Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

Main menu

THE MAN FROM UTOPIA: RECITATIVES

On "The man from Utopia" (1983) Zappa experimented with improvised recitatives with a melody directly derived from a spoken text, unrelated to scales. Two such live improvisations were included. Steve Vai was asked to score them out to make a guitar overdub along Zappa's melody possible.

The jazz discharge party hats

Beneath are some bars from "The jazz discharge party hats".

The jazz discharge party hats, 3:11 till 3:18 (midi file)

The jazz discharge party hats, 3:11 till 3:18, melody (notes).

As it comes to reciting texts, these two songs can be called an achievement. At no point there's any hesitance about what notes to pick and nowhere Zappa stumbles over his words. Zappa did such improvisations mostly during his 1980 and 1981 tours. Three other examples can be found on the ZFT release "Buffalo". Included in this double CD are an early "Drowning witch" version, with only the words written, a spoken section of "The torture never stops" (below) and a nine minutes lecture, called "The "real world" thematic extrapolations".

The radio is broken

A studio recorded recitative is "The radio is broken", that is partially improvised, partially prescribed. The way the vocalists interact works out well. Its general structure goes as:

0:00-1:01 Block I with free bass lines.
1:01-1:25 Intermezzo figure I.
1:25-2:22 Block II with keyboard/bass riff.
2:22-2:46 Intermezzo figure I.
2:46-3:49 Block III with bass/synthesizer riff.
3:49-4:01 Intermezzo figure II.
4:01-5:29 Block IV with free bass lines as in block I.
5:29-5:54 Intermezzo figure I and coda.

The radio is broken, 1:07-1:34 (midi file).

The radio is broken, 1:07-1:34 (transcription).

The example contains the 1st intermezzo figure - a fast guitar riff in 16/32 subdivided as 5+5+6 - and the beginning of block II. The material is partly diatonic, partly chromatic. Transcribing forces you to listen to the details and in this case it appeared I always underestimated this piece.
The speech influence was transferred to the other songs with lyrics by stressing Zappa's voice. In combination with the flatness of some of the themes, this gave the album an air of coldness. Especially "Stick together", with a slow and simple reggae tune repeated for three minutes, worked estranging for myself.
This effect was partially undone in the CD remix, where the other instruments were given more space. In "Stick together" the vocal parts by Ike Willis and Ray White were brought to the foreground, giving it more colour. Together with the three good instrumentals, "The man from Utopia" has become a bit defrosted.

Tink walks amok

Tink walks amok, opening (midi file)

Tink walks amok, opening (transcription).

One of the three instrumentals, "Tink walks amok", deals with varying bass motifs. Above is the opening with the basic motif in 11/16, interrupted by one bar in 4/4. The 11/16 bars have a subdivision doing 4+4+3. The notes of the first 4/16 block can take a fourth or fifth as interval jump. The second 4/16 block contains a third consistently. The third figure has a second followed by a third. The song has two bass lines that complete each other. One is a bass guitar, slapping the accentuated notes and picking the others. The other is a double-channelled synthesizer bass. "Tink walks amok" has its basis in E Mixolydian, but bars can also be in the related keys of E and E Lydian, that differ by one or two sharps. Bars 8-9 are clearly taking a different direction. When you take the opening bass note as key note the scale would be G in these two bars.

Moggio

Whereas "Stick together" is one of the rare Zappa songs you might call musically dull, "Moggio" belongs to his best work. It's an energetic piece with changing meters and a multitude of themes and variations. Harmonically the melody keeps fluctuating between tonal and atonal.

Moggio, section (midi file)

Moggio, section (transcription).

The main theme is in E minor (bars 1-2 of the transcription). In the other bars some remnants of scales can be detected, or it's atonal altogether. During most of the song the bass is playing a counterpoint line. From bar 3 to bar 12 there's a longer period with varying meters, where I chose the longer held notes as the opening notes of the different meters. I can't guarantee that Zappa notated this exactly the same; there some alternatives possible just as well. Bars 13 through 16 form a set of variations. All last 12/8 and contain a string of notes leading to a longer held note. Bars 13 and 14 partially overlap; bars 14 and 16 are the same for their descant, though not entirely identical as it comes to the bass line. The bass figures in bars 14-16 are variations upon each other. In bar 17 a large string of 16th starts with an ongoing bass counterpoint melody. Stylistically this section is comparable to the "Rollo interior" composition from "Apostrophe (')" (see that section for more about "Rollo interior").

We are not alone

"We are not alone" is the third instrumental you can find on "The man from Utopia", featuring a sax for playing the lead melody. Its construction goes as follows:
- 0:00 Theme I, phrase 1, played twice.
- 0:10 Theme I, phrase 2.
- 0:20 Theme I, phrase 1, played twice.
This is where the transcription from below starts. Bars 1-2 represent phrase 1, repeated in bars 3-4. It's a progression in F# minor (Aeolian) with as chord progression I-VII-III.
- 0:30 Theme I, phrase 2.
Zappa has modulated to C. A descending line is followed by the sax and bass: C-B-A-G. The chords that are used on top of these four notes are respectivily I-IV-VI-VI. The total sounding harmony, thus created, can consist of larger chords. For instance in bar 6, the bass and the descant chord are in combination forming the VII 9th chord. Phrase 2 ends with another modulation to E in bar 8. This bar, with a semi-improvised guitar line, serves as the coda for theme I.
- 0:39 Theme II, phrase 1.
Theme II is not specifically following one particular scale, but switches between chords from different keys. Only nominally the song continues in E, with notes altering during beats 3 and 4 (more like E Dorian). The A# in bar 9 is an incidental chromatic note by the bass player. It can be better described as a chord progression unrelated to scales. Bars 9-10 use B-Em-G-F#m over mostly an E pedal by the bass. The note example below ends here, after which bars 9-10 get repeated likewise.
- 0:49 Theme II, phrase 2.
A variation upon phrase 1. The chords progression now has become Db-D-E.
- 0:58 Theme II, phrases 1-2 get repeated.
- 1:17 Theme I, phrases 1-2 get played twice as above.
- 1:56 Theme II, phrases 1-2 get played twice as above.
- 2:23 Theme I, phrases 1-2, transposed up a minor second.
- 2:52 Theme I, phrases 1-2 repeated for the final time, ending with a little coda. The coda is ultimately using the progression Bbm-Gb-Bb.

