Rebel With A Cause

By Karl Dallas

Hi-Fi for Pleasure, April 1983

Frank Zappa, notorious rock band leader with an unconventional approach to music and recording was in London recently for a digital recording sessions with the London Symphony Orchestra. Karl Dallas went along to find out more about the man and his ideas on digital recording.

A Frank Zappa project is a bit like the creation of the world. Except that on the seventh day, he doesn't rest.

Imagine any composer/musician/record company executive (he is all three, plus film maker, studio owner and of course one of the most notorious band leaders in the history or rock) saddling himself with this series of workloads in one short week in London:

to rehearse and perform at a sell-out public concert five major orchestral works with the London Symphony Orchestra, all of them of horrendously difficult complexity (4½ days rehearsal, one evening concert);
to abandon the chosen recording venue because it's been let to someone else for one night in the middle or his week's booking, and find another, on the outskirts of town;
to get down the same five works on to digital 24-track tape, not only utilising unfamiliar Sony multitrack machines, but also rough-mixing them down simultaneously to ¾in U-matic tape via a pcm box (three days' recording);
to mike up the orchestra in a completely revolutionary way, using prototype pressure-zone microphones lent to him by their inventor, Ken Wahrenbrock;
all this without any certain knowledge that the full digital glory or the LSO in full cry will ever be put out on compact disc, but with the surety that he will certainly never make back hall the 800,000 dollars the project has cost him.

As Mark Pinske, Zappa's chief engineer, puts it: "I've done a lot of firsts with Frank. Frank is the kind of guy who puts you out on a limb and if you hold up, he puts you out on a limb again."

He might almost have added that Zappa does the same sort of thing to himself.

Overture: the Zappa concert

Frank Zappa never wanted to perform his orchestral works in public, or so he said.

The Barbican stage was too small, he complained, he doesn't like its acoustics, and of course he's had unfortunate experiences with British concert halls in the past, being thrown off the stage of the Rainbow in 1971, and banned by the Royal Albert Hall during the making of '200 Motels', his movie about life on the road.

And anyway, he's become disenchanted with live performance. He will not tour Europe again, he says. and may only do one more American tour. Like Glenn Gould, perhaps, the definitive recorded version of his music is what seems to count.

"Instead of being a book on a shelf some place", he says, "it will now exist so that people can hear it.

"The problem of converting a bunch of dots on a piece of paper into soundwaves which can then be stored on to some kind of a medium for other people to listen to is a very complicated procedure, and thanks to rock'n'roll and the money that I've earned from doing rock'n'roll, it has given me the opportunity to finance this event without the assistance of any record company, without the assistance of any foundation or industrial sponsor or committee approval.

But the only reason he's doing the concert, he says, is because there is Union provision for rehearsing for concerts, but none for rehearsing for recordings.

So, the concert. And the rehearsals.

Hammersmith Odeon looks like what it is at ten in the morning: a cinema that has seen better days and now depends, like virtually the entire entertainment business upon whatever kick is left in rock'n'roll to keep it up and running. Zappa has played here frequently in the past, and has recorded live segments of a number of albums.

I imagine it is the first time it has had a full-scale symphony orchestra – correction, an augmented symphony orchestra, with ten percussionists whose instruments include things like lion roars and ooh-gah car horns – rehearsing on its stage.

He had planned to record here, but the night of the Barbican concert it's been hired for a Joe Jackson concert, which would have necessitated setting up his microphones afresh the morning after, so later he will move the entire entourage to the outskirts of town.

A casual onlooker might think Zappa was playing a small part in the proceedings, which ostensibly are controlled by Kent Nagano, a second generation Japanese-American from the West Coast who has made something of a speciality of meticulously careful readings of modern masters like Messiaen and Boulez.

It was Boulez' decision to include a concert of Zappa's works in the 1984 schedule of IRCAM, the music research centre set up for him by President Pompidou in Paris, that set Nagano enquiring about the orchestral music of Zappa, a rock musician he hadn't thought much about since his own days as a 60s hippie.

Nagano is the sort of man who can tell if the third trumpet is playing a semi-demi-semi-quaver instead of a demi-semi-demi-semi- quaver in the middle of a complex unison passage, and will take the brass through the section over and over until they get it right. But in all important decisions, he defers to the goatee-bearded man with the long hair streaked with grey, who sits slumped in his tracksuit pants, Nike trainers and Donegal-tweed topcoat as soft as a cardigan, chain-smoking cigarettes as he listens.

