Who among us does not love Frank Zappa? The original postmodern prankster and genre-collider, the brilliant maverick composer, the self-educated outsider artist who became an unlikely rock star, the fanatically demanding bandleader who never missed a chance to skewer his own pretensions along with everyone else's. The greatest musical comedian ever -- by a clean mile -- at his deadpan best he was incisive and provocative, and even at his sophomoric, wince-inducing worst you still had to admire his shit-disturbing spirit. (And then there's The Real Frank Zappa Book -- do not lend this book to anyone if you ever want to see it again. I speak from bitter experience. Or, for pure gonzo brilliance, check out Zappa's 1986 appearance on Crossfire.)
My first exposure to Zappa's music came a few weeks after I started college, in the form of this irresistibly absurd Blue Note record -- it even has liner notes by Leonard Feather! Never mind the album art, it's actually a killing bit of early fusion -- the core band is basically a late sixties Mothers spinoff and Zappa guests on the one Ponty-penned track, laying down some tasty caveman wah-wah. But the groovy jazz-rock jams and clever faux-novelty number ("America Drinks and Goes Home") share space on the record with an ambitious 19-minute piece of (mostly) Very Serious Music. It opens with bassoon, violin and oboe, even comes with a full-disclosure title: "Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra." [It's wildly uneven, and gets progressively less Very Serious as it goes on, but I still like it a lot.]
The first half of last Friday's Zappa portrait at Miller consisted entirely of Zappa's Very Serious Music for wind quintet, string quintet, and chamber orchestra. Most of the repertoire was drawn from the versions first presented on Frank's swan song, The Yellow Shark, a collaboration with the Ensemble Modern released just a month before Zappa's death in late 1993. The performances were all technically brilliant, especially given how fiercely difficult most of this music is to play, but the presentation was disappointingly by-the-books. By the end of the 90-minute(!) first half, it felt stifling, and not just because of the out-of-control heat inside the packed theatre. Look, I understand the desire to present Zappa's music with all the respect accorded to "legitimate" composers, but... doesn't it actually seem more disrespectful to Frank to do his music without even slightly tweaking the rituals of an Important Uptown Concert? I'm not expecting anyone to rival Frank's own opening comments from the Yellow Shark concerts, but it does seem like the contemporary Zappa spirit is better represented by the cheeky irreverence of an Anti-Social Music hit than Friday's strictly genteel first half.
Now, this isn't entirely the fault of the performers, per se. There's also the particular selection of Zappa's Very Serious Music chosen for this gig. For example -- despite the backstory of sexy sexy danger behind "The Girl in the Magnesium Dress," the music is neither seductive nor sinister. The orchestration (by Ali N. Naskin) for keys, plucked strings, and mallet percussion, is appropriately ice-cold, and the first thirty seconds or so are fascinating, but beyond that, the piece is entirely lacking in meaningful, audible momentum or direction. All we experience is a shapeless blur of sound made up of undifferentiated wisps of chromaticism. It reminds me of one of Milton Babbitt's aimless excursions. No doubt Unca Milt would bristle at the notion that his rigorously uncompromising brand of total serialism has anything at all in common with the work of a someone who played the electric guitar for a living, but that's just one of the ironies of Zappa's Very Serious Music -- it is, often, far too beholden to certain mid-20th century academic orthodoxies about what Very Serious Music is supposed to sound like.
"III Revised," for string quintet, suffers from much of the same problems -- the opening gestures are great, but the piece never quite manages to get off the ground. "None of the Above," another movement from the same work -- originally written for Kronos and later re-scored for five strings -- works much better, opening with sharp Bartókian accents and building logically towards marching chordal figures and mysterious sul tasto effects. "Questi Cazzi di Piccione" (i.e., "Those Fucking Pigeons,") is acerbic and abstract but keeps its momentum thanks to some emphatic knocking figures. (But where was the toy raygun effect used on the Ensemble Modern recording? I always enjoyed the idea that the piece ends with those fucking pigeons getting blasted out of existence.) These works were performed by the string players from the Fireworks Ensemble -- Jennifer Choi on violin, Leigh Stuart on cello, and leader Brian Coughlin on bass -- augmented by Cornelius Defallo on violin and Jonathan Vinocour on viola. The quintet was tight and spirited, especially on "Questi," but I really wanted to hear more personality, more "eyebrows" (to use Frank's term).
