Puppets ● Symphony ● Zappa
How It All Happened

By Stephanie Zimmerman [1]

In Performance, May/June, 1984

The music came first. The scores for Zappa's ballet music were written around 1980. Frank Zappa has been acclaimed as a genius for his versatility and consistently fine art under many different guises – composer, bandleader, producer, accomplished guitarist, low singer extraordinaire, record company executive and most recently as conductor of serious classical music (Zappa 'wowed' San Francisco audiences last year when he conducted an evening of works by Varèse and Webern at the Opera House). It wasn't surprising that the most recent interest in his ever expanding musical world would be scores for large orchestra. And Frank Zappa audiences can expect they will continue to enjoy the versatility of this composer even in this endeavor. "What has remained most consistent," comments writer, Dan Forte in an article written about Zappa in Musician, Player and Listener," ... and what has puzzled many listeners from 'Freak Out' onward, is Zappa's acerbic sense of humor. As Zappa's music has evolved ... the one constant has been (his) biting social commentary ... and his no-holds-barred sense of humor." The compositions being presented in A Zappa Affair are testimony to this. In Sinister Footwear we are witness to society's consumption of fads and how even though they may ultimately be harmful, they are not discarded in order to perpetuate the phenomenon of the 'in-crowd.' Bob in Dacron/Sad Jane comments on the way we use clothing and objects to affect and mask our real appearances - often to the point where it affects our behavior and the way we are perceived by others. Zappa's intuition is revealed throughout all the works in an irresistible but often caustic wit.

Two years ago when I first heard of Zappa's pieces for large orchestra, I was working with a ballet company. Kent Nagano, music director and conductor of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra first brought the works to our attention. It was hoped that the ballet and the symphony would be able to produce the works in a joint concert in the spring of '84. Now, looking back on all that happened and what has transpired since those initial planning meetings in '82, I realize that the only possible way to present these works is with puppetry so that the humor and wit in the pieces can be realized on a much broader and impressive scale.

Zappa, who began writing orchestral music when he was 14, doesn't feel as if his new compositions are a "culmination of any thing – but rather ... a return to his musical beginnings" (California Magazine, April 1984), Both Zappa and Nagano kept the project alive for two years and ultimately, because of financial considerations, the ballet company had to withdraw. In my years at the ballet, I had developed a friendship and admiration for John Gilkerson – a well known Bay Area designer, performer and puppeteer. In early January, John and I met at my home to discuss the expansion of his company, the San Francisco Miniature Theatre. We were casually talking about the demise of the Zappa project with the symphony and the ballet. My head was filled with thoughts of puppetry that night – and in the midst of discussing John's ideas for a full length production of Hans Christian Anderson's Snow Queen, it occurred to me to suggest to Kent that he use John's talents as a puppeteer in the Zappa project. Surprisingly Kent, though initially opposed and concerned about Zappa's reaction to the idea of using puppets, said he would call Zappa that night. John and I spent the rest of the evening discussing the use of the puppets in the four works. We decided they must be large enough to be able to be seen clearly in a large performance space (Zellerbach Auditorium). John's own talents as a performer and his inventive sense of production and staging led to some wonderfully funny solutions to the use of puppets in place of dancers. We knew – if Zappa would agree to the idea – that we had something that would surpass the original concept. Well, Zappa loved the idea – and the rest is history, as they say.