For Zappa this has been the culmination of a long, hard road, which began when he started writing orchestral music at 14 – before, he says, he ever played rock.

In 1967, the year of his first album with his Mothers ('of Invention' had been added to his band's name by Verve/MGM, then his record company, who were no doubt well aware that 'mother' is an abbreviation of a well known street level obscenity) he was already in the studio with the 'Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra and Chorus' of nearly 60 musicians to conduct a two-part work. "Lumpy Gravy", which made more explicit his musical debts to Stravinsky and the Parisian noisemaker, Edgar Varèse, whose 1921 slogan, 'The present-day composer refuses to die!', adorned Zappa's album sleeves throughout the Sixties.

The same strangely-titled orchestra was responsible for the rather unsatisfactory 1975 recordings, released without his permission in 1979 as Orchestral Favorites. Three of the pieces on that record, Strictly Genteel, Pedro's Dowry and Bogus Pomp, are included in these London concert/recording sessions.

Genteel also appeared, with words, in the '200 Motels' movie/album, which is also related to Bogus Pomp and to Holiday in Berlin, included on 'Burnt Weeny Sandwich' in 1969.

Zappa tried recording the '200 Motels' music with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1970, but it was his London recordings with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for the film, resulting in his being banned from the Royal Albert Hall because his lyrics included words like 'prick' and brassiere', which brought him the greatest notoriety.

To the simplistic minds of many in the rock world, this obsession with orchestral music must seem like some menopausal desire to attain musical respectability, a bad old tradition in 20th century popular music which can be traced back through the rock-with-symphony-orchestra of Deep Purple, the swing band with string quartet of Artie Shaw, back to Paul Whiteman's unattainable desire to 'make a lady out of jazz'.

But a comparison of Zappa's actual writing with something as grossly ephemeral as Purple's flirtation with the RPO in 1970 makes it clear that the 'pop = simple classical = complex' equation is misconceived.

He offered to send the parts over to the LSO or study before the rehearsals, but they declined politely.

"I suppose they thought it was gonna be one of those pieces where a band goes jagga-jagga-jagga and then the orchestra comes in with some lush chords, ta- aa", he commented to me in an aside.

Though he says he may write 20 rock songs in an average year, compared with only a couple of ballets, there is often as much complexity in one of his rock pieces as in the more grand projects, while a 'simple' piece like Strictly Genteel, which he conducted himself as an encore at the Barbican concert, is actually much harder to play than its fairly obvious pop-derived chord progressions might suggest.

"Some of this stuff is so f––g hard", he told me afterwards. "When I was conducting Strictly Genteel I was looking at the first two trumpet players and their faces were as red as these chairs. I thought this guy, he's going to die, holding this note. I just felt so sorry for him.

"I talked to him yesterday and he said: Don't worry about it"

But though Zappa's music is difficult to play, leading musicians into new subdivisions of the bars which don't break down into simple twos and threes like the 'far out' time signatures of Dave Brubeck's fairly timid rhythmic excursions, it is not really inaccessible to a modern audience.

Nor can his oeuvre be separated into two compartmentalised and distinct categories. We have already seen how the '200 Motels' music cropped up in a rock as well as an orchestral context. His latest album, 'Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch' (CBS), contains a realisation for keyboards of Envelopes, one or the orchestral pieces to be recorded here, and indeed the piece was performed by Zappa's rock band during their last (and he insists, final) visit to London.

And while his dedication to perfectionism in music means that over 200 musicians have passed through his various aggregations over the past 22 years – a list that ranges from John Lennon to the superb Indian sarangi-style violinist, Lakshminarayana Shankar, and not including the members of various symphony orchestras – he is as ready to produce a belly laugh in the middle of an orchestral piece as in a rock number like Broken Hearts Are For Assholes.

In fact the 'visual and musical slapstick' of Bogus Pomp, at one level a satire on film music of the John Williams Star Wars variety, on another a touching tale of the first viola player's desire to play a solo cadenza, really upset the man from The Times who reviewed the concert.

"I think that humour belongs everywhere," retorts Zappa. "You have a pretty dismal world out there and there's no reason why you shouldn't have a laugh when you go to an orchestral concert. I think it's better than going there and just sitting around feeling sombre and, you know, intense and deep and serious and impressed with yourself and overstuffed or whatever.

"I think that, for example, the piece Bogus Pomp ought to be standard orchestral repertoire because it's a good work-out for the orchestra, not just in terms of the technique that they have to have in order to play it correctly, but it gives them a chance to show off, and it's fun for the audience, because there's all these little surprises in it. And it's a virtuoso piece.

