comparison to a Calder mobile: a multicoloured whatchamacallit, dangling in space, that has big blobs of metal connected to pieces of wire, balanced ingeniously against little metal
dingleberries on the other end. Varese knew Calder and was fascinated by these creations.
So, in my case, I say: "A large mass of any material will 'balance' a smaller, denser mass of any material, according to the length of the gizmo it's dangling on, and the 'balance point'
chosen to facilitate the danglement".
The material being 'balanced' includes stuff other than the notes on the paper. If you can conceive of any material as a 'weight' and any idea-over-time as a 'balance', you are ready
for the next step: the 'entertainment objects' that derive from those concepts." (1)
Zappa's concession to a Varese-inspired compositional aesthethic is an obvious by-product of his childhood obsession with rhythm and drums, and later with
Varese's music itself (2).
The Black Page, in its original 'drum solo' format, has much in common with
Varese's masterpiece 'Ionisation' (3). Written for thirteen percussionists in 1931, the piece evokes a brutal soundscape. It formed part of a logical progression in Varese's work, which moved from atonality to eventually stripping away all tonality in his music, which then entered into a very experimental timbral environment. Varese was interested in the manifold nature of sound, rather than the western musical tradition that was the storyline of melody, which placed him firmly in the avant-garde
The original recorded release of The Black Page Drum Solo (5) has three added percussion tracks (emphasising the rhythmic melody of the original drum solo track), part of which was over-dubbed when Zappa produced the album. Zappa's liner
THE BLACK PAGE DRUM SOLO / BLACK PAGE NO.1. Opens with an improvisation by Terry, Ruth and Dave join in on the written part, along with wood and metal, percussion over-dubbed
by John, Ed, & Ruth. (6)
The finished recording lives very much in the same sound-world as Ionisation. Zappa's stacked percussion sounds like the death march leading to Varese's apocalyptic work, spanning the forty six years between the two pieces. Layered
rhythmical complexities in both pieces replace traditional harmonic and melodic climates, the timbral effect is unsettling. While the clusters of frenetic rhythmical phrasings in The Black Page seem to repeatedly force thelistener to pay close
attention to what is unfurling, Varese's organised chaos is also striking; its virulence and power intact, even sixty years after it was written.
diatonic music setting. Past atonality, this is timbrality, but the listener hears a distinct composition. Varese's early traditional classical training still shows through in the structure of this ground-breaking piece.
Varese's work allowed for and inspired the experimentation that followed in twentieth century high art music.
Zappa's Black Page seems to exist in the same sound world as Ionisation; it shares Varese's carefully structured rhythmic exercises and fits the same aesthetic principles:
'...A work which puts colour, rhythmic form, and accent in the first plane.' (7)
In Varese's footsteps, Zappa craved further experimentation...
Choosing A Melody...
Zappa's often didactic approach to composition led him in many directions, and somehow, he took the inspiration to apply a pitch melody to The Black Page. Example six comprises the opening four bars of 'The Black Page No.1'. The rhythm
remains exactly that displayed in example three (The Black Page drum solo), but Frank now has a tune. Aesthetically, Zappa has followed a highly personalised agenda in this exercise. He did exactly what he wanted, when he wanted; it was that simple. (8)
signature. The suggestion in the opening of the tune is an 'Eastern' musics flavour, but it is also reminiscent of a fanfare; the phrasing combines with the fourth and fifth intervals to create a driving, pompous melody. Any suggestion of the melody being written in a chosen key is dispelled by both the C# and F# being flattened in bar four. It would seem that Zappa has built his melody using his ears as opposed to theory; the tune seems to work as a series of cadences, maintaining a narrative.
The narrative quality of the melody seems to suggest to the listener an improvisational angle; the compositional process so far has meant that the rhythmic complexities being executed have moved the tune further from anything you would expect to find on a written score and into the realm of transcribed improvisation. The end result sounds like a skillfully constructed solo, which would be more familiar perhaps in a Jazz context; there is a real sense of 'player-as-composer', later as the piece develops, a level of mediation which can only be found in improvised musics.
We know the piece is not an improvisation, but the melody retains its fluidity. Despite the complex and often jagged rhythm patterns, Zappa has constructed a pitch melody line which brings a definite flow to the piece. There is a logic here, and a vocal influence at work; indeed, this was a feature of Zappa's music;
"...The rhythms I have are derived from speech patterns...they should have the same sort of flow that a conversation would have, but when you notate that in terms of rhythmic values,
sometimes it looks extremely terrifying on paper." (9)
The version of The Black Page No.1 on Zappa in New York also owes some of it's fluency to Ruth Underwood's burbling marimba. Ruth had the experience of being in various Zappa line-ups during the 70's, which obviously meant she had the attitude and aptitude to enable her to tackle the line as well as she does. The Black Page Drum solo is certainly one of Zappa's more complex charts, but considering its emphasis lies in rhythm, it should be surprising that the Black Page No.1, complete with a melody, sits comfortably within Zappa's style. Examples seven through ten, although written for different instrumentation, and across three decades, display that rhythmical sophistication in Zappa's melody lines has always been fundamental to his music.
