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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Frank Zappa at IRCAM

Frank Zappa (1940-1993), the American composer, musician, and producer has been (and continues to be) a significant influence on musicians of all types. I for one found value in his musical creations, novel forms of expression, and quirky sense of humor. He put a harsh spotlight on the often cut-throat and cynical business of commercial music while forging his own public following as an underground cult-figure. Zappa regularly pushed the envelope about what was possible - both musically and culturally - and adapted his music comfortably to a diversity of styles and mediums. He thought outside of the box, and continued to innovate throughout his career - eventually realizing his life-long ambition to become a composer of “serious” chamber and orchestral music. Given that he was entirely self-taught, this was not an insignificant achievement.

In the late-60s and early-70s Zappa assumed the role as an articulate counter-culture spokesperson concerning the social issues of rock music. I remember that he appeared on a late evening TV talk show in the New York area with the bearded confrontational late-night talk-show personality Alan Burke. Burke was unabashedly rude, and would often scream at his guests on the air. I remember that he once threw someone out of the studio for being a “Communist.” When Frank Zappa was on the program, members of the studio audience were allowed to come up and ask questions. Often these people were intentionally planted in the house – hired actors armed with provocative scripts tweaked to create as much controversy as possible – especially during ratings season. An attractive blond woman appeared at the microphone (I assume she was blond, but I was viewing it on a small B&W TV with rabbit ears). She said, “Mr. Zappa, I find your music disgusting.” Without batting an eye, Zappa replied, “don’t worry little girl, someday you’ll grow up.”

As with the avant-garde composer John Cage, Zappa too was predisposed toward Dadaist histrionics when on the stage. Even before he grew his scary looking signature mustache, Zappa was injecting humor and absurdity into his act. There is a historic clip on YouTube of Zappa at the age of 22 appearing on the Tonight Show with Steve Allen (1963). Allen, a venerable composer and pianist in his own right, crudely pokes fun at Zappa for his avant-garde antics for a cheep laugh. It's hard to read if Zappa is serious or self-deprecating about performing music on a bicycle with a bass bow. Already as a teenager he was experimenting with Musique concrète and interested in the music of Edgard Varèse. But on the Tonight Show you can’t tell if he was entirely serious about experimental music, or was in cahoots with Allen in making fun of it. It’s an ambiguity and contradiction that will continue throughout Zappa’s career.

(The following YouTube video clip has additional parts if you are interested in viewing the entire interview. The complete interview is included in the documentry Frank Zappa: The Present-Day Composer Refuses To Die directed by the Dutch filmaker Frank Scheffer, who is obsessed by living composers).

In an entirely different TV interview Zappa was asked about a hypothesis that plants react favorably to the sound of music. Zappa replied that he thought it was true, and that it would later be proven that plants preferred rock music over other types of music. For decades I assumed that the plant and music theory was no more than an urban myth from the 1960s – not unlike the rumor that you can get high from smoking dried banana peels. But, I discovered only recently that Zappa may have been correct in his speculation. The research team of the TV series “Mythbusters” conducted a controlled study of plant growth, and compared the data against exposure to different genres of music. The experiment had some technical issues, but preliminary results showed that Rock and Roll had the best track-record for improvement, and classical music had the least positive affect on them. I gather that the Soviet’s too have experimented with music and plant growth with positive results. It will be interesting to see if this discovery leads to the use of Woodstock-sized loudspeakers in the bread-baskets of the world blaring out a playlist of Rock and Roll classics.

I also applaud Frank Zappa for going head-to-head with Tiper Gore in 1985. Tiper (Senator Al Gore’s wife) created the “Parents' Music Resource Center” to oppose and regulate obscene text in Rock lyrics by instituting a system of warning labels. Tiper testified before a Senate subcommittee reviewing the matter. Zappa presented a counter opinion in support of free speech, where he proved to be articulate and convincing in the debate. Ultimately Zappa won the senators and public consensus over to his side. As a result, our laws today do not place any restrictions on the sale of music CDs to people under the age of 21.

In his 500+ page monograph titled Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play (1993), literary critic Ben Watson “summarizes the joys and terrors of analyzing Zappa and his art.” His writing is dense, full of hyperbole, and wall-papered with Adorno-infused rhetoric - but there are some interesting observations and analysis with regard to Zappa’s orchestral music. Watson’s bio on the book sleeve is markedly terse: “Ben Watson was born in London in 1956. In 1977, inspired by the Sex Pistols, he painted ‘Out to Lunch’ on his coat and started washing dishes. He joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1979 and is still a member. Watson is author of two books of poetry.”

