Strictly Genteel: The BPO tackles Zappa

By Jeff Miers

Buffalo Beat, March 23-29, 2000

It was something that I had to find out...

      "I have a closet in my basement, full of orchestral scores – the result of about five years' work by as many as five full-time copyists. The salaries paid out during that period ran close to three hundred thousand dollars, and then the only way I got to hear it was to spend an even larger amount and hire an orchestra to play it.  Thanks to songs like 'Dinah Moe Humm,' 'Titties and Beer' and 'Don't Eat The Yellow Snow' I managed to accumulate enough cash to bribe a group of drones to grind its way through pieces like 'Mo 'n Herb's Vacation,' 'Bob in Dacron' and 'Bogus Pomp' (eventually released on London Symphony Orchestra, Volumes I and II) – in performances which come off like high-class demos of what actually resides in the scores. So, how did I wind up using those guys? Well, it's a long story..."

      Frank Zappa, from The Real Frank Zappa Book, Poseidon Press, 1989

      Yeah, it's a long story alright. The road to respect as a "serious" composer has been a long, hard one for Frank Zappa. In fact, like many of his idols – Stravinsky, Bartok, et al – it took an untimely death to earn the respect his lifetime of work more than merits.

      Frank Zappa spent the majority of his life releasing intricate, well-crafted parodies of rock-n-roll stylings through some 60 albums. He did this, he said, because he figured it would be all but impossible to garner any sort of following as a classical composer. Rock would give him the audience he needed as a sounding board for his work. Just what he did with that audience would be his own damn business, thank you very much.

      Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993. He was a relatively young man, who shuffled off this mortal coil with plenty left to do. Pictures from around this period reveal a man reluctant to go gently to that long goodnight. The twinkle in his eye, long a personal trademark, seemed to have faded. Zappa looked pissed. He wasn't finished yet.

      But he's probably laughing now. For all the struggle that was part and parcel of his artistic career, Zappa remained a skeptically optimistic man, a prolific artist who never seemed to return from the creative well with an empty bucket. The classical world never took him particularly seriously – he was that rock musician who wrote dirty songs about sex, corrupt politicians, and the absurdities of modern American life. More fool them, said Zappa, and thousands of music lovers who "got it", who understood the threads of eccentric genius which ran throughout all of his work, agreed. Zappa forced himself on the world of the symphony orchestra; if they wouldn't commission his works – and they didn't often in his lifetime – then he'd release a few brilliant rock albums lampooning all that he deemed lampoon-worthy. The majority of these albums were released on Zappa's own Barking Pumpkin label. With the resulting cash flow... well, wait a minute, don't be misled; it's not like Zappa was ever commercially successful to any significant degree, despite the fact that his Rykodisc greatest hits collection is called Strictly Commercial. But he had a hardcore fan base who gobbled up everything he released, much to his amusement, thus enabling him to "buy" symphony orchestras in order to hear his music performed.

      One such procurement of orchestral snobbery took place some fifteen years ago, when Zappa snuck into Buffalo unannounced, laid down some of the cash he'd earned from albums like Apostrophe and One Size Fits All, and forced the BPO to prostitute itself in honor of his art! The Buffalo News reported at the time that a spokesman for the Orchestra related that our beloved maestro's music caught the musicians a bit off guard.

      "It was difficult music," the spokesman was quoted as saying. "There were a lot of quick notes and a lot of transitions. The consensus was that it would take eight to ten rehearsals to really get the work refined."

      This little project cost Frank several thousand dollars, which is probably much less than the same endeavor would have run him in New York or Los Angeles. Still, it says something about Zappa's character that he approached his work with such zeal.

      Said our hero of the experience: "Financially, I could have done something better. But musically, it was something that I had to find out".

We hate your dots!

      All of this is a rather roundabout way of getting to the point, that being that Frank Zappa, SERIOUS COMPOSER, is finally getting his due. Although it's taken a certain segment of the classical illuminati a while to admit it, our man Frank is a heavyweight, a modern composer worthy of a place in history alongside such greats as Stravinsky, Bartok, and John Cage. Suddenly, college professors are teaching Zappa pieces alongside those of Cage and others; musicians who worship all things Frank are banding together and forming ensembles dedicated solely to the performance of Zappa compositions - one such outfit, The Voice Of Cheese, resides and performs right here in Buffalo! - and now, irony of all ironies, symphony orchestras around the world are performing Zappa's extended works to rave reviews. And here's the capper; since Frank's dead, for the first time, it's not costing him a thing to have his compositions performed by the greatest orchestras in the world! Hah!

