When Zappa got off on Stravinsky

By Stephen Cera [1]

The Baltimore Sun, May 9, 1980

Zappa, Frank – a versatile rock musician; b. Baltimore, December 21, 1940. His family moved to California, where he managed to squeak through a few grades of a permissive high school.

He played drums; in 1964 formed his own group, "Mothers of Invention." He cultivated higher learning to the extent of actually spending a few hours a week in libraries; in music he claimed to be a subliminal disciple of Varèse. He made much more money than any of the modern greats by giving multimedia spectacles in which he and his group assaulted eardrums with 200-decibel noises. His record albums began selling big, and Zappa’s name, itself onomatopoeic in its suggestions of instant zap, became a household word in the frug-besotted catacombs of Southern California, thence spreading its sound and odor across the Union and even across the Atlantic.

It is his esthetic credo that classical music is the "province of old ladies and faggots."

– Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, sixth edition.

Despite the nice things Frank Zappa has said about Edgar Varèse and Igor Stravinsky, the frug-besotted musician has never tried to identify himself with classical music. There have, however, been flirtations.

Remember that ill-fated TV spectacular with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic a few years ago, that cross-cultural bomb called "The Switched-On Symphony" which took a bath in the ratings and helped forge an irreparable breach between the worlds of rock and classical music?

Frank does, to be sure, harbor some respect for the classics. At one time he even studied traditional musical procedures at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. Pomona professor and composer Karl Kohn once spoke respectfully about Mr. Zappa's carefully crafted composition assignments, his seriousness as a student, even.

The Zappa concert in Bridges Auditorium, Claremont, almost 9 years ago – May 18, 1971 to be exact –  was a special event for this Pomona student. [2]

Frank lived for a time in the neighboring town of Cucamonga, and southern Californians think of him as one of their own, so the event was a kind of "homecoming."

I was a junior at Pomona then, and was spending a good deal of my time practicing the piano. A few days before the concert, Franks people passed the word to the chairman of the college social events committee that Frank wanted a little classical music to warm up his show, preferably some Stravinsky. The committee asked if I was interested in providing it.

Not many pianists have Stravinsky in their active repertoire, and I was not one of them.

But a friend and I remembered Stravinsky's four-hand version of "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring,") one of the seminal works of Twentieth Century music. Perhaps we could work up some of it in time for the performance.

We spent the afternoon of May 18, 1971, in the company of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, sitting in on their rehearsal, chatting with them backstage. My memories of the afternoon are pleasant and a bit vague.

It was, of course, my first "inside" exposure the world of rock. I had never even attended a rock concert before, so everything about the day was new.

Frank wore a plain white t-shirt, if memory serves, and had the engaging habit of jumping a few inches into the air when he was giving a downbeat. Aynsley Dunbar, who played drums, was closer in my stereotype of a rock star. He was good-looking, haughty, and more than a little aloof. The keyboard player, Ian Underwood, by contrast, was friendly, approachable, happy to communicate with a couple of fledling college students. We did not get near Mark Volman, the chubby singer who had come over to the Mothers from the Turtles (once known as Tricia Nixon Cox's favorite rock band).

Beautiful women, the wives of the Mothers, waited for them backstage. I remember unruly children scampering around before and after the rehearsal and before the concert (perhaps these were Frank's children, Dweezel and Moon Unit.)

Fifteen minutes of Stravinsky, it turned out, would not be quite enough, so they asked me to play a bit more. Chopin's B-flat-minor Scherzo was in my fingers at the time, so I said I would play it.

Performing at that concert was both disconcerting and unforgettable. Disconcerting, because during the Stravinsky excerpts we had the unpleasant feeling that almost nobody was listening, except perhaps the people sitting in the first 5 or 6 rows.

The 3,000-seat hall was filled with the pungent aroma of freshly-smoked cannabis, and the applause which greeted us was less than overwhelming. People were waiting for the main event. Chopin's B-flat-minor Scherzo never had a chance. It was not meant to be performed at rock concerts.

After the concert my friend and I went backstage to thank Frank for giving us the opportunity to play.

"Don't mention it," Frank said. "I was really glad you could do some of the Stravinsky.

"I like that piece. Maybe I'll arrange it for my group."

1. Stephen Cera is concert pianist, music administrator, teacher and writer. stephencera.com

2. The band was FZ, Mark Volman, Howard Kaylan, Jim Pons, Ian Underwood, Bob Harris, Aynsley Dunbar. This concert was taped, see setlist. Another good story about this concert is at Pomona College Timeline – "unknown culprits carried out one of Pomona’s greatest pranks by temporarily adding Zappa's name and face to the pantheon of great composers carved into the frieze at the top of the building's façade." See also "Who really composed Frank Zappa prank of the '70s?"

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