While Frank Zappa‘s notoriety and financial compensation were mostly tied to his accomplishments in the rock music world – beginning as the leader of the Mothers of Invention in the 1960s and various iterations of rock bands in the ensuing decades – his love of modern classical music, particularly in his later years, seemed to bring him the most artistic satisfaction. While he certainly explored classical motifs early on, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on 200 Motels (1971) as well as the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra on Lumpy Gravy (1967) and Orchestral Favorites (1979), it wasn’t until the 1980s and early 1990s that his classical explorations justifiably threatened to overshadow his rock and roll efforts, culminating in his impeccably executed 1993 swan song, The Yellow Shark.
Zappa’s teenage years were filled with oddly paired twin musical obsessions: R&B and modern classical music. A self-taught musician, Zappa’s classical “eureka” moment occurred when he bought an album by French classical maverick Edgard Varèse after hearing about it in a magazine. Later on, while Zappa’s unique brand of rock music allowed for these kinds of influences to creep in, most of his fully formed classically-focused projects became more pronounced in the 1980s.
The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kent Nagano, recorded two albums worth of Zappa compositions in January 1983, which Zappa released in 1983 and 1987. Legendary French composer Pierre Boulez conducted his own Ensemble InterContemporain for several Zappa compositions on Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, released in 1984. This release also included compositions executed by Zappa on the Synclavier, an expensive, hyper-sophisticated keyboard sampler also used by artists as varied as Stevie Wonder, Chick Corea, Laurie Anderson, and Michael Jackson (that repeated “gong” sound you hear at the beginning of “Beat It” – that’s a Synclavier).
Zappa became instantly attracted to the Synclavier, mainly because it could execute his complex compositions flawlessly (translation: without human error). While fans may have scoffed that removing the human element resulted in a cold, soulless finished product, Zappa seemed unconcerned with these protests. As a result, he not only released Synclavier recordings on The Perfect Stranger but also subsequent albums such as Francesco Zappa (1984), Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (1985), and Jazz From Hell (1986), while posthumous releases such as the Grammy-winning Civilization Phaze III (1994) and Feeding the Monkies at Ma Maison (2011) prominently featured the Synclavier. He also took it on the road with him on his 1988 tour, as it complemented the “live” band onstage. While the London Symphony Orchestra certainly has a well-earned reputation as a group of highly experienced musical professionals, Zappa was somewhat disappointed in their performances of his works, claiming that an abnormal amount of editing was required in the studio to fix erroneous notes.
Zappa’s work on the Synclavier increased dramatically after his 1990 terminal diagnosis of prostate cancer. Holed up in his home studio, he devoted more time to his “serious” compositions. In 1991, when he was chosen to be one of four featured composers at a Frankfurt festival the following year, he was approached by a German chamber ensemble, Ensemble Modern, who were interested in playing his music for the event. Zappa invited them to Los Angeles for rehearsals of new compositions as well as arrangements of some of his older material. He was highly impressed with this group, who played his music with more accuracy than he’d ever heard it played before.
“I’ve never had such an accurate performance at any time for the kind of music that I do,” Zappa said of Ensemble Modern in the Yellow Shark liner notes. “The dedication of the group to playing it right and putting the ‘eyebrows’ on it is something that would take your breath away.” (“Putting the eyebrows on it” is a Zappa expression that essentially means putting something extra into the music that transcends simply “good” playing and takes into the stratosphere of “astonishing” playing).
This relationship with Ensemble Modern resulted in a series of concerts that were performed in Germany and Austria in September 1992, and were recorded and became The Yellow Shark, released the following year. The concerts took place in Frankfurt on September 17, 18 and 19; in Berlin on September 22 and 23; and in Vienna on September 26, 27 and 28. Zappa’s illness had progressed significantly by the time of the concerts, and as a result, he was only able to attend the September 17 and 19 performances (making the most of these appearances; he even conducted a few of the pieces on those nights, replacing the ensemble’s regular conductor, Peter Rundel).
Those six concerts were boiled down to a little more than 70 minutes for a thrilling compilation of the group’s performances. There are compositions well-known to Frank’s fan base, as well as compositions never heard outside of Zappa’s home studio or Ensemble Modern rehearsal sessions. The album opens to thunderous applause as Zappa walks onstage and introduces the band. He also makes subtle references to the night’s “secret word” and the potential flinging of women’s underpants on the stage – a reminder that, while there is a classical modern musical ensemble gathered here, it’s still essentially a Zappa concert.
“Dog Breath Variations” and “Uncle Meat” are well known among the Zappa universe as both songs are from his ambitious 1969 album Uncle Meat (one of his earliest forays into “serious” composition). Hearing Ensemble Modern interpret these early works makes Zappa’s enthusiastic approval of the group all the more logical – they tackle the piece’s bracing melodies with gusto, and the unique instrumental makeup gives the interpretation the right amount of sonic texture.
