by RIP RENSE
Jan. 16, 2008
"There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life:
music and cats." - Albert Schweitzer.
Maggie the Cat could
not be more different from her brother, Winky. She is a patchwork chaos
of colors and patterns, he striped and sandy. She is unobtrusive, shy,
undemanding; he swaggers around the place in search of food, catnip,
trouble. She sleeps all day. He prowls all day. Her visits to the catbox are
olfactorily incidental, his require one to come running with a scoop, firing
up fans and air conditioning, throwing opening windows, yelling “My GOD!”
Maggie is happy to eat,
sleep in the sun, chase paper balls down the
hall, and once or twice a day have her head scratched extensively. Winky is
a study in exasperation. He is George Bailey stuck in this one-horse town.
His favorite pastime is to be spun around at high speed in an office chair
until he is so dizzy that his head keeps moving from side to side after the
chair stops. He jumps six feet effortlessly. If he were human, he’d be
Maggie and Winky never, ever groom one
another, let alone sleep together. Not since they were spayed and neutered.
“Get two cats---that way they take care of each other.” Yeah, sure. If I
pick Winky up and hold his front legs down, and push his head into Maggie’s
face with the entreaty, “Give Winky a bath,” the DNA clicks and she will
lick his ears and neck and face for a minute. Until he violently wriggles
free from this indignity.
Other than that, both
come individually to me for their various needs and diversion.
Cat Man Do.
Correct me if I’m
wrong, but I think the L.A. Philharmonic just ended a nearly 38-year
drought of playing the music of Frank Zappa.
You wouldn’t know this
from reading the L.A. Times review.
The Phil performed
“Dupree’s Paradise,” a sort of serio-comic mini-tone poem inspired by
Zappa’s observations of early morning patrons of a bar in 1964 Watts---part
of the orchestra’s “Concrete Frequency” program of modern music evocative of
"urban landscapes." The Jan. 5 and 6 concerts marked the premiere LAPO
performance of the work.
The last time the L.A.
Philharmonic ventured anything of Zappa’s, I think, was the notorious “200
Motels” collaboration of 1970 at Pauley Pavilion, gamely taken on by
Zubin Mehta. Orchestra members burped, grunted, shuffled their feet, and
threw confetti as part of the score. Frank’s cue, “Hit it, Zubin,” still
hangs in the air.
L.A. Times music critic
Mark Swed did not note this rather amazing turn of events in his
Jan. 7 review of the concert, which also included works by Copland,
Crumb, and Varese. He did not mention the dry spell, or the LAPO premiere.
But then, Swed has never written, to my knowledge, about the fact that the
Phil has ignored this L.A. composer for 37 years. Never mind that many of
Zappa’s orchestral works have been conducted and recorded by Kent Nagano,
Pierre Boulez, Ensemble Modern, and performed by orchestras around the
After all, this is
Frank Zappa we’re talking about, not Arnold Schoenberg, or some trendy
Ivy League-educated composer working from a commission. This is the man who
employs “Louie Louie” as a kind of leitmotiv pervading his oeuvre, whether
rock, jazz, or orchestral. He of “Valley
Girl” and “Jewish
Princess” fame. Still, it’s decidedly odd, these omissions---as Mark
Swed is nothing if not a cantankerous champion of modern music, and a
relentless “homer” whose nearly hysterical shilling for Disney Hall actually
(some say) helped get the place built.
What’s more, not only did
Swed make no mention of Zappa’s long, conspicuous absence from LAPO
programs, but he took the occasion to trivialize “Dupree’s Paradise.” While
allowing that it is "diverting" (quite a compliment!), the critic shrugged
off the piece as a “doodle,” “typically cynical,” and the “tamest”
music on the program. Joining in this coy diminution was pre-concert
lecturer Robert Fink, associate professor of musicology at UCLA, who simply
dismissed “Dupree’s” as the “joker” of the concert.
Mm-hm. And the trombone,
as we all know from grade school, is “the clown of the orchestra!”
Even in his unmarked plot
at the Westwood Cemetery, poor ol’ Frank can’t get no respect in his
hometown. Poetic that he’s buried near Rodney Dangerfield.
election poem '08
Maggie is the Linus of my
live cat comic strip. That is, she is seldom separated from her blanket. She
wrestles and tussles with it, kneads it, bites it, drags it, and eventually
pokes her head under and crawls beneath it.
Where she remains.
Indefinitely. If it were not for eating and visiting the cat box, she would
live under a blanket.
Now, it’s true that
Maggie has been badly traumatized by Winky’s bullying, and this has shaped
her personality. She is a fraidy-cat. Well, they both are, despite Winky’s
husky bravado. But Maggie is one skittish kitty. If you reach out to pet
her, she is gone in a streak of green-eyed calico.
I often wonder what she
might have been like, growing up without harassment, but then, I wonder that
about myself, too.
“Dupree’s Paradise” a
“doodle?” This would suggest something sort of dashed off while musing,
perhaps half-heartedly, certainly not with any serious intent. Hmm.
