Frank Zappa and His Digital Orchestra

By John Diliberto

Electronic Musician, September 1986

The present-day composer refuses to die . . . and his life support system is a Synclavier.

While waiting to interview Frank Zappa, I overheard a phone conversation with drummer Chad Wackerman. Zappa had just returned from filming an episode of TV's Miami Vice and was denigrating the script – "It is so putrid" – his clothes – "It was like Ronald MacDonald" – his role – "What do you get to be on there? A cocaine dealer. That's all that show's about" – and the "pastel policeman."

After all was said and done, however, Zappa waxed philosophical. "I'm really glad I did it though," he admitted, "because it was so sick. It's really one of the sicker things that a human being can do."

If anyone knows about the sick things a human being can do, it's Frank Zappa. For over 20 years he's been garroting American culture, sub-culture, counter-culture, and culture clash in a string of recordings that began in 1966 with Freak Out! Hippies, punks, Valley girls, and Congress fall equally before his venomous pen.

For those who love to hate Zappa, he presents an easy target, but laced between Zappa's satirical acid is an acute social consciousness, reflected in his longstanding voter registration pleas and his recent crusade against the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC).

Also buried in there are Zappa's serious music aspirations. While singing the praises of "Dinah Mo Hum," he's also sung the praises of Edgar Varese, Anton Webern, and others serious 20th-century composers and pioneers. In recent years, he accomplished the goal of realizing his orchestral works with recordings by the London Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Boulez' Ensemble Intercontemporain. But these were only temporary and expensive fixes for Zappa, who has found a more permanent solution to his addiction, the Synclavier II.

In 1982, Zappa released Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, a three-record set of guitar solos compiled in answer to his fans' demands. A similar refrain may soon be heard, not because Zappa's talking too much, but because he recently put down his guitar in favor of the Synclavier II computer music system. Not just any Synclavier, but the $200,000 deluxe model.

The first releases of this music were heard in 1984 and 1985 on The Perfect Stranger, Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention and Francesco Zappa, His First Digital Recording in over 200 Years. He calls his Synclavier the Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort, replacing the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of Lumpy Gravy, and as you'll read, Zappa believes he's found the answer to his deepest desires – recording orchestral music – even if the orchestra is digital.

I spoke with Zappa at his home in Los Angeles, ushered into the sanctum sanctorum of his 24-track digital studio by Dweezil, with a sullen, "Frank wants you to set up in here."

As I neared the studio, the sounds of a crazed metallic mallet orchestra lashed out, silenced by Zappa as I entered. He took the only arm chair in the room, with a microphone sticking mysteriously out of the wall overhead, lit up his everpresent Winston, took the phone call from Wackerman, and with the snide exuberance that only Zappa can muster, proceeded to talk about his latest sonic assault.

EM: You said that you haven't played the guitar in two years.

FZ: Well, I pretty much haven't touched it for the last two years 'cause the last tour was '84, and after the tour I went to work right away on mixing the live tapes. I had to deliver a CD to EMI for this live stuff (Does Humor Belong in Music), and finish the video editing on a television show. Then I got the extra components for this machinery here (the Synclavier) and I just got into working with that.

EM: You've said that when you play the guitar, you like to make it talk. Can you do that with the Synclavier?

FZ: Oh yeah! Sure can.

EM: For the Francesco Zappa project, how did you put the performance together?

FZ: I had an assistant at that time named David Acker. There are two ways of entering material into the Synclavier. One way is with the Script language, which is all letters and numbers and stuff. Or you can do it by playing, then editing what you played by a couple of different means. Anyway, I never learned how to type their Script entry and he knew how to do it. So he took the original manuscripts that we'd gotten from the Berkeley library and the Library of Congress and typed them in. We also researched the ornamentation of the period and whenever there was a little "chingus" over the note, we put in the right twirls . . .

So I just experimented around with orchestration to make it as colorful as I could. That was all done with synthesized sounds. It wasn't done with any samples. I didn't have any sampling stuff working then.

EM: You've spoken often about your frustrations working with studio musicians, particularly string sections. Are you using the Synclavier as a way around them?

