We discovered this gem in the vault. 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—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.
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 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.
At my request Ali N. Askin and Todd Yvega so very graciously submitted their observations and we are all indebted to them for their generosity of insight and spirit.
They never had the opportunity to see and hear FZ in concert other than in this instance. Todd doesn't realize for example that FZ has used these techniques he describes with a number of classically-trained musicians (notable among them, the Underwoods, Ian & Ruth). But that doesn't matter because anything you need to know in words is here in their notes—and everything else is in and amongst the other notes—the music.
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?
"Anything anytime anywhere for no reason at all."—this FZ 'concept' is alive in every track of this CD. In this instance it is showing us what happens when you take one of the best classical ensembles for modern music in the world, and let them work in an unconventional way, introducing ideas and techniques which are rarely encountered in the world of composer-writes-score-and-wants-it-executed-as-written. As Todd mentions, these recordings are not finished and polished products of a long working period, which includes months of rehearsals, touring and recording. They are rather the documents of a first musical encounter, giving the listener a rare insight into a very unique workshop which took place over a period of two weeks in California, 1991.
Frank was using the same strategies and compositional tools as with his bands. Written and rehearsed material was merged with improvised sections. He taught the players 'objects', 'motifs', 'vamps', chord structures' and gestures' (musical and theatrical), which were cued by him by hand signs, funny faces, eyebrow movements, etc. In the same time he was checking out every member of the ensemble, looking for hidden strengths in single performers. And since he didn't seem to have any limitations in terms of job descriptions, it could mean that he would ask you to do things that you had never thought of: If you were, i.e., a mandolin player, it didn't mean that you could not be asked to improvise spoken text. Or: although you were 'only' a keyboard player, you might end up reciting text so funnyly* that everybody would piss their pants+. Or, even if you might consider yourself a bad improviser, he would pick you and let you 'take it away'. I myself ended up lying underneath a grand piano muttering strange things in Bavarian and Turkish...
These sessions show how FZ was beginning to tailor music (and other stuff) for this ensemble. But due to his illness a lot of the ideas started here would not be developed fully.
Frank told the musicians to "prepare for the unexpected". But how does one do so? I would say: relax, be awake and have fun while "air gets throughhhhh..."
—Ali N. Askin
19 September 1999
*I like Ali's spelling. American is neither his native tongue nor the origin of his passport. In crossing the adjective with the adverb he has unwittingly recreated for you to experience firsthand exactly the same kind of funniness inherent in the original event.
+Todd wants to assure everyone that this is a commonly used expression in Germany.
IF you are looking for polished music, this CD is not for you. This album is probably best described as an audio documentary. These are recordings from Frank Zappa's rehearsals with the Ensemble Modern in preparation for "The Yellow Shark".
Memorable and interesting notwithstanding, they are, after all, rehearsals. I only make this hedge because it would be unfair to the Ensemble Modern to present their rehearsal performance as if it were a final production. I certainly don't hedge because there is anything substandard about this music. Quite to the contrary, inspired music and inspired musicianship have a way of shining through and surviving less-than-ideal recording conditions. (Just as, conversely, even the very best production values won't help uninspired music survive over the long haul.) Simply put, this is the sort of album that will grow on you.
I had the illuminating experience of participating in the sessions that ultimately formed this album. I wish I could say that I contributed more to the project, but basically I just pushed the record" button and drank the beer that the Zappas put out for the musicians. Apparently this has qualified me to write these liner notes. Before getting into specifics about each piece, there are a couple preliminary points I'd like to make.
About the Ensemble Modern: First of all, you don't need me to expound on how skilled this particular ensemble is. Their skill and expertise is already world-renowned. But I would like it to be known what a joy it was to work with people exhibiting such a level of devotion and such an exceptional work ethic. (These were folks who put up their own money to fly outand rehearse with Frank. Some of them postponed their return flights at their own expense just to be able to have a couple more days with him.) During the rehearsals, It was part of my daily duty to go to Joe's Garage four hours prior to the session to set up the equipment (which had to be taken down the previous night.) I was so impressed that upon my arrival each day, most if not all of the musicians were already there diligently practicing. They weren't required to show up for another four hours. They could have been out snapping photos of the Hollywood sign. But they were personally driven to strive for that extra bit of improvement. They wanted to do the very best they could for Frank and exceed their performance from the previous day. This is not the sort of attitude I'm accustomed to encountering among unionized Hollywood musicians.
Having just spouted all that praise, this album is not about the Ensemble Modern, nor is it just about Frank Zappa or his compositions. I see it more as documenting what was special about how Frank interacted with musicians. Given access to a superb orchestra like the Ensemble Modern, a great composer would write some great music, put it in front of them and let them do what they do so well. There's certainly nothing wrong with that. Frank however had the vision to want to take them beyond what they already did so well, to push them into new and unfamiliar ways of working. In this way they achieved results unexpected by all and with an entertainment value beyond that of a great composition performed by a great orchestra. And I think the musicians gained an extra level of experience from this collaboration. So without further ado...
