The Big Note – The Ultimate Gesture: The incorporation of time, space and place in performing, composing, arranging and producing Frank Zappa’s music

As promised – here is the full 3000 words of a paper I presented in Cardiff a month ago. This is unedited – so probably has a few typos etc. I will be aiming to develop this early next year into a 8000 word document for publication. As always – feedback always welcome. Apologies in advance to those of you who are ‘Zappa experts’, but this paper was delivered to a group of people who know very little (or nothing) about his work. This still surprises me, but although it does reiterate many seemingly obvious areas of his idiolect, the paper hopefully is useful in some way for everyone.

Often regarded as one of the most prolific and versatile composers of the rock idiom, Frank Zappa’s ability to amalgamate numerous popular music styles alongside musique concrète, electronic, and serial techniques make him a fascinating case study on the interdisciplinary roles of performer, composer, arranger and producer. One of the earliest musicians to successfully and consistently experiment with fusing these skill bases, Zappa’s oeuvre is now gradually beginning to be recognized as one of the most prolific and original in the history of popular music. Using these factors as creative mediums, Zappa can be considered the only rock musician to consciously and consistently engage with time, space and place throughout his entire career, having a compulsive fascination with ensuring his entire life’s work was considered part of his Big Note philosophy, with many of his performances, compositions, arrangements and productions being part of an overarching organisational structure he sub texted conceptual continuity. He also developed the terminology project/object to describe the difference between the completed work of art and the process of redefining it, and made countless rearrangements of many of his compositions, clearly considering individual works of art as being in a constant state of development. To achieve these aims, he utilised available studio technology to create highly original ‘virtual studio’ and ‘virtual live performances’, which comprise of clues alluding to both his own music and popular culture at large.  Examples range from the experimental employment of Xenochonic and cut and paste techniques,[1] to alluding to figures such as Frank Sinatra, Richard Strauss and The Beatles. This paper examines how Zappa pushed the boundaries of available studio technology to develop compositions, (re)arrangements and performances/virtual performances of his work, while creatively engaging with time, space and place through blurring the distinction between studio and live environments. After presenting an overview of his interface with technology throughout the 1960’s, the discussion will progress to analyze albums such as the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore (1988 – 1992) series, cumulating with his work on the synclavier during the late 1980’s – early 1990’s with albums such as Jazz From Hell (1986) and Civilization Phaze III (1993).

When Frank Zappa entered the international music scene in 1966 with the inaugural Mothers of Invention (MOI) album Freak Out (1966), he was already an experienced musician. Although having earned a living as a performer,[2]songwriter, and film composer, it seems that the purchase of his colleague Paul Buff’s studio in 1964 [3] was a pivotal factor regarding his transition from a practitioner who engaged with these paradigms separately, to one which adopted a more interdisciplinary approach to music making,

When considering Zappa’s work with Buff from this period, it appears to be reminiscent of Kealy’s ‘entrepreneurial mode’ of collaboration. This is depicted as a ‘fluid and open’ partnership, allowing, ‘an interchange of skills and ideas among musicians, technicians and music market entrepreneurs’,[4] and is seen to be the precursor of what the author describes as ‘The Art Mode’ of collaboration, where the artists develops a ‘natural interest in the craft of sound mixing as a means of artistic expression’.[5] A feature of this mode also excludes so called ‘middlemen’ who represent the commercial interest of record companies,[6] leaving the musicians and composers to make the creative decisions, a factor that results in ‘work previously considered merely technical [becoming] artistic’.

A recent interview I conducted with Paul Buff confirmed the ‘entrepreneurial’ nature of his collaboration with Zappa. When asked about their working practices he stated

The cross influence was about equal. Zappa knew very little about recording or electronics, but obviously was a budding genius. I knew little about music and my “genius” such as it is was in electronics.

