The David Ocker Interview

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David Ocker (b. 1951) worked for Frank Zappa during seven years as a copyist, but he also performed and recorded as soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra in the premiere of Frank Zappa's Mo 'n Herb's Vacation. He is an incredibly gifted clarinetist who has performed with the the Berkely Symphony and an accomplished composer, whose music has been performed by Xtet, the California Ear Unit, the Antenna Repairmen, and even a rock group (the Mope – now defunct). His chamber work Pride and Foolishness was performed on the Pacific Contemporary Music Festival in Seoul, South Korea. He now works doing something called music engraving and has given up playing (What a pity!!). He is also a cool and interesting person and he answered some questions for the Arf-dossier. His answers are gems of wisdom for me, read and enjoy:

What is Music Engraving?

In the old days printing music was a difficult problem. Music notation doesn’t fit into a convenient one dimensional string of characters the way this (or any) sentence does. Written music is two dimensional: a musical symbol on the page changes its meaning depending not only on its horizontal position but also on its vertical position. What music publishers back then did was to "engrave" music on a metal plate. Just like having your name engraved into a school ring or a silver loving cup, a sharp tool gouges out the music. Eventually the other symbols – clefs, noteheads, etc etc – were put into the metal not by scraping but by hammering. The engraver used a set of tools called punches which came in all possible shapes to make small depressions anywhere required. Then ink is applied to the plate. The ink on the un-excavated sections is removed, leaving ink only in the depressions. Put a piece of paper over the plate, press down, and your "engraving" is transferred to the paper.

If you think about this, it means that the image on the metal plate had to be engraved in reverse, a mirror image. Seems like an awful lot of work but that's how sheet music got reproduced. I understand that there are a few old plate engravers still doing it that way. Okay, I admit this is a very simplified explanation but my point is this: reproducing music was once done by actual engraving in metal. Before I go on, you'll probably be interested in knowing that Frank asked me about this very same subject once. I briefly described to him how people whacked punches into sheets of metal. He had never heard of such a thing and expressed considerable amazement at the sheer low-tech violence of it. These days technology has transformed the process of reproducing music, just like it has everything else. New kinds of printers, music typewriters, press-on letters, ozalid (blueprint) and xerox reproduction have all had their effect in the 20th century.

Of course, in the last decade or so computers have taken over. The only thing that hasn't changed is the name: it's still called "music engraving". Sort of like calling truck drivers "teamsters". When Frank hired me in 1977 my initial job title was "music secretary". Some of the work I did for him was done "freehand" with pens, ink, and a single ruler, using pre-printed manuscript paper. This is generally called "music copying" and it wasn't long before I was just referred to as Frank's "copyist". There were a lot of copyists in Hollywood doing all sorts of music. But Frank really liked it when his scores were done in a style called "music calligraphy" or "autography", which I'd learned at CalArts and which had little commercial potential because it took much longer to do. This style used drafting tools and templates to make a more uniform look, although still obviously hand-drawn. All the staff lines in Frank's full orchestra scores were ruled by hand.

The distinction between copying and engraving is generally that copying is done quickly and the finished product has a lot of inherent variability. Engraving implies some sort of mechanical production and the symbols are identical each time they appear. Also much more care is given to the layout of the music. Autography has elements of both. When I first got a computer system, I called myself a "computer music engraver" to distinguish what I did from the plate engravers who were rapidly being replaced. I imagined the "real" engravers as little old gnomes sitting in caves that looked exactly like sets for Wagner operas. In the years since, instead of working just for local composers preparing for performances, I've been employed by publishers who eventually print up thousands of copies of scores. I've even been awarded two Paul Revere Awards: prizes from the Music Publishers' Association in the U.S. (Paul Revere, better known as the "one-if-by-land" American revolutionary, was also the first person in the new world to engrave music.)

Of course, as in any brief description, there are lots of arcane matters which I'm omitting, conflicting attitudes and theories that I'm ignoring and distinctions which I've glossed over. Hopefully, this little essay is enough to answer your question. I can suggest a reference work to anyone interested in the history of music reproduction. (P.S. – If you want to see my recent work look for Boosey & Hawkes publications of music by John Adams – for example the operas "Nixon in China" and "The Death of Klinghoffer" and the Violin Concerto. My name sometimes appears on the last page of music.)

