Frank Zappa and the Art of ‘Unplayable’ Music

July 28, 2014
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Frank Zappa was (and is) always famous for his difficult music – sometimes difficult to listen to and often difficult to play. But late in his career, around a decade before his untimely death, things got a whole lot ‘worse’: he discovered the Synclavier, an early digital synthesizer and sampler. By 21st century software standards, it was pretty limited but at the time, it was the first opportunity for composers to type in their music and hear it played instantly and Zappa fell in love. Not least because he was freed from the limited abilities of musicians.

FZ had always been renowned for being kind of demanding when it came to performances (let’s be blunt, he was a perfectionist). His liner notes for the London Symphony Orchestra “Zappa” album are famously scathing about the orchestra’s playing: “It is infested with wrong notes and out-of-tune passages,” and “I have done as much as possible to enhance this fine British ‘craftsmanship’ (at least 50 edits in 6:56) but, to no avail… the ‘human element’ remains intact.” Ouch. No wonder he was enamored of the opportunity to dispense with musicians entirely.

Frank Zappa and the Art of 'Unplayable' Music

The Synclavier also gave Zappa the opportunity to really compose without restraint. He didn’t have to worry about whether his music was physically possible to play anymore. If the notes and fingerings were beyond mere 10-fingered humans and their limited instruments, it no longer mattered – the machine would play it (which may provide a clue as to Frank’s approach to relationships and some of the interpersonal friction he enjoyed throughout his lifetime).

Freed of human restrictions, FZ recorded and released a number of Synclavier works during the 80s. Journalists (for whom as a breed, Zappa had little respect) may have labelled these recordings as cold attempts at perfection but that is precisely their unique charm. “The Perfect Stranger” intersperses intricate Synclavier tracks with performances from the Ensemble InterContemporain, conducted by Pierre Boulez. “Thing-Fish” was a bizarre Broadway-ish triple album tackling feminism, homosexuality, AIDS, and government-sponsored eugenics (this is Frank, remember?). “Francesco Zappa” was a programmed performance of the works of the coincidentally named 18th century Italian composer. Finally, the instrumental “Jazz From Hell” (all but one track done on the Synclavier) was awarded a Grammy, which is at least some sort of mainstream vindication for the man’s electronic musings.

Frank Zappa and the Art of 'Unplayable' Music

The point is, this computer-generated music – love it or loath it – was generally viewed as being unplayable by living, breathing musicians. That is, until the Ensemble Modern came along and proved everybody (including Frank) wrong. What started out as a collaboration between FZ and the German avant classical group quickly moved into ever more difficult territory as the musicians began demanding transcriptions of his most “humanly-impossible-to-play” Synclavier pieces, such as G-Spot Tornado. The result? A series of sold-out concerts, the highlights of Zappa’s ‘serious music’ career (just in time too, he died just over a year later) and at least a couple of albums of the strangest and most challenging music played by flesh and blood musicians. Nice job.

So, not so “unplayable” after all, although so difficult as to still be beyond the reach and talent of most of us ordinary mortals, and that’s exactly as it should be, otherwise we wouldn’t love Uncle Frank the way we do.

P.S. There’s always a new musical prodigy. In the YouTube clip below, Vika, a Ukrainian pianist, plays a solo version of the insanely complicated G-Spot Tornado and pretty much nails it. Not perfect maybe but FZ would probably have been impressed.

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