We are not alone, 0:20 till 0:44 (midi file)

We are not alone, 0:20 till 0:44 (transcription).

"We are not alone" is largely written in 4/4. In my example only bar 8 interrupts the pattern by enlarging a bar to 5/4. Notable is the high degree of syncopism during this song. The following is happening during bars 1-6:
- The lead melody from theme one gets before beat twice in bars 1 and 3.
- The rhythm guitar (staff 2) can be off-beat, the reggae type of playing, as well as on beat.
- The marimba and guitars (staffs 3-4) are playing in a semi-improvised manner along the chord pattern, also frequently forming syncopic figures.
- The bass is mostly an on beat pedal note. On beat 2 the bass player mostly breaks this patterns by playing off beat as well.
Beats 3-5 from beat form a syncopic figure for everybody, with three beats getting subdivided into four times 3/16. Another such example from my study is "Let's move to Cleveland", bar 10.

The torture never stops (1980)

The "Buffalo" double CD with a 1980 concert offers an excellent version of "The torture never stops", lasting over 23 minutes. It's included in this section because it contains a block with Zappa doing another recitative. Moreover, this version includes two guitar solos with keyboard solos and a drum solo in between them, all of them working out fine. The global construction goes as:
0:00  Instrumental opening of four bars beginning with the characteristic guitar-bass motif (A-E-A descending), followed by a chord progression. All live versions do this as good as the same as the transcribed section from "The torture never stops" in The best band you never heard in your life section. These four bars get repeated four times.
0:27  Sung section. Here the bass keeps giving an A pedal note, instead of repeating the opening motif, as is normally done during this song. Because Zappa keeps being loyal to the melody as it has been from "Zoot allures" onwards note for note, the song is still very well recognizable.
1:20  The four-bar instrumental opening gets repeated twice.
1:33  Second sung section. Now Zappa does deviate from the original melody by singing the notes flat repeatedly, close to speaking the words at some instances.
2:33  The four-bar instrumental opening gets repeated twice again.
2:47  A compositionally new block with Zappa doing a recitative. The opening is transcribed below.

The torture never stops (1980), 2:47-3:05 (midi file)

The torture never stops (1980), 2:47-3:05 (transcription).

a) After playing the bass lick one more time, the band has modulated from A Dorian to A for an instrumental intermezzo of four bars.
b) In bar 5 of the transcription begins with an improvised recitative in a jazz manner with a fast walking bass playing eighth notes. Everybody sings or plays chromatically, so as a composition it's all atonal. The same goes for the above "The jazz discharge party hats".
c) End of this block with Zappa getting a bit melodic again with the line "he's the best of course of all the worst". The band follows as probably pre-arranged, but quite different from "Zoot allures".
4:14 The band now continues with the lyrics "And it stinks so bad..." as on "Zoot allures", thus with the melody as we know it.
4:38  The four-bar instrumental opening gets repeated four times.
5:05  First guitar solo in A Dorian.
a) First part with long held notes. Zappa is using the feedback of his guitar delicately to let the sound and volume of the notes fluctuate. At one point (around 5:45) you've got a D sounding as a ship's horn.
b) Little theme of four bars with the chord progression III-II, played twice. The transcription below begins with the repetition of these bars.
c) The solo continues as a normal A pedal solo, as from bar 5 onwards below.

The torture never stops (1980), 5:55-6:11 (midi file)

The torture never stops (1980), 5:55-6:11 (transcription).

10:48 Four keyboard solos. These solos are using the more normal way of doing solos in jazz bands, namely by playing over a chord progression. The bass gives the root notes of these chords. Zappa himself would seldom play a solo that way (see the Guitar section for more upon this topic). So stylistically they offer a good variation between the two solos by Zappa. Apart from that Tommy Mars and Bob Harris are doing fine here.
14:34 Drum solo by Vinnie Colaiuta. Vinnie took over the traditional drum solo from Terry Bozzio. A separate one can be found on "Halloween". No comment needed that Zappa had excellent drummers at his disposal. At the end you can hear the crowd cheering probably because Zappa re-appears at the front of the stage. With the others doing longer solos he would often take a pause at the back of the stage.
17:31 Second guitar solo in A Dorian.
21:34 The four-bar instrumental opening gets repeated four times again.
22:03 Third sung block.
23:22 Coda. All "The torture never stops" versions end with a similar coda. They are all variations upon the one transcribed in the Zoot allures section.
23:36 End

Other tracks from The man from Utopia

Steve Vai transcribed both "The dangerous kitchen" and "The jazz discharge party hats". They used to be on the Barfko Swill list. You could contact the ZFT for obtaining a copy.

Back to the menu