According to Buff, Zappa ended up in the studio by himself doing the same sort of experimentation in the control room and studio, and consequently presented an early example of  Kealy’s ‘Art Mode’, described as the ‘integration of the sound of studio technology with the musical aesthetic of popular music’.[7]

After his studio closed, Zappa was to increasingly use tape editing as a compositional tool in addition to developing the business side of his career, forming Bizarre Productions with Manager Herb Cohen. In addition to producing and releasing music by non conformist artists such as Lenny Bruce and Captain Beefheart, Zappa’s MOI and solo ventures continued in earnest throughout this period, with recordings such as Freak Out, Absolutely Free and We’re Only In It For The Money all incorporating technology to formulate compositions in addition to creating virtual performances and arrangements.

Ex Zappa sideman Don Preston informed me in a recent interview of the process Zappa employed during this time period, he commented

During Absolutely Free for example, some songs would consist of between 30 – 40 independent takes, and each one would have to be attempted several times, as not all of the band members read music

This process is particularly apparent in pieces such as ‘Plastic People’ and ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’, both of which are obviously constructed through multiple takes to produce a unified piece. It is apparent that Zappa has used the technical and human resources at his disposal, and incorporated them to formulate his creative requirements, which at the time were possibly proving problematic to realise during the rehearsal process. As Preston states, the majority of the early MOI did not read music, so multiple attempts at short sections of these pieces was the only way to document Zappa’s advanced musical ideas. Later in his career, Zappa would employ the extraordinary skills of selected musicians with studio technology to continue this principle, and this is particularly noticeable during pieces such as ‘The Dangerous Kitchen’, which combines at least two live locations spliced together with a studio recorded Steve Vai guitar transcription of Zappa’s vocal line. On the same album, Vai was given the task of transcribing a difficult spreechstimme vocal on ‘Jazz Discharge Party Hat’s,’ which Zappa dutifully placed onto a live backing track recorded at Southern Illonios University, and this is typical of the way Zappa used his ‘stunt guitarist’ during the early to mid 1980’s. Although Zappa never intended to perform these versions live, the recordings create an illusion of what appears to be an ‘impossible’ display of musicianship, and in doing so engages the listener in the practice of hypermediacy. In the same way that we are invited to watch the action of a film through the eyes of a protagonist such as Norman Bates in Psycho, Zappa invites us into the inner processes of his creativity when openly declaring on his album sleeve notes the means through which the impossible is made real. As Bolter and Grusin outline, hypermediacy ‘acknowledges multiple acts of representation and makes them visible’,[8] and this is an apparent joy for Zappa considering the transparent way he reveals the multiplicity of his creative processes. However, the authors also describe hypermediacy as ‘mutually linked’ to immediacy,[9] depicted by Anne Cranny-Francis as ‘the demand for the erasure of the medium of the viewing experience’.[10]Zappa’s involvement with the early quadraphonic format is an indicator of his intention of using technology to remediate as ‘realistic’ a listening experience as possible,[11] and this is also manifested in the fastidious way he edited the ‘imperfections’ in his early catalogue.

In addition to using technology to create ‘virtual studio performances’ that sound as if they could be played live, Zappa’s more pervasive practice included the juxterpositioning of otherwise incongruent live versions of the same piece into ‘virtual live performances’ that were intended to sound like they were performed live. Although this process came to a head with the six part ‘You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore’ series (1988 – 1992), ‘Little House I Used To Live In, ‘Holiday In Berlin, Full Blown’,[12] and ‘Toads Of The Short Forrest’[13] are all interesting early examples of Zappa combining numerous ensembles and environments to form what appeared to be a utopian live performance. Although the edits on these performances were crude compared to his latter standards, they do provide a methodological foundation regarding fusing time, space and place in addition to combining live instrumentation with sounds only available through studio technology.[14] Regarding the You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore series, Zappa was explicit that these performances were ‘not chronological’ and proceeded to confirm that ‘any band from any year can be (and often is) edited to the performance of any other band from any other year – sometimes in the middle of a song’.[15] Although the majority of the series has to quote Zappa  ‘No Overdubs’, and focuses on his perception of a ‘perfect gig’, it is interesting how a number of specific ‘performances’ in the series actually include juxterpositioned bands who played with Zappa many years apart.  Examples include ‘Lonesome Cowboy Nando’,[16] which combines a performance recorded in the summer of 1988 in Genoa, Italy, with one recorded 17 years earlier in UCLA Los Angeles, and ‘King Kong’ which combines the ‘Flo and Eddy’ band of 1971 with musicians circa 1982.