Steve Vai is my favourite guitar player, what are your memories about him?
If Steve is your favorite musician, I'm afraid this answer is going to be a little disappointing. My window of personal experiences with him was extremely short, only during the length of time we were both working for Frank – but even then we had little personal contact. Although we worked on several of the same projects it was never at the same time or place. He did the transcriptions for the Guitar Book in his appartment – I remember that he lived for a while in a very boring looking building on Fairfax (a busy street) somewhere around Hollywood or Sunset boulevards – way down the hill from where Frank lived. I was there once to drop something off – I don't think Steve was home. Meanwhile I did my work, copying and proofreading, in my own office in my little rented bungalow on the other side of Hollywood in a district called Los Feliz. Steve and I are also both on the Sinister Footwear recording, doubling the same Zappa guitar solo – but we never played in the studio at the same time. Steve did his overdub long before I did mine. His guitar can be heard much more distinctly than my bass clarinet. Of course Steve's main job was being in the band. They rehearsed long hours most every day at a huge sound stage on some movie lot or other. Those rehearsals were a separate little world; my visits were infrequent and I usually just sat in the back and watched. Working at home, my contact with other InterContinental Absurdities people was mostly by phone. My questions could usually be answered only by Frank himself and because of his weird schedule trying to reach Frank on the telephone was usually a problem. I saw other employees most often to pickup or deliver manuscripts.

Watching a rehearsal or session was always a treat for me. (My life is still the same now in this respect.) Okay, back to Steve... My first memories of Steve, just after he joined Frank's band, are of a friendly, eager, wide-eyed young guy who was ready for just about anything, both mentally and musically. I say "young" – but I don't think he can be all that much younger that I am, maybe 10 years? Back then a decade seemed like a much bigger gap to me. I had already been working for Frank for several years and in the my spare time had gotten a small dose of local notoriety as a composer and performer of strange music. Steve was fresh from the Berklee School in Boston which must have seemed a long way from Los Angeles and a real gig touring with a major rock band. It soon became clear to everyone that he was very talented. Besides his abilities as a performer, people were amazed by his transcriptions of Frank's solos. He seemed to do this work so easily. I would have regarded the solo tracks as un-transcribable. Of course, it's much easier for a guitarist to figure out what another guitarist is playing. Once we started to play them we discovered how accurate they were.

I played with Steve only once. He came over to my house (the bungalow in Los Feliz) to rehearse Sinister Footwear – we played the melody together as a duet: bass clarinet and guitar. I think we'd both worked on it pretty hard by then, learning the nuances by playing along with tape to prepare for Frank's studio. Our duet went well. At least I don't remember any problems now. When we'd finished playing, Steve must have wanted to learn something about how I copied music because I can remember sitting with him at my copy desk. At one point the discussion turned to composing music. I remember leaning over and opening the large desk drawer where I kept all the master copies of my own pieces. When I turned back to Steve the expression of surprise on his face was quite evident. He was impressed by how full it seemed.

The last time I saw Steve in person was within a year or two of that. I went to the house he'd purchased in Sylmar – a tract in the dry, extra-boring northern part of the uniformly boring San Fernando Valley. This was either when he was still working for Zappa or soon after. Frank told me that Steve could afford the house because other people were living there who paid rent to help cover the mortgage. I was impressed because most of the musicians I knew then could not afford to buy a house. Steve had rented a large truck trailer, parked it in the backyard, and set up a full recording studio inside. I think Steve always made it clear that he wanted to compose not just tunes but also ensemble music.

This is the reason for my only direct contact with him since then. He called me sometime in the early nineties and asked if I was available to work preparing the score and parts of his pieces scheduled to be conducted by Joel Thome. He sent his assistant (his sister) over to our house with copies of the manuscripts and I worked out an estimate of how much I would charge. He didn't hire me – probably because my estimate was higher than others. Several years later I heard from him again and he wanted to know if I was available to finish the project – which apparently had not been completed by the person he did hire. But I couldn't do that either because the work had been started with a computer program I didn't use. We exchanged a bunch of emails as I helped him find someone who could help. I don't know all the details after that but eventually the music was played. And so ends the story of my relationship with Steve Vai – there isn't much real information here but I've fleshed it out with needless details and other digressions. I hope it held your interest.

All the Zappa fans think that the Synclavier is the ultimate instrument, but I think that right now with 10000$ you can get a digital workstation that does more. What do you think about it?
You're right – I do think that you could easily put a digital musical workstation together these days for about 10 grand that would put the Synclavier to shame. I'd rather have $25,000 for a whole home studio but why quibble about a few thousand bucks. I'm talking about the functions of the Synclavier for composing and synthesis.

Recording is a different issue. You could make a darn fine recording in a home studio, but it couldn't compete against a professional studio like UMRK. The Synclavier was in fact the ultimate instrument in the early 80's and it offered features impossible to find anywhere else at the time.

