The serious side of Frank Zappa

By Michael Heaton

San Francisco Examiner, May 18, 1984

WHEN THE Chamber Symphony of San Francisco performs its fifth series of concerts tonight and Saturday, the music of Gabriele, Mozart, Ibert and Schubert may have to do more than roll over to accommodate the American premiere of “Dupree’s Paradise” by American composer Frank Zappa.

Zappa, probably better known for his acerbic and always ahead of its time brand of rock ’n’ roll, has composed more than 30 pieces for orchestra and choral groups, including four ballets. On June 15 and 16, the Berkeley symphony will present “A Zappa Affair,” four orchestral scores which will include dancers and larger than lifesize puppets made by John Gilkerson, artistic director of the San Francisco Miniature Theater, and choreographed by Tandy Bea]. The pieces will also be presented in San Jose on June 21). Zappa’s last appearance here was in February of ’83 when he conducted the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players in two pieces by Edgard Varèse.

If all of this doesn’t sound like the Frank Zappa you know and love, take heart. The 43-year-old musician is meaner than ever and he can’t decide whether to gag or laugh at the mention of “serious” music.

Zappa spoke by phone about the upcoming dates from his studio in Los Angeles. “I’d like to know what serious music is. What is serious anything?” asked Zappa. “Assuming one was interested in serious music, how serious would the music have to be? Most people use the term serious as a license to bore people to death. I take my craftsmanship seriously, but what I do is provide a service, an evening of entertainment.”

“Dupree‘s Paradise” had its world premiere last January in Paris and was conducted by Pierre Boulez. The piece was written for a 27-picce orchestra including winds, strings, brass, two keyboards and a harp. The music for the Berkeley Symphony production was written three years ago and Zappa had all but given up on its ever being performed.

“During our 1981 U.S. tour we did a show in Berkeley and Kent Nagano, director of the Berkeley Symphony, said the had heard of my compositions and wanted to take a look at them. He liked them and is really the one responsible for getting my music performed. I’ve been composing for 30 years and this is the first time I didn’t have to do all the work. You can‘t believe the Byzantine rigmarole a person has to go through in the world of classical music to do something like this.”

Zappa said his classical pieces aren’t exceptionally bizarre musically, although he admits they are discordant at times. “Some of it is (discordant), it’s mix and match. You may not like some parts of it and like others. It’s just like the real world. It‘s comprised of very old-fashioned material. Melody, harmony and rhythm. Remember them? One thing I’ll say about it, it’s not minimalist music.”

The “A Zappa Affair” performances will have been given 34 rehearsal sessions, virtually unheard of for a new piece with a limited kind of appeal, and Zappa salutes those in the Bay Area who made this kind of professional presentation possible.

“This is a very special tribute to the Bay Area to support this kind of program. Composers are people who are interested in sound and I’ve been doing it since I was 14. The reason I got into rock ’n’ roll was because I wanted to hear my music played and I could only afford to do it with a small number of musicians. Guys who sit around all day writing tiny notes and notations on paper live to hear the stuff played. That’s the problem with writing orchestral pieces. A lot of the stuff I’ve done has been sitting around for years.”

A Zappa’s classical work has gone largely unannounced in his home town of L.A., a place the musician has come to despise more with each passing minute. “There’s this group down there called The Orchestra. It’s all the top studio musicians in town who have been given all this money in grants to perform new American music. They offered to do one of my pieces and you know how much rehearsal time they wanted to give me? One hour. It‘s a joke. L.A. is so cheap when it comes to art, it’s hard to believe. They have these things called the Monday Night Concerts and I took my son Dweezil to see one. It was a guy running around on stage trying to play seven different oboes. He looked and sounded like a chicken doing it. The sad thing was this guy was serious. That’s LA.’s idea of art. Really pathetic.”

Having long had a reputation as an eclectic artist with varied interests and a virtual unlimited supply of creative energy, Zappa is still involved with a great number of projects. He has digitally recorded and remastered his first seven albums, which will be rereleased soon. A new two-record set entitled “Them or Us” will soon be out, as will the music of an 18th century composer of string trios, Francesco Zappa, the Duke of York’s music master (possibly a relation, says Frank Zappa, he can’t be sure since he doesn’t have a family tree). Frank says he found the sheet music to Francesco’s work, loaded it into a computer and recorded it – the first time the music will have been heard in 200 years.

Zappa (Frank) will be lecturing on music Sunday at 8 pm. at the Exploratorium, using examples from his book, “Christmas in New Jersey,” to demonstrate conceptual continuity. Or, in Zappa’s words, “How things which seem to have no possible relation really are related.”

The theme Zappa has come to rely on time and time again and which is the thread tying much of his work together is ignorance.

“I use sociological themes, but the topic of ignorance will never go out of style in America. As time passes it may be dressed differently and it may smell different, but there is tons of it out there and more than enough to go around. Anybody who uses it as subject matter will never run out. You find it in the school systems, in the political system, in big companies. This is the perfect society for generating ignorance. The Egyptians may have had the Pyramids, but they can’t touch us in terms of ignorance. A lesser race of people might have shriveled in the face of such proportions, but we really thrive on it. It doesn’t affect the lower body because most of us have our lower parts shrouded in Levi cloth. What it does is attack the naked face. Americans are always walking around with their mouths open and a lot of it gets in there. You know, a guy opens his mouth to take a bite of his hamburger and the next thing you know, he’s full of ignorance before he can even get a whiff of the grease. It’s basically an adult disease, but it can be transmitted to children.”

If Zappa sounds hostile, there’s a reason for his worm’s eye view of the world. When asked what motivates him, he has a ready answer. “Pure hate. I watch the news every day to get really stoked and then read the newspaper. If that doesn’t get me pumped, I just go outside and stand on the street in LA. You know what they have out here, and this really gets me: A giant billboard with two giant lit-up Twinkies on it and it reads ‘Hostess is proud to be a supplier to the U.S. Olympics.’ THAT typifies LA.”

Tonight’s and Saturday’s Chamber Symphony performances are at 8 pm. in Herbst Theater. The Berkeley Symphony production of “A Zappa Affair” will be June 15-16 at Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley and June 20 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.

A Zappa Affair program

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