Zappa On Jazz From Hell

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By Frank Zappa
Music & Sound Output, March 1987



Night School started off as four or five chords, played into the Synclavier. I had some guys here hanging out in the studio one night and I was giving them a demonstration of the machine. I played these chords and saved them on a floppy, and that's how that one got started. Everything else was built up from that dahdahdat dadah thing. The melody that was super-imposed on top of it – it sounds kind of like a piano and kind of like a trumpet – was something I just improvised. All the rest of the rhythm-section data was added partially from the keyboard and partially from the Roland Octapads.

Beltway Bandits is a really old one. The rhythm is a round, the parts are staggered. They're staggered so they interlock with each other. A simple rhythm becomes more complex, times four, when you copy the same part and stagger it a certain number of beats. The harmony that's used is all derived from this book called The Chord Bible. Every composer has notes, chords and rhythms that he likes to hear. Some people keep it all in their head and some people will jot down little sketches. Several years ago I made a classification of all of my favorite chords plus the order in which I preferred to hear the pitches in the chords arpeggiated. It's all broken down from three-note, four-note, five-note, six-note, eight-note chords. The chords are in different classifications, starting with those chords that have a minor second as the uppermost interval, major second, minor third, blah blah blah blah blah, all the way down to the fewest chords that have the minor ninth as the upper interval of the chord. There are real dense voice chords and chords that cover four or five octaves. There's a whole variety in the book. The harmony in "Beltway Bandits" is derived from Chord Bible harmony, and usually it's four- and five-note harmony. There are a couple of seven-note chords in there also.

While You Were Art began as a guitar solo on a song called "While You Were Out" on an album released in 1980. A chamber group from Cal Arts commissioned me to write an arrangement of that guitar solo for their ensemble – cello, clarinet, two percussion, two keyboards. There might have been a flute, too. No guitar. The solo on the LP had been transcribed by Steve Vai and was available in this guitar book of solos, so Bob Rice typed into the Synclavier the original rhythms, which were all real complicated, and then taking that basic material I put it through a bunch of permutations and came out with this piece. They came over to pick up the parts and they looked at it and said, "Oh, this is real hard. We don't have enough time to rehearse it. What are we going to do?" I said, "No Problem. I'll have the machine play it for you and we'll make this tape and you guys will go on stage and you'll lip-sync it and nobody will know." And nobody knew. Not the Los Angeles Times critic, not the Herald Examiner critic, not the guy who ran the concert series. None of them knew they didn't play a note and that all the sound was coming off of a little cassette. They found out afterward, of course. So what? That's really the music of the Eighties. Nobody listens any more. You just want to watch stuff anyway. This is not that arrangement because that performance didn't even have any samples. It was all FM synthesis. That gives you a rough idea how far away from real sounds the performance actually was and people still didn't actually know. So when I got the polyphonic sampling system I took the thing they had played, put some samples on it, tweaked it again and that's the version on the record.

Jazz From Hell is from within the last four months. It started off with a patch that was built that contained a tenor sax, some samples of this little string-section chords, odds and ends. The basic sound of the patch was the tenor sax, but every time you'd hit a note to get the tenor sax you'd have something else added to it. In one octave it might be a re-synth solo violin; another octave it might be a gut-string guitar. It was just a mix-and-match patch. It was pressure-sensitive so you could get in and style it. That started off with me just laying down a stylized melody line with the tenor sax, and the rest was added as accompaniment, like all the keyboard parts; the Fender Rhodes part in there is just me grabbing my favorite mystery chord at random and plopping it in. Even though the intervals are a little peculiar, in some ways it's got the feeling like someone could have been comping that twisted solo that's there.

G-Spot Tornado is kind of put together as a twisted version of Ravel's "Bolero" where you've got a tune you can recognize and it goes through a lot of orchestration changes, segment by segment, with the synthesizer solos in the middle. That's another improvised solo I stuck in.

Damp Ankles is probably about two years old. It had been sitting around. I've got boxes of floppies with compositions that have been started and are in various stages of development I've had since I got the Synclavier. I don't work on one thing all the way through. "Damp Ankles" was the one I had the most trouble with because of the nature of the sounds that were in it. When it was originally typed in, we didn't have a velocity keyboard, so I had to find a way to artificially impose dynamic information onto those sounds. I had tried replacing the original FM timbres that were used with samples and it didn't have the same character. So I went back to the original timbres to keep the original mood of the piece and then added some samples around it for the rhythm section. But it just wouldn't behave. I worked on that one for a long time.

The dynamics of the velocity information exist in that computer as a list of numbers of amplitude values from 0 to 100. So 100 means that's all you get. That's as loud as it'll ever be. When there's no velocity information, all the parts are at 100 percent. It's fairly charmless, especially if you have kind of a synthesizer woodwind sound. It just grates on you after a while. C7 is the highest note on the keyboard so that's 100 percent. C7 equals 100. C2 is not the lowest note; the lowest playable note is A0, but C2 is about the quietest dynamic you might want to use. Below that it's very, very subtle. So you write an extra composition using only the notes between C2 and C7 and those pitches you type in in this auxiliary composition then become the dynamic code for the individual instrument that's reading that. So you set up a situation where the computer reads this other piece of music and converts the musical data into dynamics. That's how we did it. That's taxing the system.

St. Etienne was included because I felt it might be nice to have a contrast with something that sounded like a real live band in the middle of all the mechanical stuff.

The last thing in the record is Massaggio Galore. I did a radio show for the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art that will be on the air in the spring. It's one of the selections that was included in that radio show. The guy I did it with does this imitation in one part of the show of a radio disc jockey who is announcing a record by a group called the Scumbags and the name of the song was "Massaggio Galore." And that's the tune that was used in the show.

As told to Jeff Spurrier