This article about Frank Zappa and his Synclavier, created by Brian Kassan, appeared in the Cashbox magazine (newspaper), January 1983.
In addition to the article we include a video from 1989 in which Frank Zappa talks about his Synclavier.
Zappa. Most seem to know the name. Some, a strong cult following, know and love the music, and many now know this enigmatic musician, composer as the sharp, articulate spokesman who spoke at federal and state congressional hearings as a defender against a dangerous move toward pop-music music censorship which has been spearheaded by the likes of the religious right and the PMRC, known as the “Washington Wives.”
With the release of Zappa’s latest album, “Jazz From Hell,” a collection of instrumental compositions including “G-Spot Tornado” and “Damp Ankles,” mostly created on the Synclavier, a state-of-the-art electronic computer/keyboard instrument capable of generating a melange of synthesized sounds as well as digitally recorded samples of “real sounds,” this LP brings his total number of intensely personal recordings to almost 50 (over 50 if you count double albums).
Released on his own Barking Pumpkin label, he still maintains total creative control of his projects. Fans should delight that Rykodisc, a CDonly company, has released eight recordings which draw from many different periods of his career.
Zappa is an indefatigable, somewhat controversial, prolific artist whose hard-to-categorize, innovative music, ranging from vaudevillian vulgarisms to modern abstract instrumentals, has been highly influential. While his styles, which draw upon a juxtaposition of rock, jazz and classical music, have changed over the years since his first release in 1966, “Freak Out,” with the Mothers Of Invention,
Zappa has always followed his own musical instincts and “Jazz From Hell” is no exception. Although he is known for his delectable guitar work and humorous vocal incantations, he is now able to compose and record the orchestral, instrumental compositions which had mostly eluded him until the technology that the Synclavier offers arrived.
He recently gave a demonstration of the capabilities of the Synclavier at the Audio Engineer’s Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center where he entertained a packed crowd in an unusually small room with his usual entertainingly glib witticisms. “Let the people in and let them watch it (the Synclavier computer) load,” he quipped after a rather long line began forming outside before his demonstration. “Guitar never was my writing tool,” he later told Cash Box in an interview afterward. “It used to be pencil and paper. Now it’s that keyboard (the Synclavier).”
Although he has retained his trademark goatee, his appearance seemed unusual (for Zappa) sporting a conservative suit and tie replete with brown shoes and short hair. He has hired musicians to play scales to “sample” into his Synclavier.
While he uses some live musicians to sample certain instruments for his Synclavier, he doesn’t agree with the argument that sampling synthesizers, which can digitally reproduce recordings of live instruments, can replace live musicians, applies to him. “I don’t steal samples. I was probably one of the first people to put out a notice on there (the album) that this object may not be sampled. I don’t know whether I’m perfectly qualified to judge the moral implications of sample stealing off CDs.
It seems a little chintzy in the fact that it’s not very creative, but it does save a lot of money because to get a good sample you have to spend money and time. A lot of people are not thrilled about providing samples.” Zappa explained that the Synclavier “does things humans can’t do- like breathing that long ” In fact, he was unable to get musicians to play what he has been writing, instrumentals which involve some intricate poly-rhythms, for years until this technology evolved. “Now you have more directions you can go in. The argument that these machines put musicians out of work doesn’t really disturb me. What some of these musicians want to play-we’ve heard it already. Are they willing to develop their technique and stamina and other abilities to the point where they can compete with the Synclavier? “You show me a bunch of musicians who can sit and read that off a piece of paper and I’ll hire them. But if they can’t play it, then why should I be denied the privilege of hearing what I imagine and what I write? “Using this technology you can put instruments together that don’t coexist very well in the same air space.
You can have a very sweet string section with a fuzz tone guitar on it- equally balanced, equally well recorded. You try doing that in the real world – even if the musicians can read the notes, the physics, what happens in the air-it’s just not possible.” He has performed with various musicians in various bands over the years, yet it doesn’t seem especially important to him to perform live, especially given the difficult nature of the material. He only feels comfortable performing on guitar, yet he hasn’t played for a while. “I don’t have any calluses left I think I could still play, but it would hurt a lot” “If I want to do it live, I’ll push the red button on the machine that says start and them it would play,” he said adding seriously, “The question is if somebody will buy a ticket to see it.
They all know ‘Louie, Louie.'” He admits that the Synclavier compositions are better appreciated and absorbed while listening to them “several times on record or CD and try to figure out what’s really going on there and appreciate some of the work that went into it.” Indeed, many of the finer pleasures in life are an acquired taste. “[ would say it’s probably for a more limited audience than if I just had a rock and roll band and I’d play in hockey rinks, but I’m willing to take that risk.” Fans probably wonder if he will return vocal writing. “The way I work, I could tt around and write another ‘Billy The M011 tain’ or ‘Titties and Beer’ tomorrow, but I not interested in doing it At the same th that I wrote those, I was writing orches music- I was writing it before I ever wrot, rock and roll song, but you never heard , because you couldn’t get it played.”
When you talk about selling concert seats, that’s a different kind of merchandising than selling records. Look at why people go to see a symphony orchestra. Is it because they like the music? Generally not. They go there because the conductor is famous and they go to watch him wave his arms around and sweat and get that funny look on his face. “They couldn’t tell the difference between a good or a bad performance of Brahms. It’s like selling the sizzle instead of the steak. Why is this? The touring conductor, who gets the big salary because he’s the star, is not in town for a month to get the most priceless performance out of the orchestra. He’s there that day and does one rehearsal. So ask yourself this – It’s impossible to do new music under those conditions. He can only conduct what the orchestra already knows. It’s like a bar band.
The cost of a Synclavier (Frank’s va bout a quarter of a million dollars withe the full set-up) is prohibitive to most composers. “I earned my money playing r and roll and I sang ‘Dynamo Hum’ and c that stuff and instead of sticking the mo up my nose, I went out and bou machinery.” Except for the 1982 hit “Valley Girl which featured a valley-rap from his dau ter Moon, he has received little or no • play of radio. “If you don’t have a hook ain’t goin’ on the radio.”
Not only doest leave him undaunted, it is obvious that truly creates his music to please himself fore others. Whatever can be said abG Zappa, he has integrity and the guts stand up for what he does. “There’s a pl in between where the final arbiter of wha good is the composer’s ear. If you hear and like it, put your name on it, then i done. If you don’t like it and still put y name on it, then you’re an asshole. You have to be able to say it’s mine, I like it a1 I’ll stand behind it.” Zappa knows how reach that place. How? “By saying-F’ the whole thing. I’ll do it my way.”