Regarding Zappa’s “serious” music, Watson writes (p. 426), “This orchestral music is an essential adjunct to the project/object. Not only does it allow us to hear Zappa’s music refracted through the traditional vehicle of bourgeois expression, it also demonstrates the economic vicissitudes and social contradictions involved in the area.” (We should note that Project/Object is Zappa’s term to represent unity within a repeated series themes over his life’s work. It represents an inner thread of "conceptual continuity” that link his various projects over the course of time. The term should not be confused with the rock band Project/Object, a popular Zappa revival group. The rogue band was recently required to cancel a show tour due to an ongoing law suit from the Zappa Family Trust administered by Gail Zappa, Frank Zappa’s widow).

I was a big-time Zappa fan in my youth and listened very intently to every recording of the “Mother’s of Invention” I could get my hands on. Although I never make it to the Fillmore East concert in June of 1971 to hear his group, I remember Zappa as a composer who straddled a line between garage-band rock and the world of high-brow avant-garde experimentalism. He was clearly influenced by the experimental music of John Cage and Edgard Varèse, but is much better known for his role as a counter-culture icon in the world of rock and roll. His career as a composer was plagued by this dualism, since he wasn’t entirely comfortable in either these culturally-opposed aesthetic camps. It’s almost as if he saw the inherent limitations of each, and played them off against one another with satire and irony for sheer entertainment purposes.

Around this time Zappa’s orchestral-stage work “200 Motels” was underway. Conceived as a movie, it was shot in seven days following five days of what must have been chaotic rehearsal. The half million dollar project was financed by United Artists, and realized at Pinewood Studios in England using the latest new technology – a battery of four simultaneously running analog video cameras. Zappa took control and edited the final video mix himself. 200 Motels calls for big forces, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, his group the Mother’s of Invention, and a host of actors/singers/performance artists, including Theodore Bikel, Ringo Star (as Larry the Dwarf), Ringo’s chauffeur, Ruth Komanoff (a classically trained percussionist), Keith Moon (dressed as a nun), Don Preston, and somebody doing something with a vacuum cleaner. Tony Palmer writing in the Sunday Observer described the whole venture as “decadent rock chaos.”

Watson writes “200 Motels is about the destruction of meaning involved in repetition: the disorientation of touring where every motel and city and venue merges into a single blur.” (Hum, that's not unlike what the traveling classical concert artist must experience too). Watson goes on to observe, “The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is housed in a concentration camp, with lookout towers and barbed wire, picking up the theme of incarceration and extermination which threads its way through Zappa’s work.” The fateful words “Work liberates us all” is written atop the entrance to the 200 Motels death camp.

After the filming, there were plans for the Mothers to perform at Royal Albert Hall with the RPO and the Kings Singers. At the last moment, the concert was cancelled due to “lyrical obscenity.” Zappa offered to rewrite the lyrics, but his offer was rejected. Ultimately Zappa sued Albert Hall, and it became a celebrated court case in 1975, although he ultimately lost the lawsuit.

The 200 Motels soundtrack was released by United Artists as a double album. It is hard to categorize. It parodies contemporary music, resembles the social commentary of Brecht/Weill’s The City of Mahagonie, and dabbles in absurdist antics. Watson notes that the song Dental Hygiene Dilemma “walks a tightrope between Tex Avery and Krystof Penderecki.”

In 2000, the Holland Festival in Amsterdam honored Zappa seven years after his death with a symphonic tribute billed as "200 Motels - the suite.” Zappa had attempted personally to have his music performed in the festival in 1981, but his bid failed.

Zappa’s next venture into the world of orchestral music would be with the London Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Kent Nagano. Zappa’s works were performed by the LSO at the Barbican in London, and released separately as volumes I and II (Volume II was delayed because members of the inebriated LSO trumpet section had injected the music with a slurry of wrong notes and out-of-tune passages). Overall the results of these works were lackluster, and the reviews from opposing cultural camps were rather mixed. The rock critics noted a lack of raw energy, and the classical music establishment observed that Zappa’s original works suffered dearly in orchestral arrangement.

