What makes ‘The Black Page’ so difficult?

Frank Zappa was one of the most
eccentric and original composers of the 20th century and his piece “The Black
Page” is one of his most well-known. Now, Zappa was notorious for composing
difficult music, so much so that the musicians hired to record it began to
dread receiving the sheet music for these recording sessions. The music was
so dense that they referred to these scores as “black pages”. In response to
this, Zappa composed a deliberately absurd piece of music titled “The Black
Page #1”. Now when you look at the sheet music you can see that the name of
the piece is rather fitting and “The Black Page” has earned a reputation among
musicians as being extremely difficult to perform. But what is it that makes
this piece so hard to play? That’s what I intend to find out today. “The Black Page”
first appeared on the album, “Zappa in New York,” which was a live album recorded in
1976. The piece was originally written as a drum solo for drummer Terry Bozzio.
[Bozzio speaking] Zappa walked into a rehearsal one day and said, ‘What do you think of this,
Bozzio?’ and handed me this piece of music. So I fooled around with it for a couple
weeks, just about I guess 20 minutes a day or something before rehearsals and
in a couple of weeks I had it mastered and I could play it for him. [Shawn] There was
also a second version of this piece called “The Black Page #2,” which was
rearranged into a disco feel — which Frank Zappa referred to as the “easy teenage
New York version.” But it’s “The Black Page #1” that
still holds this mythical status, that remains one of these Holy Grails for
musicians, and especially for drummers. And that’s why I’m here today to talk
about this piece. The best way to learn about music is through direct experience.
Zappa himself was no fan of music critics, saying that “Writing about music
is like dancing about architecture.” Now the origins of this quote are
questionable, but I still love the quote, and it does sound like something Zappa
would say. So in the spirit of doing things “the Zappa way” I’m going to
attempt to learn how to play “The Black Page” today. I have never performed this
piece. I’ve never practiced it, never tried to learn it, so this is all going
to be new to me. I’m not gonna worry about the pitches on this first
run-through — I just want to see if I can play the rhythm first and then we’ll go
from there. So this is going to be me sight-reading Frank Zappa’s “The Black Page #1” The first take wasn’t all that great. A
lot of mistakes in there as you would expect. I would give myself a D-minus on
that because there were some things that I got right, but most of it was not very
good or clean. For me, it came down to handful of spots, which I just circled
here on the music, which are exponentially more difficult than the
rest of the music. We can look, for example, at the last measure of the piece,
which for me personally is the most difficult to play. The piece is littered with strange
rhythms, right? You know, seven notes in a beat, five notes in a beat, 11 notes in a
beat. What makes this in particular so difficult — and this, and this, and this, and
this — is what we would call “nested tuplets”. So, a tuplet can be just any
number of notes evenly spaced in a period of time. So, that can include
triplets, quintuplets, septuplets, 19-tuplets. Nested tuplets are when you put
tuplets inside of tuplets. We’ve got, for example, quarter note triplets. So, three
notes in the space of two beats. “One, two, three, four, one.” On its own, not so bad,
right? Except that in between each of those notes, Mr. Frank Zappa says we
should squeeze five notes and then five notes and then six notes. Now this
example is actually pretty funny because five plus five plus six is 16. So, 16
notes in the space of two beats sounds a lot like 32nd notes, but the
phrasing of those notes is what makes it different. So in the end, you get
something that sounds very similar to 32nd notes but is infinitely
more difficult to perform. As for this second rhythm — this is the weird one — this
is like a giant triplet which spans the whole bar, so there are three main pieces.
And each of those three main pieces has a distinct rhythm, and you just have to
get used to squeezing that rhythm into that pulse. So, the first part is really
easy. This is a quarter note and two eighth notes, but in this triplet context
that means they’re the exact same thing as triplets. So keeping a pulse like this
you can hear triplets in your head. [counting the rhythm] The third one is also not so
bad it’s a group of four sixteenth notes and then five sixteenth notes. Now, the
way that I practiced this initially was to replace this group of quintuplets
with four sixteenth notes. So instead of a group of four and five we have a group
of four and four. [counting the rhythm] Right? Just triplets —
very simple compared to the rest of this. And
then once you have that it’s not that hard to just speed up those last four
sixteenth notes and add one more in there. So you have [counting the rhythm] and just you know, squeeze those notes in until
you hit the downbeat. Then this second one is the weird one. You’ve got this
seven-tuplet thing nested within the giant triplet. And it’s definitely
bizarre, but the way that I was able to hear that is by figuring out: first of
all, where my downbeats land within this giant triplet mess, and second of all by
knowing how fast these note rates should be compared to one another. So I figured
out that these [7-tuplet] quarter notes are about the same rate as these eighth note
triplets that come before it. So if you can get that initial rate change right
and land correctly on the next accent then you’re good to go. So I’m up to
around 45 minutes of total practice time and I feel like I actually get the
rhythms now. I need to tighten them up of course but I understand them it’s gone
from “what on earth is this” to something that at least I grasp the concept of,
and more or less what it sounds like. I’m back in the studio today and I’ve been
practicing for the last hour, hour and 15 or so, and one thing that has been
helping me immensely has been counting. [counting complex rhythms] You know, I cannot say enough
good things about what this does for your timing. And especially with a piece
that’s as bizarre as this in terms of rhythm, where you’re changing
subdivisions from thirty-second notes to seven-tuplets to eleven-tuplets.