That's exactly the kind of irony Frank Zappa spent his life relishing.

Does Humor Belong In Music?

      That's a question Frank asked often. He loved to push the envelope of the acceptable in the name of satire, social criticism, and just plain fun. It got him in a shit-load of trouble over the course of his lifetime. But he never gave in. And though his music is, in the true sense of the word, serious, he loved the quirky, the enigmatic, and the just plain goofy things that one could "do" with music.

      That seeming capriciousness at the heart of Zappa's writings often masked the multi-tiered complexity and astute sense of melody and counterpoint that informs all of his work, in whatever idiom he happened to be working. It may explain in part why the orchestral elite were so loathe to approach his work in a serious fashion.

      Rock musicians who were hip to Zappa had no such problems, however. They followed every note he meticulously penned, devoured every deliciously "outside" guitar solo he ever spat out, delved deeply in his Synclavier symphonies, like only the rabidly devout can.

      One such disciple, Florida musician Jerry Outlaw, decided to translate that near-slavish devotion into something tangible. In 1994, he and pals Alex Pasut and Rick Olson began getting together to jam on Zappa tunes, simply for the love it. They decided to pursue the matter to its logical conclusion; Zappa's music demands discipline, near perfection in execution, and limitless devotion. Therefore, Outlaw and his buddies, who had by now christened themselves Bogus Pomp (in honor of the fifth track on Zappa's Orchestral Favorites album), were concentrating solely on digesting, interpreting, and performing Frank's music.

      By January of 1999, they'd convinced Thomas Wilkins, principal conductor of the Florida Symphony Orchestra, to create an all-Zappa program for group and orchestra. The show received rave reviews, and was repeated a year later, to similar results. Like Frank himself, Outlaw and his band of merry men had barely earned a dime for all their demanding efforts. But for them, too, it was "just something they had to find out."

Further on Down the Inca Roads...

      Ask Jerry Outlaw if he thinks humor belongs in music, and you don't have to wait long for an answer. "Absolutely!!!!! Just imagine how boring, bland and worthless art and music would be without laughter. Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate serious art and music, but laughter really is the best medicine. Any time you combine music and laughter, you always win," says the man who, has devoted his life to the importance of being Frank.

      Like all Zappa heads, Outlaw sees it as a personal victory that Zappa is finally being taken seriously as a 20th Century composer. Outlaw's current project, Zappa: The Father Of Invention, presents Florida Orchestra conductor Wilkins, along with select orchestras in select cities, Bogus Pomp and various special guests – including, at various times, Zappa band alumni Ike Willis and Napoleon Murphy Brock – in an evening of all-Zappa performances for both orchestra and band/orchestra combinations. (The show comes to Kleinhan's Music Hall as part of the New Attitudes Series, on Friday, March 24th, for a highly-anticipated performance.)

      Could it be that we'll soon see Zappa's bust alongside Varèse's?

      "I do feel that this is finally the beginning of the acceptance of Zappa's music into the classical mainstream," says Outlaw. "Unfortunately the problems that Frank mentioned still exist, and now they are coming from a place that you would think is very unlikely. (Perhaps a reference to the troubles Bogus Pomp had in procuring the performance rights to Zappa's material from the Zappa family trust? Ed.)

      We have had far more than our share of problems trying to make these events happen. This music is still being subjected to censorship, just not the kind you would expect. In a few more years, there will be no way it can be denied the acclaim it deserves. There is absolutely no doubt that Zappa will eventually be placed alongside his classical music contemporaries, where he deserves to be.

      "I truly feel that he was the greatest composer since electricity changed music."

      Yeah, baby!

Penguins in Bondage?

The fact that The BPO is taking part in the Zappa renaissance by welcoming what is essentially a radical program of modern music to Buffalo, speaks volumes about the orchestra's desire to rebuild its image for the next century.  Zappa may not be exactly what BPO patrons are expecting, but Zappa is exactly what they're going to get.

      Amy Manton, manager of marketing and public relations at the BPO, is excited about the organization's commitment to creative risk-taking. "The whole idea behind the New Attitudes Series is to break down barriers," says Manton. "We really wanted to appeal to a younger audience – people who might not otherwise come to a Philharmonic concert. This year's program is extremely exciting; we've got everyone from Deborah Henson-Conant to Ani DiFranco to the Turtle Island String Quartet to Zappa during our season. A very eclectic, invigorating line-up!"

