Food Gathering In Post Industrial America, 1992

The Yellow Shark, An Appreciation. Merry Zappadan.

From the liner notes:

Two more characteristics of Zappa’s approach to music perhaps bear mentioning. First, he has always been adept at bringing out “hidden talents” in his musicians. As [Todd] Yvega put it, “If he’d hire a sax player who’s good at playing the sax, it would almost be redundant and pointless to have him just play the sax. Frank already knows he does that. But then he’ll find out that he can tap dance and well—and make use of that.” Accordingly, the players of [Ensemble Modern] found themselves as actors and narrators&#8212most spectacularly, in the cases of violist Hilary Sturt (who delivers the arresting recitativ in “Food Gathering in Post Industrial America”) and Herman Kretzschmar.

(More on Herman to follow.)

Zappa takes a harsh, unnecessary self-effacing dive when introducing this. It’s a little weird, seeing him stand in front of the musicians and refer to the piece they’re about to perform as a “piece of shit.”

There is no need to apologize for this, Mr. Zappa. You gave every one of these musicians an opportunity to be on stage and to be mirthful, and probably in every one of their heads, they’re giving the finger to some stiff-assed music teacher in their past who yelled once a day, HEY! DON’T DO THAT WITH YOUR INSTRUMENTS!

Zappa said it himself. From Barry Miles’ Zappa: A Biography:

One of the things I like about the Ensemble Modern is that they’re interested in sound for its own sake. At one rehearsal, one of the horn players picked up 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 takeing their instruments and scraping the bells back and forth across the floor, making this grinding, grunting sound.

Not sure if that technique was used here. But there are no better examples of the EM’s dedication to sound for its own sake then here and in “Welcome to the United States,” which we will consider tomorrow.

Questi Cazzi Di Piccione

The Yellow Shark, An Appreciation. Merry Zappadan.

Translated from the Italian, it means, “those fucking pigeons.”

As performed in The Yellow Shark, there was no conductor. That’s why for all the percussive action on the instruments. Says Frank in the liner notes:

There are all these knocking sounds in that piece, and the knocking sounds were an invention of the string players. When they tried to learn it, it was very difficult for them to count it, and keep it eve. So one of the guys said, “Well, why don’t we just beat time on our instruments in between what we’re playing?”-because they rehearsed without a conductor. When they played it for me with the knocks in it, I told them to leave it in.

So you can just imagine those are the pigeons.

Amnerika/None Of The Above/Pentagon Afternoon

The Yellow Shark, An Appreciation. Merry Zappadan.

The truth about The Yellow Shark is that the most interesting thing about The Yellow Shark may not actually be The Yellow Shark.

Or did you really think that a guy could get away with an exposition regarding The Yellow Shark without mentioning Everything Is Healing Nicely?

From the EIHN liner notes, written by Gail Zappa:

We discovered this gem in the attic. I did not know of its existence. I had heard tapes of the sessions but had failed to realize that Frank had mixed this work and that it lurked undisturbed and untitled—until Spence brought it to my attention. At first I thought “None of the Above” was as good a name as any choice from the list of tracks. But one day I received a slide of a painting by Chris Brennan—also untitled&#8212also untitled—and immediately, I knew it was the cover and that this should be called Everything is Healing Nicely—and, of course, it is. Prior to this Spence had proposed the daring mission to convert these mixes from an artifact to an album. I know Frank would have done something very different. But as a result of Spence’s dedication and effort it is now possible for you to more fully understand and appreciate the special nature of the Yellow Shark project.

I assume she is talking about Spencer Chrislu. Thanks, Spence. She continues:

When Frank wrote The Real Frank Zappa Book he had not yet worked with the Ensemble Modern. He did not yet know that they would be his last band. Nor did they. Even though they are an independant (sic) organization—for a brief time FZ came to regard them as the perfect band and working with them as the most extraordinary opportunity of his career as a composer. … This really belongs to The Yellow Shark. This is where all the research happened. And all the experiments to see how swiftly the Ensemble Modern could morph itself into other dimensions. This is where you get to see into the future. Will it work? You betcha!

It is interesting to me that Gail nods at Zappa’s thorough documentation of his usually miserable previous experiences working with orchestras in his book, experiences that, by the way, Zappa biographer Barry Miles indicates was of Zappa’s own design. Zappa, says Miles, sabotaged some of these efforts by trying to completely reconfigure the placement of the orchestra. In the context of The Yellow Shark, though, it merely seems that those were earlier, experimental attempts to achieve what he actually was able to achieve with the Ensemble Modern.