John immediately set to work preparing a set of designs for the multitude of characters needed for the production. In all, over 60 life-size and larger-than-life size puppets (one is 14') would be used. Scenic elements would also have to be built for the productions. It was decided to use professional dancers to move the puppets to the choreographed staging of two Bay Area dancer/choreographers, Tandy Beal and Joan Lazarus. After an initial approval by Zappa for John's designs, work began to build 'mock-ups' for an audition to be held in mid-March to choose the dancer-puppeteers. Over 100 Bay Area dancers showed up at the Victoria Theatre on March 19. Initially the dancers were asked to do some choreographed segments to see how well they moved. After five hours of work, twelve dancers were chosen according to their dance backgrounds and abilities. Most important was their skill to project an impression and direct attention to something beyond their actual body movements, i.e.: a puppet attached to them by elastic straps or an object to which their attention was directly focused. The first time I saw the puppets that night – and listened to the reaction of the audience of hopeful dancers roar with laughter – I knew we were involved in a very unique project. I was very excited and impatient to see how the puppets would eventually look. I had to wait until late April at a planned photo session. Shortly after the audition, the dancers spent one full day getting to 'know' the puppets. It was important that the dancers, so used to moving freely on their own, could be exposed to the complexities of working these huge puppets. It was fun to see the dancers on this first day working with the puppets creating different physical postures. Actual choreography did not start until the first week of May after a great deal of construction on the production was completed. During my visits over the next month or so to John's shop, I was fascinated to observe the artistic process of the building of the puppets step by step. At times the place had an eerie feeling – with bits of bodies strewn all over – heads over on one side, stacks of headless bodies in one small room, faces on work tables. Great care was taken to preserve Zappa's artistic control and input and John and his Production Manager, Frank Morales, made several trips to Los Angeles on an on-going basis. John and Zappa worked as a team and the original scenarios were altered slightly as new and funnier as well as more outrageous ideas were thought of by the two.

The puppets, moved by ten of the dancers, are operated by wooden rods connected to various body parts, as in traditional Bunraku (some are operated by as many as five dancers). Some will actually be attached to the dancer's body by elastic straps, moving freely as the dancer moves. It is hard to distinguish any separation in the two figures – one live, one inanimate. Interacting with the dancer-operated, life-size puppets are two male dancers. They will assume different roles in the productions enhancing the biting wit and fun of the scenarios and the effectiveness of the response from the puppets.

The orchestra planned a schedule of over 20 rehearsals to perfect the difficult orchestration. Kent Nagano is comfortable with scoring of this nature, and especially with Zappa. He conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a recording that Zappa produced last year of three of the works to be presented in A Zappa Affair. However, even before the London trip, the complexity of the compositions has struck terror into the hearts of many conductors and musicians in various parts of the world. The great success of the record (it sold out its first printing) testifies to Kent Nagano's superb skill in the handling of challenging orchestral scores. That recording marked the beginning of a new phase in Zappa's two-decade career as a musical performer. Interest is now being shown in his orchestral and chamber music from many places in the United States and Europe. Pierre Boulez conducted a program of several chamber pieces by Zappa in Paris this year. Here in the Bay Area, the Chamber Orchestra of San Francisco under the direction of Jean Louis Leroux will perform Dupree's Paradise, a chamber piece by Zappa, in one of their May concerts.

When asked to comment on his method of composing in Musician, Player and Listener, Zappa remarked: "It depends on what I'm composing. I carry music paper in my briefcase and when I'm on the road I write sketches – boxes of them. Then I come back, play them, tweeze them, correct them, chop them up, reassemble them, and scribble it out with a ballpoint pen. Then I give it to a copyist and it comes back beautiful and neat."

"I'm glad Frank Zappa took time to compose, scribble, correct and reassemble the music included in A Zappa Affair. I'm personally grateful for the experience to get to know the man and his music. I know my perception of the world won't be quite the same as it was when I began work on this project – but maybe that's for the best. People have always said I take life too seriously, anyway."



Composer and Scenarist

The PUBLIC FRANK ZAPPA has sustained one of the longest, most prolific careers in the field of pop music.

The PRIVATE FRANK ZAPPA is a scientist of the absurd, performing mysterious experiments in the laboratory of THE UTILITY MUFFIN RESEARCH KITCHEN. (The uncontrollable spread of VALLEY GIRL-ISM is a classic example of the U.M.R.K. PROGRESS THROUGH RAW UNBRIDLED IGNORANCE research program.)

Recognized as an influential force in many musical realms, Zappa, starting in 1964 with his infamous ensemble THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION, continues to provide refreshing alternatives to a long list of behavioral aberrations afflicting our society as a result of "Corporate Rock" pollution.

Q: How do you go about providing these ridiculous Alternatives?

F.Z.: The projects usually begin as self-financed ventures through my company I.C.A. (InterContinental Absurdities). Albums and tapes are released by Barking Pumpkin Records (the world's most amusing All Digital Tiny Label, featuring exotic optional entertainment for the discriminating individual). Almost everything that comes in is reinvested into other entertainment projects, and for the equipment and salaries of musicians and technical staff. If a project is very successful, I use the profits for more elaborate projects.  If it doesn't do well, I proceed with whatever is affordable.

