The Monsters of Folk

Posted: March 7, 2014 in folklore, interview, zappa, zappology
IRCAM (Paris) by Arnfried Zerche

IRCAM (Paris) by Arnfried Zerche

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An intense but little known interview conducted in Paris,
and how Frank Zappa got to know “Uncle Sal” from Bitti
(Barbagia, Sardinia, Italy)

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Landscape of Barbagia, Sardinia, Italy

Landscape of Barbagia, Sardinia, Italy

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There has been a thread connecting Paris and Bitti via Rome. Frank Zappa at IRCAM (for the Pierre Boulez recordings) and Salvatore Bandinu (bass voice for Tenores di Bitti “Remunnu ‘e Locu”), via Riccardo Giagni.

Giagni is a musicologist and composer who had a very peculiar relationship with Frank Zappa, started in January 1984, when he managed to interview him. As it will be clear soon, their relation was based on a common enthusiastic inclination: the music from the traditions of Bulgaria, India, Arab Culture and Sardinia, and probably from other territories too. Giagni told this story in Frank Zappa Domani, an Italian book published by Castelvecchi in 2000 and now out of print. “Frank Zappa Domani” was also a conference held in Tivoli in 1999 and organized by Gianfranco Salvatore, who was the editor of the book too.

In 1984 Riccardo Giagni was working for RadioTre (an Italian public radio channel), for “Un Certo Discorso”, a radio show rather relevant at that time, from a cultural point of view. Riccardo proposed to go to Paris to meet Zappa and interview him at IRCAM while he was working with Pierre Bolulez. Luckily RadioTre agreed, so Riccardo asked Massimo Bassoli to help him to get in touch with Zappa, who at first accepted a five minutes talk. They met at the composer Hotel suite in Paris, and eventually the conversation become very extensive, it lasted the whole afternoon.

In the book Riccardo tells that the interview took a good path, probably because he did not ask details concerning forthcoming releases or about his use of wah-wah, he addressed the core of his compositional strategies instead. “I think of composition as a process of decorating time” was one of the statements that hit Giagni most. Later in 1988 he gave more or less the same statement in The Real Frank Zappa Book: “A composer’s job involves the decoration of fragments of time.” The composer fills his time as the painter fills his canvas.

They also discussed music of ethnic tradition and discovered a common ground in Indian classical music, traditional Arab music, but most of all, in the music of the Bulgarian tradition. So they started chatting about then obscure singers and players, now a little more known given that ethnic music later become a recognizable category. Valya Balkanska (FZ of her: “terrific!”), Philip Koutev, Nikola Ganchev or The Pennywhistlers were some of the names, they were both fond of the rhythmic structure of the Bulgarian music, with its typical odd figures. And here is where it all started, Riccardo promised to send a tape with the best of his collection of Bulgarian music. The Berlin Wall was still up, and such material was very difficult to reach from the US, but Giagni had good contacts at the Italy-URSS association, so he managed to gather a nice Balkanton vinyl collection. Zappa appreciated the Bulgaria tape a lot, to such an extent that he later used it as a warm up before his concerts.

Some interesting time decorations passed by fast, and in 1990 the composer and the musicologist with a taste for odd times in Bulgarian music, were still in touch. In a phone conversation in May, an already hill Zappa told Giagni about his project of a big world traditional music festival to be named “The Monsters of Folk” (an obvious pun with a famous heavy metal event). At this point Giagni told about the great Sardinia tradition of the “cantu a tenores“, a style of polyphonic folk singing from Barbagia, a mountain area of inner Sardinia. Zappa replied that he already knew about some Sardinia traditions through a tape given by the Italian promoter Claudio Trotta (of Barley Arts). Giagni insisted and presented Tenores di Bitti “Remunnu ‘e Locu” as the best group for the “cantu a tenores”. They have a real tight sound, they practice original harmonic solutions and the single voices of the quartet are beautiful, he said. Zappa asked for a tape with the single voices, Giagni went to Bitti, recorded and sent a DAT tape to LA, where it found the enthusiastic reaction of our time decorator, who asked for digital recordings of the single voices singing single notes to be sampled, and demanded for a full album to be produced by Riccardo Giagni. All the requests from California were accepted in Italy. Zappa received the single voice recordings and was again enthusiastic of the “Barbagia cowboys”, so he called the “Remunnu ‘e Locu” singers, and he was particularly thrilled by the bass Salvatore Bandinu (now retired), “the cowest of them all!”, FZ entered his voice into the synclavier as “Uncle Sal”.

To have an idea of how “Uncle Sal” could have sounded, play the following sample linked form the mp3 page available through the Tenores di Bitti “Remunnu ‘e Locu” web site. It is a recording of a single “bassu” voice.


Bassu singing fragment

–       ;- {=      –

And here comes some time and space for a digression (not so long, please be patient). Given the Ensemble Ascolta performance in Berlin in 2007, where they played Overture to Uncle Sam, Part I as an unreleased Synclavier composition, I am wondering if Uncle Sam is actually a misspelled Uncle Sal!

A 2:24 min version of this unreleased composition is available through the Ensemble “Ascolta Plays Zappa” page and linked here:

Overture to Uncle Sam, Part I by Ensemble Ascolta

A source (kulturkalender.faz.net, reported by IINK) reported that in the Ensemble Ascolta program, for Overture to Uncle Sam, Part I it was specified: “planned as an overture to an opera for La Scala in Milan”.