You’ve got to have a really solid sense of internal timing, and the way that you
develop that is through the voice. Having solidified the rhythm the next step for
me is to start orchestrating these notes around the kit and figure out which
drums and cymbals I’m going to be hitting at which times. I spent two hours
or so, like, solidifying the rhythm between today and yesterday and then I
spent two and a half hours just trying to work out which drum I’m going to hit
when. And I’ve still got some more work to do on that. One of the things that makes
these orchestrations so difficult is first of all that it’s a through-composed piece and Zappa actually has specific drums that he wants you to hit
at certain times. And so it’s not the kind of a thing where you can just play
whatever you want and as long as you follow the rhythm then it’s gonna work.
There are some spots that are a little bit more open to interpretation, and you
can hear on the various Zappa recordings that there are variations. They might
play a different tom here or a snare drum instead of a tom there. But for the
most part we’re talking about fixed parts. This is a through composed piece
of music and so, you know, I want to do my best to honor the composition. Once you can play through the parts then
you have the challenge of recording it. And the challenge there is to not make
any mistakes throughout the entire song — — which is hard enough to do with a
“simple” pop song, to play accurate to the millisecond and hold that level of
concentration for a 5-minute song. It’s really hard to do in a simple context,
and if you want to play these crazy rhythms on top of that it’s a really
really challenging thing to do. Now, it would be one thing if I was gonna play
this solo with no accompaniment, because you can get away with a lot more timing
stuff there, but if you want to play along to a sequenced MIDI track and not
edit the drums — I don’t want to move any notes around — it’s a lot of work because
every single mistake is really, really clear. And I was not able to do it in
tell I counted over the entire thing. The last time I was in the studio, I
spent all day trying to get a good take of the song, and I just I couldn’t get it.
And no matter how much I tried to will myself through it, to hit harder, to get
into it, no matter what I did it just was not — it just wasn’t a good take. And the
reason is that I still had work to do. There were things that I had not ironed
out, practicing beforehand, that would allow me to do that well. And it’s funny
because today I came in I only did a few takes. I did six full takes — I think I did
a half one in there somewhere — but I’m gonna use one of the last two takes that
I did. My mindset was just, like, Zen. Just calm and talking to myself, like,
“okay here comes that thing with the five” and, “remember not to rush your foot” and,
you know, “okay, cool, there’s that. Now the next thing is this. Make sure you think
about this subdivision, and then you have to switch to triplets.” And you know, it’s
just like, talking through things calmly in my head and thinking about the right
things. Did I get a perfect take? No, of course not. There are plenty of things I
could fix I could spend the next month or six months trying to perfect this
piece and get it 5% better. My intention here is not to record the
definitive version of “The Black Page.” I mean, listen to Bozzio’s version — that’s
the one. My intention here was to learn about this piece, see why it’s such a big
deal, and if it’s as difficult as everyone says it is, and then if so, why?
And finally, hopefully come back with something to share that might be helpful
for someone that wants to learn this or learn about this. And so in the end, what
makes “The Black Page” so difficult is not so different from what makes all
music difficult. It’s about putting in the work. And not everybody is willing to
do that. So when you see somebody that’s gone the extra 5 miles to make a
performance great you appreciate that. And so it’s not about the eleven-tuplets
or the speed of the notes, or the nested rhythms in this piece that are so hard —
because those are all things that can be tackled
and learned. And once you’ve done that you’ve got to put in the work like
everybody else. So I hope this video inspires you to put in the work and to
practice and to go for greatness. Let’s listen to this tune. This is the
performance that I did today, so I hope you enjoy this rendition of Frank
Zappa’s “The Black Page #1” and I’ll see you in another video.

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