back to previous page
Overview of the ballet arrangement of Sinister Footwear,
including comments on Frank Zappa's orchestral style
This piece seems to be set apart from Zappa's other orchestral work. Whether it's because it's never been heard in 'official' sound, or the fact that so much of it has been heard in other places in vastly different forms, Sinister Footwear doesn't really fit in with the rest of his 'serious' catalogue. A lot of his other compositions can be grouped together as being similar in style, but this one doesn't seem to have any equals - the closest perhaps being Greggery Peccary, in concept at least, though both are vastly different musically speaking.
I have read various comments on Zappa's scoring style and while I'm reticent to mention Ben Watson, I remember him not being overly impressed with the LSO album - something about not using the orchestra to it's full potential. This is somewhat true; listening to that particular CD, there are very few passages where the orchestra is in full flight - they are generally found in sections of Bogus Pomp and most of Strictly Genteel, my favourite version of this song. Much of the rest sounds like a huge chamber orchestra - witness the entire Disc 1 quadumvirate of Mo, Herb, Bob and Jane. Sad, In Dacron, and on Vacation they may be, but symphonic they ain't. I have nothing against these pieces - on the contrary, LSO is one of my favourite albums and, in my opinion, Mo & Herb beats N-Lite into the ground; it's just that they sound like chamber pieces. There is a quote elsewhere from David Ocker who, commenting on the use of orchestration, mentioned the size of the orchestras involved with Zappa's projects, allowing him a wide range of tonal colours - it's a shame they're not combined into something a lot bigger every once in a while.
I think this is why The Yellow Shark CD is, on the whole, a more satisfying album - the pieces are generally shorter, and Zappa seems to be able to handle a chamber orchestra much more convincingly. It has the wide tonal range - the addition of guitars and various exotic instruments work marvellously well - but in this case it's being used closer to capacity for more of the time. A piece such as Outrage At Valdez is wonderfully coloured by it's orchestration, and I feel Zappa was more comfortable working in the intimate environment of a chamber orchestra.
You can hear the changing colours of instrumentation in Sinister Footwear, but it's not until the third movement that it approaches the possible grandeur of a symphonic orchestra. I know this was Zappa's style, but I think he was shooting himself in the foot a little not to make more use of the resources available to him. People have commented in the past on Zappa's lack of contrapuntal writing - he is deemed more similar to Varese, who I am not familiar with, than to Stravinsky - and this is also a contributory factor to the lack of 'size' in his scoring. Either we have a single melody over a few chords, or a melody harmonised in chords beneath it, or a melody on it's own over percussion, but very rarely a combination of different melodic ideas; consequently his work is very linear. L'Histoire du Soldat by Stravinsky has been cited as an example of advanced contrapuntal writing, and Zappa very rarely approached anything of this complexity. I have a recording of Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra; this is one of my favourite set of pieces for it's use of orchestration, and the feel of the music is at times similar to Zappa. I realise FZ was more at home with the mathematical sounding Webern, and I wonder whether he took too much notice of Berg's more romantically inclined style - it would have been interesting had he moved towards this kind of orchestrative technique, but 'twas not to be.
Anyway, finish your ice creams, it's on to the main picture.
The whole shebang starts off with mini-gongs accompanied by a repeated interval on woodwind, and various percussion noises. One thing that this whole piece isn't short on is percussion; although the players can be a little inaccurate at times, it's use is typical of FZ's orchestral work and is something that few other composers seem to bring to the fore to the same extent. There follows a short section of typically chordal writing that sounds as though it could belong to Mo and Herb's vacation; the two pieces are similar in style and may well have been composed alongside each other, although with FZ's mix and match style of musical collage parts of either could have been written at any time through his career. Then there is a harp gliss and a 200-Motels/Bogus Pomp soundalike phrase, leading into one of the main themes of the first movement. When I say themes, they're not really developed throughout the piece as they would be in a 'proper' thematic symphony, but they are very definite focal points as you progress along the movements; the percussion fills serve a similar purpose later on, as I will explain. This theme - which IS developed, though only in this two minute passage - is simply an eight note motif that is moved around the orchestra, transformed in various ways, and interspersed with whistles.
