Jazz From Hell
By Robert L. Doerschuk & Jim Aikin
From A Definitive Tribute to Frank Zappa (Best of Guitar Player, 1994)
No, it's not a souped-up guitar. Though he is known as a guitarist of formidable originality, Zappa hasn't touched the instrument much during the past two years. These says you'll most likely find him at his home studio, bent over the keyboard of a New England Digital Synclavier.
He's not necessarily giving up on live gigs, mind you. In fact, his upcoming ten-album compilation of concert performances is designed to show young listeners raised on sequencers and drum machines that the essence of real-time playing lies beyond the reach of studio hermits. But as far back as his first albums with the Mothers Of Invention, Zappa displayed a double creative mentality. As an improviser on guitar he could hold his own against Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and the best of the era. His strongest episodes, though, were often his written pieces, which required reading chops and discipline to a point beyond the reach of your typical blooz-'n'-boogie droner.
Music too complex, sidemen unpredictable, don't want to compromise. What do you do? It's an old problem. Forty years ago, as reported in last month's Keyboard [Jan. '87], Conlon Nancarrow settled it by devoting himself to writing pieces for player piano, a much more dependable medium for realizing his intricate ideas than a bunch of skeptical musicians. Zappa has found a solution in the Synclavier, as heard on his most recent releases, including Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, Francesco Zappa, and most recently Jazz From Hell.
The results of this meeting of mind and machine are quintessential Zappa, and yet they are as unpredictable as anything he has done before. By making full use of the Synclavier's sampling, sequencing, and keyboard assignment capabilities, he finds new sources of inspiration and gains greater control over his resources than in any previous project. And since control is crucial when dealing with complicated ideas, these LPs represent a major step for Zappa the composer -- a step closer to what he has been trying to do for years.
On Jazz, for instance, unmistakable Zappaisms abound. The timbre and contour of the them in "Night School," the ensemble textures and harmonies in "The Beltway Bandits" and the title track, the quick vibraphone flurries in "While You Were Art II," the oral-cavity percussion sounds and alternation between long passages of simple upbeats and sudden metrical spasms -- all these and many other elements reflect ideas he has pursued on projects as far back as the '60s. The difference is that the Synclavier has liberated Zappa from a lot of old shackles.
Readers of Guitar Player have had several encounters with Zappa over the past couple of decades. Certainly most Keyboard regulars are familiar with his work too, if only through the long string of brilliant keyboardists who have filed in and out of his bands: George Duke, Eddie Jobson, Ian Underwood, Don Preston, Tommy Mars, Peter Wolf, and so on. In the tradition of Miles Davis and Art Blakey, Zappa has established himself -- perhaps not intentionally -- as a mentor for talented newcomers. Unfortunately, these hotshots tend to come and go, for a simple reason: To get a gig playing Zappa music, you have to be a Class-A whiz kid on your instrument. Word gets around, stardom beckons for the erstwhile sideman, and suddenly it's time to start auditioning again.
Such is life for Zappa, whose career has taken some unorthodox turns. He has been involved in a lawsuit with one record company, severed connections with another label when they refused to release a song he had written about military conscription, fired musicians for using drugs, testified before Congress, written an article titled "Edgard Varèse: Idol of My Youth" for Stereo Review, "played" a bicycle on an old Steve Allen show, been arrested for pornography, and been assaulted and pushed offstage by an irate fan in London. He has composed orchestral works that have been played on both sides of the Atlantic, performing one of them with an orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta; the concert began with Zappa's spoken cue, "Hit it, Zubin." He has also written songs that ridicule, satirize, or (he insists) extol hippies, fascists, drunks, druggies, Scientologists, truck drivers, disco music, Jewish girls, Catholic girls, Valley girls, Montana, France, and the Illinois enema bandit. He started out as a drummer with a group called the Blackouts, then began playing guitar at age 18. He wrote his first movie soundtrack in 1960, for The World's Greatest Sinner. In addition to the previously mentioned keyboardists, his bands have included such musical heavyweights as violinists Don "Sugarcane" Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty, drummers Terry Bozzio and Aynsley Dunbar, and guitarists Adrian Belew and Steve Vai.
We Spoke with Zappa in December '86, twenty years and four months after the release of his debut album, Freak Out!, five after our June '80 interview with him and the two keyboardists he was then working with, and just as he was assembling a new ten-LP package, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore. This collection features live cuts recorded over two decades by Zappa and his various bands. Any similarity to the recent Springsteen five-album retrospective is coincidental. When we joked that by releasing twice as large a compilation he was doing Bruce Springsteen one better, Zappa responded offhandedly, "Well, I don't think there will be any comparison between his live set and this thing. This is going to be a real musician's album. I think I'm going him at least ten better."
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Was all of Jazz From Hell recorded on Synclavier?
No. There's one cut on there, a guitar solo, that was done with a band on the '82 tour. That's "St. Etienne." Everything else is 100 percent Synclavier.
