Francesco Zappa was born in 1717, most probably in the region of Milan. [...]
On 18 January 1795 the French army reached The Hague and the stadholder's family left for England, a situation which put an end to the court's music programme and orchestra. [...] At the point at which the court ceased to exist, Zappa was in his late 70's. He passed away at his home in the centre of The Hague a few years later on 17 January 1803 at the age of 85.
A few years before I quit working for Frank a new edition of Groves Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians (which may actually have a slightly different name) was published. I saw it in the Theodore Front music store in LA and thought I'd check to see if Frank had gotten a listing. He hadn't but in his place was a listing about Francesco Zappa—unknown Italian cellist and composer. After briefly considering and rejecting the obvious explanation (that the listing was some sort of joke) I figured I'd have to get some of Francesco's music to show Frank. So I decided not to mention it to him till I had some music.
Not long after this he went on tour in Europe. When he returned he had been told by someone about the Francesco listing and he was quite excited by the notion that a musician with essentially the same name had exsisted 200 years earlier. Meanwhile, all I had done was find a person to tell me how to get the music—this was "Jim Lee who used RISM to point using the right direction"—Jim was a musician who did early music arrangements. I met him at Judy Green Music in Hollywood (where all the Zappa scores etc got reproduced—still do, actually) and RISM stands for four long German words which are books of lists of musty old scores in musty old libraries all over the world.
Franks secretary wrote away for xeroxes of some of the scores in US libraries and we soon had more trio sonatas that we could deal with. The music was hand copied manuscripts obviously from Francesco's own period—individual parts, not scores. They were hard to read—I don't really remember what they looked like but I knew enough about 18th century notation to enter them into the Synclavier. The music would not be readable by an average musician today. Frank set me to work on this and I did the most authentic job I could with them. Using genuine string-like synth sounds, adding crescendos and diminuendos. Frank liked playing them for anyone who came into the studio.
When it came to recording them the sound was far too staid and old-fashioned for Frank. He started substituting the most uproarious synthesizer sounds then available (this was before sampling) onto the three parts (two violin and one cello)—instantly obscuring all the nuances I'd added and blurring much of what Francesco himself had written. Some of the combinations he tried in the studio were even more outlandish than what ended up on the record. He must have liked what he came up with however.
Once I was in the studio while Frank was meeting with the designers of the album cover—two women. One of them started talking about reincarnation and how exciting it must be for "Frank Zappa" to discover "Francesco Zappa" who had such a similar career. Frank did not seem to want to entertain such metaphysical notions—he started twisting his neck and rolling his eyes. Everyone laughed and Frank avoided giving the notion any credence.
As the album was going into final production he asked me to write liner notes—this was probably the most original piece of creative work I ever did for Frank—every "Fact" in the liner notes is correct. Francesco did live in all those places and dedicate those trios twice (we had the same music manuscripts from two different sources with different dedications). The attitude about Francesco that I tried to convey was much more akin to FRANK Zappa's attitude than Francesco himself—actually I knew nothing of Francesco's attitude. It's also true that the steam-powered record player was never a commercial success (steam power would have been very high-tech during Francesco's lifetime)—hmm, I guess I made up the part about coal-burning cassettes—and maybe a few other obvious lies. When I finished the program notes Frank edited them somewhat (making improvements for the better—I can no longer remember which bits he edited) but most of it is my writing.
The Internet tells me now that there was a new edition of the Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians in 1980—so this must have happened in 1980 or '81. Frank was on tour, and I had lots of free time—probably working on some orchestra score or parts while he was gone. At that time, I was still playing clarinet, and was looking for music to play at a music store called Theodore Front—then in or near Beverly Hills. While I was there, I saw the new Groves and I wondered whether Frank had earned an entry. Well, no—Frank Zappa wasn't listed. But Francesco was. Of course, I immediately jumped to the obvious conclusion—Francesco Zappa was some sort of joke. I resolved to tell Frank about this when he returned from the tour.
Meanwhile, through Judy Green of Judy Green Music, I met a man named Jim Lee—I think was probably a prof at USC or UCLA. He found a listing of libraries which held scores by Francesco. That list is as far as I had gotten when Frank returned from the tour. While he was away, someone had already told him about Francesco and he had his secretary contact UC Berkeley and the Library of Congress for the string trio scores.
So fast forward a year or two, when I was working at UMRK inputting music into the Synclavier. One of the tasks I was given was entering these string trios. I set out to make them as realistic as possible, using Synclavier string sounds. These were FM synthesis sounds—not samples. Imagine them played on a DX7. I added turns and other ornaments, as best as I understood them. I'm no expert on 18th century musical manuscript and notation, but I knew a lot more about it than anyone else around Frank at the time.
Frank was excited about finding another composer with his name, even if the guy had lived 200 years earlier. Also, I think he needed some easy product at the time to keep the cash flowing. For those and probably other reasons, Frank decided to record and release the Francesco cuts I had entered. Recording meant playing the files back on the Synclavier in the corner of the control room and recording them onto a tape machine on the other side of the room. I was horrified when Frank started replacing the timbres of the tracks before recording them. So, if I had programmed a little dynamic swell on a held note or pause or something sort of classical-era, playing it back on tubular bells or whatever he chose obliterated those effects. In any case—now 36 years later—Frank's Francesco cuts sound like some sort of weird music box to me. Far more interesting than the Stockhausen music boxes I've heard (based on the zodiac, as I recall).
Once the original "Francesco" trios were entered into the Synclavier, Frank's only creative input was deciding on which sounds would go with which musical lines. I never did understand what he was trying to do with it, but he picked some very rich synthetic sounds that served to obscure the 18th century music. Hmmm—maybe *that was* what he was trying to do. The music of Francesco Zappa was not what anyone would call inspired writing (sort of behind the times even then)—and it certainly wasn't the kind of thing Frank liked to listen to. In comparison to any other album I ever saw Frank working on, Francesco Zappa was tossed off super quickly—and maybe Frank was testing the limits of the Synclavier.
There are no samples on Francesco. It's all straight Synclavier.
[...] It was just mere curiosity. I obtained the music and David Ocker typed it into the Synclavier. Then, on the first day, after he typed in Op. 1, and we listened to it, I thought, "Hey, that's a nice tune. I wonder what the rest of it sounds like." He spent about a month typing in a huge amount of these string trios—they were all string trios, by the way. They sounded nice, so I thought, "Why not make an album out of it?"
[...] Basically, you're dealing with three-voice compositions. It's two melody lines, usually in harmony, plus the bass line. That's all I really had to work with. I didn't want to add any other data to it. It was written for two violins and an upright bass—not exactly the world's most appealing audio combination. Even if I had suitable synthesizer replicas for those instruments, I'm not sure that would have made the most interesting album. So I just added a little Technicolor to it and let the music speak for itself.
Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos