“You Are What You Is” sang Francis Vincent Zappa, but who was he?

Composer, provocateur, guitarist, free-speech advocate, satirist – all these and more. He famously appeared before a US Senate committee defending the right to free speech and is also memorialised by a statue in Vilnius, Lithuania despite never having visited the country – clearly a large enough symbol of anti-establishmentarianism to fill a plinth formally occupied by one hero or another of the Soviet regime.

Musically speaking, he was a chameleon, who integrated the popular styles he had grown up with, with his fascination for avant-garde classical music and especially the music of his beloved Varese, the great French/American composer. He first heard of Edgard Varese’s music in an article that claimed that it (the percussion work Ionisation specifically) had little musical value but was useful for showing off the potential of the then new-fangled ‘hi-fi’ systems. This naturally piqued his interest and he finally tracked down a record of the composer’s works and immediately fell in love with them, especially Ionisation, itself the seminal work which launched the Western percussion ensemble in 1929. The  story is oft-told that, at age 15, he used his tidy $5 birthday gift to place a trunk-call to Varese’s home in Greenwich Village, New York, a number cheerfully provided (along with an address) by the NYC operator. Unfortunately, the composer himself was in Brussels, at the World’s Fair, working on his land-mark electronic work Poème Électronique, but his wife Louise was accommodating and encouraged the young Frank to call back some weeks hence. He did and finally got to talk with his hero, but sadly the two never met in person, in spite of their correspondence and stated intention to.

My journey with the music of Zappa began at a similar age as his with Varèse’s, as a teenager in my high-school jazz band, when our more worldy bass player (the school bass teacher) presented us with a modal free-for-all jamming tune called King Kong. Another school friend gave me a cassette of Just Another band From LA. Later on, Overnight Sensation intrigued an older me with its fascinating rhythmic complexity and advanced atonal melodies, somehow sitting comfortably alongside killer grooves.

During my college years, as I discovered the world of contemporary music, I was even more interested to learn that Zappa had also written for the renowned Ensemble Intercontemporain, at the urging of one of the 20th centuries greatest musical figures; Pierre Boulez. I finally figured that this was a composer I needed to know more about and answered a noticeboard ad; vibes player wanted for Zappa cover band. My time with the Zappa Instrumentale was exacting and illuminating as I threw myself into learning dozens of charts, many of them as complex as the so-called ‘new complexity’ I was performing with my own ELISION ensemble. We even had an actual Zappa alumnus – Australian pianist and composer Allan Zavod – come and jam with the band.

My work was nothing though, compared with the experience Zappa’s own musicians went through. They rehearsed for weeks on end, six days a week, for their tours, memorising a staggering array of music only then having to adapt it on the spot as Frank called for a different version of something on the gig. How about an ‘ambient, New-Age’ version of his notoriously difficult Black Page? “No problem, here it is…!”. His musicians were always the best and his drummers included such legends as Terry Bozzio, Ralph Humphrey and Chad Wackerman. His main mallet player – Ruth Underwood – still sounds absolutely astonishing on those albums. To this day I have never heard a mallet roll as tight as hers!

In spite of attracting such luminaries to his bands, it wasn’t always easy for Zappa with musicians. His work with the London Symphony Orchestra proved fractious (read the liner notes regarding musicians and professionalism) and his last touring band in the 80’s imploded, leaving him with a mistrust of live performance. For a number of years he retreated to his home studio and composed on the Synclavier, the state of the art sampling synthesiser of its time.

It wasn’t until his reconnection with live musicians in the form of Germany’s Ensemble Modern and their joint project The Yellow Shark, that he felt he had really found musicians who could meet all of his musical demands. Formed in 1980 by a group of like-minded graduating musicians from the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, the group has – like Ensemble Intercontemporain – established itself as one of the major new music ensembles in the world. I can happily attest to their virtuosity, having been lucky enough to be part of two collaborations with them and ELISION at the Adelaide and Melbourne festivals respectively, in performances of works by Liza Lim and Helmut Lachenmann, as well as Hans Zender’s wonderful re-imagining of Schubert’s Winterreise, a work we memorably performed here at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) a few years back. It is very exciting to have members of the group coming to ANAM for the Australian premiere (and only performance outside of their own) of The Yellow Shark and their knowledge of the work and individual musicianship and virtuosity will offer us all an amazing learning experience.

But… there is also another link to the music of Frank Zappa at ANAM this year.

Most of us know Michael Kieran Harvey as one of this countries finest and most virtuosic pianists. Like Zappa, he is a polymath; a composer, an advocate of free speech and a pin-pricker of societal pomposity. His compositions include the monolithic 48 Fugues for Frank for solo piano, each of the 10 movements is an homage to a different work of Zappa’s. I have had the pleasure of working with Michael on a number of occasions and have long been wanting to collaborate in a project at ANAM. It finally seemed that – with the Yellow Shark performance – the stars were aligned for an ANAM piano and percussion collaboration with a Zappa focus. Over the course of the year, we will be working at orchestrating a number of Michael’s Fugues for the ANAM piano and percussion ensemble and the concert will pair those, with arrangements of other Zappa favourites as well as music by his classical era namesake, the Milanese composer Francesco Zappa, whose works the modern Frank Zappa (no relation unfortunately) recorded on the Synclavier.

Hopefully we will get to know a lot more about who Frank Zappa was through his wonderful music this year at ANAM.

Words by Peter Neville (Head of Percussion)

Ensemble Modern’s residency draws to a close this Friday, be sure to not miss out on the remaining events.


ZAPPA The Adventures of Greggery Peccary
ZAPPA Yellow Shark (excerpts)

Members of the Ensemble Modern:
Dietmar Wiesner flute
Saar Berger horn
Jagdish Mistry violin
Hermann Kretzschmar piano

Johannes Debus conductor
ANAM Musicians


Fri 16 Jun 10AM – 4PM

10AM / Dietmar Wiesner
12PM / Jagdish Mistry
4PM / Saar Berger

Masterclass Tickets: Full $20 / Student $5 / Student/Teacher Group (per person) $5 / ANAMates FREE



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s