The Synclavier has direct-to-hard-disk recording options that would let you, for example, have somebody come in and actually play saxophone, and it would still be recorded on Synclavier. Was any of that done, or was it all input directly?
No, it was all done with samples and synthesis. It was all typed in or performed in on the keyboard, or performed in using [Roland] Octapads.
Typing it in must be a fairly slow process.
Well, I worked for eight months on this album. So there's quite a bit of work in it.
It sounds like a real breakthrough album, with the vocabulary you used before, but distilled in a very new way.
Wait until you hear the stuff that's coming up. When I first started with the Synclavier, we didn't have a very advanced sampling system. We had mono sampling with not a lot of RAM. Then, at great expense, I picked up the rest of the new sampling gear. We were doing stereo samples here in the studio before Synclavier even had stereo sampling. We figured out a way to do it, and it changed a lot of ways that you could write for the instrument. So the compositions that are on Jazz From Hell already sound old to me, compared to what I'm doing now.
There are some places where we can hear that it's an acoustic guitar sample or a saxophone sample or something quite clearly. But in other places it's not so clear. On "Night School," for example, there's a sustained sound that has a piano attack and something else spliced onto it.
It's actually not spliced; it's simultaneous. It's a stereo sample, a combination of trumpet with pitch-bend and grand piano. The piano notes are not short. They attack, and then as they ring off, you get to hear an unusual noise, which is the acoustic piano playing bends. That's a real easy thing to do on the Synclavier.
So even though you're calling them stereo samples, they weren't always used to create a stereo field.
Well, when I say stereo sample, on the Synclavier you have four partials. You can have a different sound on each partial, which means that when you strike one note, you can have four completely different sounds come out, or you can have two stereo pairs. Or you can have a stereo pair and two other sounds at random. In the case of that particular sound, it is a mono piano and a mono trumpet sample. But the accompanying keyboard sounds are all stereo grand piano.
Have you ever sampled your own guitar and used that?
I've sampled a few notes. I've never plugged into the thing and said, "Now I'm going to sample myself." We extracted them from digital tapes of live performances. A couple of good feedback notes are plopped in. I haven't really gone hog-wild with guitar samples, but Dweezil [Zappa's son] did a whole guitar sampling session last year, and the stereo fuzz-tone samples are just now being trimmed and built into patches, so I'll have a whole assortment of characteristic heavy metal noises.
Do you ever use a guitar synthesizer controller with the Synclavier?
I've tried it, but because of the style I play and the way my hands land on the guitar, it has never felt comfortable to me. I've tried maybe three or four different systems, but none of them drove me crazy.
In general, do you like working with samples, or if you could get good synthetic reproductions that eliminated all of the associated problems, would you prefer that?
I couldn't imagine that any kind of a synthetic reproduction would be able to give you the type of nuance that you get out of a sample. For string pads and things like that, you could fake it pretty good. For bogus globulant brass ensemble stuff, that kind of orchestral cheese, you could get away with FM. And Minimoog bass sounds and things like that usually sound best if they're actually coming out of a Minimoog. What we've done to get those kinds of sounds is sample the Minimoog. You see, with samples, not only are you getting the sound of the instrument, you're getting the ability to capture the instrument in different types of air spaces. For example, we have both dry and ambient room sound percussion noises, and dry and ambient wind. Even with the classical guitar, different types of environments make a big difference.
It also takes a lot more work to get the multi-sample of the acoustic guitar laid out on the keyboard, rather than just calling up. . .
. . . an E string, and make it stretch as far as it can go? Well, you know, I'm a dedicated guy. I like to spend the time to get the thing right.
How much time do you spend on that aspect of the musical process, as opposed to composing?
It's seasonal work. I'm not the one who actually trims the samples. Bob Rice, my assistant, does that. I build the patches. I'll tell him that I want a certain group of sounds. Our backlog of samples to trim is humongous, because it's far easier to record the samples. We record them on the [Sony] 1610, and then he puts them into the Synclavier, left side first, then right side, and then lines them up to make stereo samples. The easy part is recording the samples. The hard part is transferring and trimming and cataloguing. He's probably -- let's be kind -- eight months behind on the sample trimming. And as the samples get trimmed and organized, I build them into various types of patches, according to what composition I'm working on. We have things called pintos, which are mix-and-match patches. Instead of having a patch that is just a saxophone, for example, you can have a patch that is a few notes of the sax, a few of a clarinet, a few of an oboe, a few of a trombone, all different instruments, appearing on different notes, all of them on the keyboards.
How would you use something like that?
Well, that gives you instant orchestration. If you were to play an ordinary piano part on the keyboard with a patch like that, depending on where you put your finger, you'd get a different instrument coming at you from a different stereo location. It turns what would ordinarily be a mono-sounding keyboard part in to a whole ensemble playing stuff.
