Normally when one associates popular music with orchestral arrangements they think of either sappy elevator music or the occasional interpretative gem like the Kronos Quartet's performance of "Purple Haze". The possibility of a pop musician being a composer of what someone might call "serious" music, or contemporary orchestral, is usually considered minimal.
Aside from occasional forays by the likes of Paul McCartney with his choral piece, (which was a critical flop and considered a piece of fluff) there really has been only one man among the legions of pop stars who can be said to have any real aspirations and achievements in the field of composition for anything beyond the standard drums, guitar, bass, keyboard formula.
Frank Zappa, best known for his work as an innovative Jazz/Rock guitarist, political agitator for freedom of artistic expression, and founder of the band Mothers of Invention, had a long and passionate interest in contemporary music. From a very young age he became fascinated with the works of Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern, and Edgard Varèse. In fact he was so obsessed with the latter's work his mother arranged for him to call the composer as a fifteenth birthday present.
Like most people I was familiar with Zappa's contributions to pop music via the Mothers of Invention and it was only after he died in 1993 (of prostate cancer) I came to know this other side of him musically. I remember not being overly surprised when I heard about it. Of all the pop musicians I'd heard throughout the years, he would be the one most capable of composing work of serious merit.
It wasn't just because of the obvious depth of skill his pop arrangements displayed, although that was part of it. There was his attitude towards the business of music. He had no time for the trappings of fame or the pomposity of rock and roll stars. (I wish he were still alive to deflate a number of super inflated egos out there to this day.) Any work he would have done would have been for the sake of the work, not for his reputation as a "serious musician".
But it hasn't been until now I've had the opportunity to sit and listen to anything he composed. The Accademia Amiata Ensemble has released a new disc entitled Strictly Off Limits featuring the music of Frank Zappa and Tommy Fortmann, the latter being a composer of like mind to Frank so their music compliments each other nicely.
The Accademia are not your standard classical quintet. They are made up of two saxophone players, a violinist, a bassist, and a drummer with full kit. But they are ideally suited to the demands of the music composed by those they have chosen to present on Strictly Off Limits. Unlike what we would normally consider a classical composition, which was composed for orchestral players, a contemporary piece does not confine itself to any strict definition. From Fred Frith dropping hammers on his guitars, John Cage opening his piano and playing the strings, or Phillip Glass' tonal soundscapes contemporary composition is as abstract art is to realism in terms of its relationship to the symphony orchestra.
For those who remember some of Zappa's more complex arrangements on his popular albums of the mid to late seventies the music on this disc won't seem completely inaccessible. It is easy to see where he has picked up from where those beginning attempts at composition left off.
The five Zappa selections on this disc can almost be said to be typical of what one would expect from him. There are swirling sounds that repeat, not to the point of monotony, but as emphasis of a musical theme that is then elaborated on by the other instruments. As the longest of the pieces is no more than just over four minutes they have much in common with his "popular" music in terms of structure. They are self contained pockets of intense energy saying what needs to be said quickly and concisely.
In fact a couple were so familiar in sound and feeling I kept waiting for the sardonic sound of his voice to interject some comment or other, but it wasn't needed. The music was more than capable of speaking in lieu of Frank's voice. Somehow he had been able to get his music to transmit his usual scornful attitude towards the pretensions of society. I don't know how you can make music sound satirical but he did.
Tommy Fortmann's music is cut from the same cloth as Frank's but reflects his more conventional orchestral background. Although the men originally did meet when Fortmann was fronting a rock band Zappa wanted to sign to his label in the seventies, Fortmann soon after became involved with composition and was receiving commissions from the European Union and the Opera of Zurich.
As I had said earlier, his and Zappa's work compliment each other wonderfully, but Fortmann's shows more deliberate intent behind his compositions. While Frank set out to write a piece of music expressing an emotion, Fortmann's music is put together with considerations of structure and form having more of an influence. He is guiding the listener to where he wants them to go.
That's not a criticism of his work, just an observation, a point of comparison for the listener to work from when trying to take in the two very similar styles of composition. The Accademia Amiata Ensemble has done a remarkable job of showing up these differences allowing us to separate the two men's work somewhat in our minds. But still, if you don't check the credits for each track I'd defy you to identify whose music is who's on first listen.
This is why I said at the beginning of all the pop stars I am aware of Frank Zappa would have been one of the few who could write music for this form. He didn't need to put a big stamp on it saying this is Frank's music – sometimes little bits creep in, how could they not – but that makes the experience all the more fun for the listener when you all of a sudden recognize a distinctive phrasing. Strictly Off Limits could be one piece made up of a series of 11 shorter movements easily, so well does the playing of each compliment the other and the amount they have in common stylistically.
For those of you who have never had the opportunity to listen to any of Frank Zappa's contemporary compositions I would highly recommend Strictly Off Limits as a good accessible place to start your exploration of his work in this form. Unfortunately there is the regret in knowing the potential for new pieces doesn't exist, but maybe that will help us cherish all the more what little of his work that we have.