The way I think about it is that if you didn't know what the story was you could still listen to the music, but if you know the stories associated with the thing, that gives you another dimension on the music. Since the music doesn't have any words, and most people, specially in this country, are really kind of entrapped by print material, kind of literal concepts, it helps them to get some kind of a handle on it.

"It's a little bit of a shock to confront that stuff for the first time and come from a musical world where you expect things to have little toons, a bridge, a reprise, and a fade, which is what most of the musical consumers are used to now. They come in there and hear things that are designed with a whole different aesthetic in mind.

"It shouldn't be a punishing experience for them. They should be able to derive some kind of enjoyment out of it, and I think little stories help. It's not quite as bad as Peter and the Wolf, you know what I mean?"

I certainly do. Sitting through the rehearsals, the concert and finally the recording sessions, the thing that struck deep into my consciousness was how unrelated this music was to anything else you might hear anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of Boulez and Messiaen.

It's almost as if one has entered an alternative universe, as if music had taken a different direction after Satie and Les Six, had ended up ... here, in rehearsal at Hammersmith Odeon, with a music that makes nonsense of all categories like 'pop' and 'classic'.

In the words of a recent so-far unreleased record project, 'Crush All Boxes'.

"It's totally unrelated to everything everybody else is doing," he agreed. "It does not wish to participate in it either. It's not designed for academic approval, it's not submitted for anybody's approval.

"Here's what I think is happening in modern music: today a lot of people who are noted composers or composers-in-residence or whatever are forced into a position where they have to turn out things which will meet with a certain type of academic approval, or conform to certain artificial norms which should never have existed in the first place.

"If that composer-in-residence is going to keep his tenure, he's got to be so modern that it makes you want to die, otherwise
why should a college keep him there?

"And since that's where a lot of composers wind up earning their living, teaching, or taking some other kind of part-time job – because you can't really make any money writing music, unless you're writing jingles or movie music or something like that – there is absolutely no way to make a living writing ballets or orchestral pieces or string quartets or anything that is not tied to some kind of commercial usage.

"You just can't do it, so a lot of people go into teaching or other boring things on the side. And in order to keep those jobs they have to do a certain type of music, which in most cases is not great fun to listen to."

And, of course, Zappa has been saved from that fate worse than death by his rock success, the very thing that makes him so
hard to categorise.

"If it hadn't been for the rock'n'roll band, I never would have been able to afford this particular event.

"I'll tell you what I spent already on just the manuscript copying, 500,000 dollars over a five-year period. That's what it cost to produce not just these scores, but the total of my catalogue which is available in scores and parts right now. That's what I've spent to date.

"And I expect that by the time this event is concluded here I will have spent another 300,000 dollars on musicians' salaries, travel, equipment, rental and all the rest.

"There is no way that this event is going to generate enough income to pay for what it cost to do it. Out of the question"

Main theme: the recording

Twickenham recording studios are a gaunt, aircraft hangar-sized complex on the outskirts of London, an ex-movie studio lot whose walls have been lined with sacking to make them acoustically dead, but which are not, in Zappa's own words, "the world's most glamorous acoustic environment".

"We have had a lot of different problems with the microphone set-up," he told me in the limo out to the second day's recording. "The main reason we're at Twickenham is that it's the only piece of floor space we could find in London at this time to put the orchestra in.

"The room is 62 by 115, something like that, and we're set up longways in it. It's a very dead room, which means that when we're mixing, I'm going to have to add some kind of reverberation to it, to give it the proper colour. That's something which I'd hoped to avoid, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to do it in a theatre or some kind of a hall.

"But we tried town halls all over the place and all of the normal venues where the LSO has been recording for other things and we just couldn't get in."

In addition to the pressure-zone mics, most of which are in flying saucer-shaped dish prototypes over the heads of the strings or floor-positioned Plexiglass wedges for the celli and violas, he was also using the revolutionary British Calrec soundfield mike, placed over the head of conductor Kent Nagano, "plus a collection of favourite goodies from my own collection, Neumanns and that sort of thing".

"The PZMs have a strong rejection of reflected signals. I've done vocals with them, percussion, lots of different things in my studio at home, but it's the first time I've had a chance to try it out on an orchestra."

It seemed a pity, since he was using the Calrec which is ideally suited for ambisonic recording, that he was not planning a quad version.

