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Zapping All Those Rumors : New music: After illness forced him to cut short a European tour, Frank Zappa is back in harness. Says a friend of the composer: 'He's just not going to be bothered by something as stupid as cancer.'

October 01, 1992|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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