Zappa in Polyester
By D.S. Crafts
Zellerbach Auditorium, UC Berkeley. Friday and Saturday, June 15 and 16.
For the second consecutive year, the single most significant orchestral event of the season has come, not from the more well endowed orchestras on either side of the bay, but from Kent Nagano and the Berkeley Symphony. Last year it was the production of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux Etoiles, a difficult “concerto for orchestra” performed at Davies Hall, with the elderly composer himself in attendance. This past weekend the orchestra took on the US premiere of four ballets by Frank Zappa.
That the concert even took place is extraordinary. There had long been rumors floating about that Zappa was busy writing music other than that which appeared on his rock albums—genuine orchestral music—but nothing ever appeared. Nagano contacted Zappa about a concert as early as two years ago and, after a while, his enthusiasm was sufficient not only to rekindle Zappa’s desire to have the music performed, but to ask Nagano to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in the premiere recordings. At length an actual concert in Berkeley was set for mid-May of this year in collaboration with the Oakland Ballet. When the ballet company decided to pull out of the project, Zappa, once again, soured on the concert and only Nagano’s perseverance kept the production from being dropped altogether. The final concert date was pushed back a month in order to ensure sufficient time for the six weeks’ worth of rehearsals demanded by the composer.
This past weekend the long-anticipated event finally took place. Not only did it fill Zellerbach Auditorium to capacity both nights, but the second concert was broadcast live on KPFA in a special co-production with KQED-FM, which will rebroadcast the concert later in August. The orchestra was simply brilliant, performing, with relative confidence, works which had severely challenged the playing skills of the London Symphony. With his usual meticulous attention to detail, Nagano had tirelessly rehearsed the orchestra, section by section, note by note, polishing each dangerous measure even through the dress rehearsal. It takes a strong artistic personality to attempt such a risk-taking concert, and Kent Nagano has proved himself equal to the challenge once again. Even Frank Zappa, well known for his merciless treatment of musicians, remarked to the audience, “This is an orchestra you should be proud of.” Just so.
The music itself, however, is another story. Bartok it’s not. Yet, out of the academic slagpile of symphonic music of the past thirty years, it comes as a veritable revitalization of the form. Bob in Dacron/Sad Jane, Mo ‘n’ Herb’s Vacation, Sinister Footwear, and Pedro Dowry were the four works performed in concert. Of the four I would venture to say Sinister Footwear was the first composed. Certainly it is the most difficult (and the work in which the orchestra was least in sync), yet a good deal of its difficulty results from poor orchestration. It is the least symphonically conceived of the works. Though it sounds nothing like rock music, the composer is still thinking more in terms of rock scoring than of orchestral design (which is probably why the older members of the London Symphony had such a terrible time playing it). The second movement particularly reminds one of harmonized guitar riffs, here played incessantly by the xylophone. This movement is also exemplary of another fault of orchestration persistent throughout much of the music, the continual thick blocks of orchestral sound, with only occasional instances of individual instrumental color shining through. Never was the criticism “thick orchestration” (so often erroneously applied to Wagner) more appropriate than here.
Zappa’s music is akin to Mahler in the unevenness of its inspiration. Passages of striking originality alternate with passages as colorless as water or in outright poor taste. Throughout Mo ‘n ‘Herb’s Vacation, Sinister Footwear, and Bob/Jane the music ranges from the stylistically original to garden variety atonalism to melodies that seasoned listeners of Zappa’s rock music will have little difficulty recognizing as characteristically Zappa (though, in a symphonic context, these are the least successful passages). Pedro’s Dowry, the shortest of the lot, and most consistent in musical fabric, shows a more fundamental influence of Edgard Varèse and Pierre Boulez.
Overall, what is most surprising about the music is that it disturbs no one. Bob/Jane, for example, is simply a pleasant, unobjectionable piece of music—and this coming from the iconoclast of iconoclasts, Frank Zappa!
