Preserving Zappa's Legacy

Barking Pumpkin In New 'Phaze'

By Drew Wheeler

Billboard, 6 May 1995

Throughout Frank Zappa's epochspanning musical career, his unseen, constant collaborator was his wife Gail. And since Zappa's death from cancer in December 1993, Gail Zappa has labored to bring her husband's never-before-heard works to the public. Less than a year after Zappa's passing, Gail released the double-CD Barking Pumpkin Records set "Civilization Phaze III," one of his final works – and one of his farthest-reaching.

Considered one of Zappa's classical recordings, "Civilization Phaze III" was not part of Rykodisc's purchase of the Zappa catalog but is owned by Gail Zappa. When she began working to release the album, she says, "I was a new widow, which was not easy. And it still isn't easy. It was avery difficult time for me, and I wanted something to look forward to at the end of the year. That was what was driving me."

"CPIII" sells via mail order for $35.95 (postage and handling included). It received no major advertising push, save for a full-page ad in Billboard's 100th Anniversary Issue and in a few other outlets. Nonetheless, fans knew to call 818-PUMPKIN, the Zappa hot line, for information.

"We had so many orders, we were inundated," she says. "I always have a certain amount of mail-order sales anyway, no matter what. There are some people out there that are so loyal, they wouldn't dare buy it from a record store.

"I knew I could do it mail order. I knew I could deliver it," she explains, "but I did agree to give Ryko an opportunity to make the record available to the public at a later time as part of the deal." It began distribution this month through Ryko's REP Sales, Inc.

Zappa completed a number of projects that are still unreleased; he also left behind much unfinished material. Gail Zappa is making plans to release selections from the latter. Son Dweezil Zappa and engineer Spencer Chrislu are most likely to head up these projects, the nonclassical titles of which would be released by Rykodisc.

Somehow fittingly, Frank Zappa's last project was a CD of pieces by his musical inspiration, composer Edgard Varese. "He got an opportunity finally to get certain of the Varese works played, performed, and actually recorded," says Gail. "That one was one of his dreams come true from the time he first heard the music." Zappa worked with Hungarian conductor Peter Eötvös and other noted performers.

Varese's notion of "the liberation of sound" is well borne out by " CPIII." Composed principally on the Synclavier with contributions from new music orchestra the Ensemble Modern, it contains some of Zappa's most "serious" music. And true to irreverent form, Zappa interwove his challenging compositions with unused passages of absurdist dialog from the 1967 "Lumpy Gravy" sessions. Joined by a second group of voices recorded in the '90s, the album is an avant-garde odyssey through a surrealistic, satirical netherworld. In his sonic scenario, delicate melodies coexist with brooding atonalities, and notes share equal value with noise.

Although Gail feels that there is an "ominous" quality to "CPIII," she doesn't believe that her husband was specifically commenting on his own mortality. "Somebody asked me did I think that he was in a hurry to finish things," she says, "and the funny thing is, when you know that you don't have much time, as we understand it here on earth, I don't think you get in a hurry. I think that actually what happens is everything comes to a grinding halt ... In Frank's case, he became so incredibly focused on the choices that he made and how to put that record together and what he chose to edit and what he chose to add and how he just pieced it together."

"CPIII" comes in a specially designed digipak with a bound-in 32-page booklet. For Gail Zappa, lavish packaging is only fitting for her husband's musical legacy. "It was a real labor of love for all of us," she says. Zappa himself commissioned the album art by Russian artist Uri Balashov, whose designs blend musical, Pharaonic, and sciencefiction themes. Some art appears on translucent vellum. "Guys who wrote the Constitution wrote on that kind of stuff," says Gail Zappa with pride. "I figured, if it's good enough for them, it's damn well good enough for Frank."