Two Orchestral Stupidities

By Frank Zappa

Musician, October, 1981

Several years ago ... five maybe ... the people who promote our rock shows in Vienna (Stimmen der Welt) approached me with the idea of doing a concert in Vienna with the Vienna Symphony. I said okay. After two or three years of pooting around with the mechanics of the deal, work began on the final preparations. The concert was to be funded by the City of Vienna, the Austrian Radio (ORF), the Austrian Television (ORF), and a substantial investment from me (the cost of preparing the scores and parts).

At the point when the official announcement was made that the concert would take place (I think it was in June or July), there was no written contract with any of the governmental agencies listed above. As it turned out, the person from the Austrian TV who pledged $300,000 toward the budget (which was to cover three weeks of rehearsal, shipping of our band equipment, air fares and housing for band members, and band and crew salaries ... I was not getting paid for any of this) did not really have the authority to do so and was informed by his boss that that amount had already been committed to other TV projects. This created a situation wherein the remaining sponsors still had their funds available, and wished to proceed, but somebody had to round up the missing $300,000 from another source.

At this point Bennett Glotzer, my manager, got on a plane to Europe and spent the best part of a month thrashing around the continent trying to raise the missing bucks. No luck. Between his travel, food, hotels and intercontinental phone calls and my investment in copyist fees to prepare the music (not to mention the two or three years I had spent writing it), the total amount I had spent in cash at the time the concert was cancelled came to around $135,000 ... this is not funny unless you're Nelson Bunker Hunt.

That was orchestral stupidity number one ... the second one goes like this: last year in Amsterdam, the head of The Holland Festival came to my hotel and said they wanted to do a special performance of my orchestral music with The Residentie Orchestra (from The Hague), as well as performances of certain other small pieces by The Netherlands Winds Ensemble, all of these performances were to take place during one whole week of the festival. I told him that I had received several offers in the past (including one from the Oslo Philharmonic where they thought they might be able to squeeze in two days of rehearsal), and described the whole Vienna business in glowing terms. I told him that it would be nice to have the music performed, but, since there was a lot of it, and it was difficult stuff, there was no way I would discuss it any further without the guarantee of a minimum of three weeks rehearsal, and in no way was I interested in spending any more of my own money on projects such as this.

It occurred to me that they were committed to doing the project, and that the rehearsal schedule could be arranged, and not only that ... they were willing to pay for the WHOLE THING. The Holland Festival put up the equivalent of $500,000 for the event. Deals were then made with CBS to record and release the music, more copyists were hired, musicians from the U.S. who were going to play the amplified parts of the score were hired, road crew people who would handle the P.A. equipment (as the concert was to be held in an 8,000 seat hall) were hired, and a rock tour of Europe was booked (to help pay the cost of shipping the equipment and the salaries of the U.S. people involved ... again, I was not getting paid), all in preparation for another summer orchestral concert that was doomed like the other one.

What happened? Well, first let's understand the economics of a project like this. It involves a lot of musicians and they all like to get paid (this is a mild way of putting it). Also, since it was to be an amplified concert, there is the problem of special equipment to make the sound as clear as possible in the hall (it was called 'THE AHOY' ... a charming sort of Dutch indoor bicycle racing arena with a concrete floor and a banked wooden track all around the room). Also there was going to be a recording of the music necessitating the expenditure of even more money for the rental of the equipment, engineer's salary, travel expense, etc., etc.

After making a deal wıth CBS to cover expenses that the Dutch government wouldn't, a new problem arose that became insurmountable – the needs of the U.S. musicians. Despite earnings of $15.000 for 17 weeks in Europe, all expenses paid, a few of these musicians called our office shortly before the start of U.S. rehearsals and tried to make secret deals to get their salaries raised and 'Don't tell the other guys ...'

When I heard of this, I cancelled the usage of the electric group with the orchestra, saving myself a lot of time and trouble rehearsing them, and a lot of money moving them around. Plans remained in effect for the orchestral concerts to continue as acoustic events in smaller halls. The recording plans remained the same also ... five days of recording following the live performances.

About a week or so after the attempted hijack by the U.S. musicians, our office received a letter from the head of the Residentie Orchestra. Among other things, it mentioned that the orchestra committee (a group of players that represents the orchestra members in discussions with the orchestra management) had hired a lawyer and were ready to begin negotiations to determine how much of a royalty they would get for making a record. Since I had already raised the funds from CBS to pay them the necessary recording scale for doing this work, such a demand seemed to be totally out of line with reality, as I had never heard of a situation wherein an orchestra demanded that the composer pay them royalties for their performance of works he had written, nor did I feel it would have been advisable to set a dangerous precedent that might affect the livelihood of other composers by acceding to the wishes of this greedy bunch of mechanics.

A short time after that, the orchestra manager and the guy we originally talked to from the Holland Festival flew to Los Angeles for a meeting to go over final details. They arrived at my house about midnight. By about 1.30am, I had told them that I never wished to see their mercenary little ensemble and that permission to perform any of my works would not be granted to them under any circumstances. They left soon after that.

It was determined shortly thereafter that the cost of going through all of this intercontinental hoo-hah had brought my 'serious music investment' to about $250,000, and I still hadn't heard a note of it.

There you have it, folks ... two orchestral stupidities, a conceptual double concert for inaudible instruments on two continents, perfectly performed by some of the most exceptional musicians of our time.