Frank assigned several musicians to improvise spoken interaction. The Pianist, Hermann Kretzschmar, whipped out his library card to use as a text. The distinctive timbre of his voice, the German accent, and the humorous pace of his delivery obviously struck Frank as a vehicle to be developed and utilized. You can hear how this idea flowered in Master Ringo, Wonderful Tattoo! and ultimately in Welcome To The United States on the album "The Yellow Shark".
Part of Frank's overall plan was to compose on the Synclavier for the Ensemble Modern so the first order of business was to see how well this plan would work. On the night before the first day of rehearsals, he asked me to reorchestrate his Synclavier composition entitled Igor and arrange it for the Ensemble Modern, preparing printed parts and a conductor's score. Frank replaced the title with "This Is A Test" right before printing out the parts the next morning, just so that the musicians would know the purpose of this short piece. As so often happens, the name stuck.
This recording is a first take performance by musicians who were sight-reading music just handed to them. It illustrates not only the technical skill of this orchestra but the fact that they managed to be expressive and impart a style into what they played, even while struggling to accurately render something they had never seen before. Needless to say, the test proved successful and for the next two weeks each night was punctuated by a frenzied and grueling effort to dig another piece out of the Synclavier and convert it to dots on paper for the next day's experiments.
It's interesting to note that one of these tests was G-Spot Tornado. After about an hour of rehearsing, Frank deemed it a failed experiment and put it aside. The members of the ensemble however were determined to master it and continued to practice it on their own. By the time the "Yellow Shark" concerts took place, G-Spot Tornado served as the finale and the encore.
[FZ was no doubt inspired by the fact that Dweezil had been playing part of) G-Spot Tornado on tour with Z. It was impressive]
At the end of rehearsals with the entire ensemble at Joe's Garage, another week was spent with smaller groups of the Ensemble Modern at UMRK. Each evening featured what I would call a 'directed improvisation'. Unlike an improvisation in which musicians spontaneously think up what they play, these are compositions in that each musician was given instructions before hand, both written and verbal. Then Frank would direct the musicians using hand signals and gestures. It looked as though Frank was playing the Ensemble like an instrument.
This style of conducting is quite unique to Frank. He was renowned for training his rock and roll bands to respond instantaneously to a variety of signals thereby enabling a spontaneous interaction with unpredictable events during a concert. This concept of course is entirely foreign to the controlled (stuffy?!) environment of the conventional classical music concert. I think Frank was intrigued by what could be achieved by bringing this propensity toward spontaneous interaction to classically trained musicians.
What strikes me as truly remarkable about [this manner of composing] is that these pieces do not sound like improvisations. They sound uncannily like compositions that were carefully thought out and meticulously orchestrated in advance, It was as if each musician knew what the others would play. Certainly a testament to the exceptional skill of these musicians and the near-clairvoyance they had with each other as an ensemble.
When recording unnamed pieces, it's often up to the engineer to note [for housekeeping purposes] a tentative title on the spot. I noticed the resemblance of the primary motif to the melody of For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" and thus named the file Jolly Good Fellow thinking that an appropriate title would be given to it later. Funny how these things stick.
[Note Funny how later never cornes.]
Another practice common in jazz and rock music but almost unheard of in the classical concert hall is that of improvising a solo. Frank spent a good deal of rehearsal time pressing individual members of the ensemble to improvise a solo as the rest of the orchestra vamped' (another concept foreign to classical music). Most if not all of the Ensemble Modern had never soloed before and there was some dismay that Frank was asking them to do this. I've always felt that one of Frank's gifts is this tendency to push people into trying things beyond their inclination.
This track features a memorable first solo by the initially reluctant Clarinetist Roland Diry. He received an enthusiastic applause from everyone (edited out for continuity). That particular day Frank had Electric Violinist L. Shankar there to demonstrate Indian phrasing techniques to the String plyers and to help get the musicians more into the spirit of improvisation. Roland's famous solo is followed by Strat Vindaloo featuring FZ and Shankar (whom Frank affectionately called Larry—the "L." however, stands for Lakshminarayana).
No, this does not refer to the esteemed Ringo Starr. The results of Hermann Kretzschmar's performance in Library Card prompted Frank to introduce a substantially more colorful text for consideration. There happened to be on hand an alternative magazine dedicated to genital piercing and tattoos called PFIQ (Piercing Fans International Quarterly). Of particular value were the letters to the editor in which readers described their experiences with genital piercing. For example, there's only so much enthusiasm an orchestral gesture might make* in response to a regulation regarding the use of one's library card. However, when someone describes the pain of having a needle pushed through his scrotum, then you can really go to town triple-forte.