The character of the movement changes here - this section shifts the pace up a gear or three with a jazzy saxophone line over a regular percussion pattern. As the other instruments chime in with their .02, it provides the movement with a timely acceleration. After a large 'EEEEE', presumably from members of the orchestra (maybe they just got paid?), the melody line slows and is more relaxed, drifting over a Latin style percussion pattern. There seems to be an amplified bass instrument in here too; I hear it elsewhere in the piece and can't decide whether it's an actual electric bass guitar, an amplified orchestral bass played pizzicato, or whatever else. Any ideas? As this passage comes to a close, the melody hints at another one of the focal themes for this movement...
When it arrives, it's accompanied by full orchestra stabs, and is one of the few motives to be reprised in latter parts of the movement - I feel this is one thing FZ missed out on, and this movement would benefit so much from a little more cohesion. It worked excellently throughout Mo & Herb's Vacation, which many people think to be the superior piece and I tend to agree. More on that later. From here onwards there are rhythmically complex melodies ('decidely tricky' I've heard them described as) which prevail during the remainder of the movement. This is where the orchestra begins to let us down a little - while they sound perfectly adequate, some of the lines are a touch inarticulated at times, leaving a little mush of notes. Perhaps it's down to the radio mix, which lacks clarity - whichever, it would be a treat to hear the entire piece performed to a good standard with the same sonic landscape as the LSO album.
An almost off-beat timpani fill nicely introduces the flute line that follows, and there follows more of the melody lines/rhythm combinations that preceded. This movement contains two of the main characteristic scoring techniques that FZ used - the first a single line melody like the latter sections; and the second the mainly chordal writing present in the opening of Bob in Dacron, where the melody is harmonised on other instruments in the same rhythm; this leaves the passage with continually moving chords, rather than a melody and a chord progression. David Ocker also describes this in quotes elsewhere on the page. It's easier to hear than to explain; dig out your LSO Cd.
A surprisingly funky drum/percussion fill slows down the pace a little, with a reintroduction of theme #2 for continuity. It's around here that the piece begins to wander - again, it could be because of the lack of precision or the suspect radio mix, but the piece doesn't seem to 'go' anywhere from here. The percussion fills are a welcome contrast to the orchestral writing, and there are a few passages that lift themselves out of the murky depths, but we could have done with a few more reprised melodies or more chord accompaniment, rather than just the single-line noodling over a rhythm section we get here.
A dramatic sounding percussion fill brings this movement towards it's end, the percussion rhythm disappearing to leave the lone chordal passages that are so characteristic of Zappa's writing. The movement closes with mysterious piano glissandi, leaving unresolved tension and setting us up nicely for the beginning of movement II.
The first half of this is an orchestral arrangement of the Them Or Us track - as to which came first, see elsewhere on this page. It sounds more dramatic than any other version (though the most sinister one being on Jazz Noise), with dynamic use of the orchestra. There's a little audience laughter present in this movement too, which I presume is due to the puppets. People have claimed that photos of these puppets were taken, but I haven't seen any in circulation; they were alleged to be giant suits with the dancers sweating it out inside of them. Anyway, after hearing all of the rock versions, this arrangement sounds a little distant - probably down to the mix again; turning the volume up, you get somewhere towards the feeling this section should put across. The notorious Wild Love phrases in the middle are more rhythmically precise than the rock band attempts, but lack a little something. There are no solos in the middle (can you imagine how long it would take to go through the entire horn section?) so the postlude melody follows straight afterwards; again, not sounding as fantastic as you might expect - it's feels a touch laboured over, and there are some wince-worthy slurs here and there that spoil the effect. More of that mysterious electric bass sound.