Undeterred, Kent Nagano went on to perform a new three-movement work with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra as a ballet in 1984 under the title: Sinister Footwear (only the scores to Parts II and III have been released to the public - and in rock band version only).

Over time Zappa gained real-world experience and hard-earned knowledge about the practical constraints, union rules, business dynamics, and technical limitations of producing modern-day orchestral music. He was also using income from his commercial music royalties to subsidize his addiction to contemporary orchestral music - using Suzie Cream-Cheese to pay for the activities of his more experimental Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort.

Frank Zappa must have been a control freak. After his initial hits, he took over all aspects of production of his work – including publishing and recording. After his death the business has been managed like a hawk by the Zappa Family Trust. The availability of orchestral and chamber music scores is closely controlled, and a case could be made for improved Zappa scholarship. For example I’d like to see a published catalog of all of his works and the state of his manuscripts.

Enter Pierre Boulez. IRCAM in Paris was the sacred temple of avant-garde music in the late 1970s and early 80s, and Boulez was sanctioned as the high priest. IRCAM is located in a bomb-shelter-worthy hole deep in the ground below the bustling tourist destination of the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The facility, generously subsidized by the French government, was a high-tech Mecca of computer-generated avant-garde music. It hosted an international staff of researchers with advanced degrees in music composition, computer science, and electrical engineering. Of course it was off limits to the general public, and in fact off limits to all but the very few selected individuals who met with the personal approval of Boulez. Of course this made IRCAM the “in” place to be in its heyday. Modernist jazz musician Anthony Braxton felt excluded from the party, even though he had “the same kind of visions as a Stockhausen, in terms of the projects” he wanted to do. He attributed it to Parisian racist overtones, but Americans in general were in very short supply at IRCAM. It was a European venture led by the French.

In the winter of 1984, when I was a brazen young composer visiting Paris, I had the gall to talk my way into having a private tour of the high-security research laboratory. I contrived a story that I was an associate of an American composer who for a period held a senior position at IRCAM. His secretary bought my fib (line, hook, and sinker) and let me through the door as if I was somebody important. In reality I hardly knew him, but I confidently projected the illusion that we were old friends. She explained that my colleague was not available, and not in Paris at the time (later I learned that he was about to be ousted from IRCAM for purely political reasons and hiding in exile in the South of France). However, his secretary treated me like a VIP and led me down the stairs into the depths of the mysterious high-tech cave in the ground.

One of the more absurd research projects that was underway at IRCAM was a machine that could replicate the lips of a brass player. There was a standard trumpet on a pedestal with robotic fingers and a strange attachment to the mouthpiece. The idea was that a computer could control the robotic lips and mechanical fingers to play in ways that a human musician could only dream of – with incredible speed, exact precision, and with the physical force of a tank of compressed air. I didn’t hear the contraption in action, and to this day I’m not sure if I would want to.

Other research projects underway at IRCAM included the expensive 4X digital signal processor by Italian Giuseppe di Giugno. But I was sceptical about high-end technology. It seemed to me that the majority of everyday composers at that time were making due with over-the-counter digital synthesizers such as the Yamaha DX7 which could produce sounds from FM synthesis in events controlled by the standard MIDI programming language. You didn’t need millions of dollars and a staff of rocket scientists to do that. The benefits that emerged from IRCAM were more from social and cultural interaction than from the hard-science that resulted.

IRCAM also functioned as a recording studio, and Boulez utilized it often for this purpose. His historic recording of Berg’s Opera Lulu was recorded there, and an interesting fact is that soprano Teresa Stratas had to dub in her voice part after the fact.

Not wanting to push my luck too far, I bid a gracious farewell to the IRCAM secretary and departed the facility with a hand-full of esoteric scientific research papers that she handed me. I didn’t want risk being interrogated by the French authorities for corporate espionage (although the French Intelligence Service is famous for its own brand of corporate espionage, and frequently put its agents on business-class international flights to strike up causal conversations with the corporate execs of the competition).

