Scotch all the grim rumors, says Frank Zappa. He says he's not written his last note of music, and is not breathing his last breaths, as some European media are claiming.
"Just describe the stuff as melodramatic fiction," said the 51-year-old Zappa, who is battling prostate cancer. "Whatever it is, it's highly exaggerated."
The reports appeared last week after Zappa canceled his part in "The Yellow Shark," a series of European concerts of his orchestral music. Zappa hosted and partially conducted two of the initial concerts at the Frankfurt Festival Sept. 17-19, then flew back to L.A., too ill to continue. His condition has since improved, and the concerts by the highly regarded Ensemble Modern were completed in Berlin and Vienna without him.
"Point one, it's not my last composition," said Zappa in an exclusive interview from his Laurel Canyon home. "Point two, it's not the last concert of my music that's going to occur, and point three, I'm in negotiations currently with the Vienna Festival to do an opera for the '94 season."
For much of the last year, Zappa practically sequestered himself in his home studio to write new works commissioned by the Ensemble, an international group of 25 classically trained musicians specializing in modern music (which recently drew critical praise for a John Cage tribute at the Frankfurt Festival).
Named after a fiberglass fish that used to rest against Zappa's listening-room fireplace, "The Yellow Shark" is a 90-minute program of transcriptions and new arrangements of existing Zappa works, such as "Be-Bop Tango," "Pound for a Brown," "G-Spot Tornado," "Dog Breath" and "Uncle Meat" (here combined as a suite, "Dog/Meat") and new compositions: "Chunnel Mr. Boogins," "Amnerica," "Get Whitey," "Welcome to America," "None of the Above."
The sellout performances, which were painstakingly rehearsed with Zappa's guidance over a period of months in both L.A. and Frankfurt, were critically and popularly hailed (and broadcast live on German pay-per-view television). Although Zappa's orchestral music has been recorded and performed by Kent Nagano and the London Symphony as well as by Pierre Boulez and the Ensemble InterContemporaine (Boulez, in fact, commissioned Zappa's "The Perfect Stranger"), "The Yellow Shark" is a milestone in Zappa's career as a composer of "serious" music.
The first night in Frankfurt, which ended with Zappa conducting "G-Spot Tornado" as the La La La Human Steps dance ensemble swirled about him, was hailed with a 20-minute ovation.
"Well, by modern music standards, this would be an astonishing, maybe even historic, success," said Zappa, whose famous mustache and "lip-T" arrangement are mostly gray now, "because of the audience response to it, and the type of audience that attended. And the audience was probably 50-50 'suits' versus young people. We even had a bunch of 70-year-olds out there getting off on it.
"You know what normally happens at a modern music concert. If you have an audience of 500, it's a success. And you're talking about averaging 2,000 seats a night in these places, and massive, lengthy encore-demanding applause at the end of the shows. Stunned expressions on the faces of the musicians, the concert organizers, the managers, everybody sitting there with their jaws on the floor. They never expected anything like this."
On the second night, Zappa was too ill to go on. The concert went ahead, yet "they got the same response from the audience--it surprised the hell out of everybody." Zappa returned the third night, but his stamina gave out. While Zappa was weighing the prospects of going on to Berlin, his condition worsened, and he returned home Sept. 22, by ambulance. He was well enough to resume work by Friday. "It was a rough trip for me," he acknowledged.
Rough, but satisfying.
"I've never had such an accurate performance at any time for that kind of music that I do," the composer said, a trace of amazement in his tone. "The dedication of the group to playing it right and putting the 'eyebrows' on it (Zappa-ese for intuitive, spontaneous musical histrionics) is something that--it would take your breath away. You would have to have seen how grueling the rehearsals were, and how meticulous the conductor, Peter Rundel, was in trying to get all the details of this stuff worked out. . . . It's nice that the concerts still went on, that the audiences seemed to like it more and more. And that I don't have to stand there and be Mr. Carnival Barker to draw 'em in. They're coming anyway!"
Since learning of his illness in early 1990, the iconoclastic musician has missed few days' work. He's stayed awake many a night--all night--composing at his Synclavier.
Zappa does not discuss his illness or treatments in any detail, saying merely, "I feel pretty good. I have mostly good days. I have some bad days, but they're not too often." He looks healthy--if anything, he looks comfortably middle-aged, with a well-articulated paunch and professorial tortoise-shell glasses. As one person close to him put it: "He's just not going to be bothered by something as stupid as cancer."
In terms of sheer new material, Zappa has never been more productive. In addition to "The Yellow Shark" project, he has produced, edited and released a total of five double-CD packages of concert material since 1990 (six if you include "Playground Psychotics," an earthy assembly of "Flo and Eddie"-period Mothers of Invention music, circa 1971-72, due this month) on both Ryko and his own Barking Pumpkin Records. Three of the packages finish off the six twin-CD set, "You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore," a sweeping compendium of live Zappa material dating from the late '60s to 1988. He also arranged with Rhino Records to issue the recent "Beat the Boots" series, the legal release of 15 (so far) "best" Zappa bootlegs.