Do you plan it out in advance, so that you know that here you're going to want two sax notes on these two keys, or do you just put a bunch of things on the keyboard and wing it?
Well, you start off by winging it, and then you refine it, depending on how the orchestration is going to lay. You've got a lot of possibilities for laying things under the keys. You can mix orchestral percussion with industrial noises, like drills and hammers and saws and vacuum tanks and things like that, all in the same patch. You can combine them and do some wonderful stuff with it.
Have you released any music yet that has the drills and saws?
Oh, yeah. That's on Jazz from Hell. You'll hear a noise in there which is a sample called TANK.REL. It's the release of a vacuum tank in a woodworking shop. And there are some other things. Nail guns are used in there.
Is that the stuff that sounds like just a slightly strange drum set?
Yeah. That's part of our industrial percussion setup.
What percentage of Jazz from Hell was input by typing, and why would you choose one type of input over another?
There are three different ways to type in. One is in a language called Script, which I don't know. I don't use that at all. Bob Rice can type Script. But that's more like writing a computer program, so it has no charm for me. Another way is with their Music Printing program. You can enter or delete notes with the cursor while looking at real music on staves. And if you want to write in tuplets -- if you have 7 over 3 or something like that -- it's real easy to do it that way. You just make a couple of marks and then redraw the screen. You now have edit blocks that correspond to a septuplet over three quarters, or whatever you want. It could be anything. Then you just enter the pitches. For that kind of stuff, that's the easiest way for me to do it. The third way to type is a facility called the G Page. The screen is split into three segments, and you can display three tracks of data at the same time on the screen. In each of those three units, you have three columns of information. The left-hand one tells you the start time of the note. In other words, the beginning of the piece would be beat 1, and all the subsequent beats have numbers. This data reads out either in seconds, beats, or SMPTE numbers; that's all selectable. The center column gives you the name of the pitch an a number which tells you the octave that the pitch lives in. And the right-hand column gives you the duration. All that is editable, so you can move the cursor around, add and delete notes, change start times, which changes the rhythm, and change the pitch and the octave and how long the note lasts. I divide my time between doing stuff on the G Page and doing stuff in the Music Printing.
Does it print out the velocity of the key or tell you what voice you're addressing?
That's coming in the next generation of software. They're going to have a facility on there where you can type in velocity. But we've found a way to add velocity to something that's just typed in flat. It's a little complicated to explain, but I can put in dynamic information after the fact.
So New England Digital is still dealing with velocity in an after-the-fact way.
Well, you know, they continually claim that they're understaffed and they can't do everything all at once. They do ask users for their comments about what they'd like to see on there. God knows, I've filled out a batch of those comment cards, but I've yet to see any of them implemented.
What kinds of suggestions have you made?
Little things that really shouldn't be that difficult. If you're looking at the Music Printing, and you're in a certain bar, there should be a way to hit a stroke on a key that would place a flag in the program, and then when you hit the play command, you should be able to play right from the point that you were looking at on the screen. And vice versa: You should be able to listen to your sequence, stop it at a certain point, and have it draw the actual music printing data right from that point. That would make life a lot easier.
And that's still not implemented?
It's not implemented. I'm not a programmer, but to me it just sounds like a flag. There are a few other minor details that need to be addressed, but they've got a heavy hardware program going. That's where they make their money. Direct-To-Disk recording and all that, that's high-ticket stuff, and they've been working hard to make that thing practical.
In the abstract, an instrument like the Synclavier is capable of doing so much, it must be tough for them to figure out what to make their top priority.
Well, I gave a suggestion to one of their guys that they ought to give some thought to the low end of the consumer spectrum. I have nothing but praise for the device, except for the fact that it's as expensive as fuck. The basic synthesizer system, minus all the sampling and the rest of that stuff, is already so unbelievably expensive, and a DX7, generally speaking, will make a bigger variety and cleaner variety of FM sounds than the basic Synclavier. So I suggested that they do something about improving their tracking filter on the FM side, so that they might be able to come up with something in the lower price range that will introduce consumers to their way of doing things, because once you get one and realize the different musical things that you can do with it, the chances are very good that you will build onto the system. If they don't pay any attention to the low end of the scale, they're excluding all those beginners who are first-time customers, because all the rest of the stuff is so expensive. Before you can make it do what you hear on Jazz from Hell, you've got to spend a quarter of a million dollars. And to go direct to disk, those prices start at $50,000, going up to a quarter of a million dollars. So if you were to get a Michael Jackson-size unit, you could spend close to half a million dollars, and that limits the number of units worldwide that you can sell. That's why they ought to think about doing something less expensive, so that they can stay in business long enough that they can repair it when it goes down. I'm thinking ten or 15 years down the road, because I expect to still have this thing and still be making music on it, and if there is no NED down the road, then what have you got?
Have you ever worked with any of the lower-end gear that has some similar functions?
