The Final Conflict

By Ben Watson

The Wire, February, 1996

For Frank Zappa, the interface of rock and classical music was a battleground: for 20 years, his attempts to get his classical compositions performed were thwarted by the sneering attitudes of the world’s symphony orchestras. Then he met Germany’s Ensemble Modem. Ben Watson picks up the story.


In April 1991, Dieter Rexroth, the director of the Frankfurt Festival, and Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, head of Frankfurt’s deluxe contemporary orchestra The Ensemble Modern, flew to Los Angeles. Their mission was to persuade Frank Zappa, notorious freak, heavy rock guitarist and scatological satirist, the man who sang the praises of Black Sabbath and The UK Subs, and produced an album by Grand Funk Railroad, to contribute scores for an evening of concert music.

It wasn’t as if this was a Brian Eno or David Byrne, artists whose brushes with rock were temporary career moves: Zappa led The Mothers Of Invention, the most notorious, hairy and unmentionable of 60s underground groups; he played the Fillmore East with John Lennon; signed hard rocker Ted Nugent to his own label; sold out Wembley Arena, the Hammersmith Odeon, Knebworth; wrote songs about ‘Road Ladies’; and was playing “Louie Louie” before Iggy Pop got a record contract – and now people from the heart of Europe’s most refined musical culture wanted him to supply them with orchestral scores. The enormity of the thing somersaults postmodern ‘boundary crossing’ right into the realms of surreal.

However, the earnest Germans had done their homework. In The Real Frank Zappa Book (1989), a casual ‘autobiography’ of transcribed interviews that was really an opportunity to hold forth about politics, Zappa detailed his experience of the orchestral world in a section titled “We Hate Your Dots”. He explained how he had always written scores. Even before he turned a bar band called The Soul Giants into The Mothers, he had composed serial music. Having the scores interpreted, though, was another matter: Zappa discovered that orchestras were custom-designed to play the classics; and that orchestral musicians actively sabotaged attempts to realise new sounds. “Orchestral musicians are concerned with one thing,” he wrote: “their pensions.”

Zappa’s 1971 film 200 Motels routinely dismissed by rock critics as a piece of ‘self-indulgence’, addressed the class divide in music by incarcerating The Mothers – fronted by two ex-members of The Turtles (later to sing back-up vocals on many of T Rex’s hits) – with The Philharmonic Orchestra in a huge concentration camp. As Ringo Starr – playing a character called Larry The Dwarf, and dressed to look like Zappa himself – explained, “This Experimental Reorientation Facility is to retrain these useless old musicians with their brown fiddles and little horns, give them a trade, a reason to exist in the modern world, a chance of a happier, more productive life. Some will enter the military, some will learn shorthand, and some will disappear in the middle of the night on a special train they’re sending in. It’s the only way, really, to bring about the final solution to the Orchestra Ouestion.”

On 200 Motels Zappa’s compositions – an unprecedented mix of 60s happening, Ligeti, Webern, Varèse and Hollywoood pastiche – were next to heavy rock with a compositional ear that took the abstract timbral densities of both equally seriously. The record is currently out of print, which is a shame, because it proves that the commonly held idea that Zappa went ‘upmarket’ at the end of his life is a  misapprehension; he’d always wanted to use orchestras, and for musical reasons, not snobbish ones. Indeed, Zappa bought his first recording ‘studio’ (a four-track tape recorder) with the proceeds from scoring a low budget Western as early as 1963 (he wrote the music for Run Home Slow in 1959; the producers took four years to raise the cash to film it).

Although it produced fascinating music, 200 Motels flopped in the cinemas, and its subversive anthropology of present day music making went unremarked. However, its fictional portrait of orchestral music as a field of battle proved all too prophetic.

Zappa’s subsequent encounters with orchestras were fraught with conflict: the sleevenote to London Symphony Orchestra Vol II accused the trumpet section of spending an extra 15 minutes in the pub and ruining a take. In The Real Frank Zappa Book he told the story of two failed projects (in Vienna and Amsterdam) under the heading “Orchestral Stupidities #1 And #2”, and declared: “I don’t write ‘music on paper’ anymore. The incentive to continue was removed by having to deal with symphony orchestras.”

