In February, 2000, The Florida Orchestra was joined in concert by the wonderful Frank Zappa tribute ensemble, Bogus Pomp, for an all-Zappa evening. Rip Rense was asked to write program notes, which follow.
Molecule Sculptures Over Time: The Orchestral Music of Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa wasn't real keen on having his orchestral music explained. He seemed to be of the opinion that it should largely speak for itself. Zappa was also not predisposed to linger over finished works, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and Edgard Varese compositions certainly excepted. As he once perfunctorily told composer John Adams, when Adams sought to strike up a little conversation about another composer's orchestral score, "I'm not one to sit at home and pore over scores."
As for writers commenting on Zappa's work, it is probably best to recall his lyric from "Packard Goose:"
"If his mind is prehensile/ he'll put down his pencil/ and have himself a squat on the cosmic utensil."
For Zappa, the beauty of music was self-evident. Hence his artistic credo and succinct philosophical leitmotiv, "music is the best." The function of the "little black dots," he insisted, was to entertain---which is hardly to suggest lack of complexity or sophistication in his work. Navigating the thick, richly detailed aural capillaries of his last-completed composition, Civilization: Phaze III, proves that point well enough. (Note: "thick, richly detailed aural capillaries" would probably have merited a trip to the "cosmic utensil.")
Still, the man fielded many questions about his compositional priorities, over the years, and addressed these issues at some length in The Real Frank Zappa Book. Accordingly, it can be said that there is definitely some very useful stuff to keep in mind when listening to the orchestral music of Frank Zappa.
First, he is probably the most programmatic composer in history, Richard Strauss included. Zappa said on many occasions that he had images in mind for his pieces, and often described them in liner notes accompanying his recordings. Whether these images need be considered while listening to the music, though, is probably something the composer would have left to, as the Central Scrutinzer of Joe's Garage, Part 2 put it, "the imagination of the imagin-er."
Second, Zappa often employed what he called a "weights and measures" approach to symphonic composing:
"In my compositions," he wrote in 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 these creations.
"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."
This extremely architectural approach to his music is characteristic. Zappa's aesthetics favored the physics of organizing and realizing sound. His descriptive language bears this out. A group of notes ("the recipe," as he termed it in The Real Frank Zappa Book), does not "become a 'musical experience' in normal terms" until "it has been converted into wiggling air molecules." What's more:
"Music, in performance, is a type of sculpture. The air in the performance space is sculpted into something. This 'molecule-sculpture-over-time' is then 'looked at' by the ears of the listeners---or a microphone."
Lest these excerpts render this wonderful evening of sound-sculpture reductively academic, please remember a third important factor to keep in mind when listening to Zappa's orchestral works:
Humor! (Those requiring an explanation of humor will please leave the theater now.)
Following are short descriptions of each of tonight's "molecule-sculptures-over-time."
"Uncle Meat"---From the 1968 Mothers of Invention album of the same name, this version draws from both the "Uncle Meat" main title theme, and the "Uncle Meat Variations." This explosively colorful and dynamic orchestration (done, under Zappa's direction, by Ali N.Askin) was based not on the original recording, but on a 1983 arrangement for the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. The rambunctious "Uncle Meat" is marked by spritely, manneristic Zappa melodies that dance around a nearly relentless, driving pulsebeat. The composer provided an elaborate program with the original album, the first paragraph of which is reprinted here: "An evil scientist lusts for revenge after being laid off at a missle plant in the Valley when the government contract is cancelled. Using equipment stolen from the plant over a period of years (assembled in a deserted Van Nuys garage) and some recipes for mystical potions from an old book, Uncle Meat and his Mexican slave, Bimbo, prepare to rule the universe with an army of mutant monsters."
("Uncle Meat," incidentally, languished as an unfinished movie---a kind of free-form study of Zappa/MOI life in 1967-68---until the early 90s, when the composer finally completed it. The title itself might derive from an uncle of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. See "The Real Frank Zappa Book," page 37.)
"Dupree's Paradise"---This piece first appeared on disc in You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 2, an live 1974 concert in Helsinki, Finland, entirely devoted to one of Zappa's most talented---and favorite---ensembles (George Duke, Ruth Underwood, etc.) At that time, "Dupree's Paradise" (Zappa, by the way, pronounced it DU-pree's) offered little more than the principal melody used as a framework for his band's virtuosic soloists. The completed work debuted in 1984 when Pierre Boulez commissioned several of the composer's efforts for the album, The Perfect Stranger, performed by the Ensemble Intercontemporain. Dupree's Paradise’ 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. Here is Zappa's program from The Perfect Stranger liner notes: "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."