Why Swed chose to take
this swipe at “Dupree’s”---which is nothing if not complicated and difficult
to perform---is unknown. What is known is that Zappa took his composing
seriously. Even---maybe especially---his compositions which were written
with a touch of satire, burlesque, as was the case with “Dupree’s.”
But let the composer
explain his own methods:
"In my compositions," he
The Real Frank Zappa Book, "I employ a system of weights, balances,
measured tensions and releases---in some ways similar to Varese's aesthetic.
The similarities are best illustrated by comparison to a Calder mobile: a
multicolored whatchamacallit dangling in space, that has big blobs of metal
connected to pieces of wire, balanced ingeniously against little metal
dingleberries on the other end. Varese knew Calder, and was fascinated by
"So, in my case, I say: A
large mass of any material will 'balance' a smaller, denser mass of any
material, according to the length of the gizmo it's dangling on, and the
'balance point' chosen to facilitate the danglement."
Sound like “doodling” to
Consider this short
description of “Dupree’s” from
my own program notes
for a Florida Orchestra performance of the eight-minute piece:
is a kind of short suite, built around the insistent and exuberant
eight-note theme heard at the start, later deconstructed, then
recapitulated. On the way, the listener encounters percolating, almost
chaotic woodwind passages, somewhat mawkish progressions in the horns,
clarion piano outbursts, and a good sense of the push-and-pull, ‘weights and
measures’ aspect described earlier."
The orchestration seems
hardly tossed-off: two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bas
clarinet, bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, bass drums,
bells, castanets, chimes, cymbals, Chinese cymbals, gong, maracas, marimba,
piccolo snare drum, pop gun, slapstick, snare drum, tam-tam, vibraphone,
woodblock, xylophone, harp, two pianos, celesta, strings.
Poor Maggie. First her
right to have kittens has been deprived (spaying), and now an impulse
developed over millions of years of evolution has been stunted: hunting.
What, after all, is there to stalk inside a condo other than the occasional
fly, termite, unsuspecting blanket?
It’s true there are
squirrels and rats outside, skittering impolitely across balconies and power
lines at night, but Maggie has as much chance of sneaking up on these
animals as I have. The squirrels enjoy taunting her, I notice, or perhaps
they are just trying to make contact with another species. Either way, she
would rather eat them.
But she has compensated
for this loss in the strangest way.
The back balcony contains several trees in pots, including two
plumerias that give forth with ridiculously sweet and beautiful blossoms
in summer. Maggie is not interested in the blossoms. But she has decided
that the great, spreading leaves of the plumeria are an affront, if not her
Several times a day, I
find her crouched on the “cat tree” outside, eyeing the evil leaves,
making that stuttery “ack-ack” noise that some cats make when they are
excited by potential quarry. How dare these leaves just spread out,
languidly, arrogantly, on her turf! She balances precariously on the edges
of the pots, stretches way, way up till she’s long and cheetah-like, and
manages to bat the leaves free, one at a time, without falling off the
balcony. Looks like she’s wearing toe-shoes.
Then she parades through
the house proudly, quarry in her teeth, and murders it in the hallway.
As criticisms of Frank
Zappa go, Swed’s “cynical” is hilarious for its mildness.
Yet it is well in keeping
with the historic need on the part of critics to haughtily castigate Zappa’s
work as “mean-spirited,” “juvenile,” etc. (Yawn.) “Everything most people
know about me comes from a poster of me sitting on a toilet,” was one of
Zappa’s famous lines (or something close to that), and he was right---that
did set a rather prejudicial tone, long ago. Well, what can you say?
Amerryguns like their
satire and irony safe and broad and stupid, if they like it at all. And
most don’t. Frank touched on this in many a lyric. Here’s one:
Po-jama people are
boring me to pieces/ Feel like I am wasting my time/ They all got flannel up
and down ‘em/ A little trap door back around ‘em/ And some cozy little
footies on their minds. . ."
Mark Swed, are your
footies showing? You call “Dupree’s Paradise” cynical. Why? I smell a
politically correct (hot) rat here. . .Let’s read the composer’s account of
"Dupree's Paradise is
about a bar on Avalon Boulevard in Watts at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday in 1964,
during the early morning jam session. For about seven minutes, the customers
(winos, musicians, degenerates and policemen) do the things that set them
apart from the rest of society."
Correct me if I am
hallucinating, but I think I detect the presence here of. . .humor. (A
quality that is often lost on the humorless.) And if you listen to this
music, you will also hear. . .humor! “Dupree’s” is a winking, wry, mordant,
goofy depiction of the stumblebum scene Zappa witnessed.
The principal theme
sounds like a sort of Hollywood overture filtered through Stravinsky, with
ADD. Fabulous cheapness.
Cynical? Let’s examine
the key word in the composer’s description of this music:
Uh-oh, that means that
the piece is probably, judging by the locale, somewhat inspired by. .
.black people! Uh-oh! And the music isn’t. . .isn’t. . .flattering. .
