (midi file).

The perfect stranger, fragment (transcription)

The differences to be heard in the Doelenensemble version are:
- Preliminary notes: 4:5 eight notes become a regular intro, lasting 3/4.
- Bar 1: the 4:5 eight notes become 4:3 quarter notes. The meter of bar 1 thus becomes 5/4.
- Bar 3: the 5:4 eight notes become 4:3 quarter notes followed by a dotted eighth note. The first note of the ninetuplet gets into the 4th beat followed by normal 16th notes. Bar 3 then lasts 6/4.

The picture you're getting is clear: "The perfect stranger" is an outspoken atonal composition with various forms of irregular groupings. Everybody is playing the same rhythm, thus you're creating a series of chords made up of three parts: the descant in the first two staffs, a part in the middle (staff 3) and a bass part (bottom staff).

With the original scores unavailable to the general public, reproduced sections in studies can be helpfull. In this case "The perfect stranger" gets ample attention in two academic studies. These are the one by Martin Herraiz (H.) and Brett Clement (Cl.). See the references in the left menu for the details. Their analyses deal with the thematic construction of these pieces, but mostly with the formation of harmonies. An attempt is done to identify several chords as being part of a so-called chord bible, a set of preferred chords Zappa appears to have used around this time for his orchestral works (this chord bible is unpublished, so its content is not really my business; otherwise see the 2009 study by Clement, or my left menu, Lydian theory, chapter V). Combined these two studies offer enough examples from the original score to get a reasonable estimation of "The perfect stranger". Thus it can be seen that the score knows two movements. On the Perfect stranger CD the transition, happening at 3:50, is not perceptible: there is no pause taken, or any clear change for that matter. Strange, because the audible ceasure at 10:14 (bar 213) apparently does not coincide with a new movement.
The reproduced examples cover:

Movement 1
- Excerpts: bars 5-17, 43-46 and 48-51 (Cl.).
- Chords: bar 37 (Cl.).
- Lead melody, with chords indications: bars 52-62, 65, 71-77 and 79-85 (H.)
- Reduction: bars 79-85 (H.)
My first example from above can be found half way between bars 17 and 43.
Movement 2
- Excerpts: bars 1-8, 16-20, 21-25 and 56-60 (Cl.)
- Lead melody: bars 17-32, 48-70, 71-78, 199-222 and 234 (H.)
- Harmony, reduced: bars 48-77 and 215-217 (H.)
- Reduction: bars 221-226 (H.)

Clement for instance notices thematic variations over a distance, like I did above with "Mo 'n Herb's vacation". On page 229 of his study he describes what he calls the main theme from "The perfect stranger", a melody of 12 notes, first occurring during bars 8 through 16 of movement I (not a 12-note serial string to avoid any confusion). These concern bars 8-17 (see below), his example 5.38a. Further below on the same page he continues with: "now consider Example 5.38b, the second statement of the theme in “The Perfect Stranger I.” Here, the melody appears in isomelic variation, with the first three pitches transposed by T2.". His example 5.38b are bars 43-46. Isomelism is a term he's using for a rhythmic variation, where the pitches of the melody are kept the same, or transposed only (the word isomelism is academic Greek for "same melody"). T2 stands for a transposition with a major second. On page 231 Clement continues with "[...] the fourth, and final, statement of the theme in “The Perfect Stranger,” occurring at m. 199 of “The Perfect Stranger II.” This final statement initiates a huge isomelic restatement of the previously discussed mm. 16–78, which plays out until the close of the piece. Here, however, the theme is returned to its initial pitch level (beginning on F, as in Example 5.38a)."
These examples seem to corroborate that there are version differences between the first Boulez recording and the score distributed today. The Clement examples of bars 5-17 include the clarinet and the string section. He doesn't explicitely say if his examples are the complete score or not and obviously they aren't. Even so differences can be noticed, also for the string section. First of all there are tempo changes needed to get it synchronous with the CD. Bars 5-6 last as long as bar 7, a bit puzzling. So either Zappa prescribed a change to half tempo, or it's a serious version difference. There are also little differences to be heard in the lead melody (staffs 4-5 in my example). In bar 8 there you've got two extra notes being played. In bar 9 an A natural is played instead of an A flat. Because of these differences it can't be taken for granted that all of the analyses by Herraiz and Clement (based upon the today available score) apply to the Boulez version as well. Both talk about the Boulez recording as if this is the identical piece.