FZ: Oh, it's better than a way around it. Because this allows you to make sounds that, although they can be very orchestral, surpass the wildest possibilities of any kind of instrumental ensemble. It's more than just alleviating the tension; it's opening up a whole new dimension.

EM: Do you think you can exist, or co-exist, in this acoustic dimension with this instrument if you chose to?

FZ: Well, obviously you haven't heard what the machine can do or you wouldn't ask that question. Yeah, it does it. What it sounds like in polyphonic sampling is determined by the quality of the samples you put into it. We do a lot of sampling right here under really laboratory conditions. So I've got one of the finest collections of samples anywhere, most of them in stereo.

For example, we have a big concert marimba. You set up two microphones over it and as you sample each note on the marimba and lay them onto the key, you automatically get the same kind of panning that the stereo microphones hear. When it plays back your sequence, you really get the sensation that you are hearing a musician who is playing something utterly impossible.

EM: You've always used electronics in your music, one way or another, but until recently you've never played much synthesizer on your records.

FZ: Right, although I've always had other keyboard players. I'm not a keyboard player -although I've dabbled in it for little cheezoid parts and stuff- and you usually have to be one to "play" the synthesizer. That's not what I'm doing now, though, because you can enter data into this system by playing at a slow rate, and it's velocity and pressure sensitive so you can put a lot of expression into what you play. Then you can crank the speed back up to where you want it, and edit what you've played by several different means.

EM: So you played the Synclavier pieces on The Perfect Stranger on the keyboard.

FZ: Yeah!

EM: Did you alter the parts once they were in?

FZ: Yeah, with the editing. You can also enter notes just from the typewriter. You can play something in and if you feel something's missing some place, you just type a few things and you have notes there. The only drawback is that if you've played something with keyboard pressure and velocity sensitivity, the notes you type in are always at 100 percent so they will pop out.

EM: You seem to prefer very metallic percussive sounds and timbres in the Synclavier music of yours that I've heard on records.

FZ: Well, that's not true of the recent stuff (Mothers of Prevention), and even that doesn't bear any resemblance to what the stuff sounds like now since I bought extra memory for it that allows me to have instrumental ensembles that I couldn't have before. For the Mothers of Prevention album, I had only six megabytes of RAM and a 20 megabyte Winchester (hard disk drive). Now I have two 80 megabyte Winchesters, plus 20 megs of RAM. I can store quite a bit of stuff in there and have more elaborate ensembles playing the material back.

EM: So if this is your way around or beyond and orchestra . . .

FZ: Forget about the orchestra. It's beyond the orchestra. Because what this enables me to do is the same thing a painter gets to do. You get to deal with the material in a real and instantaneous way. You go boop and it's there. You don't sit down and write it out painstakingly over a period of years and have the part copied and hope that some orchestra will have enough time to devote to a rehearsal so they come within the vicinity of what your original idea is. There is no doubt about it that if you can play on this thing and hear what you're playing, you have total control of your idea. Good, bad, or indifferent, you get to take the rap for it without having to share any blame with some malfeasance on the performance level when you write it out in a normal way.

The economics of the time being what they are, I see nothing but bleakness ahead for people who still have to write it on a piece of paper and give it to a human being to play it, because there's not enough money to pay for rehearsals. The tendency in most modern music concerts is, since they know there's no money for rehearsal, they write increasingly easier or more minimalist pieces requiring less and less skill. That's what's getting funded. The economics took its toll on the cultural life of America for sure.

EM: You've had a few of your orchestral works performed by the London Symphony Orchestra . . .

FZ: Yeah! Right! And those pieces cost a fortune. I could've bought two of these machines for what the LSO album cost me.

EM: And what about the pieces commissioned by Pierre Boulez?

FZ: Well, that wasn't really orchestral. That was only a chamber orchestra with only 27 pieces and there's a slight difference.

EM: Are you doing outboard processing on the Synclavier?

FZ: You mean when it goes to tape? Sure! We add digital echo to it and there's some equalization that's done, especially on some of the synthesizer sounds that come out of it since there's no tracking filter in there. It's digital synthesis; the synthesizer sounds in that machine are subject to aliasing noise and that often has to be filtered off.

EM: On the track "Outside Now Again," was the solo on that improvised?