.sympathetic! Let alone a sober essay redolent with guilt, tragedy,
compassion, heavy-handed condemnation of racial and economic inequality,
etc. You know, atonal ugliness tinged with a little blues sax poking
through. Nope, no grand Copland-esque humanitarian exaltation here! Social
commentary? Har. This is Fanfare for the Common Miscreant. (The Phil, by the
way, preceded “Dupree’s” with Copland’s grandiose illustration of a film
made for the 1939 World’s Fair, “The City.” Which was easily, contrary to
Swed’s assertion, the “tamest” music on the program.)
In other words,
“Dupree’s” is not quite. . .politically correct.
I have to wonder if Swed
wrote unfavorably, at least in part, out of concern for appearing
politically incorrect. Endorsing a piece of music that mocks a neighborhood
that happens to be black---not because it is black---could get the
P.C. Nazis on your case. Never mind that the scene involved (probably white)
cops. Never mind that Zappa employed black musicians all his life.
Or maybe Swed just found
the subject matter less than appropriate---harrumph!---for “serious” music.
Winky the criminal cat is
quite puzzled by his sister’s need to capture and kill the large plumeria
leaves. But he is puzzled by a great many things, including why he cannot
eat from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to sleep. I share that
Winky stares intently,
green eyes big and round, as Maggie toys with the leaves, then abandons them
for dead when they don’t fight back. Stare as he might, no light of
understanding ever comes into his eyes. His sister is obviously mad.
Another thing Winky
does not comprehend is exactly what is happening when the office chair
goes round and round with him on it. He seems to think that the chair is
alive, as he sometimes sinks his fangs and claws into it. But for the most
part, he either stares up at the ceiling or watches the room go round and
round, highly entertained, as I spin the thing.
Then he gets up and
promptly walks into walls.
Next stop: “America’s
Funniest Home Videos.”
As to the performance
itself, well, the L.A. Phil under the marvelous guest conductor David
Robertson dispatched “Dupree’s”
with exactitude and adroitness. This was a studious, respectful, taut
rendition, carefully executed, with great attention paid to dynamics and
transparency. Zappa, a stickler---almost fiendishly so---for exactness of
performance, would have enjoyed it, especially in the context of the
detail-revealing Disney Hall acoustics.
Robertson, music director
of the St. Louis Symphony (and runner-up choice to new LAPO conductor
Gustavo Dudamel) took a user-unfriendly program that also included the
elegant abstractions of
George Crumb (“A Haunted Landscape”) and
“Rite of Spring” semi-ripoff, “Ameriques,” and made it affecting (the
former) and great fun (the latter.) Crumb’s piece, a spacious study in
texture and quiet, proved to be surprisingly moving, at least for this
listener. (Robertson’s comparing it to an
Hopper painting was apt.) Silly arguments that tonality is the reserve
of poetry should be stilled by this ravishing piece. Beauty is beauty.
from its obvious cribbing of Stravinksy, is noteworthy for sheer mad
scientist nuttiness. Imagine an orchestra trying to play blindfolded while
in the throes of advanced rabies, and you get the flavor of things. True,
you could call this a sort of early musique concrete, as it was meant to
conjure the mighty sounds and machinations of New York City. (And succeeds.)
But there should be a category for Varese alone: Musique Noisette.
Well, there are themes,
sort of, and rhythms (think: Khatchaturian’s “Saber
Dance” played very badly, by drunken giants), and just lots and lots of
very wonderful, thrillingly loud, very elaborate, mountainous. .
I haven’t had as much fun experiencing musicians at work (the percussion
section alone was sixteen-instruments strong, including a siren and “lion’s
roar”) since the better “drums
and space" jams of
the Grateful Dead. Small wonder that teenaged Zappa was inspired to write
for orchestra by Varese’s overwhelming, madcap music. This piece really
should be part of the standard repertory.
But being a Zappa fan,
I had gone to the concert primarily to hear “Dupree’s Paradise,” and it
was lovely to encounter orchestral Zappa, at last, in an acoustically
pristine concert hall. No, Mr. Swed, this is not the composer’s masterpiece,
but it is perfectly rewarding listening. And while hearing his music so well
realized by the LAPO was a great treat---I must also point out a drawback to
Robertson’s nothing-if-not-serious rendering of this um, “doodle.”
The composer had his own
musical lexicon, and “eyebrows” was his shorthand, more or less, for
“attitude.” “Dupree’s Paradise” is droll, rollicking, drunken, sardonic,
cockeyed, and funny---or at least it is supposed to come across that way.
I’ll bet that these qualities were intelligible only to the cadre of Zappa
fans sprinkled throughout Disney Hall---one of whom expressed disappointment
to me that the work was so “dry.”
True. As “fine” as the
performance was, it had no eyebrows (or maybe tiny, tweezed eyebrows)---and
therefore was not very competitive with the rousing, mirthful, boisterous
rendering last year by the
Philharmonia under Neal Stulberg. To use an obnoxious trendoid-ism, those UCLA
kids and their conductor really “got it.”
Well, maybe next time,
LAPO. Perhaps try playing “G-Spot Tornado.” Comes with its own eyebrows.
Gotta go. Winky has just
visited the box. My GOD!
* "Music and Cats" is a trademarked term.
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