Tag Archives: Frank Zappa

‘Touring can make you crazy:’ Steve Graney reviews Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels

Last week saw the (delayed) première of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels; Drama graduate and former member of Chamber Choir, Steve Graney, was in the audience…

BBC Concert Orchestra, Southbank Sinfonia, London Voices Conductor: Jurjen Hempel, Soprano: Claron McFadden Royal Festival Hall, Tuesday 29th October, 2013

BBC Concert Orchestra and soloists at the Royal Festival Hall. Image: Steve Graney
BBC Concert Orchestra and soloists at the Royal Festival Hall. Image: Steve Graney

“Touring can make you crazy, Ladies and Gentlemen.”

In the case of Frank Zappa, touring can make you so crazy that you write a musical film in which you are played by Ringo Starr, Ringo’s chauffeur plays your ex-bassist and your former-saxophonist plays a Newt Rancher who falls in love with an Industrial Vacuum Cleaner.

Welcome to 200 Motels, a ‘surrealistic documentary’ of life on the road for Zappa and his band The Mothers of Invention; a musical satire of the tensions, groupies, chemical experimentations and absurdities that come with a rock & roll tour.

The orchestral concert version, forty-two years after its performance at the Royal Albert Hall was cancelled on grounds of obscenity, was finally unveiled to the UK in the Southbank’s ‘The Rest is Noise’ festival of  twentieth-century music. It was a joyous spectacle (witnessing the London Voices wave light-up, rubber – how can I put this? – ‘recreational aids’ during a suite entitled ‘Penis Dimension’ is surely a once-in-a-lifetime experience). It also cemented Zappa’s status as a key  twentieth-century composer.

Zappa’s versatility spans achingly beautiful string lines, challenging free jazz-reminiscent choral arrangements and even a majestic Bolero. The influence of Frank’s idols Stravinsky and Varèse is evident in the piece’s suspenseful harmonic dissonance and polyrhythmic, percussive atonality, but this in no way detracts from his individuality and unique approach to composition; I for one would pay good money just to glimpse a score that orders the horn players to jump on the spot.

The onstage rock band played second fiddle to the orchestra on this ‘Strictly Genteel’ classical occasion, although guitarist Leo Abrahams did treat us to a few tasty electric licks and there were some impressive Don Preston-style synth-keyboard skills to be heard.

Vocals and dialogue from the film also featured. These were stronger in some areas than others. Ian Shaw and Brendan Reilly, while vocally solid, didn’t recapture the raucous showmanship of Mothers frontmen and former-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan. However, Tony Guilfoyle, in FZ wig and moustache, brought Zappa’s surreal, self-parodying sense of humour to the fore magnificently. His accompaniment of the ‘I Have Seen the Pleated Gazelle’ segment (concerning the Girl-Newt Rancher-Industrial Vacuum Cleaner love triangle) with its composer’s justification that this was “a love story people could relate to” was dry, bizarre and hilarious.

I have nothing but admiration for soprano Claron McFadden’s breath-taking melodic and lyrical clarity. Any trained soprano who can sing, unfazed, lines like “If there’s one thing I really get off on it’s a nun suit painted on some old boxes” has my undying respect.

As the packed Royal Festival Hall leapt into standing ovation, we half-hoped our cries of “More!” might prompt an encore of ‘Peaches En Regalia’ or similar. But we were content with Jurjen Hempel lifting the mammoth conductor’s score triumphantly aloft, finally performed in full.

Would Frank’s words have been words of pride? “About f***ing time” might be nearer the mark.

Who knows. He was Only In It For The Money anyway.

Steve Graney

Turn it up: Jonathan Harvey on concert audiences and amplification

In a recent article, composer Jonathan Harvey proposes abandoning the idea of conventional audience behaviour at concert halls, in a bid to attract younger audiences.

Jonathan HarveyI’ve written previously about expected audience behaviour, as it’s important to make music accessible to everyone without burying it beneath all manner of stultifying conventions that will almost certainly put people off, especially younger audiences who are potentially the Ticket-buyers of Tomorrow. The almost religious state of obeisance required to sit still and attentively through classical repertoire is alien to those who attend jazz gigs and rock concerts. Clap in the wrong place during a symphony, and you’re greeted with icy stares or patronising glances: clap after a particularly fine instrumental improvisation at a jazz gig, the musicians will nod their thanks.                      

Harvey advocates amplifying music in performance, standard practice in rock and jazz gigs but greeted with a sharp intake of breath at classical concerts.

“There is a big divide between amplified and non-amplified music. The future must bring things that are considered blasphemous, like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere where people can come and go … and certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it.”

Leave in the middle if they feel like it ? Blasphemous indeed, perhaps – to some. But precisely this premise was part of Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson – written in 1976, the opera lasts for around five hours, and consists of nine scenes linked by short interludes known as ‘Knee Plays;’ there is no plot, and the audience members are free to enter and leave when they wish.

Harvey has composed in the electro-acoustic field as well as traditional choral and instrumental works: Le Tombeau de Messiaen is composed for piano and tape;  Mortuos Plango, Vivos Vocos whizzes the tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral and voice of a boy soprano (Harvey’s son) around in space, whilst Speakings portrays the birth, development and establishment of language and is written for orchestra and live electronics.  His choral compositions range from the dancing Virgo Virginum to the beguiling mesmerism of The Angels. 

There is of course a divide between audiences for classical concert repertoire and jazz and rock lovers: but as composers such as Mark-Anthony Turnage and Tansy Davies are proving, it’s not an insurmountable one. (Frank Zappa’s The Yellow Shark, anyone ?) And if you go to a concert given by groups like Icebreaker or to hear music by Steve Reich, amplification is almost de rigeur.

Harvey makes the prediction that “if orchestras and conductors hang on to the orthodox method of performance they will end up playing to empty halls.” Whilst one hopes fervently that this will not be the case, there is surely some room to accommodate new ways of listening to music, in a way that will attract younger audiences: isn’t there ?