It is important to note that Zappa’s use of technology was not used for purely musical reasons, but also conceptual. Right from the early part of his career Zappa stated that all of his music was unified by a philosophy he entitled ‘The Big Note’. In a 1968 edition of Life Magazine, Zappa stated

Everything in the universe is composed basically of vibrations – light is a vibration, sound is a vibration, atoms are composed of vibrations – and all these vibrations just might be harmonics of some incomprehensible fundamental cosmic tone [17]

Although not directly influenced, there is a close parallel between Zappa’s philosophy and the teachings of Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan, who considered music to be ‘behind the workings of the whole universe [18] and that ‘the reason we are drawn to music is that our whole being is music’.[19] There also appears to be a close parallel with the discoveries of Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, who accidentally discovered in 1965 that a residual sound related to the Big Bang was still apparent in the universe, and that this sound was judged to be vibrating at approximately 4080 mega hertz, slightly flatter than B in equal temperament tuning.[20] Regardless of whether Zappa was aware of these revelations or not, it is apparent that his music is littered with a web of fractal logic, where consistent patterns are apparent in single tracks, albums and his entire portfolio.  In Pop Music: technology and creativity, Timothy Warner discussed how pop music has a greater tendency than rock to use technology to develop what he calls ‘the modified repetition of musical ideas between pieces’.[21] Although the author is specifically focusing on sampling, he also comments on  how pop uses ‘sounds from existing multi track recordings which are then rearranged and modified to create new and often radically different versions of the same piece’.[22] Zappa, a so called rock musician is probably the greatest exponent and unappreciated antecedent of this practice, employed two principle techniques to create the unified macrostructure to his life’s work – Xenochrony and Project/Object. The former’s etymology derives from the Greek, meaning ‘Alien Time’, and as opposed to the diachronic editing of incongruent performances of the same piece, was employed to synchronically fuse specific instruments from unrelated compositions, usually from disparate times, spaces and places. Although mainly used to import guitar solos from live performances into studio projects, he also used the technique with other instruments such as on ‘Rubber Shirt’ (Sheik Yerbouti 1979), which incorporates an 11/4 bass part extracted from a performance in Gothenburg in 1974, with a 4/4 drum part recorded in 1976 in studio conditions.

Zappa perceived his Object/Project philosophy as being the difference between the work of art, and the ongoing process of redefining it, a description that is similar to the ‘works/texts’ continuum described by Richard Grigely in Textualterity: Art, Theory, and Textual Criticism. Grigely argues that a text is ‘constantly undergoing continuous and discontinuous as it ages’ [23] and how artworks have ‘multiple texts’, consisting of discursive spaces and inherent meanings that are a direct product of the textual spaces we [and the artist] enter and engage in.[24] This process is certainly the case for Zappa, who recorded numerous versions of much of his portfolio. Zappa did not only constantly develop his own texts into evolving works, but also more subliminally cross referenced both his own pieces and those of others throughout his career, providing a range of semiological reference points for individual listeners. For example Absolutely Free alone has cross references to ‘Louie Louie’, The Rite Of Spring, ‘Duke Of Earl’, ‘Baby Love’, The Planets Suite, ‘God Bless America’, Petrushka, ‘White Christmas’ and The Soldiers Tale.[25] Zappa entitled the allusion to these pieces as Archetypical American Musical Icons, and many of them were repeated on other recordings as the years progressed, with ‘Louie Louie’ being a particularly pervasive example. Subliminal references to his own work are numerous, and include samples of ‘Who Are The Brain Police’ in ‘Help I’m A Rock’, ‘The Worlds Greatest Sinner’ in ‘Dog Breath, In The Year Of The Plague’ and ‘How Could I be Such A fool’ in ‘Lonely Little Girl’. [26] This conceptual continuity practice spanned his entire portfolio, as evidenced by his final album Civilization Phaze III, which merges material from the early 1990’s with samples from 1967’s Lumpy Gravy.

