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Frank Zappa is a man that needs no introduction. Worshipped by fans, despised by detractors, and boasting an astonishing discography of approximately 111 official studio releases plus an enormous number of live recordings, bootlegs, and whatnot, he was one of the most prolific musicians of a century filled with prolific musicians. Throughout his career, Zappa made his artistic mark as a musician, bandleader, record producer, audio engineer, director, and even orchestral composer, gaining respect from established composers like Pierre Boulez and Nicolas Slonimsky, to name a couple.
Yet one of his most famous pieces among fellow musicians, “The Black Page,” may need somewhat of an introduction. Originally written as a drum solo for his longtime drummer Terry Bozzio, it eventually split into two parts, and has undergone various shapes and forms. Today we’ll have a look at its most played version, “Black Page #2” (or as Zappa referred to it, “the easy, teenage New York version”).
On his introductory speech during the live version on Zappa in New York (1979), Zappa says:
“This song was originally constructed as a drum solo…. Now, after Terry learned how to play ‘The Black Page’ on the drum set, I figured, well, maybe it would be good for other instruments. So I wrote a melody that went along with the drum solo, and that turned into ‘The Black Page, Part 1, The Hard Version.’ Then I said, well, what about the other people in the world who might enjoy the melody of ‘The Black Page’ but couldn’t really approach its statistical density in its basic form? So, I went to work and constructed a little ditty which is now being set up for you with this little disco-type vamp…”
It’s not the first time that Zappa starts with a percussion piece and then makes up a melody to go along with it. He wrote the title track on the album Uncle Meat (1969) exactly in that manner — and the piece resembles “The Black Page” in more than just that aspect, as we’ll see later. Knowing that, it will come as no surprise to learn that Zappa started his musical career as a percussionist before learning to play the guitar, and quite early on he was experimenting with writing his own compositions in the styles of his teen idols: Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, and Anton Webern. (At the age of 15, in 1955, Zappa made a phone call to Varèse, his favorite composer, to express his admiration for his work, and he actually managed to speak with him. The kid was definitely promising.)
But back to “The Black Page” — here’s my basic adaptation of the score if you’d like to follow along.
One of the central focal points in this composition, of course, is its use of rhythm — in particular, the use of irregular groupings and polyrhythms. The piece is interspersed with irregular figurations, from quintuplets and septuplets to groups of eleven, both on one movement or two (like in the two examples below).
Most of the time, the percussion is synced up tightly to the higher pitched melodic fanfare with the synth bass line keeping a steady rhythmic backdrop, but via counterpoint and syncopation, there are polyrhythms intermingling at any given point in this song.
In his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, he says this about his use of polyrhythm:
“Just as in diatonic harmony, when upper partials are added to a chord, it becomes tenser, and more demanding of a resolution — the more the rhythm of a line rubs against the implied basic time, the more ‘statistical tension’ is generated” (p. 181).
Zappa sees the use of polyrhythm as a means to creating rhythmic tension which, inevitably (and like a chord progression), requires some form of resolution when enough energy is accumulated. You can see that unfold in the above example pretty clearly between bars 14 and 16, where there is a progressive accumulation of rhythmic tension built up from the quarter-note triplets to the eighth-note septuplets, and then resolving to the two final sustained whole notes.
Here’s another way in which Zappa uses tension and release in a rhythmic fashion (bars 44-49):
After a long phrase in sixteenth notes, he repeats the fragment at the end of bar 45 four times, creating an effect of “stuttering.” Zappa uses rests (silence), ostinato (repetition), and displacement of the melodic fragment to different beats to create this moment of accumulating tension, which is finally released as the band continues their unison in bar 48.
Harmony and Scales
When the whole band is playing in unison — with admirable precision and tightness, no doubt — it’s clear that the composer chooses to focus the listener’s attention on the rhythmic execution of the melodic phrases. But underneath all of that is a relatively stable basis of harmony, inspired by jazz. The chord progression here is constructed modally — it almost exclusively makes use of Lydian scales with the roots G and B♭ (in the example below) and D, G♭, C, D♭, and B (which appear later in the song).
The modes shift from one modal tonic to the other in a way that is reminiscent of classic jazz writing, like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Here’s how that plays out in the starting chords of “Black Page #2”:
You can learn more about scale modes in Soundfly’s free online course series, Theory for Producers, which covers major and minor scale modes in the contexts of the popular songs in which they are used.
