Frank Zappa and the Orchestra Question
: Dissonant Clatter or Well-Crafted Design

  • Chanan Hanspal

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This study offers an insight into the orchestral music of Frank Zappa and his unique approach to composition. In Chapter 1, The Fieldwork So Far, I present an extensive annotated bibliography of selected Zappa research to illustrate the multiple forms of discourse generated by the composer’s work. While this chapter examines various books and articles written about Zappa, it also illustrates the imbalance between critical theory and musicology. Chapter 2, Structure, Concepts and the Analytical Approach, describes analytical methods used as a rationale to determine modes of consistency across the studied pieces herein. As well as describing the analytical approach, I offer to align the conceptuality and design of the Calder Mobile with Zappa’s theory of weights, balances, measured tensions and releases by providing specific extracts of compositions where these concepts can be seen to exist.

    In chapter 3, I present the first analysis in this study of “Pedro’s Dowry”, a highly dissonant piece of music that builds on the idea of thematic and fragmental repetition. Chapter 4 is an analysis of “The Perfect Stranger”, a piece that demonstrates extensive use of Zappa’s Chord Bible. The chords are dense scalar derived structures exploiting both the octatonic and Minor Lydian scales, yet retaining fragmental and sectional repetition techniques. The analysis of “Bob in Dacron” in chapter 5 illuminates the process of intervallic manipulation and confirms the importance of recurrent ideas dispersed throughout. And, “Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation” in chapter 6 shows the implementation of thematic and fragmental ideas developed across all three movements of the piece; essentially techniques consistent with Zappa’s approach in the preceding analyses.

    Chord formulas are discussed in chapter 7 where I present a chronicle of chord formation within Zappa’s orchestral pieces from early incarnations found in compositions written in the 1960’s to more evolved examples in later pieces. There is also an examination of two recurring melodic cells that are extrapolated in various forms across several pieces of music. Some of the analyses in this chapter are extended into the non-orchestral pieces to illustrate the wider creative manipulation of the recurring musical cells. In chapter 8, I attempt to align and frame Zappa’s orchestral music within the basic concepts of time consciousness, musical motives and categorization. I also address the composer’s concept of universal time and how this could be seen to function within his music. This final chapter plays an important part in contextualising much of what resides in the preceding analyses of chapters 3-6.

    Some of the musical examples presented herein are derived from studies carried out by American academics, and therefore the reader may occasionally encounter the term “measures” instead of bars within these particular examples.
    Date of Award2016
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorPaul Carr (Supervisor)

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