I thought I was free and clear of my act of deception, but the following month I attended a concert by the Asko Ensemble in Amsterdam, where they were performing a work in the pop-oriented venue Paradiso by the American IRCAM composer I supposedly knew. As chance would have it, I sat down directly behind him. Before the concert got underway, he looked around behind him, and saw me. Although we have never formally met, he stared at me with glaring eyes for a very long time. It was an extreamly uncomfortable moment. Perhaps his secretary had told him the story of my visit? Should I introduce myself, or take a safer route and avoid possible confrontation and embarrassment by playing dumb? I choose the later, but to this day I’ll never know if I was just being paranoid, or if he had a hunch that I was the IRCAM scam artist, the illicit intruder who had penetrated IRCAM’s security to acquire information about France’s cutting-edge technology and strategic plans. Would I take my stolen knowledge about the mechanical brass player research project to corporate Amercia (or the CIA) in exchange for a suitcase of money?

We have time for one more digression about my impromptu visit to Paris. During those few days I met the renown Greek-born composer, musical theoretician, and architect Iannis Xenakis. Although it was not in IRCAM proper, I encountered Mr. Xenakis at a public concert of his works in the Pompidou Centre and found him to be a really pleasant and humble fellow. I observed no signs of the Alzheimer's disease that would later take his life in 2001. One of his works involved a harpsichordist dressed in an extreem punk outfit. Xenakis’ “out-there” music performed on a period 17th century harpsichord by a 20th century punk artist provided to be entertaining.

Unknown to me, Zappa was involved with IRCAM in January of 1984. He had wanted to contract with Boulez to conduct a number of his compositions with his cutting age new music group - Ensemble InterContemporain. Boulez was interested, and the project to record The Perfect Stranger on Angel Records - EMI’s classical subsidiary label - was born. Zappa was eager to have his chamber music championed by hard-core new music advocates, and Boulez and Ensemble InterContemporain were the best band in town. Perhaps Zappa had a yearning to associate his name and legacy with the likes of Boulez, Carter, and Nancarrow. Zappa, with all of his success and notoriety, was looking for a semblance of respectability from the classical music community. Boulez could provide Zappa woth credible endorsement by virtue of his stature in the world as de facto reigning new music head-honcho. The Perfect Stranger was recorded at IRCAM on January 10th and 11th, and released on August 23rd, 1984.

I got the phonograph record when it came out, and recently re-listened to it. The works for small orchestra are intriguing. They portray a number of contrasting styles, beginning with the tile track – The Perfect Stranger. Opening with the sound of a doorbell, Zappa spins a musical narrative that draws broadly from a toolkit of standard 20th-century techniques. His orchestration is an amalgam of influences traceable to Messiaen, Gil Evans, Varèse, and Ives. In hearing the work, it reminds me of some of the student works presented at the Composers Conference at Wellesley each summer. There is a youthful innocence and vitality to Zappa’s opus, and he appears to be trying out a wide-assortment of musical gadgets in this piece. Harmonically, it is neither tonal or atonal, but characteristically Zappa. Zappa’s tunes are upbeat, rhythmically awkward, but always make you smile.

Navel Aviation in Art? is only two and a half minutes long, and explores the sonorities of the chamber orchestra in ways that are somewhat similar to what Schoenberg accomplished in the Farben movement of Op. 16. Zappa adds into the mix seemingly random bursts of melodic fragments that emerge from time to time over the more-slowly evolving drone of the orchestra in the background. There is a transcendental feeling to it all, that larks back to The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives as a model of inspiration.

The third piece for chamber orchestra on the album performed by Ensemble InterContemporain is Dupree’s Paradise. This is much more of a pop composition, but flirts with dissonance and a modern harmonic language to some degree. The melodic and rhythmic inventiveness grabs your attention straight off the bat. Unlike a majority of contemporary music heard today, there is a feeling of buoyant jubilation and dance-like celebration in this work. His orchestration and melodic voice patterns reminds me of his classic rock instrumental work “Peaches En Regalia.” Both of these pieces, although composed decades apart, are cut from the same cloth. Here is a music video of Dupree’s Paradise on Youtube with animations are made by Bruce Bickford.

Also on the record album is Outside now, again, a Synclavier performance based on a transcription of Zappa's guitar solo in the song "Outside Now" from the Joe’s Garage album of 1979. (It turns out that the score can be printed out from the Synclavier digital midi file and was used by the Dutch Asko Ensemble in 2003 in an arrangement by Corrie van Binsbergen). Zappa’s program note for this four minute work describes musicians and performers in a soup line waiting for grant-givers from the National Endowment for the Arts to be dished out. He adds that it is “suited to minimalist choreography.”