Other previously recorded Zappa compositions include “Pound For a Brown” and the knotty “Be-Bop Tango” (both recorded initially with full bands) as well as flawless interpretations of Synclavier pieces: “The Girl in the Magnesium Dress”, performed on keyboards, percussion, guitar, mandolin, and harp, and the exuberant set closer, “G-Spot Tornado”, which sounds in its original form (off the album Jazz From Hell) like psychotic, seizure-inducing instrumental dance music but in the hands of Ensemble Modern comes off as a hyperactive-yet-skillful orchestral celebration. The ensemble’s interpretation of “G-Spot Tornado” might have been suggested as a dare; hearing the original version, it seems impossible that a group of human beings could reproduce this sound. But they do. Perfectly. The concerts were filmed for European television, and viewers were treated to an exhilarating dance number during “G-Spot Tornado” courtesy of Canadian choreographer Edouard Lock and his company La La La Human Steps, featuring Canadian dancer Louise Lecavalier. It’s well worth seeking out this performance on YouTube.
The premiere recordings are equally fascinating, as they show a deeply mature composer at the peak of his powers. “Outrage at Valdez” was written for the Cousteau Society’s documentary on the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and is a layered, solemn composition performed by the entire ensemble. “Ruth Is Sleeping” is a piano duet performed by Hermann Kretzschmar and Ueli Wiget, originally composed for one piano but arranged for two by Ali N. Askin for the Yellow Shark shows when it was determined that it would be too difficult – even for the Ensemble Modern – for it to be performed only by one.
Another premiere composition, “Food Gathering in Post-Industrial America, 1992,” shows Zappa, the grim sociologist, applying his caustic wit to the proceedings. Always a believer in placing musicians wherever they could best benefit the composition – regardless of its proximity to their given instrument – Zappa has violist Hilary Sturt recite the text as the rest of the ensemble react with musical (and vocal) cues conducted by Zappa himself. The appearance of instrumentation as disparate as didgeridoo, toy piano, and slide whistle, among other things, adds to Zappa’s interpretation of American consumerism and its inherent ugliness.
A sort of companion piece to “Food Gathering…” is the wildly entertaining “Welcome to the United States,” which has Kretzschmar reciting the U.S. Customs form questionnaire, highlighting its idiocy (“Are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?”) while the ensemble, once again under the baton of Zappa, responds to Kretzschmar’s questions with appropriate musical and vocal cues. It’s hard to effectively explain the humorous impact of this concept without hearing it. From an emotional standpoint, it’s profoundly moving to hear Zappa and his sympathetic, highly competent ensemble skewer US bureaucracy with the humor and satire he’s been known for, even in the final years of his life.
But for every foray into Frank Zappa’s satirical humor, there are even more moments of deeply serious composition that put him in the same league as 20th-century titans such as Varese, Stravinsky, and Webern. There’s the complex wind sextet piece “Times Beach II”, followed later in the set by “Times Beach III” and reduced to a quintet. String quintet pieces “None of the Above” and “Questi Cazzi di Piccione” (the latter roughly translating from Italian as “these fucking pigeons”) are reminiscent of some of Bartok’s dramatic string-based compositions, and the dark, thorny full-band arrangement of “Pentagon Afternoon” (bolstered by several ensemble members briefly shooting off toy ray guns) combines Zappa’s orchestral acumen with his utter contempt for the military-industrial complex. In the liner notes, he describes the composition as a tone poem about “these dealers in death, sitting around a table in the afternoon in the Pentagon, figuring out what they’re going to blow up now, who they’re going to subjugate, and what tools they’ll use.”
At the conclusion of “G-Spot Tornado” – conducted by Zappa – the ensemble and composer are treated to a lengthy standing ovation. On the album, it’s about two minutes long, but during the actual performance, it’s said to have been closer to 20. The moment must have been bittersweet for Zappa, Ensemble Modern, and the audience – to hear this music performed so expertly was a revelation, but knowing that Zappa’s time was running out meant that this magical collaboration had an unforgiving time limit. The Yellow Shark – named after a fiberglass shark gifted to Zappa by a fan in 1988 – was released on November 2, 1993, and Zappa passed away in his Los Angeles home on December 4, just 17 days shy of his 53rd birthday.
Only one other Zappa/Ensemble Modern recording has seen the light of day. In 1999, the Zappa estate released Everything Is Healing Nicely, culled from the 1991 Los Angeles rehearsal sessions. While not nearly as polished as The Yellow Shark, it’s still a very enjoyable listen and makes an excellent companion piece to its predecessor. In 1993, Zappa produced a recording session of Ensemble Modern – conducted by Peter Eötvös – performing works of Edgard Varèse. This project, titled The Rage and the Fury, is much-discussed lore among Zappa’s dedicated fan base, but as of this writing, it has yet to see the light of day alongside the flurry of posthumous Zappa releases.
In the meantime, Frank Zappa fans can enjoy The Yellow Shark to their hearts’ content as a stellar document of his orchestral works, performed to the satisfaction of a composer with the highest standards. While known primarily among mainstream music fans as the man behind novelty hits like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”,” “Dancin’ Fool”, and “Valley Girl”, the orchestral music of Frank Zappa is required listening for any fan of 20th-century classical music, and The Yellow Shark is the best place to start.