From the Yellow Shark liner notes:

There is another story to be told about The Yellow Shark and it is that of indefatigable UMRK audio specialists [Spencer] Chrislu, [Dave] Dondorf and [Harry] Andronis. It is a story so technical as to likely be intelligible mostly to technicians. Suffice to say that their work essentially formed the “Shark’s” spine. Here’s a layman’s explanation from Dondorf: “We had to design a system that would take into account the unique needs of the compositions, the configurations of the venues, the monitoring needs of the artists, the requirements of a 48-channel digital audio recording as well as multi-camera live broadcast video. Frank envisioned something new, somewhere between a rock show and a classical concert, where the audience sat surrounded by six loudspeaker locations, the sound from each of these being different mixes determined by the score, each audience member hearing the show from a unique audio perspective. Everything we were doing ws new: the music was written for a six-channel sound system which hadn’t been built, put together or operated, and it was going to be played back this way in halls that weren’t built for it.”

But, I digress. Back to the issue at hand. From the Yellow Shark liner notes:

The [Ensemble Modern] flew to L.A. at its own expense and spent two weeks rehearsing with the composer at his Joe’s Garage studio in July 1991. Ensemble members not only routinely arrived for work three or four hours early—just to practice—but they repeatedly asked for transcriptions of Zappa’s most “humanly-impossible-to-play” Synclavier pieces (and usually got them, as with “G-Spot Tornado”). The composer drilled the group in his elaborate methods of improvisational conducting, and later recorded, or “sampled” each player’s range of sounds. By programming this array of samples into the Synclavier, Zappa was, in effect, able to compose by “playing” the Ensemble on the instrument, then edit and mold, as was his penchant.

Later, in a time-consuming and painstaking process, Zappa—along with composer/arranger/copyist Ali N. Askin, and UMRK jack-of-all-Synclavier trades Todd Yvega—took voluminous printouts of raw numerical data representing finished Synclavier works, and translated them into written music.

EIHN is made up of the recordings from those rehearsals.

I rarely love a collection of music from listen number one, but friends, this one was love at first hear. It is a gorgeous collection of music and a fascinating little documentary. Not to mention, its performance and its liner notes are an invaluable resource to someone who has committed to a discussion of The Yellow Shark.

Now. “Amnerika” is known on EIHN as “Amnerika Goes Home.” It is not included on the Yellow Shark CD. It is, however, included on the video. And there is a damned interesting note about the piece in the EIHN liner notes.

Here Frank utilizes the Synclavier to take ‘hocketing’ to it’s (sic) ludicrous extreme. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is a compositional technique, used heavily during the Baroque period, whereby a phrase is segmented such that two or more instruments play alternate segments, each picking up where the other left off. Frank took the standard “melody and accompaniement” arrangement of Amnerika and destributed each successive note to a different instrument. The result as heard on Civilization: Phase III is striking.


Here’s the simplest thing I could find on the Internet to explain “hocketing.” You don’t need to listen long to get it, and, as the video says, it is “rough.” But I thank these fine vocalists for such an excellent example.

Easy enough for a computer but it’s extremely difficult for 24 humans each to place their respective isolated notes at seemingly random intervals and have the whole thing rhythmically mesh together. The performances from the Yellow Shark concerts were still a little shaky and this composition was excluded from the album.

You can be the judge. I do think this piece is incredibly interesting to listen to once you know what the hell they’re doing.

In the Yellow Shark liner notes, Zappa is described as “chuckling” when he describes “Pentagon Afternoon.”

That’s a tone poem. You just have to picture these guys, these dealers in death, sitting around a table in the afternoon in the Pentagon, figuring out what they’re going to blow up now, who they’re going to subjugate, and what tools they’ll use. It ends with the sound of those cheap little plastic ray guns. And on stage, the rest of the Ensemble aims ray guns and kill the string quartet. And they all slump to the side in their chairs.

Ruth Is Sleeping

The Yellow Shark, An Appreciation. Merry Zappadan.

I wish I had more to write about “Ruth Is Sleeping.”

It’s a piano piece that Zappa wrote on the Synclavier and it’s apparently difficult to play. And I assume the title refers to Ruth Underwood.

Sorry, kids, but I’m going to cop out on this one. Just listen to it and dig it.

But I’ve got a hell of a lot to write for tomorrow.

Be-Bop Tango

The Yellow Shark, An Appreciation. Merry Zappadan.

In “Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat,” I marveled at how a performance decades ago was exactly like the arrangement made for this collection. That consistency, I thought, showed incredible creative foresight.

Be-Bop Tango is completely the opposite of that.

You’ll notice when you listen here that a few in the audience immediately recognize the Be-Bop Tango and start applauding. While the theme is familiar, it’s hardly the same piece each and every time. I think the piece was likely one of Zappa’s favorite improvisational canvasses.

III / None of the Above and III / The Girl in the Magnesium Dress

The Yellow Shark, An Appreciation. Merry Zappadan.

Before we begin today, a hat tip is required to Cleveland Jeff at the blog …Like Dancing About Architecture. He has generously commented here, has offered this series a nice mention and link on his blog, and has his own nice overview of Frank Zappa’s orchestral works. We are all over the map in Zappastan this year, certainly, and that’s what it’s all about. Thank you, Cleveland Jeff.

Now. We’re going to listen to III twice.

Because there are two scenarios for the piece. The first scenario is my fantasy scenario, where, again, the composer and the arrangers decided to leave well enough alone and keep stuff that was written together to stay together.