Melody and Intervals
I wanted to reflect on Zappa’s use of melody in “Black Page #2” by looking back at an earlier work he wrote for the Mothers of Invention, “Uncle Meat: Main Title Theme,” which opens their 1969 album, Uncle Meat. Take a listen — you’ll likely note the aesthetic similarities immediately.
This piece is another example of Zappa’s writing a melody on a composition originally thought up as a piece for percussion. It also contains some of his trademarks in melody writing:
- Use of series of intervals
- Use of angular melody contour
- Use of tensions over implied ambiguous harmonies
The intervals are often used in series. Notice how in bar 1, the melody delineates a quartal chord (A, E, B). Quartal chords, built using intervals of fourths (either perfect, augmented, or diminished), are frequently found in abundance in both jazz and the work of modern 20th-century composers like Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok. The influence of these composers on Zappa is evident indubitably.
In the liner notes of the Mothers of Invention’s 1966 debut album, Freak Out!, they even unfurl an enormous list of influences, citing, of course, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Varèse, and Webern, as well as jazz and blues artists like Mingus, Dolphy, Waters, and Guitar Slim. (They also mention Bram Stoker and Sacco and Vanzetti, but we don’t have time for that!)
Melodies in Zappa’s music are often presented angularly, and he frequently strives to avoid linearity at all costs. Take a look at bar 5 in “Uncle Meat,” where the B is not followed by A in the same octave, but rather in the lower octave, creating a downward plunge of a major ninth. The same device is used in bar 10, where he jumps from C (last note of bar 9) to B♭ in the upper octave, leaping up a minor seventh.
If you think about how melodies are generally written in classical and pop music (or really almost any type of music that attempts to convey forward musical movement like a well-constructed sentence), composers tend to avoid big leaps. It’s one of the first rules of contrapuntal writing. But in the 20th century, with the proliferation of the avant-garde, and jazz and prog rock creating all kinds of sonic fusion, some of these “rules” began to break down in the search for new emotive musical territory. In this respect, Zappa’s mid-century modernism was both of his time and way ahead of it.
In this interview, Zappa states:
“A melody functions in a harmonic climate. The chord that is being played is the harmonic climate. A melody functions against a harmonic climate in terms of the fractional delay between the time that you hit a note that is tension to that chord to the time that you hit a note that is inside the chord which creates a resolution — that’s how melody works.”
Later in the same interview, he maintains that he likes using suspended chords because of their ambiguity. The lack of a minor or major third removes any harmonic grounding from the chord, so its identity remains in flux.
“The notes that you can play against it enable you to encompass all the different variations of the nature of the chord…. It’s like a neutral piece of canvas that you can paint on.”
This is evident especially in “The Black Page #2.” The notes held over the B♭Maj9 give little sense of tension since they’re part of the chord, but the C# played over the GMaj7 in bar 71 rubs against the harmonic climate to create tension and complexity where otherwise it’d feel open.
Zappa uses a D♭ over what has been heard throughout the whole song as a B♭Maj7. This creates an implied harmony of B♭m(Maj7)#11, since the keyboard still plays the major seventh on that chord. Playing with implied harmony is a great way to extend both the perceived and actualized possibilities of how the chords and melody interact with each other.
The following passage is the ultimate example of all the techniques we’ve mentioned thus far:
Notice how the intervals in the melody seem to expand as it goes on. There is a predominance of seconds in the first bar, thirds in the next (with an octave displacement — a leap in the lower octave from F to A), fourths in the third bar, and octaves in the following bars. From bar 25, Zappa starts expanding those intervals again, with seconds and then thirds. (The intervals are named regardless of the octave in which they are played. A second and a ninth, for example, are the same thing.)
Zappa seems to be using these interval variants to create quick-shifting flavors or shades of tension against the GMaj7 backdrop. And, once again, we can’t help but take note of the angularity of the melodic contours, as the notes jump relentlessly from one octave to the other with little or no regard to fluidity.
Zappa was certainly a peculiar, polarizing figure in the rock music canon. He fuses genres together and borrows equally from a variety of different composers’ styles to create musical pastiches that work on intellectual and emotive levels alike. To quote his own words yet again:
“Progress is not possible without variation from the norm.”
I think “The Black Page” embodies this motto completely. Not only is this composition incredibly difficult to perform, it’s witty and humorous. It’s a complicated, multi-influential, and devilishly fast, yet set over a quirky disco beat like it was written just to have a bit of musical fun. In the Zappa in New York clip we heard above, at the end of the performance, Zappa asks the crowd sardonically, “Did anybody dance?”
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