"I'm familiar with the way the Calrec is supposed to operate," he said, "in terms of its flexibility in a remix situation, but I don't know anything about ambisonic releases.

"The Calrec is being printed on the tape in four channels. It's encoded so that we can shift its angle around in post-production.

"Basically, what you can do with the Calrec is, to the listener, you can simulate its position in the room. If its physical location is 15 feet above the head of the conductor, by turning knobs in the mix you can make it sound as if it was on the floor, in the back of the room, off to one side, you can move its apparent location in the room to feature different sections of the orchestra in the mix."

With its PZMs mounted inside the piano and AKG452s and D12s inside the drum kit, it seemed about as far as you could get from
the old crossed-pair technique beloved of classical theoreticians. I observed.

"That's a nice theory, if you're writing crossed-pair kind of music, but the score wasn't written for that type of recording in mind, because I prefer a more present sound on certain instruments that you would never get with a crossed pair.

"I don't want to hear it from 100 yards away. I want that texture. I want a close-up sound on a celeste. I want the sound of the inside of the piano, not the sound of the piano fighting to be heard through the brass section.

"With the PZMs, the sound that you get out of them is very transparent, it's very pure, and has a good transient response.

"The general characteristics of those microphones, it's not like an omni-mike, but it is quite broad. It's a hemispherical pick-up pattern, and depending on the size of the boundary at the rear of the microphone, that determines the size of the hemisphere. And so if you have four or five winds in a row, and you place one dish-type over the row, it's going to pick up the whole thing, and the surrounding atmosphere.

"You can hear every little key-click and it's a very human-sounding recording. You're not only recording the instruments and the notes, but the people, which is a texture that I like, unless they're moving the chairs around too much.

"At one point yesterday we got a fantastic recording of somebody's digital watch going off in the middle of a take, beeping away. I still wanna find out who's responsible for that little disaster."

In general, though, he was pleased with the LSO. "They're a nice bunch of guys," he said after the concert, which he said was 70
percent OK (a high rating, for this most hyper-critical of composers), and the first day's recording. "I'd like to adopt them.

"There's a great deal of resistance in any orchestra to playing music that they're unfamiliar with, because they can't look and sound splendid the first time somebody gives them the downbeat. They have to work at it, and laziness being what it is in the 20th Century, it's hard to motivate people to do things that they're unaccustomed to doing.

'"This orchestra is pretty good in terms of co-operation. They'll try anything. They have a real good humour and good spirit about trying these things. But I wouldn't say that they were adept playing even a bar like this which has 20 notes in it, instead of four groups of five.

"You have to learn to think in a different way, count in a different way, and Kent has been very patient in explaining to them how to do these things, how to adjust the performance of the notes so that, as you know all the instruments of the orchestra speak in a different way, the notes come out at a different rate, and to make people round like they're playing together, certain instruments have to play ahead of the beat, some have to stay behind, and then it appears to line up, even though people are doing things not exactly the way it's written on the paper. And so he's been very patient with them, trying to organise this stuff.

"But ... there is a limit to the amount of time you can spend rehearsing, because that's all tied to how much money you have for the project. There is a limit to the amount of concentration that an orchestra can spend, working on minute details, because while you're working with these guys over here, they're reading a newspaper over there, and they're reading a magazine on computers over there, and somebody over there's reading a book about going on a camping trip, and it does get boring for certain members of the orchestra when other guys don't catch on too fast.

"That comes with the territory."

At one stage I caught Zappa taking a section through the lyrics that exist for one of the many alternative versions of these pieces, to help them in their phrasing.

He explained: "I don't think people talk in twos, threes, and fours, evenly like that. They talk in twos, threes, fours, fives, sixes, sevens, 13s, 21s; there's a whole different rhythm to speech communication which is an important element in what constitutes the beauty of the poetry, just because the rhythm of it is part of what makes it happen.

"To tie musical performance to groups of twos, threes and fours, which is what most of the standard repertoire does, I think is taking the easy way out, because music can be much more than that. The trick is to get musicians in an orchestra to be able to conceive of rhythms that go beyond what they play every day.

"In this one situation in Bogus Pomp, in a section called Centreville, the trombones are doing an imitation of the spoken words. Centreville, isn't sung, it's spoken. I figured out the speech rhythm, wrote cluster chords to simulate the effect, and then went to the trombone section and recited the words to them.

"They jotted them down on their parts and they're supposed to try and say these words through the horn.

