Frank Zappa - Musical Concepts and Xenochrony Part Three
Xenochrony as a Compositional Device
Redefining Xenochrony as a compositional device rather than a studio technique poses several
problems and questions. The first of these is the problematic term “compositional device” and its lack of
definition. In most established encyclopedias and dictionaries the term is not found (for example, The
Oxford Dictionary of Music). Although the terms is largely unused the author feels it is the most
appropriate term that describes the application and process of Xenochrony in Zappa’s work as a
musical term. A number of other composers have devised similar terms to describe processes which
are beyond definition and that have been studied more in depth than Xenochrony. For example Hector
Berlioz invented the term Idée fixe to ‘denote a musical idea used obsessively’. He used this device
extensively in his work most notably in the Symphonie Fantastique. Richard Wagner’s use of the
Leitmotif is another case which has been analysed in depth Arnold Whitall defines the Leitmotif as
follows ‘a theme, or other coherent musical idea, clearly defined so as to retain its identity if modified on
subsequent appearances, whose purpose is to represent or symbolize a person, object, place, idea,
state of mind, supernatural force or any other ingredient in a dramatic work’. Wagner used the device
throughout his career but most notably he created a system of Leitmotifs in Der Ring Des Nibelungen,
his epic eighteen hour cycle that is comprised of four operas. Thomas S. Grey notes the role the
Leitmotif played in Wagner’s music and the problems it caused.
The very notion of compounding a large, complex musical score (let alone a cycle of them) from a network of referential, signifying motives might seem like a case of typically Teutonic theoretical speculation, anticipating attempts of Schoenberg and others to reinvent the basic materials of composition in the following century. Certainly many early critics regarded it in this light, as an overweening, quixotic experiment, especially in light of the similarly overweening pronouncements in Wagner’s writings. At the same time, the “system” has exercised from the start an irresistible exegetical fascination. The motivically illustrated guides and commentaries issued by Wolzogen and company, as Wagner had already feared, encouraged the belief that the key to “understanding” the music dram as lay in decoding the leitmotivic network.
As Grey notes, the Leitmotif to its contemporary critics was seen as a ‘quixotic experiment’ yet it has
gone on to be as a mark of genius by Wagner. The Leitmotif went on to be used in other dramatic
mediums such as film (Leitmotifs were used by composer John Williams in the Star Wars film series).
Furthermore Grey notes how Wagner feared that people would look for understanding in the music by
decoding the ‘leitmotivic network’. Both these ideas can draw similarities with Xenochrony. When Zappa
first mentioned the idea many journalists tended not to grasp the concept at first and whether
“understanding” of Zappa’s music will come from “decoding” Xenochrony is unknown.
If Xenochrony is to be viewed as a compositional device then its function in Zappa’s oeuvre has to be
fully understood and discussed. As noted in the previous chapter, Xenochrony could be seen as one of
few musical techniques that allowed Zappa to fuse time in his performances; a way for him to portray
his ideas of The Big Note and Conceptual Continuity through music. There is also the possibility that
Zappa used Xenochrony to blend live elements in a studio setting. Whereas most artists tend to make
studio albums and live albums separately, Zappa had a history of blending both aspects of live and
studio performances in a single album (for example, Weasels Ripped My Flesh) this could be related to
Zappa’s musical theories, however it could also be down to his perfectionist attitude and need for a
faultless performance at all times. In an interview with MTV during the 1980s Zappa made the following
comments which could be interpreted as an “other” meaning of Xenochrony:
Most of the other guitar solos that you hear performed on stage have been practiced over and over and over again they go out there and play the same one every night. And it really is just spotless. My theory is this: I have a basic mechanical operational knowledge of the instrument and I’ve got an imagination. And when the time comes up in a song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature and don’t know what I’m gonna play or what I’m gonna do I know roughly how long I have to do it and it’s a game where you have a piece of time and you get to decorate it and depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is backing you up you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine; sitting here but you can see them performed before your very guitar solos that have ever been released on a record and I think that the uh the real fun of playing the guitar is doing it live not freezing it an putting it on a piece of plastic someplace or putting it on a video.
Xenochrony allowed Zappa to use solos that were ‘literally impossible’ to conceive in a studio setting in
his songs, creating a truer musical portrayal of the composer and performer. In the same interview
Zappa notes how he ‘doesn’t like a single guitar solo recorded in a studio’. Recording each of his live
performances on a professional system allowed Zappa to go through each concert and Xenochronise
any elements he found suitable to place in his ongoing studio works. The final function one can draw
from Zappa’s use of Xenochrony is the least romantic, Xenochrony was purely a studio experiment that
created a piece of music that went against what was seen as normal in a popular music context. Arved
Ashby in ‘Frank Zappa and the Anti-Fetishist Orchestra’ notes how many of Zappa’s orchestral works
feature unconventional orchestral writing (such as writing for orchestra in a guitar idiom and
anti-doubling) which portrays Zappa’s ‘radical subculture’. Xenochrony could also be seen as part of this
‘Zappa subculture’ mindset.
This chapter has discussed the idea of viewing Xenochrony as a compositional device rather than a
“studio technique”. By using examples from other composers to define the term and discussing the
possible functions of Xenochrony it is still difficult to make a final assessment of its true role. Although
an out of context discussion is helpful to gain an objective viewpoint on the matter, a deeper analysis of
the subject matter has to be taken to gain a fuller understanding of Xenochrony and it role in Zappa’s
oeuvre. The following chapter discusses the use of Xenochrony in one of Zappa’s album, Joe’s Garage
in which the majority of the guitar solos on the record were Xenochronised.