Frank Zappa: Jazz From Hell
By Paul Gilby
Sound On Sound, February, 1987
With his latest album – 'Jazz From Hell' Frank Zappa has produced an instrumental work that has been almost entirely composed and performed on Synclavier in the depths of his home digital studio.
Zappa's attitudes towards musical composition are as radically refreshing today as they were back in the late sixties and 'Jazz From Hell' looks set to score another point over the "make it sound commercial" crowd. Paul Gilby spoke to him about his present activities on the day that he demonstrated his music using the Synclavier system at the Los Angeles AES Convention, November 1986.
If you last heard Frank Zappa's music fifteen or so years ago, then you may well be surprised by what he's doing now. If you know the name and not the music, it is probably because Zappa instinctively seems to be one of those underground 'cult' musicians who, without knowing why, is always given a miss.
Rightly or wrongly daubed with the hippy culture of the late 1960s, Zappa is not the man he would appear to be. So, given the opportunity to scratch below the surface, I set about discovering a little more of the 'true' Frank Zappa...
As a self-taught musician he accepts nothing at face value, including those people who say they accept nothing at face value. Few other artists can match his productivity, for since 1966 he has released over 40 albums and produced a wealth of other musicians' records. His other accomplishments include no less than 32 compositions for choral and orchestral groups, four ballets, two film scores and two TV specials.
He has also had the distinction of having several pieces of his chamber orchestra music performed in France and conducted by Pierre Boulez, director of the IRCAM institute in Paris. Now is that the Frank Zappa you know?
His witty demonstration at the Los Angeles AES drew on tracks from his new album, Jazz From Hell, which served as examples of how he is presently using the New England Digital synclavier system to write music from both a planned and totally random point of view.
"It's often a case of having a whole bunch of stuff going on and then starting to remove things until you discover something you like."
Zappa's links with 'experimental music' have always been strong, so in a way it was no surprise to see how his interest in the compositional tool of so many experimental musicians, the synthesizer, has led him to adopt the Synclavier system – the natural successor to the synthesizer of yore, some might say – though, as he goes on to explain, that was not the primary reason...
Could you explain how you arrived at the position we find you in today – as the owner of a state of the art digital synthesizer system?
"Well, you know, my interest is basically in music and, for me, synthesized sound is not necessarily the most fascinating part of it. I like the idea of getting things that sound like real instruments to play unbelievably difficult music. The sequences that I will be demonstrating on the Synclavier at today's show are very tame by my standards, they've been chosen because they are the most accessible of the pieces I'm working on. The rest of my stuff is mathematical and very strange and it's definitely not foot-tapping stuff!
You see, when I'm composing, my main idea often starts with various musical theories and I ask myself what happens if I do this or that, and what are the physical limits of what a listener can comprehend in terms of rhythm? How big is the 'data universe' that people can take in and still perceive it as a musical composition? That's the direction I'm going in."
Before you got the Synclavier did you utilise any other type of synthesizer system to produce 'known' instrument sounds?
"Prior to its purchase, all the gear I used was the normal sort of analogue equipment, such as the massive E-mu modular synthesizer system which I have. That's something I've used a lot to produce huge brass sounds."
Why did you become dissatisfied with the analogue approach to creating instrument sounds?
"It wasn't dissatisfaction with the sound. You see, the thing that got me hooked on the Synclavier was the music-printing aspect of it. Before getting that, I would carry manuscript paper around with me in my briefcase and write music on the road, in a hotel or on an aeroplane. It was a very manual procedure where, having come off the road, I would collate my ideas and then write out the new arrangement and that would go to a copyist, and so on. It was really expensive, very time-consuming, and at the end you really didn't know what you were going to get till you heard it played.
With the Synclavier you can type the stuff in and, if you do ever have to show it to another musician, you just push the button and it prints out a perfect copy. Before the sampling unit was installed in the Synclavier that I have, my main interest was just to be able to put the music together in a neat, secretarial way. So you see, I wasn't really attracted to it for its sound creating abilities. But when sampling came along, not only could I organise my compositions, I could also get a really great performance out of the system, instantly!"
How much do you actually know about the Synclavier?
"All I know is how to type in what I want to write and maybe just a little bit more. All the fancy stuff is done by my assistant. There was a time when he was doing some re-synthesis of vocal sounds which we had sampled and during that session I finally grasped the concept of how it worked and how the Synclavier divided the sound up into segments called 'frames'. Then it all seemed to come home to me.
You know, when you look at individual frames of sound, each one has a microtonal pitch to it, and when they are played back really fast, it gives you the illusion that you are hearing a replica of the real instrument. A bit like movie film where you have 24 separate image frames per second to re-create the movement. It's like really tiny tuning discrepancies from frame to frame. So you can re-pitch the frames how you like. For example, you could choose to pitch them to the exact tuning of a keyboard so that when you hit a single note on the keyboard, instead of getting 'Laah', which may sound like a real instrument, you get a 'melismic' effect (Dictionary: 'Melisma' – group of notes sung to one syllable) – a quick melody line. And since the Synclavier has four partials that you can stack this on, you can plan to have four different harmony parts which move in different directions resolving to something at the end. So, we call these things either 'resolvers' or 'evolvers'.