The other pure Synclavier works on the Perfect Stranger album are possibly more interesting than Zappa’s orchestral scores. He seems more at home in an electronic world, where his “orchestration” is less jaded. The electronic music pallet affords Zappa a broader range of expression and freedom to experiment. The Synclavier also allows him to write more complex rhythms than would be practical for a large music ensemble working under the pressures of limited rehearsal time.

All in all, Zappa’s Perfect Stranger album is hard to define. It’s not hard-edged contemporary art music, and its not mass-market commercial music either. Zappa is a genre unto himself.

What did Boulez think about Zappa? Boulez was asked about their collaboration at a panel discussion and open forum at Harvard a few years back by a student. Boulez smiled, and said that he thought Frank was exploring interesting new ideas, and he wished Zappa had lived longer to see where those ideas would have led to.

Zappa has a number of other serious works to his name. There is a String Quartet/Quintet of which three parts were performed by the new music group Ensemble Modern along with a Woodwind Quintet “Times Beach” of which Parts II and III were also recorded and released. Ensemble Modern, based in Frankfurt, has released three CDs of Zappa’s music and taken it on tour internationally.

Zappa seems to have established himself in Europe as a serious new music composer. For example in November of last year the group ascolta performed a program of Zappa (in arrangement and transcription) at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in England. It including four UK premieres: I was in a Drum, Reagan at Bitburg, Overture to Uncle Sam, and Samba Funk.

American composer and conductor John Adams has led many performance of Zappa’s works for smaller orchestra, including on tour with Ensemble Modern and the London Sinfonietta. Adams wrote with mixed reviews about Zappa’s work in his recent autobiography “Hallelujah Junction” saying, “Curiously, despite their huge name recognition and popularity, Zappa’s ‘classical’ works have yet to be taken up as part of the regular repertoire… There seems to be a quality issue with Zappa’s ‘serious’ works that cannot be gotten around.”

Perhaps it is too early to evaluate the lasting impact of Zappa as a composer of serious contemporary chamber and orchestral music. His notoriety as a counter-culture rock hero certainly contributes to the attention he received in the world of serious art music, but at what price? An on-going cultural filtering process will define the gems from our collective 20th century music repertory, and some of Zappa’s concert works may in fact endure the cut. Fortunately Zappa's work has had the critical initial exposure needed to succeed, and he was able to over-come the financial limitations that plague so many composers today by supporting his own works. Watson writes (p.553) “In working with stadium-scale rock, Zappa managed to make enough money to finance abstract music which most avant-garde composers – either hopelessly under funded, or constrained by the artistic expectations of respectable funding bodies – can only dream of.”

Frank Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993 at the age of 53. His career lasted over three decades, and he recorded over 60 albums as a soloist and with his group The Mothers of Invention. The Zappa legacy continues in the work of his talented children, who in their own right have gained notoriety…

Moon Unit Zappa (b. 1967), the Zappa’s oldest child, became known to the public at the age of 14 for her monologue in her father’s hit single “Valley Girl” in which she speaks in the “val-speak” regional dialect of southern California teenage girls of that era. She went on to have an acting career (appearing in the movie European Vacation) and is a writer.

Dweezil Zappa (b. 1969) derived his unusual name from his fathers’ term for his mothers’ oddly-curled pinkie toe. The hospital refused to register their son with this name on the birth certificate, so his parents officially named him Ian Donald Calvin Euclid Zappa. However, having grow up with the name Dweezil, it was legally changed back again after he was the age of five. He is a rock guitarist and actor. He co-hosted a show on the Food Network, and before getting married to fashion stylist Lauren Knudsen in 2005, had relationships with a number of Hollywood insiders – including Sharon Stone and the daughter of actor Robert Wagner. Dweezil Zappa recently went on an American and European tour playing his father's music, and kicked it off in the Netherlands in May of 2006 at the Heineken Music Hall, Amsterdam.

Ahmet Emuukha Rodan Zappa (b. 1974) is a musician who writes screen plays and novels. He co-wrote the song "Frogs With Dirty Little Lips" with his father. He married actress Selma Blair in 2004, but the two have divorced.

Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen Zappa (b. 1979) was given her name because she was screaming louder than all the other babies in the hospital nursery.