Frank Zappa - Musical Concepts and Xenochrony Part Two
As the previous chapter shows, Zappa spent a large amount of time devising theories that tied his
music together, yet when one analyzes his work there are only a very few number of musical techniques
that are relatable to Conceptual Continuity and the Big Note. As Mark Ruosso notes in Cosmik Debris:
The Collected Histories of Frank Zappa, Jump-Cuts were a technique that Zappa used throughout his
career that could be linked to his musical theories. Originally a cinematic technique that was pioneered
by the French filmmaker Georges Méliès, in such films as Le Manoir du diable and Jeanne d’Arc to
convey the idea of illusions and magic in his work. Ruosso notes how the term was later applied to
describe number of early twentieth century composers works. When discussing Debussy, for example,
His 1912 ballet Jeux (“Games”) makes use of what we now think of as a cinematic device: Jump-Cuts. He no longer felt it necessary to use smooth transitions from one section-or even style-to another, he would make abrupt changes instead.
He goes on to note how the technique was also used in Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and
Symphonies of Wind Instruments. The lack of a ‘smooth transition’ between pieces is one of the key
elements of a number of Zappa’s own works, most notably in his earlier work such as We’re Only in it
For the Money and Lumpy Gravy. Both feature several songs under two minutes in length that abruptly
change with use of arbitrary Foley and studio ambience between pieces.
The second technique that can be linked to Zappa’s Conceptual Continuity and the Big Note is
Xenochrony. By its own definition, Xenochrony means ‘strange synchronisation’. That is, in etymological
terms Xenochrony derives from the Greek terms “Xeno” and “chronos”, meaning ‘strange’ and ‘time’.
The term was invented by Zappa to explain a technique that he described: ‘In this technique, various
tracks from unrelated sources are randomly synchronized with each other to make a final composition
with rhythmic relationships unachievable by other means’. Whereas with Jump-Cuts, audio was
juxtaposed against each other side by side, with Xenochrony the audio was recorded on top of each
other to create a single piece of music. The Xenochronised tracks all came from Zappa’s own back
catalogue and often were extracted from live recordings of his compositions. As noted in the
introduction of this essay, Zappa’s output was prolific. Yet Zappa seemed to know everything he has
ever recorded and which pieces could be Xenochronised, as his engineer Davey Moiré stated ‘He knew
every note of every recording he ever made. He knew exactly what was on every single tape he ever
made. And it was all in his head. If he wanted to work on something, by God, he'd tell you right where to
go to get it. […] he had a mind like a steel trap. Never forgot anything’. Kelly Fisher Lowe notes that by
using Xenochrony Zappa was creating a ‘highly constructed piece of art’:
Taking a melody from song A and a solo from song B and perhaps placing that song (call it C) in a context of other songs and creating a meaning that can be called D. This is a highly constructed piece of art. It also indicates that although Zappa though of songs as constructions he was also interested in the larger product.
It is this aspect of Zappa’s work that can often divide followers of his music and critics. The affect
created by melding together various unrelated performances can create a cacophony of sound that
many find difficult to listen to.
Whether the term “Xenochrony” can only be applied to the works of Zappa is debatable. Kelly Fisher
Lowe when discussing Xenochrony notes that this ‘Borrowing form oneself’ could draw comparisons
with Wagner and Mahler, both would re-cycle melodic patterns and ideas in different compositions.
Additionally, Deville and Norris note pre-digital Xenochrony in the works of several composers, most
notably Charles Ives’s simultaneous music. They note that ‘while a boy [Ives] would sing one hymn
while his father played an accompaniment to a different one’. The idea of borrowing music and
re-contextualising it can be also seen in more modern times and as a form of sampling. A technique that
since the 1980s has become ubiquitous in chart music on both sides of the Atlantic. The main difference
however is that Zappa’s Xenochrony borrowed sound sources from his own work whereas sampling
involves extracting a small piece of audio from another artist’s piece. Additionally, when audio is
sampled the artist or producer often manipulates the audio to suit their own work by either changing the
tempo or key. For example Kanye West’s ‘We Don’t Care’ from the album The College Dropout uses a
sample from The Jimmy Castor Bunch ‘I Just Wanna Stop’. The sample has had its tempo increased
producing a higher pitch from the original that West used as the “hook” in his piece.
In Sample and Hold: Pop Music in the Digital Age of Reproduction, Andrew Goodwin notes how Robert
Plant sampled Led Zeppelin songs on his own solo album Now and Zen. Goodwin describes this as a
‘pastiche from his own pastiche’. Simon and Garfunkel on their 1968 album Bookends use an excerpt of
their own song ‘The Sound of Silence’ as an introduction to the second track on the album. Whether
these examples can be seen as Xenochrony is debatable (Zappa invented the term ten years after the
Simon and Garfunkel example) if they were aware of Zappa and his technique is unknown. Ben Watson
believe that no matter the artist, Xenochrony is the correct term to use when artists sample from their
own work noting how Prince used the technique ‘Prince also uses the technique. The opening of
Parade has Clare Fischer’s orchestral overture come in at variance with the electric instruments in a
way that refers to the experience of hearing brass bands move about in the city.’
Exactly how long Zappa had been experimenting with Xenochrony is unknown. Zappa was renowned
for his studio work even in the early sixties when multi-track recording was in its primitive stage. Watson
notes that even in his early twenties Zappa owned a studio (Studio Z) which Zappa lived in and spent
hours creating and splicing together rolls of tape:
The hours spent at Studio Z provided the basis for Zappa’s devastating use of recording technology over the next three decades, his alchemical experiments with the power and suggestion of recorded sound. When he is splicing tape he is splicing not just sounds but whole environments.