FZ: Yes. It came from the Joe's Garage album on a song called "Outside Now." That's why it's called "Outside Now Again" on the Boulez album.

EM: So this wasn't improvised on the Synclavier.

FZ: No, it was played on the guitar. Then it was transcribed by Steve Vai. Then the transcription was entered into the Synclavier.

EM: How does your current use of the Synclavier relate to some of the musique concrete things you did on early Mothers' albums?

FZ: Well, I can do concrete there too, because of the way the system operates. They have these things called patches. A patch is list of what sound lives under each key. You can have a different sound under each key and they can be any sound. It can be thunder under middle C and a frog on C# and a car crash on D and anything you want. If you play a normal piano part on there, you get very unusual things coming out. Or you could have the whole keyboard by the voices of people from the Congress.

EM: Edgar Varese was an early influence on you and he was an early pioneer of musique concrete with "Poeme Electronique" and "Deserts." I recall when we spoke before that you didn't think very highly of those works.

FZ: That could possibly be due to the timing of when I heard it. Since I had more or less grown up with the pieces on EMS-401 (the first recording of Varese's works) and none of them were electronic, when I finally heard "Poeme Electronique" on the Columbia album they did when he was around 80 years old, I had heard other types of electronic music. His may have come first (it didn't) and it may have been the pioneering thing (it was), but my ear had already been exposed to other albums. So it wasn't as shocking or extreme as hearing "Octandre" or "Ionizations" for the first time.

EM: What were some of those other electronic works?

FZ: "Vale of Orpheus." There was an album out of early French music and I believe it was Pierre Schaeffer. Also there was a guy (Tod Dockstader) who was a disc jockey out of Denver, Colorado. He wasn't a composer in the normal sense of the word. He had a number of releases on an obscure label called Owl. One of them was called Quatermass, and I think I have three of those. He was more of an engineer than a composer, but to me some of those compositions work better than the supposedly serious big shots from Europe.

I remember reading about a thing called the Mixtur-Trautonium. All the things that this musicology book said about it the Synclavier now does. One of the things mentioned was chordal glissandos of kettle drums. You can have that if you want it on here.

EM: What's the difference in your compositions between music and sound effects?

FZ: It depends on the function. If I had my way, I'd orchestrate the sound effects on everything and the only thing that keeps me from doing that right now is the amount of digital storage in the machine. If I extracted some examples from my sound effects library and loaded them in and wanted to build a composition out of them, I wouldn't have enough memory storage for the samples of the other instruments.

EM: They also have a guitar interface for the Synclavier . . .

FZ: I don't speak highly of it.

EM: Why?

FZ: Because of the way it works. The problem with making a guitar trigger a synthesizer is that it can't start doing the calculation to determine what the pitch of the string is until after the burst of white noise that the pick produces has died off. So they have a variable delay that keeps the computer from listening to the pitch until after the white noise is gone. That means that if you're playing fast on it, nothing comes out. So it makes it a little bit awkward to play it as if it was a guitar. You have to baby it along. Some people can get around on it, I can't. It's just too awkward to me.

EM: It seems like the people I've heard using it don't get the feel or flexibility of sound of a guitar in terms of expression, attacks . . .

FZ: Well, I hear a guitar a different way than most other people hear it. Unless you can get the feeling of the instrument and use it like an instrument, it seems like a waste of time. And their instrument is not a good-feeling instrument.

EM: In the early days of the Mothers, almost all of your effects were tape effects.

FZ: Yeah, razor blade edits. I still do razor blade edits.

EM: Even with the Synclavier?

FZ: Sure! If you've got 16 tracks and you have a complicated orchestration in there and you suddenly want to make a drastic change from one section of the music to another, the only way to do it, unless you have more channels or more RAM, is to print the two sections onto the tape and cut them together.

EM: You're in a position where you can have anyone you want playing on your records. Yet you've been working solo recently with the Synclavier. Do you think that cuts you off from . . .

FZ: From humanity?

EM: No, but other musicians' inputs, the sort of feelings that other people can bring to your music and the collaborative aspect of music.