The works for woodwind quintet included on Friday's program were also hit-and-miss. The Zephyros Winds attacked the concert opener, "Number 6," with a driving spirit -- the piece sounds like Zappa's twisted idea of a Broadway overture. They closed their portion of the program with a short little showstopper (called just "Wind Quintet"), a dynamic piece written entirely in rhythmic unison. It's kind of like a big band sax soli, except instead of bop lines the lead voice outlines Frank's reliably twisted melodic ideas, and instead of five saxes it's scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon. But the real meat of their set was "Times Beach," parts II and III (the first movement is apparently unplayable and has been discarded, but the old numbering remains). Both movements are virtuosic but aimless. Part II opens with a terrific Varèse pastiche/homage -- machine-gun bursts of repeated notes, then a single jabbing accented chord followed by a jagged bassoon line -- but Zappa, at least in this piece, doesn't have Varèse's single-minded focus or his ability to structure his ideas into a coherent musical narrative. It's frustrating, because 'Times Beach" has many brilliant individual gestures, but they just don't add up to a satisfying piece. Again, the playing was impressive, but dispassionate. I'm not sure that even the most brilliant performance could sell me on "Times Beach," but if the music has a story to tell -- and, at least according to the composer, it does -- then Zephyros need to figure out how to shape the music to make that story clear. To be fair, I don't think the Ensemble Modern fare all that much better with this one, even though they had the benefit of direct input from the composer -- Zappa sang the phrases to them as he heard them. (The score leaves the articulation, phrasing and dynamics up to the discretion of the performer.)
After Zephyros and the string quintet, a largish chamber orchestra took the stage, under the direction of Jeffrey Milarsky (last seen conducting the Manhttan School percussion ensemble's killing version of Ionisation). For this hit, Milarsky left the stage after each of the orchestral pieces, then did a weird little jog up to the podium for the next one -- not really sure what was about. Anyway, after all that Very Serious Music, I was really looking forward to "Be-Bop Tango," one of the early 1970's Zappa favorites to get the orchestral treatment on The Yellow Shark. Of course, the opening trombones+horns+sandpaper groove only vaguely resembles a proper tango, and no one would mistake the piece's virtuosic angular lines for licks lifted from the Charlie Parker Omnibook, but that's kind of the whole point. And, in the brief middle bit where the musicians get to pretend they're in a nightclub talking animatedly and ignoring the pianist's cocktail stylings, we finally hear the night's first clue that Frank Zappa does, in fact, believe that humor belongs in music.
As for the rest of the orchestral set, as I mentioned earlier, "The Girl with the Magnesium Dress" does nothing for me. But the two non-Yellow Shark works were more interesting. "Naval Aviation in Art?" had some very attractive writing for mallet percussion, and "The Perfect Stranger" sounded surprisingly lyrical and dreamy.
After intermission, when everyone flocked outside to get some relief from the hall's sauna-like heat, the audience was rewarded for sitting patiently through an hour and half of Very Serious Music with the promise that the Fireworks Ensemble would be slumming it in their "rock band" incarnation. Brian Coughlin strapped on the Fender bass, James Johnston fired up the keyboard samples, Oren Fader set up his stompbox/pedal rack, and Eric Poland climbed behind the kit. Jennifer Grim (flute), Michael Ibrahim (alto sax), Jennifer Choi (violin) and Leigh Stuart (cello) completed the lineup.
Okay, at this point, I should probably admit that I'm dreading what I can only assume will be a bunch of very nice, clean-cut, conservatory-trained musicians making a well-intentioned but horrific mockery of rock playing. I'm happy to report that I was entirely wrong -- Brian Coughlin makes a very credible rock bassist, and Eric Porland acquitted himself just fine in the role of Terry Bozzio on The Black Page -- after he played the original drum solo, the rest of Fireworks joined in on "The Hard Version," followed by (after a brief "conducted improv" interlude), "The Easy, Teenage-New York Version." "T'Mershi Duween" was flawlessly tight, even at breakneck speed. Jennifer Choi played a crowd-pleasing solo on a reggaed-up "King Kong," and Michael Ibrahim darted around the Morse-code groove of "The Purple Lagoon." Oren Fader and Brian Coughlin followed up with some unabashedly proggy showmanship before the group medleyed into "Approximate."
Fireworks closed with a crisp, authoritative "G-Spot Tornado." I've heard some very good orchestras make a complete hash of this, so it was great to hear everyone in Fireworks actually dig in and nail it. It also made for a satisfying close to a sometimes frustrating concert. "G-Spot Tornado" is decidedly not Very Serious Music -- despite its technical challenges, it's really just a groovy line over a basic rock groove. But when it's done right, it kills.
Tickets to this event were provided by Miller Theatre.