Recording of February 1994: The Yellow Shark

ZAPPA: The Yellow Shark
Ensemble Modern; Peter Rundel, Frank Zappa, conductors
Barking Pumpkin R2 71600 (CD only). Frank Zappa, prod.; Spencer Chrislu, Harry Andronis, Dave Dondorf, engs.; Todd Yvega, Synclavier asst. DDD. TT: 72:00

This live recording was culled from seven September 1992 concerts given in Vienna, Berlin, and Frankfurt by the Ensemble Modern, a Frankfurt-based chamber orchestra that performs only contemporary music. Unlike most other performances of Zappa's music by conservatory (ie, "classical") ensembles, which have often been little more than public-relations ploys to fill with warm bodies our gradually emptying concert halls, the EM actually allowed enough preparation and rehearsal time—over a year—to give Zappa's fiendishly difficult scores more than a fighting chance. Only Pierre Boulez and his Ensemble Intercontemporain (on The Perfect Stranger, 1984) have come anywhere close to this level of musical commitment to Zappa's music.

The stunning results constitute an overview of the densest, most demanding creations from the latter half of Zappa's productive life. The program is evenly divided between new compositions and re-orchestrations of older works dating as far back as 1957 ("Pound for a Brown") and 1968 ("Dog Breath Variations" and "Uncle Meat"). Although Zappa could always be counted on to provide plenty of variety, the ranges of mood, tone, orchestral color, polyphony, humor, darkness, and instrumental combinations here are always impressive without ever sounding gimmicky, patched-together, or episodic—all usually justified criticisms of Zappa's past work. Arrangements range from piano duo through string quartet to wind quintet to dense thickets of notes written for 26 instruments. With 18 selections in 70 minutes, boredom is not an option.

There are many highlights. Synclavier compositions that Zappa himself considered unplayable by human hands and lips—"The Girl in the Magnesium Dress," "Ruth is Sleeping"—are here dispatched with tough affection by the Ensemble Modern. "Outrage at Valdez," a soundtrack commissioned by PBS for their special on the Exxon oil spill, and of which only soundbite-sized portions were audible in the film, is here revealed as that rarity among Zappa compositions: one which actually moves the listener, this time with dark passion. "None of the Above," a brief piece commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, is here played with fin de siècle desperation by members of the EM, who were at first nonplussed by Zappa's rehearsal note to, "now that you can play the notes, style it."

Ironically, that's what the EM ends up doing better than Zappa himself did in his previous orchestral recordings (he conducts only three selections here). Let's face it—as a conductor, he was a great carnival barker. Unlike the performances on Orchestral Favorites and London Symphony Orchestra, the Ensemble Modern sounds as if it cares deeply and passionately about this music. They dig in with bite, passion, and swing, as if there's a great deal at stake. In the process, they make the case, better than any other group of musicians I've heard, that Zappa's music will outlive its creator.

No Zappa recording would be complete without Brechtian social commentary. Aside from the political implications of the titles of such purely instrumental pieces as "Pentagon Afternoon" and "Get Whitey," there are a pair of rants that should prove humorous to the already converted: In "Food Gathering in Post-Industrial America, 1992," the diseased survivors of the former USA dine on rats, tritium-enriched stew, and the surplus of infants now available as a direct result of an absolute ban on abortion. In "Welcome to the United States," US Form I-94W (Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure) is recited in heavily German-accented English, interspersed with brass fanfares and the Narrhalla Marsch from Germany's Karneval tradition.

The Yellow Shark ends with two of its strongest compositions and performances. "Get Whitey" has wonderfully inventive brass writing, and it's impressive how the Ensemble Modern keeps this essentially pulseless piece consistently on edge. "G-Spot Tornado," which originally appeared in Zappa's Synclavier arrangement/performance on Jazz from Hell, is reminiscent of the uptempo numbers on The Grand Wazoo. However, the EM's discipline and drive far exceed those of that earlier clutch of studio musicians. This is by far this work's best performance.

These concerts were mixed before they were performed. Zappa conceived and developed a special six-channel PA system for the events: the audience would be (electronically) surrounded by the musicians, the better to hear the polyphony and what it might be like to be the fifth member of a string quartet. (The instruments' sounds are not processed or limited in any other way.) All of this has been neccessarily lost in the mixdown from 48-track digital to simple stereo, but the result remains an instrumental recording of astonishing—if entirely unnatural, as such things are usually defined—vividness. The result sounds not so much "artificial"—as most of Zappa's previous recordings have sounded—as both larger and more intimate than life, an effect similar to the sumptuous, extra-intimate miking of Keith Jarrett's solo piano concerts. This sort of surreal—literally, "super-real"—recording technique is uniquely appropriate to Zappa's music, but its almost four-dimensional quality here, in which the instruments seem on the edge of busting out of their own skins, is overwhelming. The deluxe booklet is stuffed with liner notes by Rip Rense on the rehearsals and concerts, with fascinating sections on each composition by Zappa and EM conductor Peter Rundel.

As Carl Baugher mentioned in his reviews last month of recent recordings featuring Zappa compositions by three contemporary chamber groups, Zappa's music has finally begun to be accepted on its own terms. Directors of orchestras and ensembles around the country, in their efforts to inject some vitality into the moribund classical concert scene, are discovering that there's no better way to draw an otherwise reluctant and suspicious audience to attend an evening of contemporary music than to program some Zappa compositions. They've also begun to learn that not only does the audience enjoy itself, but the players can get down to some dead-serious fun while having their chops seriously challenged.

As I write this, Frank Zappa has been dead for five days. Although we'll be hearing from him for some time to come—there always seem to be at least half a dozen Zappa albums ready and awaiting release at any given time—it's entirely fitting that the last of over 70 recordings of his music to be released during his lifetime is, by far, the best. The Yellow Shark is simultaneously Zappa's least compromised recording, and an album of Zappa music for people who, until now, have hated Zappa music. For the rest of us, it's what we've waited for his entire life. If you've never bought a Zappa album, start here—it's one for the ages. And thanks, Frank, for everything.—Richard Lehnert