FZ: Well, my music has never been very collaborative. It's been accommodative, because when you hire a musician you can't always get that musician to play what you thought up because musicians are not uniformly expert in different fields. You put together a band, you have to average out the assets and liabilities of each musician and then find what the style of that band is going to be. So you have to compromise the pieces because you might have a drummer who can play anything, but a rhythm guitar player who might sing great but can't count and couldn't play any parts. Or a piano player who has a certain amount of technical expertise but doesn't know what it means to play a whole note rest and leave some space in the music. So everything gets adjusted for the personnel. But with this, the only thing I have to adjust for is how much RAM I've got in the machine.

EM: What about live performances? Would you go out with the Synclavier?

FZ: I've been trying to figure out whether it's practical. I've talked to an agent about it and discussed the possibility of a tour in the fall, but without a major advertising campaign to create an interest for what the machine can do or what I'm doing with it, I doubt whether a tour like that would attract much attention. I'm certainly not going out and playing "Dinah Mo Hum " or the rest of that stuff anymore because that's like – what? – that's a million years ago.

EM: You don't think your audience would come out for it?

FZ: A certain number of them would and the rest of them would be disappointed because I wasn't playing songs off the Sheik Yerbouti album. The thing about live performances is that people don't come to hear what you played on the record. So everybody's got a different idea of what their favorite record is and an audience for my show thinks, "I want to hear songs off that one, I want to hear songs off that one."

That's one of the reasons why, when we do a tour, the pieces that are familiar pieces are all rearranged because they have to accommodate the instrumentation and the playing techniquies of the guys on the road at that time.

EM: Does this mean you'll have two separate musical directions now or are you saying you're not touring with the band anymore?

FZ: Well, if I take this thing out, there's two ways to do it. One is me and a technician and this machine and that's it. The other way is to take a rhythm section and have a few musicians playing along with it. I've done some experiments with that. I've got a bass player and a drummer who can keep up with it, but then you ask yourself, does that make it better or what? Because the machine can do it all by itself.

EM: But what about the idea of a live performance being people playing live . . . Wouldn't that eliminate any spontaneity you might have in a live performance?

FZ: Well, what can I say? I'm doing this kind of music these days. If somebody wants to see this kind of music manifested live, there's no other way to do it. Human beings cannot play this music. It can only be played by a machine.

EM: This means you'll be going towards the instrumental music of The Perfect Stranger instead of something like Thingfish?

FZ: Thingfish is done, it's history.

EM: Did you play with the 4X Real Time Synthesizer at IRCAM?

FZ: Sure did. I'm disappointed that they didn't make it available commercially because the 4X, magnificent as it is, is actually cheaper than this machine by at least half. At the time I was there, the price that was quoted for a full-bore 4X system was about $100,000. What's sitting behind you there is about $200,000.

But it does some things that the 4X won't do. At the time I saw the 4X, it had no music printing or music editing program that came close to what the Synclavier has. However, now that it has MIDI ports on it and can be interfaced with other devices, if they ever do make the 4X available commercially and there was a way to MIDI the two together, that would be an incredibly frightening piece of machinery.

EM: What can the 4X do differently?

FZ: The 4X has the equivalent of a thousand oscillators in it. It has a little fader panel that controls different parameters and you can operate it like a mix and you can control the nuances of tempo and dynamics after your sequence is loaded into the thing. For the demonstration they gave me of the musique concrete possibilities, a guy played this strange garbling weird sound and said "Do you recognize that?"

I said "No!"

He pulled the fader back down to take it out of its process and it was playing "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?" from the Joe's Garage album. Another thing it did was take a speaking voice and make it sound drunk, pitched it, made it whisper and a lot of neat things like that.

EM: Are you MIDIing the Synclavier to other synthesizers?

FZ: Yeah, you can go in and out on this machine. You can do interesting things with this Roland device called an Octapad, which is just this little set of plastic squares that you hit with a stick and it has a MIDI output on it. So if you have any percussion technique at all, you can do rolls on the pad, and roll a percussion sample in the machine; or if you have a mandolin sample, you can trill the mandolin. This keyboard doesn't speak very well for fast repeated notes, but one buzz roll with sticks on an Octapad will let you enter that kind of data into the sequencer.

EM: I understand you've redone some of Lumpy Gravy with the Synclavier.

FZ: I digitally remastered all the early Verve albums. They've been released in a box called The Old Masters.