Towards the end of the 1980’s, problematic band personnel factors prompted Zappa to stop touring and focus more on the synclavier as a means of composition and production. Having had numerous issues with the poor performances of his classical repertoire in particular over many years due to what he described as the ‘human element’, this machine enabled him to compose music that was as complex as his imagination dictated, without the issues of large orchestral fees or negative artistic attitudes. The work he produced over the next several years in many ways resonates with his hero Edgard Varèse’s 1936 ‘liberation of sound’ lecture, which documented the composer’s desire for machines to compose music that went beyond the abilities of human performance.[27] In Zappa’s case, his work with the synclavier at least partially achieved that aim. The Perfect Stranger comprises of three live pieces conducted by Pierre Boulez and four computerised,[28] and this gesture is almost a signifier of the artistic equality Zappa considered this new artistic medium, as he introduced his new soundscape of live performance and computer based production. This practice continued on Meets The Mothers Of Prevention, which combines rock focused studio and live recordings with synclavier generated pieces. Although his sound palette is still limited, pieces such as ‘H.R.2911’ are beginning to combine complex melodies and rhythms with a greater variety of timbre, mixing orchestral textures with idiosyncratic traits such as the infamous Zappa snork. The album also features attempts at combining live performers with computer generated sounds, a technique he was to explore in greater depth on subsequent albums, and an important development in his fusing of performer, producer, composer and arranger roles.  Aside from the live band featured on ‘St Etienne’, Jazz From Hell is essentially a solo synclavier album, and as evidenced in its title track, begins to provide an insight into the possibilities of combining sampled and originally constructed sounds, with otherwise ‘impossible’ rhythms and melodic lines. Unlike the seemingly ‘impossible music’ Bennett outlines when discussing Les Paul’s experiments of the early 1950’s,[29] Zappa progressively blurs the distinction between human and automated performance. In 1988, Andrew Goodwin regarded this process as ‘the most significant result of the recent innovations in pop production’,[30] and considered it responsible for both a ‘crisis in authorship’ and a lack of authenticity in performance.[31] In Zappa’s case, it is ironic how his synclavier based Jazz From Hell won a Grammy for best instrumental performance,[32] and his computer albums in general were embraced by his fan’s, despite the lack of authenticity rock audiences normally associate with computer based works.

Had Zappa’s life not been cut short in 1993, it is interesting to consider how his computer generated music could have merged with live concert performance, and how this technology could have added a new dimension to his manipulation of time, space and place. His 1988 release Make A Jazz Noise Here is probably the best indication of this, with ‘When Yuppies Go To Hell’ combining live/sampled drums with synclavier harmonies and vocal effects. These mainly digital domains progresses into a ‘live’ brass theme, which is merged with synclavier vocal sounds, followed by a live trumpet solo with band backing. Sections where live musicians merge with the computer are particularly interesting, with Chad Wakerman’s analogue and electric drum kit providing particular ambivalence regarding the human – automated divide. This album was recorded during Zappa’s final tour in 1988, and in some ways acts as a statement of how computer technology would become his principle form of expression over the remaining years of his life. Although on first listening it appears that the opposing live/digital paradigms of ‘When Yuppies Go To Hell’ is achieved live, once again the details on the album sleeve reveal otherwise, it being compiled from various performances from the final tour between February and May 1988. In some respects, the process of manipulating time, space and place through celebrating and distorting what appears to be live performance is a continuation of what Zappa implemented at the start of his career, and it is proposed this process in part represents his distrust in the ‘human element’, which was apparent from Freak Out to Civilization Phaze III. This duality regarding the nature and notion of live performance was achieved by compiling utopian concerts that combined the marvels and frailties of the human condition, with innovative technological constructions, while simultaneously revealing how these constructs were made real. The countless rearrangements he made of many of his pieces were not filler tracks on albums, but part of a project – object philosophy in which he often used technology and live performance to re arrange his music, with both text and work closely aligned. Although always a ‘producer’, the synclavier enabled him to combine both human and machine in ways that traditional recording technology could not. Zappa’s ‘ultimate gesture’ is not only his music, but the uncompromising way his philosophy enabled him to realise it. It is hoped that this paper has gone some way into assisting our understanding of this.


