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How Was Rock Iconoclast Frank Zappa Influenced by Classical Composers of the 20th Century?

Frank Zappa (1940-1993) became famous as a rock musician whose lyrics had the ability to shock. Less well-known was the wide range of his musical interests, including a passion for contemporary classical composers such as Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez. 

On April 28, 2018, local ensemble Orchestra 2001 performs all the works from Zappa’s final album The Yellow Shark, which Zappa conceived for orchestra and electronic instruments. It's a Philadelphia premiere live at The Fillmore.

WRTI's Debra Lew Harder spoke with Orchestra 2001’s Artistic Director, Jayce Ogren, about the musical iconoclast.


Was Frank Zappa a musical genius, as many people consider him to be? 


The word genius is thrown around a lot, but how could you not use it to describe Frank Zappa?  Without any significant classical training, he was able to absorb and understand the music of the greatest composers of the 20th century, and put it through the sausage machine of his own personality and emotions. 

What came out on the other side was something entirely new and -- I’ll choose another overused word that’s apt in this case -- unique.  No one has ever made music quite like Zappa’s, and with such a pure intent: to bring whatever he heard in his head to life, regardless of genre, style or possible stereotypes. 


During his mature career, Zappa funded several recordings of his works with symphony orchestras, most notably the London Symphony Orchestra. The results of these recordings fell short of his expectations. Zappa was always pushing the envelope in terms of sound, especially electronic sound -- so what was he searching for, in using the acoustic instruments of a symphony orchestra to interpret his music?


This was simply the music that Zappa was dreaming up.  At the time he was imagining music for symphony orchestra — rather than for a rock band or electronic — so he needed a great orchestra to play it.  He wrote a lot of his music for classical players using the synclavier, an early synthesizer that was popular in the '70s and '80s. 

The synclavier could play it back perfectly every time, but of course it lacked the color, emotion, spirit, and spontaneity of live performers.  Because Zappa’s orchestral music is so incredibly demanding (sometimes crossing the line of unplayable,) the live musicians couldn’t execute the musical lines he created to perfection.  It was always a compromise. I think Zappa also wanted to write for the instruments he heard in works by his heroes of 20th-century music, like Varèse, Boulez, and Stravinsky.   


Orchestra 2001’s performance of Zappa’s music on April 28th will be a re-creation of pieces from his final album, The Yellow Shark. Why did you choose music from this album to perform? 


The Yellow Shark was released in 1993, so we thought it would be great to celebrate its 25th anniversary.  The complete published music from the album has never been performed in Philadelphia, so that also made it a logical and exciting project for us to take on.  

What are some of the challenges and joys of bringing it to life?

Orchestra 2001 is a flexible ensemble, performing concerts ranging from solo recitals to chamber orchestra.  The music on The Yellow Shark fits this model like a glove.  Some of the pieces are for a large ensemble of 26 musicians.  Others are for woodwind quintet or string quintet.  One piece, The Girl in the Magnesium Dress, is for an unusual combination of instruments including cimbalom, mandolin, guitar, piano, harp, celesta and a wide array of percussion.  This kind of flexibility is right up our alley.  


Electric guitarists consider some of Zappa’s instrumental solos to be among the greats. Will there be any electric guitar solos at Orchestra 2001’s performance?



There won’t be any electric guitar solos, but there will be some seriously funky electric bass to be had!  Some of the pieces have strong ties to rock, with a steady groove and the kind of melodies you’d expect from a Zappa guitar solo.  Others are dissonant and severe, like experiments in musical texture and color.  There’s going to be a huge amount of variety throughout the program.


What can the audience expect in terms of extra-musical experiences at the show?


We’re working with a lighting designer to give each piece focus and atmosphere. It’s going to be a stunning, exciting show.  


Are there any lessons from Zappa’s career and music that you draw inspiration from today?

I think of Zappa as a kind of proto-crossover artist.  He was able to float so effortlessly between genres and styles. It never felt forced, like he was trying to do something. It was always organic because he was just creating the art he wanted to create.  Our arts climate is obsessed with collaborations, multi-media and genre bending, and I think Zappa’s purity of intent could be a great example of what’s possible if you just do what’s in your heart.


Frank Zappa was an individualist. “Pleaser” was probably the last thing you’d call him, and therein lay his power. Is that a bit how you see Orchestra 2001?

I’d never thought of that! Orchestra 2001’s goal is to play the greatest music of our time, and to engage new audiences through our performances.  We believe in the genius of Zappa, and we’re excited about the potential to reach a lot of new listeners through his music. Information about the concert.



Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.