EM: But I understand that you replaced some of that parts on Lumpy Gravy with the Synclavier.

FZ: The version that went out on The Old Masters didn't have any of the new souped-up stuff because I figured that the audience for that probably wouldn't enjoy it. They would probably rather have a cleaned up digital remaster of the original. But I did do a bunch of work on it and I don't know whether it will come out.

EM: You record digitally and you're reissuing old Mothers' records on CD. What differences have you discovered with the digital process?

FZ: With digital, you find out how noisy your microphones actually are. You find out how much noise actually lives in the board. In order to clean that stuff up, you have to be more careful about the way you record things. Everything shows. We gate audio as much as possible and for sounds that don't gate well, we use either Burwens or Dynafex to minimize any kind of unwanted stuff. You can't make it go away, but you can disguise it to the point where it's not offensive.

EM: Do you sample just for kicks or do you go into a project and decide you need certain sounds you don't have?

FZ: We have sampling sessions, like I hired a saxophone player to come up here because as far as I know, none of the sample libraries that Synclavier puts out has a stereo tenor sax playing subtone notes. I've got that and I've got all the tenor saxophone honking notes, squealing notes and special effects tenor saxophone noises. Then we did the clarinet: short notes, long notes, the whole range of the instrument, closed-miked, distant miked.

Then we did a session with all the different components of the drum set. Ordinarily when a drum kit is sampled, you have the drum kit set up with the ordinary miking and the guy goes, okay, here's the tom-tom and boom, he hits the tom-tom. He hits the snare, the kick, and so forth. But along with that, you have all the resonant noise of all the rest of the components of the drum set, all the metal, all the unwanted stuff that's in there.

We sampled all the components of the set isolated from everything else. So I've got pure roto-toms, pure snare drum, pure tom-toms, pure kick, pure high-hat, pure cymbal crashes. It's a very startling sound when you hear real drums in real stereo with none of the reflected sound, none of the sound you'd get if you just turned the mikes on a drum set. It's surrealistic, totally surrealistic.

EM: Have you gotten involved with resynthesis?

FZ: Yeah! The difference between resynthesis and ordinary synthesizer sound is in normal synthesizer sound you build a waveform and that's your sound and it remains static over time. With resynthesis, the computer will look at a sound and divide it up into things called frames that go by in time, and each frame is a totally different waveform. So the effect, when you hear it, is different from an ordinary synthesized sound.

It's not quite as realistic as a sample, but it avoids some of the bad features of a sample. With a sample, as you move it to the extremes of the keyboard, it goes Mickey Mouse at the top and gets aliasing noise at the bottom. You can avoid some of those nasty effects by resynthesis for certain types of sounds which translate well, like brass, for instance. It resynthesizes very nicely. Clarinet is fair, bassoons are shady, and flutes are fair. We've done vocal resynthesis.

EM: You talk about solving musical problems. Why do you have different problems than a composer did 200 years ago?

FZ: It's the same problem. It's the blank page problem. It's the same problem a painter has with a blank canvas: what are you going to do with it and why?

EM: Why do you need all this technology to solve the problem and back then they just needed a few musicians?

FZ: Because back there they didn't have the musician's union. It was a different world. Maybe they had more rehearsal time and they could write things that would get played.

EM: So you think that the musician's union is holding back you and other artists?

FZ: No! I think all unions are. I don't mind saying that I am anti-union. The union mentality has affected the arts drastically in the United States. The worst example would be the stage hands union, which in many instances earns more than the musicians who are playing.

EM: The music that you've done on the Synclavier has been outside and avant-garde. It's tonal, but it's jagged, disruptive, with odd rhythms. Where do you think the audience is for that?

FZ: I don't know. The first audience is right here in this chair. If I don't like to listen to it, I'm certainly not going to share it with anybody else. If somebody else happens to like it, it's terrific. I'm prepared to have everybody on the planet hate what I do. I simply don't care.

Some people like it, the same way I liked Varese when I heard Varese, and other people hate it the same way many people hated his music when it first came out. I used to bring friends over to the house and say "Listen to this," and they'd say "Are you crazy" What is that?"

EM: They used to do the same thing to me when I played Freak Out!

FZ: It's a vicious cycle. (laughs)