Well, I had a [Yamaha] DX5 and a rack of [Yamaha] TX modules. I also use the [Axxess Systems] Mapper, which is MIDIed to the Synclavier. We've been able to get some truly frightening things out of that. I also have a [Yamaha] CS-80, I've got Electrocomps, Minimoogs, Synkeys. . . . All the heavy-duty hardware that a rock and roll touring band would use, I've purchased and supplied to whoever the keyboard guy is who does the tour. So I know basically what the consumer end of the synthesizer stuff is like, even though I'm not a keyboard player and never expect to be. I am a composer, and as a composer you deal with timbre and other technical matters, and it pays to know what's available so that you can write for it..
When you're preparing to go out on tour, do you tell your keyboard players what patches you want them to use?
Well, it depends who the keyboard player is. Some things are real specific. If you're writing a composition and it has to be the sound of a marimba, you're not going to want to have the sound of anything else right there. It's got to be a marimba. If it's supposed to be brass, it's brass. That's what the composition calls for. You don't want to stick a string patch where the brass goes, because strings don't go ta-da-ta-da. Basically, those are the kind of instructions that I would give to whoever is playing it. We don't use too many Mars music synthesizer patches. There are certain points in the show where things get bizarre, and there are strange noises in there, but generally there's a tune being played. The timbre used for the tune tends to resemble a real instrument from the real world.
So you don't have to do a lot of programming for special effects that you wouldn't otherwise be able to get.
Well, my main desire from synthesizers is to provide orchestral-type textures, or orchestral effects that convey a musical message in the midst of a rock and roll context. One of the most elusive musical things that you can try and achieve in the real world is an acoustical balance between a rock and roll band blowing its brains out and anything that resembles a symphony orchestra. It's just not going to happen. You have to do that by magic. And synthesizers assist in that magic. The other thing, of course, is multi-track recording, where you can actually record symphonic instruments on one date, and record the fuzz-tone guitar on another. In using these tools, I'm just trying to bring to the public some replica of what it is I hear in my head. As technology moves along, that's getting easier and easier to do.
Has technology also made it possible to hear more things in your head than you were hearing before?
Well, let's say that a person had never heard a bassoon in his life. And the day that he hears one he's either going to say, "That's the ugliest thing I've ever heard," or "That's God's instrument." Or maybe something in between. But you're going to have a response to an instrument. Every composer has some image in his mind of what he wants his stuff to sound like -- not just the composition, but the overall tonal quality of what he's writing. In my head I have an audio image, not just of the notes, but of the way the notes will sound played in an idealized air space, which is something you can't get in the real world. The closest you can get to it is a digital recording with digital control over imaginary audio ambience. When you can design rooms to your own specifications with a Lexicon, and then place your music in that space, that's getting pretty close to what it's really all about. It's not just the notes on paper that matter, but what they turn into when you start making air molecules move. If it's on paper, it's roughly the equivalent of a recipe for something to eat. The ingredients may sound good on paper, but how do you know whether or not you're going to like it until you eat it? It also resembles the blueprint for a building. A good composition will take into account that you need to have toilets, you need doors going in and out, windows, ventilation. You need all the basic stuff, and then all the rest of it is interior and exterior decorating.
But as you get more involved in electronic instruments, do the things that you're hearing change?
I was going to get to that. Obviously, if you're dealing only with the instruments to which most composers normally have access -- in other words, the known instruments -- you will tend to think in terms of what to do with a known instrument. The moment you get your hands on a piece of equipment like this, where you can modify known instruments in ways that human beings just never do, such as add notes to the top and bottom of the range, or allow a piano to perform pitch-bends or vibrato, even basic things like that will cause you to rethink the existing musical universe. The other thing you get to do is invent sounds from scratch. Of course, that opens up a wide range.
One of the most intriguing things about working with a Synclavier is what it lets you do with rhythm. That's always been one of my favorite things to investigate. It's possible to get accurate performances of the most ridiculous rhythmic combinations. I'll give you an example. I've been working in large tuplets recently. If you're in 3/4, I'd put in a tuplet -- say, a bar of 3/4 that has a 75-tuplet or 35-tuplet in it. You can hear that there's a waltz going on, but when these things occur, it's like, "What is that? Where do these things come from? Why does it still have a groove to it?" It still relates mathematically to something else that's going on in the bar. With this system, you can pick a random number, then take any size bar of music and divide it up into those components. You're going to have an 88-tuplet or an 87-tuplet. Or you can take a composition that has, say, ten bars of 4/4. The first bar you start with an 88-tuplet, the next bar is 87, 86, 85, 84, 83, 82, 81, something like that. You could never hand that to a musician on a piece of paper and say, "Here, do this."
Even on your early albums, you were handing musicians things that were, if not quite that difficult, at least going in the same direction.