The perfect stranger, opening (Boulez conducts Zappa) (midi file).

The perfect stranger, bars 5-10 (Boulez conducts Zappa), transcription.
The perfect stranger I, bars 5-17 and 43-46, plus The perfect stranger II, bars 199-212 (score)

Something you can also notice is the high degree of syncopism. Zappa willingly avoided any perception of steady rhythms within this piece, with downbeats only happening half of the time, something which may explain why irritations grew during the recording sessions with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Zappa's music requires a perfect understanding of timing, which, in case of a larger group of musicians playing together, can be demanding without much rehearsing time.

2. Naval aviation in art?

A large sequence, moving motifs over a changing chord texture. According to Gail Zappa it dates from the "200 Motels" period. It got first recorded in 1975 for the "Orchestral favorites" album. As with more of Zappa's works it's a one time only type of composition, adagio all through and dealing intensely with harmonies. Quite uncharacteristic for Zappa. The origins of "Naval aviation in art?" indeed lie around 1971, when elements of this composition were used as background music for "200 Motels".

"Naval aviation in art?" is an exceptional work in Zappa's output, because it's specifically dealing with instrumentation all through this composition. The central element are held notes, that every few bars change position via a string of (mostly) 32nd notes (staffs 1-2 of the "Orchestral favorites" example and and staffs 6-7 of the "The perfect stranger" example). These notes are called the melodic notes in the tables below. It can be seen as a huge sequence. The other parts hardly play melodic lines, but harmonise this sequence via single notes coming up and disappearing again. The wealth of atonal chords and sound combinations is amazing. When Zappa wrote for orchestras, larger ensembles or jazz big bands, it always sounds thus natural as if he had been doing so all of his life. The actual number of instances that he could work in this way are relatively few. His financial means grew through the years, but there's no real juvenile and mature Zappa. He could step into things straight ahead.

Naval aviation in art? (Orchestral favorites), bars 1-7 (midi file).
Naval aviation in art? (The perfect stranger), bars 1-12 (midi file).

Naval aviation in art? (Orchestral favorites), bars 1-7 (notes).
Naval aviation in art? (The perfect stranger), bars 1-12 (notes).

According to Gail Zappa "Naval aviation in art?" stems from the "200 Motels" period, with the title taken over from a magazine photo featuring navy employees in a specific line-up (liner notes from the "Greggery Peccary & other persuasions" CD by the Ensemble Modern). It first appeared on "Orchestral favorites" and got recorded again for "The perfect stranger" in a much different version. The first thing that's directly noticable is the tempo difference. Bars 1-12 from above last 27 seconds on "Orchestral favorites" and 47 seconds on "The perfect stranger". Other differences are numerous. "Orchestral favorites" begins with a pick-up bar with 32nd notes and a 16th note by the flutes (two flutes are used for the stereo field). The 32 seconds notes in bar 1 and 3 are by a single violin, thus no clarinets, and played an octave higher than the viola on "The perfect stranger". The 32 seconds notes by the flutes are present again in bar 4 with no comparable notes on "The perfect stranger". The harmony notes from bar 6 onwards are played by different instruments, etcetera.

1979 version:

Bar number Melodic notes Harmony notes
- Bar 1 Ab, D#
- Bar 2 Ab, D#, B
- Bar 3 A, D#, B
- Bar 4 A, D#, E
- Bar 5 Ab, D#, E
- Bar 6 Ab, D#, B F, E, C#, D
- Bar 7 A, D#, B F, E, C#, G, C, D

1984 version:
Bar number Melodic notes Harmony notes
- Bar 1 Ab
- Bar 2 Ab, B, D#
- Bar 3 A, B, D#
- Bar 4 A, E, D#
- Bar 5 Ab, E, D#
- Bar 6 Ab, B, D# E, C#, D, C, F#
- Bar 7 A, B, D# F, E, C#, D, C, F#, G
- Bar 8 A, E, D# F, E, C#, D, C, F#, G
- Bar 9 Bb, E, D# F, C#, D
- Bar 10 Bb, D, E, C# F, G, C#, D, C
- Bar 11 B, D, E, C# F, G, Bb, C, B
- Bar 12 B, F, G, E A, G, C