In the 80s, Zappa toured with rock musicians who could memorise written material and/or play according to aural instruction. He demanded the kind of commitment that led young virtuosi like Warren Cuccurullo and Steve Vai to spend sleepless nights practising ‘impossible’ guitar parts. He invested in a computer suite, the Synclavier, that allowed the editing of digital samples on screen. He mocked the critics who missed the ‘human element’ by asking them if drunken trumpet sections were the way forward. The Synclavier produced music in MIDI-compatible format. Zappa used it on Francesco, Versus The Mothers Of Prevention and Jazz From Hell, which won a Grammy (Zappa dismissed it as a sop from an industry keen to muzzle him). The Synclavier can also be programmed to produce scores. This was the facility that allowed Zappa to enter the orchestral world of Rexroth, Mölich-Zebhauser and Ensemble Modern...

Following that first meeting, musicians were flown over to LA for extended rehearsals and sampling sessions, and scores were arrived at through a painstaking mix of interpretation, experimentation and adjustment, making full use of Zappa’s state-of-the-art home studio and his four dedicated technicians. Zappa’s notorious workaholic application, night after night spent in the studio he called the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, bore fruit undreamt of by the slacker surfers of cyberia and their fantasies of romance between man and machine.

In September 1992, Zappa’s music was performed in Frankfurt, Vienna and Berlin at several ‘classical’ concerts; audiences were numbered in thousands, rather than the tens that usually show up for ‘difficult’ modern music. On the CD of the concerts, The Yellow Shark, Zappa proudly includes the lengthy applause that resulted.

Jazz and improvisation, rather than rock, have always seemed the smartest way to negotiate the encounter of African rhythm and European polyphony; think of the tawdry history of the rock/classical interface: Deep Purple and The London Philharmonic; The Nice; Icebreaker; Jaz Coleman arranges Pink Floyd. The fact that someone named Ali Askin is credited with “arrangements” on some of The Yellow Shark has led to cynical speculation that The Ensemble Modern was essentially bringing in the punters by playing upmarket versions of Zappa’s low-rent melodies. Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser will have none of this.

“Ali had nothing to do with the basic process. The Synclavier can print out music, what the notes are and the rhythms, what people need to play to make music out of it. It was a process of constant co-operation, to work out such material, and Frank followed up this work from day to day. We sent over Ali Askin to Los Angeles for a long time period and he worked day by day together with Frank Zappa on these elaborations, so you couldn’t say that the instrumentation is from Ali Askin. He is the arranger on some pieces, but he followed up the indications that Frank gave him. I can vouch for that!”

Listening to The Yellow Shark it should be immediately apparent to even cursory listeners that Zappa has an extraordinarily broad stylistic palette. What distinguishes him from a host of 80s musicians who have made eclecticism their watchword, though, is his ability to write haunting melodies. Coming from a younger generation, John Zorn is hip to punk and free improvisation in a way Zappa isn’t, but he doesn’t seem capable of framing new tunes. Most modern composers resort to melody as a retro gesture: maybe only Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton can compete with Zappa as tunesmiths that can make a singable melody untrammelled by tradition.

“It’s a very difficult question to answer: how come Zappa wrote such memorable tunes?” says Andreas. “For the postmodernists it was more harmony than melody [which] was the point of going back to history. How to invent melodies? For me, in the classical world there were maybe only two real big melody creators, Schubert and Tchaikovsky. Many other composers worked with combining rhythm and harmony with melodies, but being a real melody inventor must be very difficult! But Frank, at least from time to time, was one. One of the pieces which was not on the CD, but we’d played at the concerts, was called “Amnerika”. It’s one of the most poignant melodies I have ever heard, and it’s so fragile, the way he lets the melody float through the instruments, it’s extremely hard to play.“

I pointed out that there is a version of “Amnerika” on Civilization Phaze III, Zappa’s Synclavier masterpiece, but because Zappa sampled so much of The Ensemble Modern, it’s difficult to tell whether it’s a digital remix of the Ensemble or a Synclavier piece.

“I sometimes didn’t know as well,” says Andreas. “I’ll tell you a little story. I was in Los Angeles in late 92 when Frank was mixing down The Yellow Shark album, after the tour. He played the entire tape he had mixed down at that point, and the last piece was “The Girl In The Magnesium Dress”. I said, ‘Frank, I don’t understand – why did you use the Synclavier version and not the live-played version?’ And he said it was the live-played version! And I knew the piece quite well! It’s incredible!”