"If you have a diatonic setting or even a bitonal setting with complicated rhythmical stuff on it, there's no reason why it shouldn't be appealing to a wide range of people.People like
rhythm. And the thing that makes the rhythm work is whether people are playing it right...You know that it's there: your foot is tapping even though the musician isn't playing the four beats,
your foot is tapping in the basic time signature of the song.And there is a clock inside your body that's saying 'We're in 4/4.' And somebody plays nine across it, and inside your body you hear the difference, and that's part of the excitement of that kind of rhythm" (10).
Zappa's enthusiasm for this kind of writing obviously shows in the above quote. Zappa often spoke of how he wrote music for his own enjoyment (an attitude he unsurprisingly shared with Varese), and the themes in examples six and seven obviously interest him personally, but it is interesting that he mentions what 'people' like to hear in this context. It is difficult to ascertain to what extent Zappa wrote these kind of rhythms for his own satisfaction or intended that others should be challenged by them.
Musical example eight is a transcription of a guitar line which was later arranged as the outro to a signature Zappa guitar workout, 'Black Napkins'. Rhythmically, the groupings are free over a 3/4 vamp, but Zappa's phrasing accents as three quintuplets, a sextuplet and a triplet. Once again, the emphasis falls on accenting groups on beats, but in a less rigid rhythmical background.
Example nine is an extract from the scored arrangement of 'G-Spot Tornado'. The piece was originally written on the Synclavier, Zappa's digital musical editing tool of choice. This machine allowed him to realise ever more complex compositions, and was perhaps part of the inspiration for the unusual rhythms in the piece. This piece is set apart from the other examples by its very direct rhythms set against a pounding 2/2 background. Zappa this time uses rests rather than groupings to maintain his rhythmical interest; they serve to define the melody in a fashion similar to the Peaches En Regalia theme. Rhythm is still arguably the most important factor here, because the piece is built in part by the theme in the transcription being put through extrapolated rhythmical variations.
The extract from 'RDNZL' in musical example ten displays a more subtle side to Zappa's composition.The theme is rhythmically quite simple, and from bar nine onwards, there is just a steady stream of quavers. The rhythmic sophistication comes from the melodic line and the accompaniment. Zappa's melody stretches gradually further away from the C major tonality that has been established, tricking the ear into accenting notes because of their pitch.This creates an illusion of complexity which is also encouraged by the rhythm section accompaniment accenting off beats, enticing the listener to divide the rhythm into anything other than a straight 6/8 pulse.
"Just as in diatonic harmony, when upper partials are added to a chord, it becomes tenser, and more demanding of a resolution - the more the rhythm of a line rubs against the implied
basic time, the more statistical tension is generated.
The creation and destruction of harmonic and 'statistical' tensions is essential to the maintenance of compositional drama. Any composition (or improvisation) that remains
consonant and 'regular' throughout is, for me, equivalent to watching a movie with only 'good guys' in it, or eating cottage cheese". (11)
The examples show that some of Zappa's music has a strong sense of unique rhythmical sophistication, with themes that appear across different pieces for different ensembles in different decades.This is unsurprising, as continuity was very much a part of Mr Zappa's oeuvre...
(1) Quoted from The Real Frank Zappa Book (see bibliography), chapter eight, 'All About Music', p.p.162-3, sub-heading 'Weights and Measures.
(2) The Real Frank Zappa Book, chapter two; 'There Goes the Neighbourhood', p.p 29-33.
(3) 'Ionisation' can be found on the album The Complete Works of Edgard Varese Vol.I. (EMS 401). Alternatively, The Rage & The Fury; C.D release where Frank Zappa conducts the
Ensemble Modern, who play the music of Edgard Varese.
(4) For a more detailed look at Varese's life and works, seek out the BBC2 documentary Windows on the World: 'Edgard Varese: A Portrait'. First broadcast in spring 1997.
(5) Zappa in New York (see discography), track four 'The Black Page Drum Solo / Black Page No.1' , 00.00 - 01.53 min/sec.
(6) Sleevenote to track four. (ibid.)
(7) Quote regarding Varese's 'Ionisations', from Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction. Salzman, Eric. p.141.
(8) Zappa's creative aesthetic is best ascribed "Anything, Any Time, Anywhere-for No reason at All", as quoted in The Real Frank Zappa Book, p.163. It would be really difficult to know
why he chose to add a melody, because he constantly worked to this dictum.
(9) A quote taken from The Guardian newspaper, January 11, 1983, 'The father of invention', interview by Robin Denselow.
(10) Frank Zappa, 'Non Foods:Coming to grips with polyrhythm', Guitar Player magazine, reprinted in Society Pages (Zappa fanzine), No.16, June 1983, p.29.The author uses this
quote from p.417 of The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play (see bib.)
(11) Quote taken from The Real Frank Zappa Book (see bib.), chapter eight 'All About Music', p.181.