Frank Zappa is a man for all seasons

By Zjakki Willems

Oor, September 5, 1992

This interview is saved from Originally published in Dutch magazine Oor as "Frank Zappa is van alle markten thuis". Translated back to English by killuglyradio.

Frank Zappa is a man for all seasons. In his 30-year career he's composed for rockgroups, as well as for classical ensembles and big bands. His first (double)album Freak Out! of 1966 already challenged the boundaries of rock, jazz, classical, rhythm&blues; and avant-garde. In the early 80ies he manifested himself as a very talented guitarist. In between all that, he's also active as a filmmaker and writer.

Zappa's latest project is called The Yellow Shark. It's a full spectacle with music by the German Ensemble Modern and dance by the Canadian group La La La Human Steps. On September 17, 18 and 19 it will be performed at the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, on September 22 and 23 at the PhilHarmonie in Berlin, and on September 26 and 27 at the Vienna Conzerthaus.

In the past few years Zappa has been asked more and more as a composer for classical orchestra's and ensembles, but negative experiences with, amongst others, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, had made him quite suspicious. It seems to be working out fine with the Ensemble Modern though.

Zappa: Because the Ensemble has assured me a sufficiently long period of rehearsal, two weeks in July and another week or ten days in September. That's a lot. This way I can reach a level of perfection I can't accomplish with other orchestra's, simply because they are not willing to put in enough rehearsal time.

OOR: Is that the only reason why you decided to work with the Ensemble? Or had you heard of it prior to this?

Zappa: No, I didn't know it. Dieter Rexroth of the Frankfurter Feste contacted me. We had a conversation, but couldn't come to an agreement. Later, when I got hold of a number of CD's from the Ensemble and heard just how well these musicians could play, I thought it had to be possible to do something with them. When we agreed upon the rehearsal period, I decided to work with them.

OOR: Still, you've often expressed your ambiguity towards collaborating with classical ensembles and orchestra's...

In this particular case I only have my doubts about the change from Frankfurt to Berlin and Vienna. That's going to be very difficult. The concerts will be amplified with a 6-channel PA. These have to be adjusted every time, because the concert halls in Frankfurt, Berlin and Vienna differ a lot from eachother. But I don't worry about the musicians. I know they'll be able to play whatever I write.

OOR: Can this YellowShark-project be compared with other classical compositions of yours?

Not really. First of all the sound will be different because of the specific instrumentation. Secondly the organization for this project is totally different from the previous ones. The musicians came over to Los Angeles for two weeks last year. This way I got to judge them individually and I've been able to hear what each musician's specific specialization was. For a composer it comes in handy to know in advance what each musician can handle. At the same time we've made samples of all the instruments for my synclavier. I use those in my compositions.

As for the title of Yellow Shark, I would like to point out it's not the name of a certain musical piece, but of the entire project. It might as well have been called The Purple Cucumber, or whatever. Everything's better than "An Evening With Frank Zappa". There's a big diversion of elements in it, from pieces with complicated rhythms, to compositions without any rhythm. I won't name all the titles, but let me give a couple of examples. One of the newest compositions is called Food Gathering In Postindustrial America. The idea behind that is that we are evolving toward a postindustrial society, a country where everyone is occupied with rendering services to eachother and consuming products that have been made by others. This composition is built around the small acts of desperation of people looking for food. Everytime somebody finds something eatable, the musicians shout: Wooo. Another piece of The Yellow Shark is Outrage at Valdez, which I originally composed for a documentary by the Cousteau Society that dealt with the oiltanker disaster in Valdez/Alaska.

OOR: Outrage At Valdez is a piece for synclavier. Will it be played by the Ensemble in The Yellow Shark?

Zappa: Yes. Besides, in the documentary of the Cousteau Society, only 90 seconds of it were used, whereas the entire piece lasts 7 minutes.

OOR: Will you be conducting The Yellow Shark?

Zappa: Two or three pieces, all of them improvisations. The rest will be conducted by the regular conductor of the Ensemble Modern, Peter Rundel.

OOR: And sing? Or play guitar?

Zappa: No.

OOR: Do you still play any guitar?

Zappa: No, but I'm not saying I won't play the guitar ever again.

OOR: A Canadian dance company, La La La Human Steps, is joining in. Was that your choice?

Zappa: Yes. I'd seen a videotape of the group and thought they were very special. I figured their style would fit nicely with what we're going to do. They'll dance to three or four numbers, among which Beat The Reaper, a composition for tape-recorder.

OOR: Will The Yellow Shark be recorded?

Zappa: All concerts will be recorded, since they will all be different because of the improvisations. I think I'll have enough recordings for two CD's. They will be released next year.

OOR: Will you be bringing out any other video's?

Zappa: We're currently working on a documentary about The Yellow Shark-project. An next year there will probably be a home-video of the concert itself.

OOR: You've always been opposed to bootlegs, but recently you gave permission to FOO-EEE Records to legally release two sets of 10 bootlegs. Isn,'t this giving a certain credibility to them?

Zappa: No, all I'm saying is, whoever wants to buy bootlegs, should buy FOO-EEE's, because then, at least, I get paid the royalties.

OOR: Then why not enhance these bootlegs first?

Zappa: It is impossible to enhance them. They were recorded with little tape-recorders. You can't make good recordings from bad recordings. They can only be rendered less inaudible digitally.

OOR: But even the songtitles are often wrong...

Zappa: You have to well understand how these records came to be: I never heard these records! A guy at FOO-EEE picks them out. My only input was approving the package. I haven't heard one single one of them bootlegs!

OOR: For years you've acted against censorship of rockalbums. Does the battle continue?

Zappa: I'm afraid not a lot can be done against it anymore, certainly when mister and misses Gore get to be inside the White House.

OOR: So it'll be a tough choice between Clinton and Bush?

Zappa: I trust neither one. It's the choice between Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

OOR: You've considered running for president yourself, but had to call off the idea because of health problems. If you were ever to become president, what would be your agenda?

Zappa: The first thing I'd do is limit the number of lawyers as much as possible. One of the problems of the United States is we are degrading into a lawless society. And one of the reasons for this is there is too much legislation. They are being made by lawyers who reside in parliament. By now there are so many laws, that no one can figure it out anymore. That's how the United States are turning into a country of criminals. Only the rich get to bail themselves out. Those that haven't got any money are being sued over transgressions they are unaware of. The Federal Government at this point is a failure. A great deal of social ingenuity will be necessary for the citizens to believe the United States are really necessary.

OOR: You've shown a lot of interest in European politics. June 24 of last year, the day the Sovjet-troups officially left Czechoslovakia, you gave your fans in Prague the following message: Keep your country unique...

Zappa: I'm pro countries that maintain their uniqueness. That doesn't imply that I am for raw and limitless nationalism. A country can keep its uniqueness and still work with other countries. It's a mistake to split up Chechoslovakia. Ethnical arguments are always wrong. Violence cannot make up for injustices that occurred centuries ago. What's happening in Yugoslavia and some parts of the ex-Sovjet-Union, is wrong. That doesn't solve a wrath that's built up over centuries. The world is too fragile, to complicated, to be split into even smaller pieces.