Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Zappa Symphonies

I doubt there is a stranger coincidence among musicians' names than that of Francesco Zappa and Frank Zappa.  Francesco was an 18th century Italian cellist and composer who gathered just enough mentions in history books and left behind just enough manuscripts to avoid being completely forgotten.  The dates of Francesco's birth and death were never recorded.  We only know that he "flourished" between 1763 and 1788 and lived for a long time in the Netherlands.  Frank Zappa was a 20th century guitarist and composer who flourished almost exactly two hundred years later - give or take a few.  According to Frank the two were not related.

I worked for Frank Zappa from 1977 to 1984.  Near the end of that time I was heavily involved in the creation of Frank's Synclavier album entitled Francesco Zappa.  That's the only reason a new commercial release by a period music ensemble of any of Francesco Zappa's music would be of the slightest interest to me. 

Frank Zappa's Francesco Zappa album claimed to have been Francesco's "first digital recording in over 200 years".  But the recent PentaTone album by the New Dutch Academy Orchestra conducted by Simon Murphy really is more deserving of the title "the first recording of the music of Francesco Zappa".  And it too is digital.


I am not certain what the exact album title is.  As you can see from the cover, the phrase Zappa Symphonies gets the most space, but Francesco is only one of five composers.  Francesco gets billing higher than Mozart whose music is also included.  Maybe the name "Zappa" is enough to get this album filed under Rock and Roll in any still-functioning record stores. Or maybe there's a Zappa fan somewhere dumb enough to purchase this disc thinking he was getting newly discovered outtakes from the '88 band.

Printed on the disc itself the album is entitled Symphonies from the 18th Century Court of Orange in The Hague - Zappa, Stamitz, Schwindl, Graaf and Mozart.  That's a pretty good description.  You should know that the Stamitz on this album is not the famous Stamitz, it's his son (who may have been named Dweezil for all I know.)

On the second page of the program book there is an even longer-winded album title:

Crowning Glory
The Musical Heritage of the Netherlands
Dutch Crown Jewels:
Symphonies from the 18th Century
Court of Orange in The Hague
Zappa, Stamitz, Schwindl, Graaf and Mozart

I think we should just call the album Zappa Symphonies.

Zappa Symphonies is a survey of music created at a particular time, roughly defined by Francesco's flourishing almost 250 years ago, and a particular place, the royal court in The Hague.  Clearly The Hague was an advanced center of arts and culture.

Compare that to, say, Los Angeles during the same period.  Around here the natives were just starting to reap the "benefits" of early Spanish missionaries.  The Indians were talked into giving up their earthly paradise in exchange for the promise of another in the next life.  And so the Europeanization of L.A. began.  A long time would pass before Los Angeles started to think it needed classical orchestra music.  And we've happily imported music from Europe ever since. 

As a resident of Los Angeles I can only marvel at what it must be like to live in a place with a such a long local musical tradition as Zappa Symphonies reveals.  It seems entirely reasonable that Dutch musicians would want to preserve their tradition and share it through concerts and recording.  


The New Dutch Academy, as revealed by their recordings and their pictures, is a dedicated group of talented, young, beautiful people.  They call their instruments "authentic", a strange choice of words.  I think I would call the instruments "original" or "period" or maybe just "old".  Listening to this album, however, you could easily miss this aspect.  They clearly have overcome the habitual limitations of authentic instruments and, measured by any contemporary standard, perform at an extremely high level.  You can hear their live recordings on their website.

My biggest disappointment about the album is that the music itself is pretty dull.  Of course I'm comparing these unknown pieces to the great Mozart and Haydn symphonies which appeared just a few decades later - there's no way for me not to make such a comparison.  Unless you are specifically interested in the development of the modern symphony, or music in 18th century Holland, or music by composers with namesakes who lived two centuries later, or in finding out how good performance on period instruments can be, this album falls rather unceremoniously into the category of generic classical instrumental music.  As such, it ought to be a great hit on many of America's remaining classical music stations - especially during drive time.

