Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Der Gelbe Hai
When I was typing yesterday’s post, I had the uneasy feeling I was making some kind of blunt mistake, some kind of blunder.
But I couldn’t figure out what it was.
After I posted yesterday, I quickly found a couple of typing errors and re-posted to correct them. Later in the day I re-posted to add a sentence and a link. But I was still bugged by something.
It bothered me a bit that I hadn’t said anything about Toyota’s trumpet-playing robot (in fact, I’ve seen references to them having an entire marching band of robots) but I didn’t think I really needed that for the post. That wasn’t what was bugging me.
So, something kind of nagged at me all day and into the evening. Then, at about 10:30 last night, I was reaching for a book to read and flash like someone turning on a light—a yellow, shark-shaped light—I realized what was bugging me and why.
In my post yesterday, in the paragraph about Frank Zappa, I wrote: “With the possible exception of Pierre Boulez, I don’t remember Zappa having many kind words for classical musicians.” Well, somehow, I’d completely forgotten about Zappa’s amazing “Yellow Shark” (‘Der Gelbe Hai’) performances with Germany’s Ensemble Modern!
What the hell! Where was my mind at? Zappa himself approved liner notes that singled out the experience: “…the first time Frank Zappa’s so-called ‘serious’ (orchestral) work was rendered with a level of accuracy and dedication that both delighted the composer (rivaled, perhaps, only by Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain, which commissioned and recorded a number of his works in 1984) and left audiences in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Vienna alternating between rapt attentiveness and ovation.”
The Ensemble Modern had a budget that allowed for rehearsal time both in California and Germany. And their budget also covered a high-tech sound system for all their performances.
Most importantly, the musicians approached the music with humor and passion and the kind of tremendous skills most people assume all classical musicians have, but which are, in fact, quite rare.
The CD of the performances includes nineteen pieces that give a great overview of Zappa’s orchestral work, from the ‘classical’ sounding Zappa in ‘Dog Breath Variations’ through the ‘modern music’ sounding Zappa in pieces like ‘Welcome to the United States.’ Most of the compositions have a typical Zappa kind of ‘fusion’ sound, but not fusion of rock and jazz, rather fusion among classical, jazz and avant garde.
And the CD includes lots of interesting behind-the-scenes bits. My favorite is the story of what started out as an untitled string quartet piece that, for Zappa, was written as an evocation of modern Venice. When the musicians began rehearsal, they were working without a conductor and had difficulty keeping time. Eventually they decided that which ever player wasn’t playing at a particular point would tap out time against his or her instrument. The first time they played through the piece in that manner for Zappa, Zappa—always a lover of percussion—liked the tapping that shifted around the orchestra and told them to leave it in. Zappa said Venice has an endless supply of pigeons and the tapping could be the sounds of all the pigeons pecking at things. And the unnamed piece acquired its title: “Questi Cazzi Di Piccione” (‘Those Fucking Pigeons’)
So, there you go. I went back and listened to all nineteen tracks again last night. They were even more beautiful than I’d remembered them being—once I remembered them at all!
On a synthesizer note, some of these compositions had been created on a synthesizer, Zappa’s Synclavier, and even Boulez’s group hadn’t performed them well enough for Zappa to release. Zappa wrote that he’d begun to wonder if a real musician would ever play them properly. The Ensemble Modern, conducted by Peter Rundel, buckled down and got the job done.
It’s performances like these that make me look to the heavens and thank the technology gods for digital recording technology and CD players.