Composer Portraits – Frank Zappa
February 2, 2007
I often try to think about things in terms of how I would explain them to Benjamin Franklin. On Friday night, I attended the latest in the Miller Theatre’s Composer Portrait series, in which Fireworks Ensemble and Zephyros Winds (a string quintet and a chamber orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Milarsky) paying homage to the late Frank Zappa. Trying to explain Zappa and his scatterbrained classical compositions to Franklin may seem impossible, but since Franklin was quite the wild man himself, I’m pretty confident that if someone had exposed Benjamin Franklin to LSD, he would have grown a mustache and soul patch, moved to California, and explored musical territory would qualify as avant-garde 40 years later.
The crowd was composed of an interesting mix of white haired men discussing the merits of Captain Beefheart (think Patrick Henry, but batshit insane), and Columbia students and hipsters (think Thomas Paine, but in tighter pants). The accessory of choice was either a beard or a musical instrument case, and all crowded into the sold-out theatre for a psychedelic Zappa experience (think of Betsy Ross’ 4th of July party when someone spiked the punch).
As it turns out, Zappa, more widely known for his satirist rock and roll capabilities, was actually an accomplished classical composer. The first part of the concert featured many of Zappa’s later compositions, standard scores with parts re-arranged in odd ways, waeving various instruments into an intricately textured piece. Imagine breaking every rule of classical music in a single piece of music, in a way that paid homage to the greats, while acknowledging a need for progress. Ben, it’s the type of music you might hear at the places you frequent in France. As the woman behind me exclaimed at intermission, “That was so much better than that Supernova band I saw at Radio City. Tommy Lee [think Thomas Jefferson, but bigger], he’s just not a good drummer.”
Fireworks Ensemble, however, stole the show. Their performance of Zappa’s earlier works was inspired, while their jams on pieces such as “The Black Page –
Number 1” and “King Kong” proved just how much Zappa influenced all types of music. The crowd responded with a standing ovation that lasted nearly 5 minutes, while the same woman behind me screamed, “That was a crazy Zappa experience!”
All I wanted to say was, “Lady, if you think that’s crazy, you’ve never had a Ben Franklin experience. You know…he’s not on the $100 bill for nothing.”
– Parker Fishel
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