And, in the coming months, he will release a double CD of "The Yellow Shark" concerts, plus a follow-up to his first recorded symphonic venture, the 1967 avant-garde ballet "Lumpy Gravy." Titled "Civilization: Phase III," it will feature a piece of music he has labored over intermittently for 10 years titled "N-light."
Composed on the Synclavier, "N-light" is one of Zappa's most substantial works. The title is a computer code referring to two moments in the piece--one that reminded Zappa of the Village People's "In the Navy" and a sonic cluster he dubbed "Thousand Points of Light."
The "Yellow Shark" music is dense, elaborate sound sculpture, with complex rhythmic and tonal demands on the players.
Zappa's major influences--avant-garde composer Edgard Varese, Boulez and Stravinsky--are subliminally in evidence, but this is not derivative music. There's also a touch of Spike Jones at work; Zappa makes use of whatever absurdities he happens across.
At an early "Yellow Shark" rehearsal, a grotesque letter to the editor of PFIQ, a body-piercing magazine, was recited by one of the musicians from inside a piano, while the Ensemble bleated and groaned according to Zappa's directions. In one "Yellow Shark"segment, an Ensemble member recites bits of "Struwwelpeter," a series of grim German children's tales designed to discourage unhealthy habits (translated into English by Mark Twain).
"I went to dinner at Andreas' house (Andreas Molich-Zebhauser, Ensemble Modern general manager)," said Zappa, taking a drag on a cigarette, "and his children demanded that I look at their book, 'Struwwelpeter.' . . . They were pointing out this part with the tailor chopping the thumbs off (a thumb-sucker). I went, 'What is this?' I mean, his children are growing up with this. Imagine the psychosis! I said, well, it's music. Better be in the show."
For years, Molich-Zebhauser admired the fiberglass creature in Zappa's home, so much so that the composer finally gave it to him--writing a little deed to get it through customs that said, "This is Andreas' own personal yellow shark."
"The next thing I know," said Zappa, "the whole project is being called 'The Yellow Shark.' It sounds really good in German, and I said it sounds really dorky in English. But what are you going to call it? Doesn't make any difference."
The use of "Struwwelpeter" and the fiberglass fish exemplifies Zappa's aesthetic "AAAFNRAA"--"Anything Anytime Anyplace For No Reason At All."
If that sounds a bit Cage-ian, it is. Without Cage, Zappa said, much of what takes place in modern music and art "would not be possible." Including, perhaps, the Ensemble Modern's dedication to realizing new sounds.
"One of the things I like about the Ensemble Modern is that they're interested in sound just for its own sake," Zappa said of the Frankfurt-based group.
"At one rehearsal, one of the horn players picked his horn up 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 entire brass section taking their instruments and scraping the bells back and forth across the floor, making this grinding, grunting sound. Just try to imagine that at a Hollywood recording session. There's a French horn instruction in classical music--I don't know how to say it in French, but it means 'bells in the air'--well, imagine this 'horns--bells on the floor!' "
It may surprise some that Zappa is writing for humans again (outside a rock 'n' roll context). He has long been frustrated by the slightest human error during performance. His ear is uncompromisingly keen; he routinely hears glitches others don't. Like his friend Boulez, he is mainly concerned with precise execution of tone and rhythm and sonic exploration. With his increasing involvement with the Synclavier, evidenced by his Grammy-winning LP, "Jazz From Hell," in 1986, it seemed that Zappa had finally abandoned human musicians for an ideal "orchestra"--a computer that could produce any sound he could imagine, and that could be manipulated according to his whim.
No Frank Zappa interview would be complete without politics. Zappa, who was seriously exploring the idea of running for President when his health sidetracked him, follows the scene avidly via CNN and C-SPAN. Did the man who took on Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center on the issue of censoring pop music watch the conventions? You bet!
"I was so irate at the carryings-on at the Republican convention," he said. "I thought that if I can do anything to make sure that George Bush doesn't get elected again--up to and including shaking hands with Tipper Gore--I'll do it. I mean, it's that bad . . . I take back every bad thing I ever said about Clinton and Gore . . . Whoever or whatever George Bush is, if you look at his friends, or his fellow travelers, I don't want to see those fellow travelers anywhere near Washington, D.C. Enough already with Pat Robertson and these guys! So I even considered calling the Clinton campaign and say I'd be happy to give them an endorsement if they thought it would be beneficial to them. They might want to run screaming in the other direction."
A final question was posed. How does the new music--specifically, "The Yellow Shark" project--fit into an overall historical context in the long, highly colorful career of Frank Zappa?
He paused longer than usual as he considered the question.
"Aside from the fact that it's been a lot of fun to work on it," he said, his voice suddenly dropping, "I think that it's helped my health. It's pretty important to me."