Olli Virtaperko: Arranging Zappa for Ensemble Ambrosius

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23th of May, 1999. Olli on tour with Ultra Bra, arranging The Idiot Bastard Son for Ensemble Ambrosius. photo Ilmari Pohjola

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As Ensemble Ambrosius was formed in 1995 and we had declared our intention of playing Zappa, it soon became evident for us that music scores of Zappa's music were rare, hard to get and the ones available ridiculously expensive, far beyond our student budgets. Thus, the only sensible way to see some music on paper was to transcribe it from records ourselves.


In order to get started, we needed to decide which Zappa tunes to transcribe. Even back then there were some cover versions available of Zappa's music, most of which had one thing in common: they were by every aspect inferior to Zappa's own interpretations, being unable to bring any new aspect to Zappa's music. As we studied the failures of our colleagues, certain things became evident to us: there is no point of making instrumental cover versions with non-amplified instruments of compositions, where

  1. the emphasis of the piece is clearly on lyrics.
  2. the piece is strongly dominated by Zappa's own unique personality - singing, guitar playing or "meltdown" (Zappa's term for his way of half-singing, half-reciting a song)
  3. the music is a result of unique improvisation of particular musicians
  4. the music is inevitably written for amplified set of instruments, using elements or techniques that are realized properly only through the use of the instruments of popular music (in Zappa's case: most guitar solos, country and gospel parody-songs, blues songs).
  5. the music is uninteresting or contains too little substance.

With these limitations, a considerable number of Zappa's over 2000 catalogued compositions were outlisted from arranging and the decision of what pieces to transcribe became easier.


Transcribing music is one of those really frustrating things in life. This is partly explained by the fact that to write out a structure, meter, melody lines and the harmony of a musical composition takes enormous amount of working time. However, the true frustrationess of transcribing lies in the fact that you know that all that time-waist could be avoided, if the original, existing score material just turned up. In other words, the time spent on transcribing is time wasted, as somebody else - like the composer - already has a most precise score for the music you are endlessly struggling with. For a person like myself, who is very time-conscious, transcribing feels particularly irritating. In order to optimize the time-waist, I did most of the transcriptions while having cold of while being otherwise sick. Fortunately, I was sick frequently during 1995-99, and thus the hateful process of transcription got eventually done. The transcription process always went along with the following prodecure: I'd sit in the front of a keyboard (or occasionally my cello), listen to cd and, note by note, pick up individual notes or short melody lines, verifying them with a keyboard. That part would be preceded - in the case of more complex music - by figuring out the meter and rhythm patterns . Finally, the harmony would be worked out. As the result of all this, I'd have a certain amount of practically unreadable mess of music-related substance sketched down. Click here to see an original page of the transcription of Alien Orifice (The Alien Orifice: 2.38 - 3.08)


Generally speaking, I believe that there is no point of doing any kind of cover versions of any music, if the new interpretations don't bring something new to the original musical material. New arrangements and instrumentations should be able to offer new dimensions, not only to individual pieces of music, but also to the overall profile of the composer. In order to be able to show what I believe Ensemble Ambrosius with its baroque instruments has to offer to Zappa's musical universe, few words about baroque instruments and the similarities of interpretations of early music and popular music are required.

The instruments

"Baroque instruments" refer to a selection of instruments that were used in baroque period, which, in the case of music, covers roughly years 1600-1750. Compared to the modern instruments that are used nowadays in classical music, the baroque instruments have some notable differences. For one thing, the temperament of instruments was lower than nowadays (a = 415 Hz: all notes were tuned one semitone lower). This makes the music sound more relaxed. For instance, with string instruments the strings are less strained and they vibrate for a longer time with less force. Thus, a "jazzy" pizzicato sound of the baroque cello is completely different from the tense pizzicato of the modern cello. Combined with the fact that the baroque strings are made out of animal gut (most usually lamb gut), the sounds of baroque and modern string instruments are quite far away from each other. The baroque sound applies to me; I wouldn't be able to play cello on "The Zappa Album" the way I did if I was using a modern cello. The loose, double-bass like pizzicato styling was made possible with the unique instrumental characteristics of the baroque cello only.

The affects

The baroque instruments create colours and timbres, which human perception tends to feel as "affects" - in other words, when played in the idiomatic way, the baroque instruments are capable of bringing emotional dimensions to music. In "The Zappa Album", the arrangements of Zoot Allures and The Idiot Bastard Son are good examples of the affectivity of baroque instruments. I believe our versions of those two compositions present a composer, who is capable of communicating in very a profound emotional human level without being sentimental - in the same way that is present in some of Zappa's most personal guitar solos, like The Watermelon in Eastern Hey or St Etienne.

Similarities between baroque and popular music

During the process of transcribing, arranging and playing Zappa we found certain similarities between the performance practises of early music and present rock music, which we were able to utilise in our concept. In baroque times, the accompanying set of musicians was called the basso continuo group. It consisted of various instruments which played the bass line, accompanied the melody and gave the piece its final rhythmical shape. That doesn't different very much from the function of the rhythm section of the rock group. Both have certain rules and liberties in accompanying the melody, which are pretty much the same. We soon applied the concept of the basso continuo group in our interpretations of Zappa. Thus, "the rhythm section" of Ensemble Ambrosius consists of the baroque cello, the baroque bassoon, the arclute, the dulcimer, the harpsichord and the chamber organ. Of these instruments the harpsichord is particularly notable, as it has a clear, percussive attack. Consequently, in my Zappa arrangements I often use the harpsichord as a pitched percussion instrument, simulating the functions of the drum set. It is thus possible, to certain extent, write out fills and have the constant pulse utilising the facilities of a harpsichord.

In the tradition of the basso continuo the harmony was indicated with numbers above the bass line. The numbers contained the information of desired harmony, pretty much in the same way than chord symbols are used nowadays in popular music. They both indicate just the harmony, leaving a considerable amount of freedom in how to play the chords - the chordal ambitus and thickness, voice-leading or even the instrumentation were left at the responsibility of a player. This underlines another common characteristic between the interpretations of early music and popular music; they do not share the romantic "genious-myth", where composers, virtuoso instrumentalists and conductors were seen as god-like creatures with divine qualities, hidden to ordinary people. This ideology eventually led to the idea that a composer must control all the parameters in music: the improvisational elements vanished, the use of figured bass and basso continuo came to end and the overall instrumentation got strictly defined by the composer. The notational accuracy of music became essential. In other words, the concept of entertainment was changed to the concept of art. Composers who used to be considered as craftsmen were rapidly promoted to "geniuses", whose mental resources were seen "divine". Consequently, romantic tradition abandoned the basic attitude that early music and popular music share: music is entertainment and people making music need not take themselves that seriously.


As essential as the observations of the similarities of the natures of early music and popular music were for our arrangements of Zappa, they were merely just tools that could be utilised during the process of making music. When working with people, the final musical result is always dependent on the output of individual musicians. FZ refered to this when pointing out the importance of "styling" and "the right attitude". My task as an arranger and a kind of a band leader (=the person who pays the bills) was to find out how the musical resources of individual musicians could serve the music best.


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