Composer, guitarist, bandleader and iconoclast Frank Zappa was the subject of a fascinating sold-out symposium called “The World of Zappa” Friday afternoon at the Ojai Music Festival.
Symposium panelists were Zappa’s widow and Zappa family-trust manager Gail Zappa; multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, who played on classic Zappa albums including Hot Rats and We’re Only in It for the Money; guitarist Steve Vai, who Zappa called the “little Italian virtuoso”; Synclavier specialist and Zappa assistant Todd Yvega; and Ensemble Modern flutist Dietmar Wiesner, who was a member of Zappa’s “last band.” The moderator was Ara Guzelimian, the provost and dean of the Juilliard School and former senior director and artistic adviser of Carnegie Hall.
Much of the discussion centered on Ensemble Modern’s performance at the festival later on Friday of works from the Zappa “serious music” album The Yellow Shark and selections from important Zappa influence Edgard Varese.
Gail Zappa nearly teared up when describing how significant the upcoming performance was, since Zappa’s involvement with the Ensemble Modern was “a dream come true for him.” Zappa was commissioned by Ensemble Modern to compose music for a festival in Frankfurt in 1992. At the time, Zappa was — unbeknown to anyone except his family — very ill, and was thrilled to have the opportunity to realize ideas that otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to do with a group of classical musicians whose “training was that ‘if it’s on the page, you have to do it.’” Zappa died far too soon after the Frankfurt festival, in 1993 at age 52 from prostate cancer. He would have turned 70 this year.
Several of the Yellow Shark pieces originally had been composed by Zappa on a Synclavier, an early digital audio workstation that allowed Zappa to create pieces that were virtually unplayable by humans. Yvega and Weisner described at length the challenges involved with transcribing these compositions into a form that was conductible and not too notationally complex.
Vai and Underwood provided reminders of Zappa’s more famous (and prolific) efforts in rock-and-roll.
Vai described how, when he was a teenager, Zappa’s music “fulfilled all of these things I loved most about music, because it was compositional, it had crazy guitar playing, it was funny, it was serious, it was melodic.” He then told how a friend of his had stolen a Rolodex from a recording studio that had the phone numbers of many famous musicians, including Zappa’s. Only 16 years old, Vai called Zappa’s house and his wife answered. Vai said, “Hi, I’m just a fan and I’d like to talk to Frank.” Gail Zappa told him to call back in six months when Zappa returned from tour.
Several tries later, when Vai was 18, Frank Zappa answered the phone and had Vai send him tapes, transcriptions and copies of Varese scores that Vai was able to photocopy from the Boston Public Library. Vai was hired a few years later by Zappa to transcribe music, which he described as “a glorious experience.”
Vai also told how Zappa had a way of making people rise up to their potential, and that everyone wanted to please him with their playing, with the ultimate reward being his over-the-top laugh. Weisner concurred, saying he had “never seen a laugh like that before in my life.”
Perhaps the most moving tribute to Zappa was that by Underwood, who first heard Zappa and his band in concert in New York City in 1967, having “no idea who they were” but very much liking their “mix of humor, pop, R&B, blues, Varese and Stravinsky,” and who described working with Zappa as being “like having a sandbox to play in all of the time.”
Toward the end of the symposium, Underwood spoke of the fleeting “golden moments” in concert when the musicians were “in the zone” and “everything evaporates,” which he described as “the moment that makes life worth living.” He said he sometimes “felt that happened with Frank’s guitar solos,” when “everything totally settled into this completely musical, heavenly world.” He concluded that, “In addition to all of the interesting things that go on with Frank, and that goes on with the music and all the rest of that, the one thing that I appreciated the most was that.”
Guzelimian gave Zappa the final word, with the last line of the following quote from “Packard Goose” from Zappa’s Joe’s Garage Act III: “Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best.”
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.