But in the years since then computer technology has advanced the quality and lowered the price of individual musical components exponentially. We're now way beyond anyone's wildest imagination then, even Frank's. A couple good synthesizers, a quality sampler and a computer powerful enough for direct-to-disk recording would be the necessary hardware. A good sequencer, sound editor and a notation program would be the principal software. Had New England Digital stayed in business and kept developing their product I suspect they could have stayed at the cutting edge (and managed to keep charging premium prices). The important thing, however, that you could get from a Synclavier that a current, composite system doesn't quite give you is integration. Synclaviers were built to allow data to interchange from function to function. It also had a programming language (the one Steve DeFuria used to write programs for Frank). Of course there were a lot of exceptions to what you could do then, but the theory of one integrated musical system was a good idea.

It still is. If they had continued to develop, I would hope this aspect of the product would also have been improved. I'm not aware of any current product that attempts the same integrated operation (but I don't pay much attention to products I can't afford.) Today's foremost medium of data interchange between musical equipment and software is (you can say this with me) ... MIDI. What's the best thing you can say about midi: It works. Can you imagine it working better? I can. Have you ever tried importing a midi file into a notation program. It's usually gibberish. A few years ago certain companies tried to create a method of interchange for music notation, not just note numbers and velocity. The standard was called NIFF but it's never going to happen (mostly because Coda [Music Software], makers of Finale, opted out.) There's so much equipment and software today which is supposed to be "interoperable" which is the fancy word meaning that it will all work together.

These products are produced by many different companies who are more interested in staying in business and in maintaining their market share more than finding ways for everything to work together more easily. We can only hope. I think the beauty of digital systems for a composer is that you can sit at a computer terminal, look at standard notation on screen and then hear back pretty much what you've written. Frank really excelled at this sort of composition. Anyone can do it now, but then you needed a Synclavier. It took him a while to figure out his own methods. He spent countless hours sitting in front of the monochrome Synclavier screen, tweezing the smallest details over and over. I think this is the reason CPIII is such a great album.

There must be cool unfinished music still living on the Synclavier's hard drive (it was called a "Winchester" not a "hard drive", which will give you an idea of how fast things change. Winchester was the name of a company which made early hard drives.) After I quit working for Frank there was a short period when I was still familiar enough with the Synclavier to hire myself out as an operator. I met a man who owned a Synclavier equipped studio which he rented out when he wasn't using it himself. If the client needed someone to help with the Synclavier I got work. The biggest project I assisted on was the score for a movie called "Echo Park".

On another session a client asked for something the Synclavier couldn't do. A basic Synclavier system cost about $100,000 (this is before sampling). This was also the amount of money it took to buy an average house in a reasonable neighborhood on the (desirable) west side of Los Angeles. The client was disappointed at being told no and said "If you buy a house and put in on a desk, it should do everything you ask." These days that basic $100K house costs more like $400,000. Just imagine what you should be able to do NOW if you put a music system that cost as much as a house on your desk.

Did you work on pieces of music for Frank on the Synclavier that are still unreleased? Do you think there's still good stuff to be released?
You've heard about "the vault"? In the process of building UMRK, a huge storage vault was created to hold all the tapes which Frank had collected during the years. He had pretty much everything he'd ever recorded. It has been 15 years since I've seen the vault so I have no idea what has become of it. I certainly hope they've maintained the environmental controls to preserve the tapes. When I quit my job with Frank we moved a large, fireproof filing cabinet that held all the score and part masters into the vault. Maybe that cabinet is still down there.

There was one large orchestra piece that I worked on that has never been performed. It's a concert version of "Penis Dimension" and "I'm Stealing the Room". Under Frank's supervision I orchestrated this for a large symphonic orchestra in the same fashion I did "Bogus Pomp" or "Strictly Genteel". Those versions are on the LSO albums. Along with the full orchestra there are narrators in "Penis Dimension" doing dialogue from the movie, plus a chorus. Having it performed would be a big deal. Frank gave me tapes of the previous recording and had me notate the rhythms of the spoken parts exactly. He would not allow any flexibility for the performers in terms of rhythmic performance – not even a fermata to allow the conductor the luxury of deciding how long to wait before going on. If there was a pause in the narration then Frank wanted enough in-tempo beats to allow that same amount of time to go by. The conductor was given no discretion.

The moral of this is, I guess, that Frank wanted to remain absolutely in control of the pacing of the music. Since it was intended as a concert version, I would have thought some allowance should be made in case an audience interrupts with laughter or applause. I would want a performer to have some opportunity to interpret the material in small matters of timing and inflection. I think Frank was more interested in recording than in live performance and the way he asked me to do this score definitely would facilitate it being recorded.