"In other places where there's appropriate lyrics or if you tell them what it's supposed to be, they catch on faster if they can tie it to a word, because they know how the word would go, and then the notes on the paper don't look so frightening anymore."

And all the while we talk, chief engineer Mark Pinske crawls around in the intervals between takes, adjusting mics, at one stage mounting two PZMs on either side of the tympani on sheets of 6ft square Plexiglass, to improve the isolation between the percussion, commuting between the hall and the Island mobile outside, where two prototype Sony PCM3324 24-tracks are rolling simultaneously.

Coda: the recording engineer's story

Mark Pinske finds Frank Zappa a demanding but fair employer.

"I started for Frank in 1979 and we've done numerous projects. I don't panic under pressure and I guess I haven't made the same mistake twice – that's pretty much what's required. He's a pretty decisive man.

"He knows what he wants and you don't waste your time. You don't lie to him. You don't tell him anything the way it isn't because he knows the difference, and so therefore you just have to do good work and do it right.

"I've learnt a tremendous amount since I started working with him. He's really a master editor, the way he edits his tapes and things, and I've been able to pick up, editing techniques that you wouldn't get out of any school or any book. I have the schooling behind me, but I think I've learned four times as much since I've been with them as I ever did in school."

"The problem though is that Frank wants to try all new techniques, and so it's the first time for most of the microphones and equipment that we're using.

"The results make me want to not use a lot of the old conventional mics that we've used for years and years and years."

Complex as it is, though, this is not necessarily the most difficult Zappa project he's been involved in.

"We did a live satellite broadcast on Halloween from New York, and he told me to do whatever I had to do to get it together. We interfaced with six cameras, did a simultaneous FM stereo mix broadcast as well as a mono TV mix on top of the normal 24-tracks that we did every day, and that kind of got me in shape for working under pressure kind of conditions."

Though many classical engineers scorn the 'artificiality' of rock recording techniques, it has to be remembered that they are also more difficult, which is probably why some rock engineers have moved so successfully into classical music – for instance, Bob Auger, who started with the Kinks and is now Boulez' favourite.

Pinske worked on Broadway musicals like Hair, 30s-styled swing bands, and on rock tours, and he found the 100+ musicians of this augmented LSO a lot easier to work with by comparison.

"This is actually the first time I ever worked with a full symphony. It is actually much more fun and I don't think technically as much of a problem as working with a lot of the live rock bands, because with the rock bands you have incredible amount of amplifiers, ground loops, PA noise, just everybody bleeding into everybody else, and you have to do a lot more noise-gating, and treat everything so much more.

"An orchestra's more or less sculptured to have an overall good sound by itself, and the players are much more well-versed, their dynamic, they have a much more professional outlook, they try to play with more control over their own little area, because they have to, they've been beaten into it. So I find that shows, the fact that the performance is much more controlled. much more better quality, and also is much easier to record."

Postlude: The analogue-to-digital syndrome

CBS, who distribute Zappa's Barking Pumpkin records, couldn't say at press time if they planned to release the new works in compact disc format.

Judging by their play-safe policy in importing only 80 titles in the initial release, I'd be surprised if they did.

"The viny analogue disc is a weak link," says Pinske. "With the compact disc, there's no wear, you can't scratch them, the dynamic range is there, and it's great except that right now they're transferring a lot of analogue recordings that are inferior over to that medium and they're selling a lot of poor existing recordings and it's not showing how good that medium can be.

"I really think that the answer is to stay away from the analogue disc stage, when it comes to really high fidelity digital recording.

"It will make a better analogue disc however. I must say that, because any excess of noise will only get worse at each stage, so if it's cleaner to begin with it's going to be a better record."

But Zappa has his own technological ace in the hole if they decide to keep him off the compact.

He plans to issue the new works on a video disc – without any pictures. He's already well into laservision technology and has two items ready for release: an 80-minute version of 'Baby Snakes', and another video disc project, 'The Dubroom Special'.

"Do you realise how cheap video discs are to produce?" he demands. "It costs 3,000 dollars to master them, and about three dollars a copy to press them. It's so cheap, I'll probably be issuing these five pieces we've been recording here in England as sound-only video discs.

"The video disc has a stereo soundtrack, it cannot be damaged, and anyone who has a Philips or Pioneer Laservision machine can play them back, and get a much better sound than the vinyl disc."

But not many people have video disc machines. I object.

"Well, there's no way I'm going to sell enough copies to cover my costs on the project anyway, so who gives a shit?"