Yeah, that's true. You can hand this to the musician, but what you get back is the problem. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh might say, "Uh-uh, this ain't gonna happen." That's pretty much the rule throughout the last twenty-odd years of my musical career. You can ask for it, but the chances of getting it accurately performed are very, very small. And now I don't have to worry about that any more.
So electronic media have really freed you to get closer to your ideal, to what you're hearing.
It's really made that possible. The next question is whether anybody in the audience wants to hear it. That's the big problem, because the further out I get with these timbral combinations and the unusual rhythms, the further away it gets from any possibility of radio play. And without radio play or some kind of advertising for the album, nobody's even going to know it's there, let alone pick it up. Some people, when they hear it, they absolutely don't like it just on principle because it doesn't have that boom, boom, boom on the floor all the time. I'm delighted that I have the opportunity to go wandering around out in the zones of this thing. I would like it if I had some company out there.
You were talking about creating a specialized ambience with digital reverb, yet Jazz from Hell sounds relatively dry. What kind of processing, if any, did you use on that album?
There's a lot of real subtle processing. It is absolutely not dry. There are tricks to using echo. If you want something to really sound like it's echoing, then that's an obvious effect, like yelling into a cave, that kind of stuff. That tends to make things get soft around the edges. The way ambience is perceived in this album is, each composition has to exist in some sort of imaginary air space, and you don't want the air space to fight against the musical content. You don't just pick an echo program at random, then turn it on and say, "Now we've got air space." What we do is, for each piece, depending on how much transient information is in the piece or what style the piece is, we tailor at least three different rooms. In other words, we have a live echo chamber and two Lexicons. and that gives you the possibility of locating different types of orchestration in different types of imaginary rooms, and then combining those things to make the final stereo picture.
You're still using an actual echo chamber?
The reason we do that is that certain types of percussive sounds, when introduced into a digital reverb program that may be a long program, don't sound right. That program may be good for everything else in the composition that is not so spikey. But the spikey stuff in there tends to sound bogus. So what we do is use live echo quite often for the percussion-type things, and use echo programs with more harmonic content on the strings or brass or things whose duration you want to increase. An echo program actually increases the duration of notes on paper. you can write an eighth-note and play an eighth-note, and there's no reverb; the sample itself is dry. What you get is an eighth-note. But if you the eighth-note in a 35-meter room, that eighth-note is extended. When you're writing you have to bear that in mind. What you're going to do to it in the final processing and how loud different things are going to be in the mix changes considerably what your response is going to be to the composition as a whole. We fuss over that very much.
When you're starting on a very percussion-oriented piece, do you write the rhythm groove first, or the sustained material, or what?
It depends on what kind of composition it is. I work it all different ways. Sometimes I start with a picture of a completely finished event in my head, and then just go about achieving the event mechanically. Other times I might start with just a little beat, then I decide to lay something on top of it, and that grows into a monstrosity. Or I might hear three or four notes that would represent what you could call your hook, if there is such a thing in these tunes. And I build out from the hook.
Can you give us an example of each of those approaches on Jazz from Hell?
Well, "Night School" started off with just eight chords that I played in on the keyboard. Everything else came after that. And "While You Were Art II," that's really got a strange story to it. There's a song on the Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar album called "While You Were Out." A group at Cal Arts [California Institute of the Arts], led by a guy named Art Jarvinen, came to me and requested an arrangement of "While You Were Out" for their ensemble, so they could play it at a concert that they were giving in Los Angeles. So I had David Ocker, who was my assistant at that time, type into the Synclavier the actual transcription that Steve Vai did that is in the guitar book [The Frank Zappa Guitar Book, published by Hal Leonard]. That just gave me the chords and the melody line, which wasn't suitable for the instrumentation of their ensemble. Once the data was in there, then it was a matter of arranging it so that they could play it. So I put it through a bunch of permutations. For one thing, I squared off the rhythm to the nearest 32nd-note, instead of having all the tuplets and weird stuff going on. Then I hocketed the material, so that the line was bounced from instrument to instrument. And did a bunch of other stuff to it.
To aid in their performance, since it was already typed into the Synclavier, I produced a little practice cassette for them to play the piece by. When Art came to pick up the musical parts, he listened to it and he said, "There's no way that we can learn this in time for the show. It's too hard." So I said, "No problem. We'll just have the machine play it. All you do is go onstage and pretend that you're playing your instrument. You'll have wires coming out of your instruments, leading to some speakers, and play a cassette, and nobody will know the difference." Well, they did it. And guess what? Nobody knew the difference! The music critics of the Los Angeles Times didn't know, the man who was in charge of the concert series didn't know. The only person in that audience who knew was David Ocker, because he had typed it in. Nobody Knew! We've seen rock and roll videos where you have a model pretending to play an instrument. In this case, you have musicians pretending to play instruments. They were actually looking at the sheet music, and moving their hands the way you would normally do it.