There are also unperformed scores which were interim versions of later pieces. I remember particularly an early version of "Sad Jane" for about 8 players. At one point in time this was finished although I don't remember parts being copied. These versions were never documented properly. Should anyone ever get the unlikely opportunity to reconstruct these scores it might fill the need for "low budget" live-performance Zappa pieces for smaller ensembles. 4B. Is good stuff still to be released. Well yes, depending on your definition of "good" of course. The majority of what's in the vault is audio tape never mixed or edited by Frank and so is not nearly as marketable as a tape that Frank personally approved.

Current fans already trade live concert recordings and would probably snap up the same shows if they were properly released. But the most recent new releases seems to be introductory albums like "Strictly Commercial" or "Strictly Genteel". I'd hope these are creating new Zappa fans who are discovering his music for the first time. I assume this is a good marketing strategy for keeping Frank's music visible, even if it less interesting to you and me. There must also be a huge number of outtakes, early versions and experimental tracks that Frank never pursued. Those would be fascinating. I bet anyone who ever recorded with him has some story about recording a fascinating impromptu piece that was never heard again. Making these into salable products would be a huge undertaking of time and money not to mention musical and technological scholarship.

Frank didn't intentionally make it hard for other people to recreate these things someday, but he wasn't leaving many clues either. Once a tape was no longer of immediate use to him it got stored away. I guess we can dream about the release of imaginary projects like "The Complete UMRK Sessions" on a couple hundred CDs. Or the live recordings of the entire 1988 tour. Wouldn't that be a trip? Or how about the "Unrecorded Synclavier Tracks"?

But don't count on anything like this in our lifetimes. And besides, didn't Frank release enough stuff himself? I mean, he may have passed on way too soon, but he personally produced enough music for three lifetimes of mere mortal composers. We should be really happy there's so much authentic Frank Zappa to listen to.

Civilization Phaze III is a great record, but it's hard to understand at the beginning (musically). From a point of view of somebody musically trained like you what do you think are the most interesting things in the album?
I think of CPIII as a single unified work. But I suspect Frank composed all the pieces separately and only near the end of the project did he combine them into the final sequence. He probably worked on many of them simultaneously. Eventually the whole project emerged as something greater than the sum of its parts. I also tend to think of CPIII as a work of abstract music. Except for the few syllables "Buffalo Voice" there are no understandable lyrics or voiceovers in any of the music tracks.

The sketchy scenarios in the album notes and his plans for a staged performance don't help me to decipher the music. If Frank had lived longer and found the resources, I'm sure he would have come up with lots of new ideas for the staged presentation. Finally, I think the album has a very deep and profound meaning. Frank knew it would be his final big project and he had some things he needed to say – and he said them with music. To me, at least, this makes CPIII very different from his other music.

But wait. At this point I can hear you ask "David, aren't you ignoring all the talk about pigs and pianos and whatever?" At first, I found the narration incredibly distracting. I wondered why Frank interrupted this wonderful music with such trite talk. One close friend of mine re-recorded the entire album deleting the vocal tracks. At the time it seemed like a good idea to me too. But later I figured out, at least to my own satisfaction, why the piano people are essential to the album. They are telling us not to worry about understanding the music. Most of Frank's music – most ALL music – relies on non-musical clues to help listeners figure out what it's about. Lyrics, titles, narration, and liner and program notes focus our attention on what otherwise are just complicated patterns of vibrating air.

You can write the world's most beautiful song about the woman you love, but unless you include some lyrics or at least put her name in the title, she'll never know whether you were thinking about her or about your car. In my opinion there are huge clues to CPIII's meaning contained in the talk of the piano people. Although it covers many different topics one theme strikes me over and over again when I listen: the failure to communicate.

These poor guys just can't get their points across. Most of their attempts to understand one another – especially for the new piano people – are colossal failures. Of course, Frank's editing contributed to these failures. Besides the theme of "failing to communicate" I hear much talk about understanding music. This is mostly about the pig's band. There are other themes throughout the narration – but I think the music talk is most relevant to the music itself. And it is the idea of greatest interest to me. I'd like to play a game. Call it REPP – "Re-Editing the Piano People". Essentially what I'm about to do is make a new conversation using the narration in Civilization Phaze III as source material. I'll use the same techniques Frank used – cut and paste.

SPIDER: "Like, we can't understand what they're saying to each other."