During that period, I was occasionally hired to work sessions for local advertising agencies. These typically had a host of businessmen and businesswomen present, accessorized with the requisite suits, ties, briefcases and cell phones. Frank would encourage me to take the FF10 along so that during a break I could nonchalantly take it from my briefcase and casually peruse it in front of everyone with a serious look on my face. It's important to make a proper impression on the clients.
*FZ is directing these 'gestures'. Therefore anything is possible (aaafnraa) and enthusiasm, requisite or otherwise, is in the eye of the enthusee.
A stage band classic from the 70's. Frank named this after a character in a story that Moon* made up as a child. Like This Is A Test the first half of this track is also a first run through. Frank wanted to see how the Ensemble Modern would handle the difficult 23 against 24 tuplets+. The second half was built up as a superimposition of many different subdivisions of the meter. Each player was verbally given a part to play. Frank referred to these 'subcompositional arrangements' [Todd's term] as "objects". Once an object' was developed, a name and a hand signal would be assigned to it so that "it could happen at any time..."
*Moon Unit Zappa was born in 1967. That would make her a child in the 70's. She's still making things up. Fyi T'Mershi Duween (FZ's spelling) is a camel and has a friend named Sinini.
+a valid observation by Todd—
This features Michael Svoboda on Alphorn, Rumi Ogawa-Helferich on Slide Whistle and Voice, Rainer Romer and Andreas Bbttger on Percussion. The fact that the Alphorn only produces notes in the harmonic series, in conjunction with the timbral quality of the Thai Gongs contributes to the meditative nature of this piece. I like to think this direction was taken because we were all feeling so worn out by that afternoon and we just needed something peaceful and sedate. Others might disagree.
[Todd named this and I like the title because I think that if he had said just that to FZ. Frank would have laughed like I did knowing how Frank would have laughed.]
Frank signaled the various sections of the orchestra to play different objects' as the piece progressed. During the rehearsals Ali N. Askin was on hand transcribing these objects as they were developed. The title is taken from the top of FZ's manuscript indicating the time signature of these particular objects. Yes, Shankar also appears.
The Classical Guitar played by Jurgen Ruck, takes a front seat to the rest of the orchestra (as in a Guitar Concerto). The Guitar motifs were written in advance as was the primary motif played by the orchestra. The rest, including improvisations, [were directed and improvised under FZ's baton].
This is a brief excerpt of the initial rehearsal. I read in a review of "The Yellow Shark" that the title Get Whitey was a reference to the Los Angeles Riots of 1992. Too many journalists unconscionably state their assumptions as facts. This piece predates the Los Angeles Riots by several years and was whimsically named "Get Whitey" because it started off being constructed solely from the pitches on the white keys of the keyboard. Not nearly as interesting as the journalist's story, but sometimes the truth is dull.
[re: Get Whitey "The title originally came because the first version, the prototype Whitey that was rehearsed in '91 when the group came to Los Angeles, dealt only with the white keys on the piano." FZ, liner notes, "The Yellow Shark"—1993]
Amnerika in it's original but less elaborate form was first recorded for "Thingfish". Here Frank utilizes the Synclavier to take hocketing' to it's 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 accompaniment" arrangement of Amnerika and distributed each successive note to a different instrument. The result as heard on "Civilization: Phase III" is striking. 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. Spencer felt that through editing together the best parts from each concert he could assemble a rendition with a right to exist. Incidentally. I'm told that the Ensemble Modern performs Amnerika routinely now and it comes off tight and flawless every time. It was just a matter of having enough time to practice.
None Of The Above started out as a collection ot String Quartets composed on the Synclavier for the Kronos Quartet in 1985. Some movements were expanded to String Quintet [see FZ comments on "Yellow Shark" cd—you might want to listen to III Revised also] for the Ensemble Modern, and some were further expanded to Chamber Orchestra form (actually String Quintet with Orchestral embellishment). The Orchestral sections are from the UMRK rehearsals; the String Quintet rehearsals were recorded in Frankfurt, 1992.
[This is a 'twisted' version of FZs Xenochrony (see FZ's THE REAL FRANK ZAPPA BOOK in that written bits occur simuitaneously with real time cowpositiosai elements Todd says that FZ suggested to Peter Rundel that the EM could (now that they experienced the magic of improvisation) supplement their income by scoring television shows—Rundel could conduct and they could improvise while viewing. I love this idea—it would be such a no-brainer for them. Fun and superior results guaranteed.]
This is essentially a continuation of Master Ringo. I can't think of anything to say about Wonderful Tattoo! that wasn't already said about Master Ringo.