The ballets to the four works featured the puppets of John Gilkerson and the San Francisco Miniature Theater in conjunction with two male dancers, Paul Zmolek and Robert Walker. On the whole, the puppets themselves were a great hit, ranging from the well-endowed ladies of the disco and the bartender who splits in half from overwork, to the decamorph, a monster-composite of all possible sexual organs. Unfortunately, the choreography left a great deal to be desired—clarity of action for one thing. Having seen Mo ‘n’ Herb’s Vacation for the third time, I finally began to figure out what was supposed to be happening. The stage movement seemed to swing between the obvious (even simplistic) and the obscure. Bob of Bob in Dacron is basically Steve Martin’s “wild and crazy guy” in polyester.
Both choreographers Tandy Beal and Joan Lazarus seemed uncertain of what to do with the puppets. In Sinister Footwear particularly the characters were either standing, walking, or spinning about quite aimlessly, as if no more than to fill visual gaps. In all fairness, though, a great deal of the fault must rest with the composer’s design itself. What is a choreographer to do with tableaux labeled “Jake eats a molded jello salad,” “Jake’s secretary eats cottage cheese,” or “Somewhere in New Jersey where they make them”—hardly suggestions which leap into dance movement. It may well have been that the choreographers, intent on sticking unswervingly to Zappa’s original conceptions (as if Zappa ever allowed anything else), handicapped themselves into a faithful, yet uninspired dance, about which the composer himself made no secret of his displeasure. Taking a pot shot at the ballet production, he announced to the audience, “I want to emphasize to everybody that what happens on this side of the curtain,” referring to the orchestra and himself, “is me, and what happens on the other side of the curtain is ‘Art’.”
Zappa himself described Bob in Dacron/Sad Jane to the audience as the story of “an asshole out looking for some pussy.” One can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a richer subject to be made into a twenty-minute ballet. Bob, stoned-drunk on the floor of the disco-bar, mentally undresses Sad Jane, the baglady, until we see a voluptuous, naked woman puppet. Bob fondles her body with such intensity that the breasts come off. He runs away and plays with them to his heart’s content—adolescent fantasies gone wild. But then the same sort of thing continues in Mo ‘n’ Herb’s Vacation, the sexual fantasies of two Hasidic jews. The Gossamer Twins (all the women characters are puppets and all have well-endowed bosoms) are symbolically raped (or about to be raped) by the decamorph creature whose two giant phalluses are eventually lopped off by the cavalier incarnations of Mo and Herb. After more than a decade of psycho-sexual exploration most of this comes off as cheap titillation.
Sinister Footwear, the most substantial story of the four, concerns the design and marketing of a shoe so ugly it can hardly be described as a shoe (the plot was no doubt inspired by the platform shoes of some years ago, about which Zappa made no end of vicious cracks). The shoes are made in a factory in New Jersey which employs illegal aliens. The story is a clever satiric slam on commodity fetishism, and the introduction of the illegal aliens as the workers, forced to put in long hours of overtime making these hideous shoes, is a nice Brechtian touch. But unfortunately, the illegal aliens look like a line of silly muppet puppets, instantaneously diffusing any social dynamic the work might otherwise have.
The 111-piece orchestra, far too large to fit into the pit at Zellerbach, spilled over onto both sides of the stage. Here, again in Brechtian fashion, the players were frequently acknowledged as being on stage, and tympanist Peter Theilen and harpist Carol Coe wound up with substantial comic roles.
One other event on Saturday night’s concert must be mentioned. Between movements of Sinister Footwear, during the longish pause to change scenery, Zappa appeared in front of the curtain to conduct a “totally improvised” blast at minimalist music. Each member of the orchestra was to choose one note at random (incorporating the “aleatoric” element) and to play that note at any chosen rhythm whenever instructed to. The result was easily the work of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. These little side shows reminded me of the original Mothers of Invention concerts circa 1966, when Zappa was forever conducting a kind of free-form avant-garde vaudeville, where one might hear anything from an unadulterated Mozart piano sonata to a serenade for chimes and vacuum cleaners (or perhaps both together), and where the musicians were expected to double as comedians.
If nothing else, the concerts this weekend breathed a certain amount of new life back into orchestral music—an art form which has been dying a slow death for the past thirty years. Orchestras have become little more than music museums, continuing to play the same hundred-year-old works week after week, while composers continue to write only for themselves and fellow practitioners. Only a significant movement will turn that situation around, and only a composer the stature of a Frank Zappa can generate enough enthusiasm to do so. We can only hope he continues to work in this medium.
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