Both versions begin calmly with three notes sounding for bars 1-5. From bar 6 onwards things are getting dense. The number of notes sounding incombination varies between 6 and 10. In bar 7 from the 1984 version you're approaching the whole chromatic scale being played at once. It is to be noted that Zappa little doubles the parts. Most instruments play their own notes. The permanently changing instrumentation, combined with the extensive use of dynamics, makes that the composition remains transparant.
This piece gets dealt with extensively in the Martin Harraiz study, pages 211-227 (see the literature section). It begins with noting that this piece is indeed exceptional in Zappa's output: ""Naval aviation in art" is an atypical work of Zappa. By this we mean that most of the more or less general principles observed thus far are not present in this work: there is no particular 'melodic line', nor are the striking rhythms present, that are often speech influenced and dense. It not only contradicts his compositions for orchestras but for virtually any medium." So Martin doesn't interpret it as a sequence as I did above, but also takes the notes I indicated as melodic as to be seen as just held notes. This study is in Portuguese, so it's translated here with some liberty.
Next the origins of this work and its different versions get commented upon, starting with: "Like most pieces of Zappa, it's difficult to pinpoint the exact date when this work was composed: its first version is best known as a recording from 1975 (included in Orchestral favorites album, released in 1979), but could already be heard, much larger in instrumentation, as background music in a dialogue in the movie 200 Motels (1971). A catalogue of the 1990s by the publisher Boosey & Hawkes brings information about a version of the piece for large orchestra, probably the same that was used in the film (composed in the late 1960s, therefore, but already carrying the final title)." In a note Charles Ulrich gets thanked for sending him this information. As indicated in the site there's indeed a section from "Naval aviation in art?" audible in the movie version of "200 Motels", the conversation part between Rance Muhammitz and Jimmy Carl Black, that follows upon "Lonesome cowboy Burt". It's too vague to verify to what extent this orchestra version might differ from the next "Orchestral favorites" performance. The analysis in the Herraiz study begins with the initial bars from "The perfect stranger" (as presented above): "The main elements that go to constitute the entire piece are presented already in this initial fragment. Its texture can be schematically described as consisting of three layers. The third layer, which begins to act only in bar 6, consists basically of long notes, sustained, generally by several measures, whose points of entry and exit not follow any apparent pattern. The first two layers however (which correspond respectively with staffs 8-9 and staffs 6-7, overlapping homophonically, represented in this excerpt by starting with two clarinets and two violas), behave clearly more regular and 'predictable'." The first two layers are then the ones I called "melodic" and the third layer are my harmony notes.

3. The girl in the magnesium dress

In the Guitar Player special issue Zappa! of 1992, Zappa explained the origins of "The girl in the magnesium dress": "The piece was made from Synclavier digital dust ... [explains the existence of this dust as G numbers, inaudible musical parameter data]. So we converted this dust into something I could then edit for pitch, and the dust indicated a rhythm. So what I did was take the rhythm of the dust and impose pitch data on the dust and thereby move the inaudible G number into the world of audibility with a pitch name on it".
Originally the piece went directly from the synclavier onto the tapes for the album. Later on the scores were printed, reworked upon and orchestrated. In 1993 the Ensemble Modern opted for inclusion of the piece for their concert program. The piece moves around between relative ease and, if you ask me, complete irregularity. Zappa prescribes a constant high tempo. Bars 48 and 97 below are two opposite sides of the piece.

The girl in the magnesium dress, bar 48 (1993 CD: 1:55 till 1:58) (midi file).
The girl in the magnesium dress, bar 97 (1993 CD: 3:56 till 3:59) (midi file).

The girl in the magnesium dress, bars 48 and 97 (notes)

Bar 48 is relaxed, as good as following a scale. The E first jumps in octaves and then the E chord is formed. Octave jumps and repeating notes return frequently in the score. Bar 97 at the end of the piece is the opposite, a total frenzy, deliberately irregular. Zappa thought of the piece as unfit for human performance, but the Ensemble Modern preferred to proceed. To make it performable changes were made during rehearsals, in bar 97 for instance notes were skipped.