[1] For Example “Friendly Little Finger” from Zoot Allures (1976)) brings together otherwise unrelated bass and drum parts.

[2] Zappa’s early cover bands included The Blackouts (James p.49) The Boogie Men (Slaven, 2003 p.33), and Joe Perrino and the Mellotones (ibid p.34) and The Muthers (ibid p.41).

[3] This date was confirmed in a recent interview with Buff himself.

[4] 213 frith

[5] Frith 214

[6] Frith 215

[7] Frith 214

[8] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation (MIT Press, 2003), p.33.

[9] Freda Chapple and Chiel Kattenbelt, Intermediality in theatre and performance (Rodopi, 2006), p.56.

[10] Anne Cranny-Francis, MultiMedia (SAGE, 2005), p.2.

[11] When forming the Discreet label in the early 1970’s, Zappa’s original intention was to release albums in conventional stereo and quadraphonic. Although unfortunately only Overnight Sensation and Apostrophe were released, the Zappa family Trusts recent releases of Quaudiophiliac (what is the history of this) and Halloween (in 5.1) have continued this legacy of realism.

[12] Burnt Weeny Sandwich 1970.

[13] Weasels Ripped My Flesh 1970.

[14] In the case of ‘Holiday in Berlin Fully Blown’, note the double speed tuned percussion (2.20 – 2.56 ) leading into the live guitar solo (Recorded at the Ark in Boston in 1969).

[15] From the sleeve notes of YCDTOSA Vol.1.

[16] Vol 6

[17] life magazine p.84

[18] David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus, The book of music and nature (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), p.13.

[19] Ibid., p.14.

[20] Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and the Secret History of Maximalism (Salt Publishing), p.2.

[21] Timothy Warner, Pop music (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2003), p.10.

[22] Ibid., p.11.

[23] Joseph Grigely, Textualterity:Art, Theory, and Textual Criticism (University of Michigan Press, 1995), p.2.

[24] Ibid., p.4.

[25] See http://globalia.net/donlope/fz/quotes.html for details.

[26] http://globalia.net/donlope/fz/quotes.html

[27] Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, Audio culture (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004), pp.17-21.

[28] Which Zappa entitles The Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort.

[29] H. Stith Bennett, “Notation and Identity in Contemporary Popular Music,” Popular Music 3, no. -1 (1983): 215-234.

[30] Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, On record (Routledge, 1990), p.263.

[31] Ibid.

[32] For the title track, although Zappa was amused that those responsible for the award had not even listened to the music.

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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5 Responses to The Big Note – The Ultimate Gesture: The incorporation of time, space and place in performing, composing, arranging and producing Frank Zappa’s music

  1. Chris Federico says:

    Absolutely brilliant, and highly enjoyable. Thank you for posting this. I find your take on the all-too-often overlooked temporal aspect of Zappa’s approach to be fascinating. Bravo!

    Chris

    Like

  2. Doug says:

    Thoughtful article. But the author of Textualterity is JOSEPH Grigely….

    Like

  3. Pingback: 2010 in review « Paul Carr Musings

  4. Anonymous says:

    “Had Zappa’s life not been cut short in 1993, it is interesting to consider how his computer generated music could have merged with live concert performance, and how this technology could have added a new dimension to his manipulation of time, space and place.”

    One could say that, George Duke was doing that back in the 70’s, albeit with analog synthesis.

    Like

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