The second scenario is the way they ended up doing it. Both scenarios are worth considering. First is my fantasy scenario. Zappa mentions in the liner notes that III (or III Revised, as it is “revised” to be a string quintet rather than a quartet) is actually a movement of “None of the Above.” But, again, the program splits the pieces up. The CD listing is: III Revised, The Girl in the Magnesium Dress, Be-Bop Tango, Ruth is Sleeping, then None of the Above. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if you could hear it with the two string pieces played one after the other.

As it happens, it sounds pretty damned amazing. Hey, look, a mashup:

Then there’s what they actually did, which is III followed by The Girl in the Magnesium Dress:

It’s an interesting contrast, shooting from strings to rhythm like that. Quite a game changer. So I can see why the program was arranged this way.

It’s still pretty damned cool that the mashup works so well.

Times Beach II & Times Beach III

The Yellow Shark, An Appreciation. Merry Zappadan.

By mid-1985, an entire town in eastern Missouri called Times Beach was evacuated because it was horribly polluted with dioxin.

The reason the town was polluted with dioxin&#8212and I mean it was everywhere, in their soil, in their water table, everywhere—was because the town had hired some redneck to spray their roads with spent engine oil to keep the dust down.

Just so happens that this redneck at some point secured a contract with some local chemical company to get rid of its toxic waste. So, of course, he thought. Why not spray the roads with it.

Unbelievable. More details are in the Wiki.

The Aspen Wind Quintet commissioned Zappa to write the five-part piece named for this unfortunate town.

Ensemble Modern Director Peter Rundel, from the Yellow Shark liner notes:

We had a very interesting experience with that piece. When we played it for the first time, it was in L.A., and we thought it was a very, very abstract piece of modern music. I think we didn’t understand what it was, or how it should be played. After all that work, it came very late into the concert program. We had already prepared other pieces, but we needed something more. The musicians opposed it but I said maybe we should try that again. Frnak said, “Why not, let’s do it,” and it became very clear how to play it. It had no dynamics, no articulation-just plain notes. Frank sang the phrase for us. Suddenly, it became very lively, and the character of the music came out. It was not an abstract kind of music anymore.

I shall be forever curious as to why these two pieces are not presented one after the other on the CD or, as it appears, in the program. The track listing as it goes from one movement to the next, is like this: “Times Beach II,” “III Revised,” “The Girl in the Magnesium Dress,” “Be-Bop Tango,” “Ruth Is Sleeping,” “None of the Above,” “Pentagon Afternoon,” “Questi Cazzi Di Piccione,” “Times Beach III.” Why split up two movements of the same piece for winds with so much activity in between?

I kind of prefer this method of listening. Play the first one here, then stop it at 7:19 and pretend that Peter Rundel’s baton never came to his waist, and play the second one. You might then get a sense of continuity in the Times Beach piece.

And, know this. The key to listening to these pieces? Bear in mind that the star of the show is the oboe. Listen for the oboe principally and you’ll do just fine. Here you go now.

Outrage At Valdez

The Yellow Shark, An Appreciation. Merry Zappadan.

On March 24, 1989, an oil tanker headed for Long Beach, Calif., struck Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef in Alaska and spilled 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of crude oil. This was a habitat for salmon, sea otters, seals, and seabirds. The corporate giant who owned the big boat and, I think, the zombies in the corporate press, tried to make it as if the inebriated captain was entirely responsible, though later reports indicate that the usual suspects of corporate negligence and penny pinching were more likely culprits. Joe Hazelwood was never charged with anything but a misdemeanor. Exxon dodged paying damages for years and ended up paying like $900 million. Scientists estimate that of the 11 million gallons of oil spilled, there’s still 20,000 gallons present on those beaches today.

I have not seen the movie the Jacques Cousteau made, “Outrage at Valdez,” so I do not know if he found the same things to be an outrage that I do. But he did at least have the good sense to commission Frank Zappa to score the thing. And I find the Yellow Shark arrangement is one of the most hypnotic pieces on this collection. A surprising earworm.

Is it worth comparing to the source material? You bet.

Practical Conservatism, I Guess

This little clip is a gentle reminder that, although Zappadan is celebrated by a cadre of “liberal” bloggers, Frank Zappa’s politics were not always so cut and dried. Zappa considered himself a businessman before anything else and believed (rightly so, I reckon) that he would not be able to do what he did unless he could make money at it. True things, all. As this clip reminds us, though, Zappa also thought of himself as management, and he was not fond of (nor, I think did he actually understand) unions.

Zappa railed for and against many of the right things politically, standing against the Ray-gunner, against religious hypocrisy, against censorship, yadda yadda yadda. But when it came to the issue of labor, which is, in my estimation, one of the most central and salient political issues of all, Zappa did not consider himself to be on the side of labor.

Or, rather, he thought they all should “stick together.” Meaning that all laborers should agree with him. Ride this out until 3:20 and you’ll hear the song.