But to make matters worse, the version that is on Jazz from Hell is not the version that they played. The version that they played had no samples. It was only FM synthesis. And even at that, nobody knew. It doesn't even sound like the version played with samples that's on the album. This is quite deluxe.
What kind of reaction did this performance draw?
It caused a scandal, to the point where three members of the group actually apologized to the musical community and swore that they would never do anything like that again. Instead, they should have been going, "Yeah, look at this! People who write about and criticize classical music can't even recognize a cheesy cassette." It wasn't even a digital tape that they played. It was a normal audio cassette played through a little P.A. system in this hall. And nobody knew that these people weren't playing the instruments. That, I think, is the real artistic statement of the piece. That's why it is called "While You Were Art."
Let's turn to the Francesco album, which was done before Jazz from Hell.
Right. There are no samples on Francesco. It's all straight Synclavier.
What inspired you to do that project, other than the fact that the 18th-century composer Francesco Zappa was your namesake?
It was just mere curiosity. I obtained the music and David Ocker typed it into the Synclavier. Then, on the first day, after he typed in Op. 1, and we listened to it, I thought, "Hey, that's a nice tune. I wonder what the rest of it sounds like." He spent about a month typing in a huge amount of these string trios -- they were all string trios, by the way. They sounded nice, so I thought, "Why not make an album out of it?"
Your approach to orchestrating it seemed quite restrained.
Well, I didn't want to go mondo on it. Basically, you're dealing with three-voice compositions. It's two melody lines, usually in harmony, plus the bass line. That's all I really had to work with. I didn't want to add any other data to it. It was written for two violins and an upright bass -- not exactly the world's most appealing audio combination. Even if I had suitable synthesizer replicas for those instruments, I'm not sure that would have made the most interesting album. So I just added a little Technicolor to it and let the music speak for itself.
Was Francesco the first thing you had done with the Synclavier?
No, the first thing I did with Synclavier is on Thing-Fish. Listen to the "Crabgrass Baby" track, which opens up Act II. The background vocals are a repeated vocal chant with this computer voice singing over it. The computer voice is done with a little card that fits into an IBM computer, and the stereo background vocals were our first attempt at stereo sampling using the mono system. The people from Synclavier are always accusing us here at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen of taxing the system. But we've managed to do things that go beyond what was originally planned when the Synclavier was put together, because my musical needs and my desires are probably different from those of the other people who buy the thing. You wind up finding ways to hot-wire the machines to do what you want to do.
Since you're not primarily a keyboard player, what do you use the Synclavier keyboard for?
Well, I use it in a lot of different ways. I couldn't sit down and play anything that really resembles a piano part. However, if you understand how sounds can be assigned to the little black and white things in the Synclavier, you'll understand how I play on the keyboard. On patches for drum sets, for example, every key is actually a different drum set stereo sample. But you can make combinations of things occur. There's one line on Jazz from Hell that is somebody blowing into a bottle of beer to get this low noise, which is then slowed down even more and run simultaneously with a big bass drum. When those two sounds are hit together and split in stereo, it sounds kind of like a gong made out of wood that exudes dust after you hit it. You can get combinations of percussion noises that wouldn't happen in the real world unless the entire percussion section was unbelievably psychic and could count their butts off. You can make a whole bunch of guys hit a whole bunch of stuff all at the same time.
Is your technique good enough that you can play these rhythms pretty exactly on the keyboard as the piece is being recorded?
No. If I'm playing a funk track of something like that, I'll square it off. I'll use the resolution factor in the machine to square it off to the nearest sixteenth or 32nd or whatever. That keeps me honest. But there are advantages to playing it in. Usually drum parts have a lot of notes in them, and although you can add dynamics after the fact on the Synclavier, it's a real chore. So even if you have to wind up editing your drum track after you've done it, it's better to play it in. The other way to play it in is through the Octapads, because with that you can play rolls. One of the things that seems to be inconvenient to do on the Synclavier is to make their keyboard respond fast enough. Repeated notes are one of the harder things to do, whereas they're one of the most simple things to do on an Octapad. A simple roll will yield a whole string of pitches with different dynamics on each pitch. It gives you a much more textured drum part.
How else do you use the Synclavier keyboard?
Well, let's say you want to comp something. You want to have some sort of chordal aroma going on. Even though I can't play a keyboard, I got rhythm. So by just doing punches with a patch that has pressure and velocity, you can stylize a sketch of where the chord ought to hit in order to accompany a part. You can hit all wrong notes, and then go back in and change the pitches. On Jazz from Hell, that's how a lot of the keyboard parts were entered.
Throughout your career you've experimented with combining rock and roll with, for want of a better term, serious instrumental music. And now it seems you're doing more totally instrumental albums. Are you moving away from weasely Fifties rock, or is that still very much part of your thought?