Where the Truck Driver Divorce segue should be, we find the second part of this movement. A short percussion/pizzicato melody leads into some rousing chords for woodwind which, to me, are reminiscent of Penis Dimension, and there's some phrases similar to the latter half of Mvt I, with prominent use of saxophone. It's presence throughout the piece adds to the tonal colours available; the orchestra is used effectively in this piece, possibly more so than Mo & Herb's Vacation. As a nice surprise, and a great contrast to the preceding material, there's a mellow passage for tuned percussion, strings and woodwind which showcases FZ's technique of producing gorgeous sounding phrasings using just a stream of continuous eighth or sixteenth notes - witness RDNZL, Alien Orifice and Inca Roads for more of these - and it's noticeably different to the otherwise similar sections gone previously. This is followed by a passage similar to theme #1 in Mvt I, and the whole movement is concluded with a hammering percussion fade.
Opens grandly with a reprise of the first arpeggio from Mvt II, but shifts into a Lumpy Gravy soundalike section featuring piano and percussion - this is messy, and detracts from the start of this movement. The mix also doesn't help here, as the piano sounds dull and distant. Further chords from the previous movement are hinted at, but we don't really go anywhere for a few minutes until the rest of the orchestra join in; this part has a forboding feel to it, with ominous fanfares and flute twirls. There is a pause before the Theme from MVT III as we know it, so the previous few minutes could almost be a prelude to this movement. Either way, I sometimes wish it wasn't present as, on this recording at least, it does nothing for the composition at all. After this the regular rhythm of the theme appears, similar to the Halloween performance in style and pace, and the classic opening phrase to SFIII on YAWYI enters. The musicians do a fairly good job during this 'solo', and the orchestration is nicely handled, with tuned percussion to the fore and the melody being passed around the various instrument sections to good effect. The guitar versions are very much over a static chord, but here the backing shifts at times to follow the melody, meaning there's a little more harmonic interest - good decision, Batman. The whole feel is much more similar to the solo in it's Halloween form than the YAWYI incarnation; if you're familiar with the latter the ballet arrangement may sound a touch dull, but it's generally a more majestic sounding use of the melody. The brass is particular 'large' during this section, both in outlining the melody and filling in the accompaniment. I can't help feeling that this part is also hampered by the average sound quality - indeed, for the whole piece it feels as though you are hearing the orchestra from a seat in the lobby, such is the lack of depth of sound.
After the solo's conclusion, an enigmatic chord is held (Mike Gula can probably tell you what chord it is...) which then fades to the piece's close...
Overall, an average recording of a potentially fantastic piece of music that has a tendency to ramble. It is similar in parts to Mo & Herb's Vacation, but probably more accessible due to the passages where there is a constant rhythm or beat to latch onto - ie the jazz sections of the first movement, and the familiar melody of the third movement. Highlights for me are the first half of the first movement, before the rambling begins, and the 'wistful' passage at the end of Mvt II; extremes of bizarre cartoon sinisterism and lush phrasing in a mix bag of performance flaws and sonic drawbacks. This is the only available recording, and as such we have nothing to compare it to: we cannot accurately separate the performance from the composition. Refer to my comments about the opening of movement III - would this section sound better had it been efficiently played and mixed to a better standard, or would it still seem out of place? I must also say that my version of this is tape copy of what is on Apocrypha, and I don't know how many generations are between us. There is little extraneous noise, however, so I assume the original radio broadcast was similar in sound. The example soundfiles suffered in translation, and don't really represent the quality of my tape.
I still think Mo & Herb's Vacation is the better of the two pieces - even at 26 minutes long, there is still a great sense of continuity throughout which Sinister Footwear seems to lack. It feels like the former was written as a piece in it's entirety, whereas sections of Sinister Footwear were written for different projects and assembled at a later time - the Wild Love part existed in a fully developed form as far back as 1977 - which gives it a sense of being cobbled together. A brutal turn of phrase, perhaps, but that's what I think.
Overall though, in the possible influx of interest into FZ's work that may occur in the future, I hope this piece will not be overlooked - would it be too much to hope that it may be performed again in the near future, with adequate rehearsal time and suitable recording facilities? Time will tell.
Sinister Footwear intro page
back to main index page