By Thom Holmes
ZAPPA, VOL. 1 (1983). Barking Pumpkin, FW 38820.
I had a chance to meet with Frank Zappa in New York a few months back. In his whirlwind tour of the City he had done the David Letterman show earlier in the day (1:00 am), had just visited the studios of MTV, and now, for an hour, I was going to try and help him with some book projects of his. In the same trip he was visiting computer companies and probably scheduling a dozen other things in the span of a few days. Our conversation turned to electronic music and the Synclavier digital synthesizer, which he considers one of the most important devices around, having seen the Letterman show I knew he had just released an album of orchestral works recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, and it was arranged for me to receive a copy for review.
I was an avid Zappa/Mothers fan in the sixties. I lost interest as I got older and his audience (and material) got younger. But I’ve always carried around inside of my head many of the Zappaisms I had grown so familiar with; his penchant for satire, the odd rhythms in his music, the orchestrations and rock concrete that combined Edgard Varèse with rhythm and blues. I was truly delighted when I received his orchestral disc, though I was a little nervous about what I’d hear when I played it. What I dreaded was that this material would resemble his adolescent work of the 1970’s rather than his more meaty experiments of the sixties. I’m happy to report that for those of us who admired his avant garde tendencies in the sixties, Zappa is back.
ZAPPA, VOL. 1 contains three cuts on Side 1 (“Sad Jane”, “Pedro’s Dowry”, and “Envelopes”) and “Mo ’N herb’s Vacation” on Side 2 in three movements. The London Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Kent Nagano, who can also be found on another album reviewed in this issue featuring the music of Daniel Kobialka and Charles Shere.
The compositions are very theatrical in structure and execution. The style of Zappa is nearly antique for twentieth century music, more akin to Stravinsky, Ives, and Varèse than to the more fashionable schools now in vogue. For that reason, I adore this record. It is a sentimental, avant garde postscript in need of a movement, but obviously a project of pure love on Zappa’s part. The music moves from being non-rhythmic at times to being highly percussive and metered. The solo clarinet of David Ocker really gets wacky during “Mo ’N Herb’s Vacation”, but is never trite. The strings and mallets ooze mournfully during moments of “Sad Jane” and “Mo ’N Herb”, but always seem to flow from a well managed development of pace and harmony so that they always feel just right. The music is very temperamental, changing often. Zappa has succeeded, though, in removing the frigid choppiness of his early experiments, instead adding genuine warmth and causality to his work. This is a fun album, in need of listeners. I believe there were only 6,000 copies in the original pressing, but if all goes well, more will be released. I really hope that Frank Zappa continues to produce such works in addition to his usual comedy-rock releases. It would be a remarkable feat for one artist to keep two separate audiences happy, but if anyone can do it, Zappa can.
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