To tell you the truth, I still enjoy certain types of Fifties rock, but I hardly ever listen to it anymore because all I do is type. I feel that in a pure musical sense -- I mean, forget about whether anybody likes it, but in terms of pure musical experimentation -- there are answers to be obtained to serious musical questions with this machine, and as long as I'm thinking about 'em, I'm going to go in there and do that. But in a way, you put yourself in a box, because you're answering questions that the average guy never asks. I'm having a real good time with what I'm doing right now.
At what point would you be putting rock songs on an album, not because you cared about them, but because you were trying to sell albums? And would that be right or wrong?
It depends on whether you want to be a purist or whether you want to be practical. The fact of the matter is that if I do an album that has any kind of a vocal on it from now on, the chances are that vocal is going to be about a sociological or political topic. For example, I thought of one that I want to do just the other day called "Lie to Me," which would deal with a catalog of everything that the Reagan administration has been able to get away with for the last six years. That would be a worthwhile thing to stick in there. I'm not in the mood right now to generate a bunch of fun-time songs, and it seems like every time I do, all the music critics, who have absolutely no sense of humor, despise it so much that whatever else in the album is of a sturdier musical merit gets ignored, while these guys go on rampages about the text of my songs.
It's easy to focus on that stuff, particularly if it offends you.
Well, the thing is that a guy who writes usually is a word-oriented guy, and the chances of his knowing about music, especially if he's a rock music critic, are nil. None of the people who have reviewed my albums, with maybe two or three exceptions in the last 20 years, had a broad enough knowledge to know that what they were listening to was more outrageous, in terms of how it was flying in the face of music history, than any lyric or any individual story idea in the song could ever be. They weren't historically equipped to understand what the references were and to see why the music that was being done based on those references was either utterly hilarious or completely outrageous. You've got to know a certain amount of stuff in order to derive the maximum impact from those albums. That's just the way it works. I hate to be a guy sitting around saying, "I'm misunderstood," but it's not even a matter of being misunderstood. It's a matter of being uncomprehended.
But what do you expect? I do it because I like to do it, and if I write "Dinah Moe Humm," that's what I want to do, and it's done. That doesn't mean that every album's got to have "Dinah Moe Humm" or "Montana" [both from Over-Nite Sensation], and it also doesn't mean that every album has got to be with the London Symphony Orchestra. I have a lot of different musical questions, and I'm looking for a lot of different musical answers, and if the audience is similarly disposed, then they can take the course with me, because I'm learning stuff as I do these things.
That reminds me of something that one of the members of Kraftwerk once said -- that they were like scientists working in a musical laboratory, and when they found something true, they put it down on tape.
Well, I don't know whether I would go that far, because to say that it's true is pushing it. But the albums do in a way represent a catalog of the various experiments. Whether or not the experiment is successful or a failure, you be the judge yourself. But before you judge, you really should ask yourself whether you have enough data to make that judgment. For a guy who has never heard Anton Webern or Igor Stravinsky, or Edgard Varèse, or Takemitsu, or Ligeti, or Penderecki. . . . If you don't know what that stuff is, where it comes from, what it sounds like, and what the intention of it is, how can you even attempt to take a guess at what extrapolations you may be hearing? For example, in the song "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" [from Absolutely Free] most people hear only the words. They don't realize that there is, in the middle of that song, a completely academic and rigorous 12-tone string quartet going on in the background. The other thing that was funny about that song was that by playing "God Bless America," "Star-Spangled Banner," and one or two other patriotic songs at the end, all at the same time, I was making a musical joke about [Charles] Ives. So I've been doing this stuff for a long time, but the people who write about it are usually more interested in their bylines and the way they can diddle their words around. If they're in the word business, they concentrate on the words that I've written, and the results haven't been all that enthralling. But I think that this album and the next couple of albums are going to raise some eyebrows in different parts of the musical world. Even if you don't understand what it is that's going on, I think you have to appreciate that the sound quality of what's on there is truly exceptional.
Do you have any plans to take the Synclavier on the road?
If I ever go back out there, I'm definitely going to take the Synclavier.
Will you play it yourself?
Well, I'm not a keyboard player, remember. I would have an operator who sits at the Synclavier and, on cue, hits the start button to provide those parts of the orchestration which would be impossible to replicate onstage any other way, and to kind of edit back and forth between live musicians and the machine, where sometimes the machine is playing all by itself and sometimes the machine is playing the accompaniment and the soloist plays over it, or the machine is playing the whole orchestra part and the drummer and the bass keep going. Things like that. There are ways to do it.
It's a massively complicated rehearsal problem, in order to make it work invariably night after night. That's the main thing that concerns me about taking it out, because I know other people have had them out on the road, but I don't think anybody else has asked the machine to do what I want it to do, and to do it without fail in a hostile environment. When you take things on the road, they do break. Guys do drop them, and that's a big worry. If you build your show around the machine like that, and the machine doesn't work one day, you're going to have a lot of dissatisfied ticket holders out there. That's one of the great things about live music in its pure sense. If one guy gets sick, or you have some kind of mechanical problem, a creative band will find a way to make the show entertaining, and keep it going. If you have a very technologically oriented show, you have to carry spares. And the problem about carrying a spare Synclavier is it's a quarter of a million dollars.