The Ensemble Modern work in close collaborations with their composers, avoiding the conveyor-belt attitude necessitated by the underfunding of British orchestras. From the list – which includes Harrison Birtwistle, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman, Helmut Lachenmann, Conlon Nancarrow, Luigi Nono – it is evident that these musicians listen to the gamut of New Music. (They have also worked with composer Helmut Oehring, who Andreas describes as being “like Heiner Goebbels: he started with experimental rock”. Andreas also talks about the Ensemble working with Mark Anthony Turnage, and perhaps a project with Richard Barrett, people who “come from the well-educated field of composing, but interested in other fields without doing kitsch with it.”)

Working with Zappa during weeks of rehearsals in the Joe’s Garage studios, the Ensemble improvised under his direction, and learned to put what he called the “eyebrows” on pieces they had learned. Like The Asko Ensemble playing György Ligeti, they broke through the intimidating “dots” of New Music scores and got to the sonic events Zappa wanted to realise.

Andreas continued. “I studied music theory, and piano playing with my father, a pianist and opera conductor. All my youth was full of operas and concerts, then at a later stage I became interested in musics I’d previously thought were peripheral – with The Ensemble Modern everything fitted together because the musicians themselves were interested in classical music as well as contemporary and jazz and rock.”

The Yellow Shark concert at the Royal Festival Hall this month won’t be a reproduction of the September 1992 concerts in Germany, although personnel and conductor (Peter Rundel) are the same. The Ensemble’s sound director Norbert Ommer cut his teeth working with Zappa’s sound-man Harry Andronis. Coming from the world of arena rock, Zappa was particularly concerned that amplification would be used to “put musical detail in your face”: even when amplifying études reminiscent of Webern. Zappa wanted a hard modernist edge. Andreas has altered the programme to include composers Zappa was inspired by (Zappa chose to work with the Ensemble after hearing the way they threw themselves into playing Nancarrow and Weill), and presented in the way he advised.

“The first half will be the first three of the Conlon Nancarrow Studies, which Frank admired a lot. We did it in Amsterdam, our first time amplified, and it was incredible! Up till then, up to November, we’d only played them acoustically. In very small halls it worked, but not in bigger halls. We were so surprised by what a big success it was in Amsterdam, at the Concertgebouw. That was the reason we’ve included them.

“Then there will be Déserts by Edgard Varèse, with the film projection by Bill Viola. The second half will be all Zappa. Zappa began his composing life with the music of Varèse and he ended it there, because one of his last projects was a recording with us of Varèse’s pieces that Gail Zappa is going to release on Zappa Records. I think the reason is that Varèse, like Frank, was never interested in music theory, he was interested in forming new acoustic worlds, new conceptions, sounds and noise that no-one in composed music before him had done, with a few exceptions perhaps, and that was why Frank was so interested in Varèse, he always tried to look 20 years into the future, doing things that created big scandals. The first performance of Déserts in 1954 in Théatre de Champs Elysées in Paris was the biggest music scandal in Europe since Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring. That had to do with the fact that Varèse himself was always a rule breaker, he wasn’t following up Schoenberg’s new theories, he was interested in them, but much more interesting for him were acoustic results, acoustic surprises, the emotional impact which music could bring to an audience which is expecting different things. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that’s the relation of Frank Zappa to Edgard Varèse, and Frank was such a kind of explorer all the time.

“When we were recording the Varèse pieces in the summer of 93, the role of Frank was being a kind of artistic adviser, anyway the sound director for the whole recording set-up, and finally the mixing and so on, but most of the time Frank had no score in front of him, but he knew every note of the pieces, it was really incredible, and he gave such intelligent remarks and propositions to the conductor and the musicians – how he interpreted a phrase, it was really really interesting. He showed an extremely deep knowledge of the music without – that was my feeling – having really studied the scores. It’s interesting isn’t it?”

Michael Nyman, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Kronos Quartet, Elvis
Costello – the postmodernists have had a field-day bringing ‘aspects of pop’ into the concert hall. Now the king of scabrous anti-establishment rock is to have his turn. Zappa’s keen attention to the actuality of sound – unaffected by modish preening about social identity and ‘breaking boundaries’ – may contribute more to the repressed trajectory of 20th century modernism than many postmodern ideologues (and other theorists of ‘subcultural capital’) will be prepared to admit.

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