FRANK ZAPPA
                                       
   
   
   Interview in the Los Angeles Times
   
   
   
   1 October 1992
   
   
   
   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.'
   Los Angeles - Scotch 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 claim.
   
   "Just describe the stuff as melodramatic fiction," said the
   51-year-old Zappa, who is battling prostate cancer. "What ever 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 sell out 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 Inter-Contemporaine (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 illnes 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 tortise-shell glasses. As one person close to him put it:
   "He's just not going to be bothered by something 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 rythmic 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
   to 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 away 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."
   
   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 involvmenmt 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.
   
   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."