      How will the core classical audience react to programs like Zappa: The Father Of Invention? Or, to put it more plainly, will classical snobs really enjoy "Penguin In Bondage" or "Uncle Meat" echoing throughout the hallowed halls of their beloved Kleinhan's?

      "Well, our classic season is still our core," says Manton. "There's still plenty to like, even if you aren't interested in any of the New Attitudes programs. But we just want to celebrate the fact that there's so much you can do with a symphony orchestra, such a wide variety of things. I mean, just look at this Metallica with Symphony Orchestra thing. That was really a powerful collaboration, and probably opened some people's eyes to the possibilities of symphonic music. The Zappa/Bogus Pomp thing should do the same. I think our audience is ready for it!"

The Idiot Bastard Son's Revenge

Time will tell if Frank Zappa gets his due as a composer of significant merit. In the meantime, Jerry Outlaw and Bogus Pomp continue to devote their musical careers to the furthering of Frank's musical message. And they sure as hell aren't only in it for the money!

"Oh boy! We sure don't do it for the money. Let there be no mistake about our motives here. We do this for the love of the music and the man who wrote it. This band has been the biggest learning experience of my life and I am so proud of what we have done.

      "I will never forget the wonderful artistic accomplishments that Bogus Pomp has made. Just the knowledge that I am being instrumental in keeping this music alive is awesome to me. Bogus Pomp is responsible for a renewed interest in Frank Zappa's music in the Tampa Bay area. I love when people come up to me after a show and say 'Wow, I never knew that Zappa's music was so cool. I'm gonna go buy some!' I really love when people who used to go see Zappa quite a bit, come to our shows and tell me that they close their eyes and it's like being there all over again."

      Anyone who's ever listened closely to Zappa's music has an inkling that it would be quite difficult to perform. Did the music's complexity pose any particular problem for the members of Bogus Pomp? "The real fans know that we play this music right, and they let us know that they appreciate it," says Jerry.

      "They also remind us when we screw up, but they usually forgive us. We try hard not to screw up very much, but as any musician who has ever performed this music will agree, like it or not, when you play this music all night, there will be a mistake or two. Of course, having Ike Willis sing with us helps, and having Napoleon Murphy Brock perform with us was a personal career peak for me. Napoleon is still just as awesome as he ever was! At one show, this guy who was wearing a Zappa tour shirt from '77 was standing in front of me while I played the solo in "Black Napkins". He had tears streaming down his face the whole time I played that solo. After the show, he came over to me, and he would not let go of my hand. I said to him 'I'm glad you liked the show.' He looked at me and said, 'Man, you don't understand...' I said, 'Yes, I do understand, very much.' That is the kind of reward you couldn't buy with all the money in the world, and that is why I do this. As long as people want to listen, I'll try to continue to do this."

      There aren't many musicians who inspire this kind of devotion. But Zappa was that rare musician whose work inspires the kind of dedicated study that greats like Mahler, Stravinsky, The Beatles and Miles Davis do as well. Part of the reason for this has to do with the fact that Frank's music was created with the kind of care and attention to craft that rewards repeated listening. Bizarre, angular, tricky melody lines are as much a Zappa trademark as wry, witty, insightful, satirical lyrics are.

      "Zappa would write a simple melody that could make you feel very strong emotion, and then he would write a difficult passage that just ripped your head right off," says Outlaw. "He would sometimes play so against the musical grain and so dissonant that he could make you feel very tense. And he would sometimes play so beautiful and melodic that it would bring tears of joy to your eyes. One of the 'sculpted' solos that made a really big impression on me was "Yo' Mama", from the Sheik Yerbouti album. That solo takes me places every time I hear it. "

      But what attracted me to Frank's music first was his lyrics. I thought they were funny. I was far too young to understand the music, but I knew it felt good to listen to. My first Zappa album was One Size Fits All, and it is still my favorite to this day. I also remember hearing Frank's music on the Doctor Demento radio show. Zoot Allures had just come out, and the good doctor was playing "The Torture Never Stops", and I remember thinking to myself, 'Wow, this sounds like halloween music.'"

You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore!

A man of many faces – guitarist nonpareil, composer extraordinaire, relentless social critic, remorseless wit, bandleader of the first degree, etc. – Zappa's gifts to the world of music are difficult to measure. His impact may appear to be more dramatic with the passage of time; For, as Edgard Varèse once said, in a statement Zappa himself loved to quote, "The present-day composer refuses to die!" With his increasing acceptance into the upper echelons of classical "respectability" (hah!), Frank Zappa's music has entered the realm of the immortal. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

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