You might wonder how I could describe any album with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of my favorite composers, as dull.  That would be because the Mozart music in question, a soprano aria plus his Fifth Symphony, was written while he was visiting The Hague - at the age of three.  In a world where so many people have fallen over themselves to believe that playing Mozart to a fetus could make the child more intelligent, it's not so far-fetched that he was only 3 years old.  (Okay, he was actually nine.  Would you believe that he wrote his first piano sonata movement at the age of six weeks?)  In any case, Mozart was young when he wrote his Fifth Symphony and he still had a lot to learn.  (For comparison, Beethoven was 38 when he finished Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. When Mozart was 38 he'd been dead 3 years.)


In the up-coming events list at the NDA's website, they have programmed some of the cello trios by Francesco Zappa on May 29.  These are described as being for three cellos.  This means they are not the same pieces which I entered into Frank Zappa's Synclavier back in the 80s.  Those were scored for two violins and cello.  The sheet music above is the first violin part of one of them. 

The story of how Frank came to discover that Francesco ever existed and how he used his quarter-million dollar Synclavier to create an album, often considered his worst release ever, consisting of nothing but Francesco's string trios and what my part in all that was and what I think of the Francesco Zappa album personally, can be found in the Synclavier Section of the David Ocker Internet Interview.   Scroll down to the line:
A few years before I quit working for Frank a new edition of Groves Encyclopedia...
That's where the story really starts.

One thing I did do for that album was write the program notes - tongue in cheek, of course.  Those notes were edited by Frank and they survived from the LP era to the age of CDs.  But, alas, my album credits disappeared from the CD.  Because I am proud of those credits as Frank wrote them (tongue in cheek, of course), I have reproduced the back cover of the LP and the jacket sleeve.  On the cover it lists  "Synclavier Document Encryption DAVID OCKER" and at the end of the program notes it reads "David Ocker, Assistant Director, Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort."   (Heck, I wasn't just the Assistant Director.  I was the whole Consort.)  Click on either picture and the text will be just barely readable.  Here's a readable pdf of the program notes.

Obviously the BPDGC never found "a way of liberating some of Francesco Zappa's symphonies from the really dusty libraries in Europe".  We were beaten to the punch, 25 years later, by the New Dutch Academy.   My congratulations go to the victors.



Frank Zappa never wrote anything he called a symphony.  I have suggested in this article that his piece Bogus Pomp could be made more accessible to classical audiences by describing it a Symphony.  I give four possible programs which end with Bogus Pomp.

I write about Frank Zappa on Mixed Meters from time to time.  For example Varese, Zappa and Slonimsky or Paradise, Pomp and Puppets - Performing Zappa's Orchestra Music.   Want to read all my posts which are labeled "Zappa"?  Click here.

If you want to hear the music of Frank Zappa played on old, inappropriate instruments, I cannot recommend the album Ensemble Ambrosius: The Zappa Album too highly. 

Somewhere, out there in the Internet, is a person named Francesco Zappa Nardelli.  He doesn't have anything to do with the subject of this post.

An April, 2010, article in Psychology Today: What's the Size of the Mozart Effect? The Jury Is In.


ADDENDUM

I just discovered that Jacopo Franzoni has created a wonderful Francesco Zappa/Frank Zappa website.  Check it out.

Authentic Tags: . . . . . .

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks David, very interesting read.

Bill L.

Office of the Cultural Liaisons said...

i mistook the london sym. orchestra album for just this (sym).
didn't you play on that?

docker said...

The Zappa LSO album is, quite literally, my 15 minutes of fame. Andy Warhol said that everyone gets their 15 minutes and I got mine - so I shouldn't complain about not getting 20.

Office of the Cultural Liaisons said...

the Anaphorians trade your short pieces like americans did baseball cards in the 50s.

docker said...

Cool. Maybe the High Council will decide to make 30 Second Spots the official Anaphorian currency.