Zappa And The Symphony Set

By William Huck

San Francisco, June, 1984

He mixes bawdy puppets, snoring horns, a rock beat, and a symphony backup ... and calls it a ballet. What zany surprises can we expect from this rocker gone clossic?

FRANK ZAPPA HAS the peculiar talent of knowing what makes America tick. An irreverent rock musician who came into his own in an era of blatant irreverence, Zappa has continued his barrage of musical satire for the past 20 years. Now he turns his wit to orchestral music to accompany puppet scenarios backed by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. The same fertile imagination that brought us "Freak Out," "Jewish Princess," "Catholic Girls," "Valley Girls," "Susy Creamcheese" and the Mothers of Invention, now offers Sinister Footwear and Mo ‘n Herbs Vacation, two of a series of satiric ballets.

"A Zappa Affair," as this Berkeley extravaganza will be called, is scheduled for June 15 and 16 at Zellerbach Hall, and June 20 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. It propels Zappa into the world of serious symphonic music. Most of the pieces the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra plays during this series were recorded last year by the London Symphony under the baton of Berkeley Symphony conductor Kent Nagano, who was alerted to Zappa's symphonic potential during a visit to Paris in 1981. "I wanted especially to see Boulez's IRCAM studios," he recalls, "because they are legendary for having all these state-of-the-art computers for making music. When I was taking my first guided tour through IRCAM, I was told that Zappa was included on the list of new composers who had been commissioned to write music for 1984.

"At that point the last I had heard any music from Zappa was 1968, when I was still in junior high school and I was listening to my older friends' rock collections. Zappa's appearance on that IRCAM list struck me as curious because Boulez does have a really discerning ear and is one of the most eminent theorists and composers of modern music. Tb have him select Zappa to write a piece meant something – that Boulez had heard in Zappa's music a talent neither I nor the rest of the world knew anything about."

So Nagano decided to check Zappa out when he got back to the states. "The chance came that fall. Zappa was then still touring with his band and they were scheduled for a night at the Berkeley Community Theater. So I asked through his management if I could see Zappa and some of his scores." Here Nagano broke the rapid flow of his words to imitate the manager's hesitation. "‘Well, I don't know. I'll ask Frank, and if he wants to talk to you he'll call you back in an hour or so. If he doesn't, then forget it.’" Zappa's reply: "Meet me during the intermission between the two concerts and I'll bring some of my scores."

That night proved a turning point for both musicians. As Nagano relates, "I hadn't been to a rock concert in years, and seeing all these older hippies re-enacting some scene out of 1969 was sociologically hilarious. But the show itself was very impressive from a strictly musical point of view. I was actually very surprised, and when I talked to him at intermission, it was funny, too, because there was such a contrast between us. I was in a coat and tie, normal conductor's attire, which of course Zappa was not. When we shook hands there was caviar and cream cheese on my hand, because he had been eating during the break and it was still all over his hands. He was a complete filthy mess. I mean, his beard was covered with crackers and cream cheese and when we shook hands, so was I."

The scene is straight out of a Zappa movie, say 200 Motels. "Then he took me to the back room," Nagano continues, "and showed me his scores, which were also spattered with food and in terrible shape. He sat right next to me and peered over my shoulder while I thumbed through them.

"I couldn't hear the stuff in my head. It was too wild to comprehend at a glance, but just from scanning it I saw clearly that there was a lot more there to be had. So I told Zappa that, and I said, ‘If you let me take them and if I like them, I can make arrangements to have them performed.’"

Kent Nagano liked what he took home. He liked it enormously. "What attracted me first about the music?" Nagano repeated my question to himself as he thought about it. "To be honest, I guess, it was the extreme difficulty. I saw a challenge there and it took hold of me. When I finally had to sit down and learn this music, I got my comeuppance, for I was reduced to what we all did in Musicianship 1A – sitting there with a score trying to beat out the rhythm. There I was, sometimes at four in the morning, holding the pulse by tapping it out with one hand, while beating out the real rhythms with the other hand. I couldn't even approach playing it on the piano. The first step was just to determine the rhythms."

That first phase took Nagano about three weeks of intensive study. "It was that hard," the conductor explained, "to really feel how exactly a run of 13 notes will fit underneath a run of 7 equal notes undemeath a perfect run of 5. To hear that simultaneously in your head and to be able to beat that with your foot and two hands – it's an extraordinary demand."

BUT MUSIC IS not judged by the difficulty that goes into making it; music must finally give pleasure. The beauty of Zappa's orchestral scores is that the audience need not hear the tortures the musicians endured while learning them.

Zappa is far beyond proving himself a serious musician by wallowing in dissonance. He's not out to punish his listeners. There is a softness to Zappa's newest music, but it is a softening at the edges, not at the core. Certainly there are some strident, twentieth-century sounds that come out of his scores. In "A Zappa Affair," a drum set sits comfortably inside the orchestra pit. It cannot hide its origins in rock 'n' roll, nor does it want to. The clarinets wail as though they came from Zappa's own band. The horns snore. The trumpets grab for the limelight. Yet nothing sounds just as it used to, either. Zappa has created a lush, new synthesis for himself.