Q: Barking Pumpkin released an album earlier this year featuring the London Symphony Orchestra in performances of your ballet music. Do you find yourself leaning more towards this type of music in the future?

F.Z.: I would prefer to work in that medium rather than rock' n' roll, but you can't earn a living doing that ... this is industrial America in the funless '80s, remember? I still enjoy making rock 'n' roll records, and I have no intention of getting a tuxedo or a baton grafted onto my body.

Q: Do you have plans for more projects like the London Symphony Orchestra album?

F.Z.: I can only do projects that are affordable. There's a lot of projects I'd like to do, but I just don't have the money to do them. I don't owe my existence to any outside force, other than the audience that buys records and concert tickets. Because of this unique arrangement, audience response plays an important role in determining what gets completed.


Zappa's deranged wit, social commentary and commitment to craftsmanship has produced a body of works that includes 203 songs, 35 album releases (many of them doubles, and one triple boxed set), 91 instrumental works, 32 compositions for orchestra and choral groups, 4 ballets, 2 feature films, and 2 TV specials.

Having been acclaimed a genius for his consistent achievements as a composer, conductor, guitarist and record producer, he comments: "Don't hold it against me."

In his spare time he has written a book (Christmas in New Jersey), the script for a puppet show, and a Broadway musical.

On January 9, 1984, Pierre Boulez conducted the world premiere of several pieces for chamber orchestra (The Perfect Stranger, Dupree's Paradise and Naval Aviation in Art). The recordings of these works, along with the most recent examples of Zappa's computer music will be released later this year on EMI.

Zappa was born in Baltimore, Maryland on December 21, 1940. He attended schools in Maryland and California. He barely managed to acquire a high school diploma from Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, California. He attended Chaffey Junior College in Alta Loma, California for six months and quit. His musical education came from the public library, listening to records, and playing in bars. He started making films in 1956, with an 8mm camera belonging to his father. After earning a small amount of money by writing music for a cowboy movie, he bought his first recording studio in 1962. He founded his first independent record label in 1969 (Bizarre), followed by several others (Discreet, Zappa & Barking Pumpkin). He has been married twice. His second wife, Gail, has successfully tolerated him since 1966. The Zappa's have four children: Moon (16), Dweezil (14), Ahmet (9), and Diva (4).




Oakland Symphony Assistant Conductor Kent Nagano has been praised by The Tribune for "his methodical, painstaking, but inherently musical preparation and performance." A familiar figure in Bay Area music, Mr. Nagano also serves as music director of the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra and Berkeley Symphony; and as conductor of the Oakland Ballet Orchestra. In December he returned from Paris Opera where he shared conducting duties with Seiji Ozawa for the world premiere of Messiaen's Saint Francis D'Assise. Born in Morro Bay in 1951, Mr. Nagano began studying piano with his mother at the age of four, and played koto, clarinet and viola in high school. After graduation he attended Oxford University, and later returned to complete his undergraduate work at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

He received his M.A. in music from San Francisco State University, where he served as assistant conductor to Laslo Varga and worked for the San Francisco Opera. He has also served as assistant to John Reeves White, conductor of the New York Pro Musica, and represented the United States as guest conductor at the International Music Festival of Brazil in 1977. Between 1977 and 1979, he worked with Sarah Caldwell and the Opera Company of Boston, serving one season as conducting apprentice and then joining the staff as assistant conductor and later as an associate artistic director.

Upon his return to the Bay Area, he became director of the San Francisco Chamber Opera Company. This past year he conducted a recording session with the London Symphony Orchestra, leading a collection of pieces by Frank Zappa, and directed the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra for their most recent record.

1. Stephanie Zimmermann was accountable for A Zappa Affair project development and promotion. The original idea for A Zappa Affair was conceived by Stephanie Zimmerman and John C. Gilkerson. (A Zappa Affair program booklet).
See also Paradise, Pomp and Puppets - Performing Zappa's Orchestra Music (Seeking Stephanie Zimmerman)

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