There were many Frank Zappas: guitar virtuoso, student, writer of raunchy rock songs. But at his core he was a legit composerwith ideas that are often too massive for a typical band format.
Fittingly, Zappa made his last formal stage appearance as a conductor, leading the 25-piece Ensemble Modern during a performance in September 1992.
By then, Zappa had left the rock world behind: he had staged a final tour in 1988, and after being diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer two years later, he focused on writing for orchestra and early sampling workstation Synclavier. (He played guitar – in his typically inspired, cinematic style – on stage twice in 1991, during a couple of guest seats in Prague and Budapest)
While rumors of Zappa’s cancer diagnosis had circulated in the media, the news was not publicly acknowledged until late 1991, when he failed to appear at the “Zappa’s Universe” tribute concerts. According to Barry Miles’ 2005 book, Zappa: An AutobiographyZappa’s daughter Moon told reporters at a press conference in New York, “Up until the last minute, we were still hoping that he would feel well enough to get on a plane and come here. There are occasional periods when he doesn’t feel so well, and it’s Unfortunately, it coincided with this event. He’s thrilled that people are performing his music.”
Listen to Frank Zappa and Ensemble Modern’s version of ‘Uncle Meat’
Despite his failing health, Zappa was also excited to work with the Ensemble Modern and finally realize the full potential of his orchestral ideas. The collaboration began after he was selected as a featured composer for the Frankfurt Festival in 1992; Seeking a group of musicians versatile—and, of course, unconventional—enough to handle his ideas, Zappa eventually met with the Ensemble and found instant chemistry. The group traveled to Los Angeles that summer and played for Zappa individually, giving him the opportunity to assess their skills and record samples of their playing, which he later arranged with Synclavier.
“One of the things I like about Ensemble Modern is that they are interested in sound just for its own sake,” he shared. Los Angeles Times. “At one rehearsal, one of the horn players picked up his horn off the floor and it scraped and made a noise. And I said, ‘Do it again,’ and the next thing you know, we had the whole brass band take their instruments and scrapes the bells back and forth across the floor, making this grinding, grunting sound. Just try to imagine it at a Hollywood recording session.”
After further rehearsals in Germany, Zappa and the Ensemble created a 90-minute repertoire that mixed newly composed material (such as the stately string quartet piece “None of the Above”) with revamped versions of old rock staples (“Pound for a Brown”, “Uncle Meat”) and newer Synclavier pieces (“G-Spot Tornado”). They recruited an external conductor, Peter Rundel, together with the Canadian dance company La La La Human Steps – a formidable presentation for a series of concerts in Frankfurt, Berlin and Vienna.
Watch Frank Zappa Conduct ‘G-Spot Tornado’
Zappa was captivated by the rehearsals, but was only able to attend two of the actual performances, the first and third at Frankfurt’s Royal Alte Oper. He did, however, manage to conduct the “G-Spot Tornado” on opening night – while soaking up some of the crowd’s rabid enthusiasm. “There’s no need for taste,” he joked Today in 1993 and reflected on the reported 20-minute standing ovation. “I was sick so it was hard to be really excited, but I was glad they did that instead of throwing things on stage.”
In retrospect, it’s sad to see the footage of Zappa conducting – understanding the weight of his pain and realizing he’d been around for barely another year. (An album recording of the concerts was released under the name The yellow shark in November 1992, a month before his death.)
But the sight is also inspiring: here he is, stoic and slightly mischievous, guiding this massive band through a swirl of technicolor sound. This is Zappa at his purest.
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