Moreover, in The Real Frank Zappa Book Dio Fa is depicted as a project for an opera to be premiered at La Scala. Describing the stage set details it says: “The musical accompaniment will include full orchestral settings, chamber music settings, ethnic choral and instrumental setting (executed via digital sampling and digital tape playback)”.

Finally, listen carefully to the throat vocals in Dio Fa, my guess is that “Uncle Sal” voice melts into a tuvan Huun-Huur-Tu voice.

–       ;- {=      –

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Back to the Zappa requests to Giagni, an album has been recorded and issued in 1990 by Tenores di Bitti “Remunnu ‘e Locu”, entitled In Tonos.

A statement by Frank Zappa appears in the back cover of the cd booklet.

Tenores di Bitti "Remunnu 'e Locu", In Tonos, 1990 (New Tone), cd booklet, first and last pages

Tenores di Bitti “Remunnu ‘e Locu”, In Tonos, 1990 (New Tone), cd booklet, first and last pages

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Here is a fragment of Muttos, a song from the album, linked from the already mentioned mp3 page from their web site.


Muttos (fragment)

In the following, some images from the booklet, and the back cover of the cd.

Tenores di Bitti "Remunnu 'e Locu", In Tonos, 1990 (New Tone), cd booklet, credits

Tenores di Bitti “Remunnu ‘e Locu”, In Tonos, 1990 (New Tone), cd booklet, credits

Tenores di Bitti "Remunnu 'e Locu", In Tonos, 1990 (New Tone), cd booklet, about the "a Tenores" singing

Tenores di Bitti “Remunnu ‘e Locu”, In Tonos, 1990 (New Tone), cd booklet, about the “a Tenores” singing

Tenores di Bitti "Remunnu 'e Locu", In Tonos, 1990 (New Tone), cd booklet, about Tenores di Bitti "Remunnu 'e Locu"

Tenores di Bitti “Remunnu ‘e Locu”, In Tonos, 1990 (New Tone), cd booklet, about Tenores di Bitti “Remunnu ‘e Locu”

Tenores di Bitti "Remunnu 'e Locu", In Tonos, 1990 (New Tone), cd back cover

Tenores di Bitti “Remunnu ‘e Locu”, In Tonos, 1990 (New Tone), cd back cover

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Back to the ’80s and forward to 2013, the Paris interview has been broadcasted in 1984 by Rai Radio 3 into the “Un Certo Discorso” show, and partially transmitted again by Radio 3 on December 9, 2013 into “La Grande Radio” show, to pay a tribute to FZ, 20 years after his passing. The 2013 radio program included extracts form three shows the Radio3 devoted to the music of Frank Zappa: “Zappa in Testa” (2003), “Un Certo Discorso” (1984), “Storyville” (2002).

Here is the December 9, 2013 podcast, the “Un Certo Discorso” fragment starts at 10:45.


La Grande Radio, December 9, 2013 podcast

The interview has been translated into Italian, the voice of Zappa is always in the background. Only a short bit has been left without translation, it’s from 33:28 to 35:43 into the podcast.

Here is the transcription (please correct):

If you have a regular pulse, and you offend it with a very irregular phrase that goes over it… But that phrase has to be played exactly, it can’t be played as if it were an improvisation, it has to be an exact… it has to be a blasphemy against the original rhythm concept.

I like the idea of music where you can tap your foot to the basic pulse of the bar, and against that hear things that are very tense, and the tension of the rhythm of the melody, versus how those notes affect the chords, is what is going to determine how tense the whole composition is going to be.

In very traditional diatonic music there are stupid types of tensions, like dominant 7th chord and variations on that, which eventually resolve to a tonic.

And in jazz there’s two, five, one, which is the most offensive thing that you can deal with, it’s like you know it’s going home any minute now.

All things for the western hear that are costumes, they become a costume to hearing things presented that way.

They know that if something is really academic and nice it’s going to go back to the tonic after a certain period of time.

And the hear is come to expect that. By denying that, constantly… it’s like sleep deprivation torture, in a way. Have you ever been without sleep for a long time? You begin to see and hear things that aren’t really there, but they’re actually quite interesting.

You can do the same thing in a composition by presenting it in such a way that the psychological results of what you are doing are known in advance, you build this into the composition.

Because of what the listener expects to hear, by denying that to the listener, you are going to create a sensation for the listener that he wouldn’t get ordinarily.

So that is part of the composition.

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It is a truly significant statement that anticipates what Zappa will write in his autobiography:

The creation and destruction of harmonic and ‘statistical’ tensions is essential to the maintenance of compositional drama. Any composition (or improvisation) which remains consistent and ‘regular’ throughout is, for me, equivalent to watching a movie with only ‘good guys’ in it, or eating cottage cheese.

Frank Zappa, The Real Frank Zappa Book, page 181, Frank Zappa and Peter Occhiogrosso, 1989 —

Which is also quoted in the Harmony wikipedia article.

Riccardo Giagni was able to set the right climate for the interview: Frank Zappa felt free to express his own firm beliefs concerning composition, and to discuss other topics, as traditional music, as if he knew the interviewer since a long time. And it was also seminal for an important album of traditional music from Sardinia. I do hope this interview will be published in his complete form soon!

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Comments
  1. […] with the Wolf Harbor suite. No link instead with Dio Fa (the abandoned FZ opera project) as elsewhere stated in this blog (the notes to the Berlin, July 14, 2007 Ascolta ensemble concert program led to this probably false […]

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