JOHN: "I know."
SPIDER: "I know ... it's not trying to say something to us at all ... it's trying to say something to the pig."
MONICA: "Have you ever heard their band?"
SPIDER: "I don't understand it though. Their band, I don't understand..."
MONICA: "I ... I don't think they understand it either."
JOHN: "What about negative light?"
SPIDER: "Pigs use it for a tambourine, which is one of the reasons why their music is so hard to understand."
SPIDER: "We can get our strength up by making some music."
JOHN: "We don't even understand our own music."
SPIDER: "It doesn't, does it matter whether we understand it? At least it'll give us ... strength."
JOHN: "I know but maybe we could get into it more if we understood it."
SPIDER: "We'd get more strength from it if we understood it?"
JOHN: "Yeah."
SPIDER: "No, I don't think so, because – see I think, I think our strength comes from our uncertainty. If we understood it we'd be bored with it and then we couldn't gather any strength from it."

JOHN: "Like if we knew about our music one of us might talk and then that would be the end of that."

And that really is the "end of that". The last few lines are from track 20 on Disk 2, the final narrative on the album, just before "Beat The Reaper" and "Waffenspiel". These are words Frank leaves us with. Afterwards comes only music, presumably about guns and death. This editing game could be used to prove a lot of other things.

Frank may not have intended any of them no matter how reasonable or outlandish. Only Frank could give a definitive answer of what he meant. I can just imagine him rolling his eyes if he heard my analysis. Oh well, at least I'm not comparing his music to King Lear. Is it better not to know too much about our own music? Do we get more strength from making music when it is something we don't completely understand?

This is an idea that resonates very personally in me. I listen to a lot of music that I don't know much about. Since I gave up being a performer in 1994 I started relearning the joys of just listening. I've learned that to get caught up in music I need to feel a certain aura of mystery about it. If I come away baffled and amazed at how a piece was composed or performed I get more involved. Of course, if I sat down and really analyzed I could probably figure things out.

But too much technical knowledge is really dangerous to music appreciation. I've learned the hard way that the less I know about the technical stuff the more likely I am to enjoy listening. The "hard way" of course, is to learn all the technical details only to discover later how the music has become boring. This is a trap for professional musicians who must obviously know all the details. There's a constant danger of burning out.

Enough of this – you asked me what I hear "musically" on the album. Since I've given you a long talk about how dangerous understanding is, I guess it would be contradictory to pick the music apart into individual details. Instead let me talk briefly about two major areas that I would investigate in CPIII if I were going to do a formal analysis. I'm not going to do this; let someone get a music degree for doing this. According to Frank such a study would entitle a person to wear leather patches on the arms of their sport coat (and not much else).

The first thing I suggest is to chart the different sounds Frank used. Which Synclavier patches did he choose to use and when? There sure are a lot of different sounds, sampled and synthetic. The sounds come and go with lightning speed. This is generally thought of as a positive feature of the Synclavier, but over 2 hours the constant variety of tone color starts to tire me out. Maybe the only reason he alternated music and talk tracks is to give our ears a chance to rest from all that synthetic sound.

Frank says in the liner notes that disk one is all Synclavier sequences but disk two is a 70/30 mix of Synclavier and live recordings. The only parts of the album which sound like live performance to me are the sounds happening behind the new narration tracks – probably not enough to account for 30%. My theory is that bits of live recording (recorded to the Synclavier disk) were edited and mixed with the Synclavier tracks, layered within individual pieces. I can't say definitively that this is correct because I wasn't around during the mixdown.

But if there are pieces or even sections recorded live, I can't tell which they are. My second suggested analysis project for CPIII would be to catalog the simpler melodies and cadences on the album and compare them to Franks other music.

The first impression one gets of Civilization Phaze III is of greatly complex music. Frank did give us long sections of atonal and arhythmic (or at least ametric) music on this album. It would be easy for almost anyone to use a computer composition system like the Synclavier to compose music too difficult to be performed or even too confusing to be notated. But Frank was not just anyone and the music on CPIII is obviously his own.

Hidden not too far below the surface are many little bits of "basic Zappa" – for lack of a better term. I'm not speaking of Conceptual Continuity which would be exact quotes of earlier material. What I'm talking about are phrases, cadences and musical motives which are essential to Frank's style; a melody of repeated quarter notes or a simple cheesy fanfare or a blues cadence. These things remind me of similar small bits from his previous music. This quality does not seem to be found in his earlier Synclavier music. Only with this album did he master the instrument.

And finally, in conclusion, let me remind you that every thing I've said is probably bullshit. Ninety percent of everything is bullshit. According to someone (possibly Frank himself) writing about music is like "dancing about architecture." You can do it if you want, but it probably won't help much. If you really want to appreciate Civilization Phaze III, if you really want to get strength from it, just listen to it.

The internet source for this dialog/interview is not available any more. So any copyright claim is welcome to be reported here.