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Frank Zappa, Composer

Ojai Music Festival Honors Rock Legend Frank Zappa


In the A to Z of this year’s ever-popular, ever-provocative Ojai Music Festival — which is happening tonight, Thursday, June 10, through Sunday, June 13 — the accent this year is on the “Z.” Z as in Zappa — Frank Zappa, that is, the man whose radical chic “art” music is being given a too-rare performance by the visiting Ensemble Modern, the Frankfurt, Germany-based group generally deemed the greatest new-music group in the world. Friday night’s Ojai concert by the EM, which is making its Southern California debut, includes material from Zappa’s ground-breaking The Yellow Shark album, which was recorded shortly before his tragically young death at age 52, in 1993.The concert also includes music by a Zappa favorite, Edgard Varèse, and follows a Friday-afternoon panel discussion, “The World of Frank Zappa,” with Ensemble Modern members; Zappa’s widow, Gail; guitarist Steve Vai; and more. It is high time that Frank Zappa’s semi-secret life as a classical composer got some attention, and it’s great that it is coming from the Ojai Music Festival, a consummate source for contemporary music of the highest aspiration and quality.

Frank and Gail Zappa, in their Hollywood Hills home, 1988
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Courtesy Photo

Frank and Gail Zappa, in their Hollywood Hills home, 1988

Back in 1988, I paid a long visit to Zappa at his suburban home up by Laurel Canyon. I was there as a journalist for the late lamented Musician magazine (launched, partly, by one-time Santa Barbaran Jock Baird). Zappa was in an expansive mood, and we talked freely about any subject that popped up for more than four hours. What follows is a slice of relevant excerpts from a rambling conversation with a great American.

Do you make delineations between your “serious” instrumental work and your more pop-oriented endeavors? No. The way I look at it, it’s all the same thing. It’s a guy imposing his will on x musical material or his taste. It’s all made out of the same stuff. It’s made out of the 12 chromatic notes of the scale. It’s made out of whatever arrangements or orchestrations, and you just shuffle it around and make stuff out of it. It’s equally serious and it’s equally stupid, either way you want to look at it. Or it’s equally worthless, but it’s all the same stuff.

I’m delighted to write something very simplistic and stick it up against something technically hard to do because they complement each other. Serious music is even more serious in contrast to “Louie, Louie.”

But usually composers like to steer clear of the “Louie, Louie” side, leave that to somebody else. That’s because what is known as a composer these days is a guy who owes his ass to a university and in order to keep their pedigree or their tenure or whatever they’re trying to keep, they have to give this illusion of dead seriousness because the people who run the universities don’t have a fuckin’ clue or sense of humor.

(After Zappa plays some examples of the complex, abstract but intricately arranged music he’s been writing on the Synclavier, the conversation begins again.)

Does this style of music have more meaning for you? Obviously, it comes from a different emotional place than “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” Well, it’s more personal, because when you’re doing music for a band, you’re limited by the liabilities and the assets of the music group as interpreters of what you write. You may want to have something at a certain speed but they can’t play it that fast. You may want to have something with a certain dynamic, but you’re dealing with amplified instruments and generally there’s only one dynamic there and that’s 6 f.

Here, it’s just me and the machine. It’s whatever I can do on it. So it’s probably a more accurate reflection of my musical wishes and my musical personality when there’s nothing in between.

You were saying that you were but a teen when you started listening to 20th-century composers? Well, only two, because I didn’t have a record player until I was 15 years old. The first album I ever owned was a Varèse album. The second album I owned was a low-budget recording of The Rite of Spring on Camden by the World Wide Symphony Orchestra. Where I lived, it was just a fluke of nature that those two records were available, in a town called La Mesa down near San Diego. The nearest record store was Smoky Barger’s in El Cajon, and then in San Diego they had some hi-fi stores. There was another hi-fi store in La Mesa and I got the Varèse album there; they were using it as a demonstrator. In those days, a hi-fi record was $10.95. Think of what that meant in 1953-54. That’s a lot of money for a record. You have to be a maniac to pop for that much if you’re a teenager. That’s an awful lot of allowance. But I’m glad I did.

And you studied composition, right? Yeah, in the library.

All this time, you were simultaneously playing the blues on guitar, encouraging a Jekyll/Hyde existence? It may sound incongruous, but my record collection for years consisted of just those two contemporary albums because I couldn’t get any recordings of the people I wanted. I searched a long time trying to get some Webern String Quartet records, and the only one that was available was a Dial recording. They played it during Musical Appreciation class, but I could never get the record.

I liked the way it sounded, even though it was drastically different than Varèse. I knew something was going on there, and through the years those guys have been my favorites because what they did was to tell everybody else to go take a hike and went their own way.

Was there a point at which you figured you could conjoin those two directions and satisfy both cravings — melding the sublime and ridiculous? I always knew it. There was no separation between the two. If you listen to Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg and read all the musicology books about the development of sprechstimme, all you have to do is listen to a Muddy Waters record and find out that he didn’t have to study in Austria in order to be able to do it himself. It was very natural to do speech-song. That’s one clue.

To me, the thing that pays off in music is the content. The packaging that it comes in, like a really fervid version of “Louie, Louie” or its equivalent, to me, is exactly as valuable as a beautiful performance of a Bartók string quartet. It has something to do with the amount or level of personal energy placed into a performance by the individual and what he’s doing. In other words, is he maxing out for you?

When rock and roll is at its best, you have people who are perhaps not virtuosos, but they are maxing out and delivering something above and beyond the notes of the composition. That is worth consuming. On the other hand, in many of the orchestra performances in the United States of the greatest music every written, nobody is maxing out; they are grinding out. Therefore, the audience gets cheated.

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The Ojai Music Festival takes place from Thursday, June 10, through Sunday, June 13, at Libbey Bowl and at other locations. For tickets and information, visit ojaifestival.org or call 646-2094.



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