"Naval Aviation in Art?"---This short work was first performed at UCLA's Royce Hall in September, 1975, when Zappa financed, hosted (and occasionally conducted) a concert by a 37-person pick-up orchestra he dubbed The Abnuceals Emmukha Electric Symphony Orchestra. A recording of that performance eventually surfaced on the albums, Orchestral Favorites and Lather. A re-orchestrated version was later recorded---at nearly twice its original length---by Boulez for The Perfect Stranger. "Naval" is anchored by an inquisitive five-note theme---carried largely by insistent, slashing strings in the original version, but by slower, dispassionate woodwinds and brass in the later treatment---over an aura of tension. Again, slow push-and-pull crescendoes are in evidence. This writer, who was in attendance at the 1975 Royce Hall premiere, seems to recall Zappa explaining the brevity of the piece by citing the brevity of the subject matter in the title. Here is this composer's program, as written for "Stranger:" "Naval Aviation in Art? Shows a sailor-artist,standing before his easel, squinting through a porthole for inspiration, while wiser men sleep in hammocks all around him."
"Bob in Dacron (First Movement)"---This piece is served indisputably well by Zappa's program, as written for the London Symphony, Vol II album: "The scenario depicts an unpleasant urban scoundrel (BOB) in his quest for mid-life erotic gratification in a singles bar. The first section, subtitled 'Bob's Clothes,' is a musical description of patterns which do not blend and textures only a BOB could love, as he gets dressed for the evening foray. Battery-operated plastic 'laugh boxes' represent the voices of the 'imaginary girls' BOB seeks to impress." In the first movement, a meandering theme wanders around the orchestra, like a sick drunk, from sour string section to dyspeptic winds and deranged horns. The aimlessness of BOB's life, and the ugliness of his prurient intentions are masterfully and hilariously suggested, as well as his disastrous sartorial sense. The epidemically American habit of formless, vapid humming---often encountered in post-martini-lunch business executives---comes to mind here. "Bob in Dacron" is actually a ballet, usually performed with a companion piece, "Sad Jane."
"G-Spot Tornado"---Zappa has never been given his due as a melodist, in the view of this writer. There is almost no mistaking a Zappa melody, so distinctive are they, and the frantic principal theme of "G-Spot Tornado" is about as trademark as Zappa tunes get. Originally written on the Synclavier and released on the Grammy-winning Jazz From Hell album, "G-Spot Tornado" was later recorded by flesh-and-blood machines---the European new music group, Ensemble Modern---for the album, The Yellow Shark. It was the closing number of the September, 1992 "Shark" performance in Frankfurt, Germany, the last "Yellow Shark" concert that the composer was able to supervise. Here is his comment from The Yellow Shark liner notes: "During the '91 rehearsals, I came in one day, and a few of the musicians were trying to play that tune. They really liked it for some reason, and asked whether they could have an arrangement of it for the concert. It was another one of the pieces that was done on the Synclavier. I printed out the data, turned it over to Ali (Askin), and he orchestrated it. The rest is history." Listeners requiring a program for this piece are referred to the title, or the Kama Sutra.
"Strictly Genteel"---This was the finale to the composer's "200 Motels"---a film astonishing for its innovative visuals (that anticipated the better aspects of music videos), highly ambitious melding of symphonic and "rock band" musical writing, and surreal documenting of rock-band touring in America, circa 1970. If the opening piece of "200 Motels" is "Semi-Fraudulent/Direct from Hollywood Overture," then "Strictly Genteel" is the "semi-fraudulent/direct from Hollywood recessional hymn." It has a sighing, looking-back-over-the-shoulder quality, buried amid all the burlesque and bombast. As with "Peaches en Regalia"and "Blessed Relief," you suspect the presence of sincere sentimentality in there somewhere. After all, as the oily TV announcer, Rance Mohammitz of "Motels" (Theodore Bikel) oozes at the start of the piece, "this is the kind of a sentimental song that you get at the end of the movie. . .the kind of a song that people might sing to let you in the audience know that we really like you, we care about you, we understand how hard it is to laugh these days. . ." This tour-de-force of orchestral textures, mood-swings, abrupt rhythmic shifts, hearty horn chorales, demented jazz, and benediction-like chord progression, originally had words sung by Bikel, Flo and Eddie, and a chorus. The principal melody was introduced with this phrase: "Lord have mercy on the people in England, for the terrible food that these people must eat. . ."
"Strictly Genteel" was also recorded strictly instrumentally on Orchestral Favorites, and, in what is perhaps its most engaging rendition, by the composer's final touring band, for the 1991 album, Make a Jazz Noise Here.
Zappa lyrics are copyrighted for the world by The Zappa Family Trust, and are used here by permission. All rights reserved. FZ, Zappa, Frank Zappa, & 'the moustache' design are trademarks belonging to The Zappa Family Trust. All rights reserved.
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