This process of splicing and editing tape would continue over the next three decades. It is well
documented that when recording with the London Symphony Orchestra Zappa’s solution to a recording
that did not match his standards was to make over two thousand edits of the final tape. It is unknown
whether Zappa invented Xenochrony as far back as the mid-sixties. He certainly had the idea of
Conceptual Continuity in his head. In an interview with the New York Times from 1970 Zappa discusses
a ‘plan’ that remained a ‘mysterious secret’ that could have been early stages of Xenochrony-related
thinking. This leads to one of the fundamental challenges faced when analysing Xenochrony. One can
not make an assumption that a piece has been Xenochronised unless the artist has specifically stated
that the track has been extracted from a different master track and been overdubbed (Xenochronised).
Due to the experimental nature of Zappa’s music, there are many cases in his oeuvre that sound like
they have been Xenochronised yet they could also be just intricate polyrhythms with unique
instrumentation. The instances when Zappa has told of Xenochrony have been very detailed and
The first documented case of Zappa’s use of Xenochrony appears on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask
Replica, an album Zappa produced. The song ‘The Blimp’ features Zappa in his studio on the telephone
playing an old Mothers of Invention backing track to Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) who is singing
vocals down the line. This whole situation is recorded creating the final piece. The first instance of
Xenochrony on a Zappa-led piece appears on his only album released under the Warner Bros label,
Zoot Allures. The sixth song on the album ‘Friendly Little Finger’ was described by Zappa:
In ordinary polyrhythmic terms we speak of 5 in the space of 4, or 7 in the space of 6. In Xenochrony we deal with larger units of time; a complete solo at one metronomic rate in the space of a track at another ... sort of like Monday and Tuesday crammed into the space of Wednesday. The solo and drone bass was recorded on a 2-track Nagra, 15 ips, with a pair of Neumann U-87 microphones in a rather wet-sounding dressing room, warming up before a concert at Hofstra University on Long Island. This pair of tracks was later Xenochronized to a drum track out-take from ‘The Ocean Is The Ultimate Solution’. The introductory orchestration was added next, and then the Hofner bass (recorded at half-speed), rhythmically splitting the difference between the two different track tempos.
Ben Watson notes that by using this technique Zappa created an ‘Exotic schizophrenia’ and that the
resulting piece is not ‘average chaos but highly individualised music. Just as the music seems to
become completely rigid and formularized according to commercial dictates, the door opens on the
utterly random.’ Zappa would go on to use Xenochrony on the 1977 commercially accessible double
album Sheik Yerbouti. Sheik Yerbouti features what Zappa refers to as a ‘classic’ piece of Xenochrony
that is often referenced when people refer to the technique: ‘Rubber Shirt’. Additionally, this piece was
often quoted by Zappa when he was trying to explain the concept of Xenochrony to music journalist.
When interviewed by Bob Marshall in 1988 Zappa describes the creation of ‘Rubber Shirt’:
Well, a classic Xenochrony piece would be ‘Rubber Shirt’, which is a song on the Sheik Yerbouti album. It takes a drum set part that was added to a song at one tempo. The drummer was instructed to play along with this one particular thing in a certain time signature, eleven-four, and that drum set part was extracted like a little piece of DNA from that master tape and put over here into this little cubicle. And then the bass part, which was designed to play along with another song at another speed, another rate in another time signature, four-four, that was removed from that master tape and put over here, and then the two were sandwiched together. And so the musical result is the result of two musicians, who were never in the same room at the same time, playing at two different rates in two different moods for two different purposes, when blended together, yielding a third result which is musical and synchronizes in a strange way. That's Xenochrony. And I've done that on a number of tracks.
Zappa would go on to use Xenochrony until the end of his career. The album Joe’s Garage features a
wide range of Xenochronic techniques that will be discussed in the case study chapter of this paper.
Deville and Norris note Zappa’s use of Xenochrony in his last album Civilisation Phaze III. They
describe the album as ‘the ultimate maximalist statement’. This is due to Xenochrony being applied to
vocal tracks from some twenty five years previous and being interspersed with music composed on the
synclaiver, an early digital synthesizer/music sampler. The entire album output was composed in this
Although there is a wide range of literature that mentions Xenochrony in passing, a decisive study of the
technique has yet to be done. This could perhaps, be down to an inherent idea that is related to
Xenochrony and that it that it often only seen as a “studio technique” that was employed by Zappa to
create strange sounds. Furthermore, fewer people have linked Xenochrony and the process involved to
Zappa’s theory of the Big Note and Conceptual Continuity. This could be true however as music has
progressed over time the music studio has become part of any instrumental setup and plays a pivotal
part in creating music and defining the overall sound. Several genres of music would not exist if it was
not for developments in studio efficiency and the introduction of computers in music.
One could argue that this labelling of Xenochrony as a “studio technique” could be wrong and in fact,
Xenochrony is better labelled as a compositional device that aimed to depict Zappa’s musical theories
through music technique. In several interviews Zappa notes that Xenochrony was a device for
composers to combine performances:
What is the idea behind it? Suppose you were a composer and you had the idea that you wanted to have a drum set playing expressively and intuitively, eleven-four, at a certain tempo while an electric bass player is doing exactly the same thing in another tempo in another time signature, and you want them to do this live on stage and get a good performance. You won't get it. You can't. You can ask for it, but it won't happen. There's only one way to hear that, and that's to do what I did. I put two pieces of tape together.
The fact that Zappa viewed Xenochrony as a composer makes it even more compelling to view the
technique in compositional terms. The following chapter aims to re-define Xenochrony as a
compositional device and discuss the reasons why Zappa used such a technique in his work.