In Music and Imagination, the book of his 1951-1952 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Aaron Copland argued that “music provides the broadest possible vista for the imagination since it is the freest, the most abstract, the least fettered of all the arts.” Copland’s claim seems especially resonant in the early wake of the June 2015 release of Frank Zappa’s Dance Me This, his last completed album before his death in 1993. Fully realized on the Synclavier, Dance Me This, like most of Zappa’s oeuvre (this is album #100), serves up for listeners not only a musical imagination unfettered but, as music, the most abstract at its most palatable.
According to Zappa’s Synclavier assistant Todd Yvega, several of the 11 pieces (seven if we count the five sections of “Wolf Harbor” as one) were culled from other unfinished projects in various stages. Completing the album, Yvega writes in his liner notes, “gave Frank the opportunity to rescue gems from these shelved projects and let them be heard.” Among the projects “shelved” was the World Cup stage piece Dio Fa (a version of which is part of Zappa’s posthumous masterpiece, Civilization Phaze III), as well as an opera called Uncle Sam (“about a dystopian future America with a ludicrously polluted New York Harbor”).
Yet Dance Me This should be viewed as neither an album of leftovers, nor a compilation of hastily finished tracks, but as an album proper. Zappa often worked on many projects simultaneously and, Yvega reminds us, “jump(ed) from project to project, often shelving one indefinitely to focus on another”: Dance Me This, like all of Zappa’s projects before it, is creativity and imagination writ large—a product of AAAFNRAA (“Anything Anytime Anyplace For No Reason At All”), where one piece might morph into another or, indeed, sections of one or more pieces might find themselves as part of a different whole. As Gail Zappa writes in her liner notes (and less cryptically than usual), the finished album “is exactly as Frank left it over twenty years ago. When digital was raw and unwieldy. And the aeons were closing for him.”
It’s notable that Zappa’s last finished work should be a Synclavier album (“designed to be used by modern dance groups,” he told Guitarist Magazine in 1993). Feeding the Monkies at Ma Maison (2011) was our most recent chance to hear some unreleased Synclavier pieces (a few, “Buffalo Voice” and “Secular Humanism”, are longer, unedited versions of what ultimately ended up on Civilization Phaze III; another, “Worms from Hell”, was heard, in part, during the opening credits of 1987’s Video from Hell), but Dance Me This provides a conceptual framework otherwise lacking in some of the posthumous “compiled” studio releases, excellent music notwithstanding.
However, I digress. The Synclavier became for Zappa, in his later years, a site of extraordinary output and musical vision, and despite allegations by rock critics that his music had become “cold”, “perfectionist”, and missing “human elements” (see Zappa’s liner notes to 1987’s London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. II), as his Synclavier compositions multiplied, so did a certain warmth, a certain stamp on the machine that is indelibly human and, unmistakably, Zappa’s own.
Dance Me This begins with surprise: the two-minute title track immediately employs a jaunty piano phrase, a kind of repeated flourish, which both prepares us, and does not prepare us, for what follows: Tuvan throat singers. (In January 1993, then touring the United States, the Tuvans—Anatolii Kuular, Kaigl-Ool Khovalyg, and Kongar-Ool Ondar—were introduced to Zappa by Matt Groening, and became part of the now-famous “Salad Party” along with the Chieftains and Johnny “Guitar” Watson.)
It seems almost magical that Zappa and the Tuvans should have found each other: the deep, sustained scratchiness of the Tuvan voices (sometimes reminiscent of the plastic moo toys featured on The Yellow Shark) seem to echo Zappa’s early experiments with musique concrete—it’s only fitting that instrumentation should be reversed here, that the electronic should suggest the acoustic, the acoustic electronic. And all that inside what might qualify as, for Zappa at least, a pop song(!). A wonderful Zappa guitar solo (apparently played on his son Dweezil’s rig) goes by so quickly, one barely has time to recognize having been touched by the master. “Dance Me This” segues into “Pachuco Gavotte” (all selections are segue), a reggae composition punctuated by a series of audible wipes and snorts, and underscored with Zappa’s signature polyrhythms.
“Wolf Harbor” (in five sections), the dark centerpiece of the album, is a cousin to many of the musical themes of Civilization Phaze III—perhaps this is what Yvega terms “a dytopian future America”—and could be quite at home there. One imagines industrialists, politicians, and real estate developers alike getting rich while lands are decimated and the water bubbles away into sludge (perhaps this is why the denizens of Lumpy Gravy and Civilization Phaze III find themselves in the oversized piano: they’ve nowhere else to go). (Meanwhile, Gail Zappa’s liner notes entreat us to “research” Wolf Harbor, apparently an actual, polluted place. Does she mean Wolf River Harbor, site of Jeff Buckley’s drowning and where, in 2008, the Bunge Corporation dumped large quantities of “a grain-like substance” that made the water turn black?)
“Goat Polo” (which I keep misremembering as “Goat Yoga”) brings back the Tuvans to wonderful effect, while “Rykoniki”, the album’s shortest piece, pedals back to Jazz From Hell‘s percussive, mechanized lines. “Piano”, the penultimate track, is a standout, recalling in places Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano pieces and might be as good as anything as Zappa has written. The album ends with the Yvega/Zappa-credited “Calculus” (made much of in the album’s liner notes), an experiment in looping and “algorithmically-generated” but nonetheless aesthetically pleasing.
It’s difficult, especially during such early listening, to imagine just where to place Dance Me This within Zappa’s immense catalogue (let’s leave that to the Zappologists)—but it’s not at all a lesser effort, and for the gifted listener “who has outgrown the ordinary”, Dance Me This couldn’t have come at a better time. Music today, at least in the US, often seems split between freeze-dried, Pro-Tools production values and retro-fied, old-timey Hipster chic. Good music is still out there—it just seems harder to uncover, harder to find, especially when algorithms (read Spotify) determine what one ought to listen to next, and in quite a different way from “Calculus”.
Aaron Copland, in 1952, opined that “concert halls have turned into musical museums—auditory museums of a most limited kind,” and such a situation is arguably the same for our current musical landscape. Zappa’s Dance Me This is a reminder that the creative imagination in music is not only possible, but that we need not trade same for same—that music can still be “a movie for your ears”, an abstract experience grown more concrete as it moves its molecules against you.