4-5. Outside now again - Love story

Here Zappa typed in an improvisation over one of his favorite vamps. It goes much as a guitar solo, though there are some differences. First there are no dynamics per note, the dynamics are here achieved via doubling parts in different staffs. Secondly - I can't say this for certain - I have the impression that at this point the synclavier could only perform triplets as an irregular grouping. It is for sure that that would change drastically later on. See "Get whitey" for an example of what the synclavier ultimately could do in the nineties. Eventually the "Outside now" vamp became used for five different solos. Compared to the "Joe's garage" version of "Outside now", it's notable that the Bb-C alternation in the bass isn't present. It makes it impossible for this version to determine what the keynote is. It's floating.

Outside now again, 1:26 till 1:49 (midi file).

Outside now again, 1:26 till 1:49 (transcription).

On side two of the original vinyl album the accent shifted towards the synclavier. "Love story" is a short and energetic synclavier composition. In the CD booklet Zappa describes the seven pieces from "The perfect stranger" as dance pieces, each with a story and built-in sound effects.

Pierre BoulezPierre Boulez has followed a triple career in music. He is best known as conductor of the modern classics from Wagner onwards. Secondly he was the driving force behind the Paris IRCAM institute for exploring modern music, to which the Ensemble Intercontemporain belonged. Thirdly he is a composer himself. Zappa for instance was well familiar with Boulez' composition "Le marteau sans maître" (photo downloaded, source unknown). He and Zappa would meet more often, but till his death he preferred not to comment on the quality of Zappa's music. The tensions during the recording sessions apparently had taken their toll. Otherwise this attitude is peculiar compared to what's happening on the album. Still you can find reviews by people who can't accept the idea that a rock star could ever reach the level of their admired serious modern composers.

6. Dupree's paradise (1984)

The theme from the piece was first used in the seventies to set off soloing of the group members. Here it has become an elaborate composition.
"Dupree's paradise" today exists in three quite different versions in Zappa's catalogue. The theme was first used for the 1974 tour to introduce a large experimental improvisation block for the group members. See the YCDTOSA II section for a detailed description of this "Dupree's paradise" (1974) performance. The 1984 execution only overlaps with the 1974 score for what I call phrases 1 and 2 in that section. In 1988 it returned for incorporating a trumpet solo over a vamp, followed by synclavier-rock band "jazz noise". In the version presented to the Ensemble Intercontemporain it's an 8 minutes piece composed all through without any improvisation. An exciting masterpiece mixing diatonic and atonal material as presented in the following two examples.

Dupree's paradise, opening bars 5-13 (midi file).
Dupree's paradise, bars 167-184 (3:45 till 4:11) (midi file).

Dupree's paradise, bars 5-13 (notes).
Dupree's paradise, bars 167-184 (notes).

The first contains bars from the opening with varying meters. It's played over E pedal and follows the E Lydian scale. The other stems from the middle section with two pianos playing in straight 3/4 over a bass counterpoint line. Here it's all atonal. The movement is a sort of chromatic dance in a waltz meter, full of second intervals where the larger intervals serve to keep repositioning the tiny seconds phrases.

7. Jonestown

Right after Zappa obtained a synclavier, he started using if for both note entry and the construction of sound collages. "Jonestown" is an early one, described by Zappa himself as an ugly dance evoking the essential nature of all religions.
These sound collages became ever more elaborate and eventually a form of art by themselves on "Civilization phaze III" and "Dance me this". As I'm describing in the Baby snakes and Civilization phaze III sections, it's difficult to approach sound collages in the shape of sheet music in a normal way. Theoretically it can be done, but I doubt how much wiser you might be getting from it. The problem lies in sounds, that aren't constant, and the improvised duration lengths of notes. See for instance the shifting sounds of only three bars from "Basement music #2", that I've tried visualize in the Baby snakes section. The meters and rhythms of collages are or can be chosen at will, so on paper they can be only approached and they will look weird when you want to obtain some degree of accuracy.

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