The musicians you recruit are of such a high caliber that syncing with the Synclavier shouldn't be too much of a problem.
I've already done tests. My guys can sync with it, no problem. They latch right on there. But that was in a studio. You take it onto a stage, and you've got monitoring problems to deal with. What the drummer needs to hear is vastly different than what the keyboard player or what the bass player would need to hear. So now you're into multiple monitor feeds. It's endless. It's a massive headache. And the solution to each headache is in increments of five figures.
Is this kind of trend going to become so major that it will curtail a lot of live performance by a lot of different musicians?
Take a look at what happens at a live performance now. When was the last time you went to see a band, and what you was a band? Basically, all of the big groups, so-called, are out there faking it with half the show on tape and people hopping around, kind of lip-syncing to the track. This is because people see acts on MTV and they go to a concert and they expect they're going to get the same result, and of course the only way to do it is to fake it.
A lot of that music may have been put together one track at a time, and the guys may in fact have trouble playing a solo with any sustained intensity for 32 bars at a stretch.
Well, it's not just the solo. It's the whole way the orchestration sounds. What you hear on television is very, very freeze-dried. The resemblance between the modern-day rock and roll record and what a band actually sounds like is . . . well, there is no comparison. I mean, kids have grown up to imagine that a drum set sounds only a certain way, and what they're hearing as a drum set probably isn't a drum set anyway. It's a machine. So if often comes as a shock when you find out what drums really sound like, and what a bass really sounds like, or what anything really sounds like, because they haven't been exposed to the real deal, which is not to say that they would even like the real thing or prefer it to what they get on MTV.
I think there's room for both things to exist, but the young person who is just starting to go to concerts in the '80s has already missed out on some of the most exciting live music that has ever happened in history, which is what's been going on for the last 15 or 20 years. There have been great live music events happening onstage that will only happen that one time, in one place, and it happened because guys were playing instruments, and they were really tearing it up that night. Those kinds of moments are getting fewer and further between, because of the economics of the touring business and because of the expectations of the audiences that have been raised by video music. People expect a different thing when they go to a concert. If you look the most wailing band in the world onto the stage and got up there and everybody played good, there would be a certain number of people in the audience that would go, "Yeah, but where's the drum machine? Where's the boom-bap?"
The other problem is that the audience who still likes live music of a daring sort, as they get older, they're less inclined to leave their homes and go to a hockey rink and have a 15-year-old person puking on their shoes. So the base of support for that other kind of music is mostly gone, and the younger ticket buyers don't know what that other kind of music is, so they don't go to it, and they don't request it. So what is being served up to them as music? Just take a look at what's happening in the world of guitars. It's people playing gymnastic doo-dads. Half of the things they're playing aren't even in the key of the song, you know? It's like, "Give me a scale I can play right here, and let me whiz up and down it a couple of times."
Maybe we could segue to another question of unusual Synclavier applications. On The Mothers of Prevention you use recorded excerpts from the Senate hearings about slapping warning stickers on rock albums with questionable lyrics. Were those excerpts sampled on the Synclavier?
You've been very outspoken on issues related to efforts to ban controversial lyrics from rock albums. What concerns should musicians have on these subjects?
The first thing that they can do is to remember that art in the service of politics usually makes for boring art. The way that I think people should deal with this situation is to have some courage to resist the pressure of the record companies, because the record companies are more than delighted to sell out the First Amendment or any other historical document in order to increase their quarterly bottom line, usually at the expense of the rights of the artist. Let's face it, you're just a piece of meat when it comes to a record contract. And today, most record companies are not all that interested in building your career. They figure if they've got one album and they can make a bunch of bucks, they're delighted about it. Then they kiss you good-bye and pick up the next guy with a weird hairdo and some diagonal zippers on his body. You should fight that. People who are in the music business, when they do interviews, instead of plugging their next album or whatever, should actually have the courage to speak out about what they believe. A lot of them seem to have been given the word by their managers to keep their mouth shut.
Perhaps many musicians simply aren't concerned with political issues.
Well, I think it behooves them to have political thoughts, but let me make a definition clarification here. I say politics is the entertainment branch of industry, and government is what we need. We have a diverse population in the United States, with all kinds of different needs that have to be taken care of. That is the righteous function of government. Politics is bullshit, basically. Politics is involved with salesmanship. Government is involved with statesmanship. And I do make a distinction between those things. If you are making political statements, remember, you are not addressing the real needs of government. You're just talking about the Madison Avenue aspect. So think about that difference. Just a friendly reminder, in case somebody does decide to speak up.
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