Symphonic music is not a new idea for Frank Zappa. "I started writing music when I was 14," he stated in a recent interview. "But I didn't write a rock 'n' roll song until I was in my twenties. Dining all that time when I was starting off, I couldn't get anybody to play my stuff, because who wants to play music by a 14-year-old kid? They haven't done that since Mozart. I figured if I was ever going to hear anything I'd written, I'd better put a band together. So that's what I did."

IN THOSE HIGH SCHOOL days, in the dry no man's land of Lancaster, California, Zappa "was listening mainly to rhythm and blues, Johnny Otis, Howlin' Wolf. Doc Watson was a hero to me. I had one album, which was the complete works of Edgar Varèse. Then about a year later I got another album, the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. Those were the only two albums I owned. All the rest were rhythm and blues singles.

"Don't conclude that therefore I wrote music like Stravinsky or even Watson or anybody else. It doesn't necessarily mean that whatever you hear automatically turns into what you write. I think a lot of the things that are in my compositions are based on things I have heard that I've hated. There are certain types of music that really make me feel disgusted, and I've parodied those things. Remember, I like musical jokes."

Even then Zappa was not only listening to music; he was making it, too. His father gave him a set of drums when he was 12. Those drums were more essential than Varèse and Watson to the development of Zappa's music, for rhythm remains to this day the cutting edge of Zappa's genius, which shows in all its aspects the unbridled spirit of a self-taught master.

In more than just the Berkeley ballets, Zappa's turn to classical music represents a return to the origins of his interest in music itself. When the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet commissioned a string quartet from Zappa, the composer dug out some more of those first attempts. "He's been working on this quartet for 25 years," David Harrington, Kronos's lead violinist, told me.

According to Zappa, the Lancaster school system was even more barren than the desert landscape. In the liner notes to Freak Out, Zappa's first album, the musician savagely distilled the lessons of those years: "Drop out of school," the lyrics said, "before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the senior prom and go to the library to educate yourself, if you've got the guts."

Though necessary for Zappa, drop ping-out created its own squalid reali ty. "The only type of music you could earn a living from was cocktail music, not even rock 'n' roll could pay the bills. I was getting $20 a night for playing things like 'Anniversary Waltz' – swell."

Then, as if to set his ironic perspective in concrete, came Zappa's confrontation with California justice. A movie score that Zappa had almost forgotten he'd written eventually paid off, and with the proceeds he bought a recording studio. But this little palace was not in Hollywood, or even greater Los Angeles, but in Cucamonga – smack in the heart of San Bernardino County, a bastion of conservatism. "In that day and age for that part of the country I was a mutant."

As Zappa now tells the story, the plot is simple: "I was framed by the San Bernardino vice squad." A character who claimed to be a used-car salesman offered to pay the starving musicians to make a porno film for a stag party. When the mystery man returned for his film, he had become a detective from the vice squad. "It was all part of a real estate deal, because my studio was located on a street called Archibald Avenue and they wanted to widen it. So they widened the street by slapping me in the slammer."

Embittered by this experience, Zappa developed a satiric lewdness. But behind the famous bad mouth remained the inquisitive, self-taught musician.

SINISTER FOOTWEAR, Mo 'n Herbs Vacation, Bob in Dacron – Sad Jane, and Pedro's Dowry make up the most recent of Frank Zappa's meditations on American insanity. Only this time the legendary rock 'n' roll wizard has a full orchestra in Kent Nagano and the Berkeley Symphony with which to cast his magic spell.

John Gilkerson of the San Francisco Miniature Theatre is responsible for creating the life-sized puppets that will perform these ballets. As Gilkerson explains, "I had always looked upon these pieces as being difficult to mount for ballet, because of their content. There are so many wild, crazy, imaginative things that go on in them. The characters are required to do certain things that are, well, peculiar. Then there are monsters and strange creatures involved in these plots. All this said to me in big letters, PUPPETS."

Zappa is himself quite enthusiastic about the puppet idea. "No, I didn't imagine these scenarios for puppets when I made them up, but I have a background in puppetry because that was the very first thing I ever did in show business. I started off as a puppeteer, and I think that has colored my way of thinking.

"For example, in Bob in Dacron – Sad Jane I had envisioned the naked girl coming out of a cocoon. I thought that would be really good, but Gilkerson suggested that the naked girl be a very large puppet, because doing it that way allows body movements which are hmnanly impossible, like putting one leg up alongside your head and holding it there for two minutes. At the end of this piece there is another moment where Bob tries to kiss Jane and his breath is so bad her head flies off. That's a little rough to do with people."

Tempering the Berkeley performance will be Gilkerson's gentle spirit. "With puppets," he claims, "you can poke fun at human imperfection so much more nicely than you can with people. You take the exaggeration that one step further so people being parodied do not feel they are being ridiculed. Certainly in these stories every type of person, every background, everything is represented in a clichéd and rib-poking manner. With puppets it becomes fun; it's not offensive, and that's the one thing I am out to accomplish with this production. It's going to be fun."

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)