Evolvers are timbres that start with one kind of a sound in re-synthesis, and you take a certain number of frames from that, and they cross-fade into another timbre. For example, a horn could fade into a clarinet and then into a string section over a pre-determined time.
Resolvers are a classification of sound which has some sort of melody line built into it, but all under control of one key on the keyboard. This is an example of the technique and it was derived from one sample of Johnny Guitar Watson's voice; I think he was originally saying 'Yeah !'."
(Zappa then went on to play the described sound on the Synclavier. If you have experienced a keyboard instrument which allows you to programme an arpeggio or short sequence of notes to play when you press just one key, then you are approaching the concept he's discussing here. However, Zappa also demonstrated what it sounded like if, instead of considering each key as having a whole sequence of notes assigned to it, you react to the keyboard in the normal way and just play a chord. The result of his doing this was a massive and very awful-sounding noise – but it made the point!)
Is there any particular way that you select musicians for sampling sessions?
"It depends on what you are sampling. I don't think I'd ever want to sample a Country & Western oboe player!
Basically, what you are storing when you sample an instrument is the 'timbre', the sound texture – and there may well be a new market open in the near future for musicians who might not have much musical dexterity but have got 'great tone'. A whole new breed of sampling musicians!"
How long have you been working with the Synclavier?
"Well, I have had mine for about four years, and when I first got it I probably did the same thing that a lot of people do when they buy a complex piece of equipment – I said, 'Oh my God, do I have to read all those big books?' (referring to the user manuals). So I didn't! Yes, I can tell you honestly folks that I never did read those big books. But on the other hand I did happen to hire people who had read them, and they did all the stuff that I didn't want to do.
What I wanted to do right away was write music on it, not learn how to write computer programs. I still don't know how to do that and I will probably never bother to find out, because it took me about two or three months before I could turn round and say, 'I can type music into that!'
I remember I had a guy operating the machine and the way it happened was – and, boy, how this man suffered! I was working on a piece and I had to get the musical information into the computer. Since I didn't know how to type it in, I had to sit next to him and say, ' Make that one a C, make the next one a G, etc.' Then one day he said, 'Look Frank... if you would just do this, then I wouldn't have to sit here!' So I said 'Okay, let me try,' and it only took about a day to learn the process. From that point on he couldn't even get into the room to use the machine because I was there day and night!
You see, once you learn how to do this stuff, it's dangerously addictive. If you love music, and you desire the ability to write down your music and then push a button and hear it played back to you right away – the Synclavier is the instrument for you."
You are known for playing the guitar. Do you utilise the Synclavier's guitar interface in any way?
"A guitar player I may be, but when I first went to one of those music equipment conventions in New York City and saw the Synclavier system, I tried out the guitar interface and it wasn't really for me. But I know there are other good guitarists out there, like Pat Metheny, who play the Synclavier with the guitar very well.
I haven't been satisfied with it, generally because of the way I play – known as I am for being incredibly slovenly with my technique of rubbing fingers all over everything! You really do have to be careful, otherwise you accidentally trigger a bunch of sounds that get in the way of what you're playing. I think you have to learn to play the guitar properly to get the best out of that system."
Have you ever considered doing any concerts with the Synclavier?
"My agent looked into that and most people were afraid of doing it and didn't think they could sell any tickets. You see, in order to perform the music, all I would have to do is walk on stage and push the 'start' button on the control panel and the Synclavier would play itself. The question is, 'Will anybody buy a ticket to see that?' And the answer is probably 'No!'
I have considered performing as part of a band, which would obviously give people more to look at. But you know, I'm so involved with the Synclavier and what it can do and being able to hear my compositions played exactly, that I'm not even interested in writing or performing any other kind of music."
THOUGHTS ON SONGS
You mentioned earlier that you used Johnny Guitar Watson's voice as the sample for the basis of a re-shaped sound. He's also credited on your new album, 'Jazz From Hell', as playing guitar. From what I have read about you in the past, you criticise the pop industry for its continuous evasion of real life by releasing an endless deluge of perpetual 'love songs' full of false emotion. You do, however, recognise the raw emotional energy of somebody like Johnny Guitar Watson by utilising his voice and playing in your work, yet you seem to have little time for emotional songs. Why is that?
"I think it's quite a challenge to reach somebody emotionally without having to use words. Anyone who can perform expressively on a musical instrument I have respect for; particularly for those people who get to a level of performance where they are no longer thinking about operating a piece of machinery, but projecting something emotional through that machinery. That is really worthy of respect.
Writing a song about why somebody left you – that's just stupid. I'm sure the performers and the composer don't necessarily believe in what they're saying or doing. However, what they do know is that if they write a 'love song', it's got a hell of a better chance of being played on the radio than if it were a song about something else.
As a person who writes music I know about these standard techniques, and if I wanted to write something that would make you cry, I could do it. There's formula stuff that you can stick in here and there so the song falls neatly into place and elicits the desired response – but it's cheap, and it's not what I'm about."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net