2, 2003 at 3pm
COLEMAN: L'alma respira (World premiere. Commissioned by the
Helen F. Whitaker Fund)
It is a strange image: Frank Zappa seated next to Pierre Boulez. Boulez looks avuncular and charming, Zappa hirsute, gaunt, legs crossed, somewhat terrifying. Appearances aside, these two artists have both everything and nothing in common: Zappa, the angry iconoclast with a guitar, a one-man Brecht/Weill/Spike Jones (the list goes on) simultaneously seeking and disparaging academic acceptance; Boulez, his own brand of iconoclast, with the legendary ear and more legendary aesthetic fury.
Now, ten years after Zappa's death, it isn't strange to think of him as a composer of concert music. We watched him age and make the move, as often happens, from outspoken young freak to sated elder statesman. In his younger days - aside from isolated concerts Zappa and his band gave with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (which Zappa launched by saying "Hit it, Zubin!") - Zappa the rock musician was, in the public eye, a very different person from the late-night downstairs scribbler of concert music ("dots on paper," as he called it).
One of the most admirable things about Zappa's concert music, creativity and aesthetics aside, is the sheer amount he wrote. Like Mozart or Beethoven before him (and please pardon the comparison, which may raise a few hackles), he led a life devoted solely, almost monastically, to music: he never gave into the ruinous temptations or "bad boy" behavior that too often accompanies fame, and to which many of his rock contemporaries fell victim. After all, time spent stoned would have cut into his time to compose. Instead of becoming just another victim of the counterculture (a culture he participated in and helped to create, yet which he at the same time mocked avidly - a typical Zappa dichotomy), he worked at his craft, writing complex "pieces" for his menacingly talented band rather than making millions with love songs and catchy hits.
And then there's the variety of Zappa's output: "operas" like Joe's Garage, Thingfish and Uncle Meat; jazz recordings like "Hot Rats" and "Jazz from Hell"; straightforward rock albums like "We're Only in it for the Money" and "Freak Out"; innumerable live records like "Broadway the Hard Way" and the "You Can't Do That on Stage Any More" series. But most intriguing, at least for the present forum, are records with the titles "Frank Zappa Conducts the London Symphony Orchestra," "Strictly Genteel" and "The Yellow Shark." These discs represent Zappa the "serious" composer, and they comprise a recorded legacy that would make even the most avant of the avant-garde envious - particularly because Zappa was an unabashed rocker who never had any serious academic training (barring a few theory lessons). But this member of the great unwashed redefined the notion of "longhair" music, bringing serious composition to the post-peace-and-love generation.
"The origin of much of the music people are familiar with was for the orchestra," says Gail Zappa, his widow and keeper-of-the-flame, "but [the individual pieces] were reconstituted for whatever band Frank had going at the time." Near the end of his life, he made a transition from notated music to full use of the Synclavier synthesizer. But to the end, and for whatever available forces, it seems Frank Zappa was always composing. In his book, The Real Frank Zappa Book (which hovers between confession, manifesto and a handbook for life) he writes: " 'What do you do for a living, Dad?' If any of my kids ever asked me that question, the answer would have to be: 'What I do is composition.' " He goes on: "I love putting little black dots on music paper. I'd sit for sixteen hours at a time, hunched over a chair with a bottle of India ink, and draw beams and dots. No other activity could have enticed me away from the table. I'd maybe get up for coffee or to eat, but other than that, I was glued to the chair for weeks and months on end, writing music."
It is as a composer of "classical" or "art" music that Zappa most often showed his serious side - and he did have one. Even on early releases like "Freak Out" and "Lumpy Gravy" the musicians in the studio were reading from scores, and you can hear references to Stravinsky, Bartók and Varèse in "songs" like "Help, I'm a Rock" and the musical tales of an adventurous groupie called Suzie Creamcheese. A recently re-released 1999 CD featuring Ensemble Modern and called "Everything is Healing Nicely" is mostly for diehard fans, but those interested in Zappa's dots will welcome it. It's an intentionally unpolished record, a set of basement tapes for the high-art set, but that is the greater portion of its charm. You can hear Zappa dealing with the Ensemble Modern, exacting precise performances from this fearless group in his own fashion. Listen to the lilting melody in "Amnerika Goes Home" - Zappa, the ironist who never wrote a love song, could write as breathtaking a melody as anyone. It's so gorgeous, so long and Puccini-like, that it makes one wonder what he could have done had he devoted himself just a little more seriously to concert music.
"The present-day composer refuses to die." These words of Edgard Varèse, Zappa's hero, are true of Zappa tenfold. The man refuses to die, and not in legacy: the depth of Zappa's output is still being discovered. Down in "the vault," a temperature-controlled basement in the composer's Southern California home, hundreds of new pieces are being unearthed.
Why is Zappa, the ultimate fly in the ointment, still so inscrutable ten years after his death? And, frankly (mind the pun), what makes this oh-so-public figure so difficult to write about? His was a talent - more like a set of talents - impossible to nail down. He is the artist you love to hate to love to hate to love; our collective opinion, as a classical music culture, of the man seems to shift daily. His art was lent currency by the Boulez seal of approval, but since his death, and as his legacy becomes clearer over time, his place in the classical music world grows more and more vague.
There is a photo. In the background, Ensemble Modern rehearses; inconspicuously lurking in the foreground is Zappa, back to us, beside a table strewn with multiple coffee cups, a case of cigarettes and an ashtray. He is listening, taking the traditional seat of the composer - not leading the band, not angling for attention, but sitting with his scores and being mindful of the ensemble's efforts.
But very likely, back in his very individual brain, lurks the same thought that many a great artist has: he probably wishes he could be home working, creating more music. That's all this man ever did. And like him or not, agree or disagree with his politics or aesthetics or the personal "pissed-off" chip-on-shoulder vibe he seemed to carry around, he left us a generous and carefully crafted batch of highly original music. This is as much as can be said about any great artist.
This article originally appeared, in a different form, on andante.com, and is reproduced with permission.
Composer Daniel Felsenfeld comes originally from California, where he earned his BFA at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He received a Master's degree from the New England Conservatory of Music, for which is currently completing his DMA thesis. Danny has had fellowships at the Composer's Conference and the MacDowell Colony.