Friday, April 22, 2011

London Symphony Orchestra Vol. I & II

If we are to listen to what Frank Zappa said, we are not supposed to like the London Symphony Orchestra recording. But Frank’s castigation of the recording is largely based on what he describes as his less-than-enjoyable experience in working with the orchestra, an experience that tainted his perspective on orchestras in general for nearly all of the rest of his life.

To get a grasp on this, it’s worth reviewing the process, because it not only reveals all the work that goes into producing and recording symphonic music, but the composer’s ego as well, an ego just as big as the egos he criticizes.

In his autobiography, Zappa talks about how he used to get a great thrill writing music on paper, largely because as he wrote the notes on the paper, he could hear the tune in his head, which, he noted, is “a completely different sensation from the ordinary listening experience.”

It is time consuming work, particularly when it comes to writing the entire score. “One page of full orchestral score that takes 45 seconds to play can take 16 hours to draw,” Frank says in his autobiography.

When the score is written, the next step is copying each individual part so that sheet music can be provided to the appropriate musician. A copyist is hired to do this and is paid a lot of money to do it. And who pays for the copyist? The composer and it doesn’t take long while reading anything about Zappa for you to learn that he didn't like paying people a lot of money.

By the time he encountered the LSO, he had already had a series of negative experiences with various orchestras in the Netherlands, Vienna and Denmark. Those experiences cost him several hundred thousand dollars, all for naught. To gather the money needed for a copyist and all the other production costs for recording and editing, Zappa used income from the songs “Dinah Moe Humm,” “Titties and Beer,” and “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow.” That provided him with enough cash to complete the LSO project, the finished product of which he describes as “performances which come off like high-class ‘demos’ of what actually resides in the scores.”

Kent Nagano, who conducted the performances, recognized the complexity of the music, but thought the orchestra performed it well given the short period they had for rehearsing. In Barry Miles’ book, Nagano said: “I think it’s fair to say that the London Symphony, when they heard they were doing Frank Zappa’s music, had no idea what that really meant in terms of the complexity. But I will say that they were really quite phenomenal; they worked so hard and I really fell in love with the orchestra, just as a group.”

Any friction between Zappa and the orchestra might be attributed to the way he rearranged musician seating, often making changes from one rehearsal to another, an action he was cautioned against because musician seating is a fairly standard and established item among orchestras. To disrupt this without any meaningful explanation put Zappa in a position of leading with his chin, as he was wont to do far too frequently.

And while Zappa complains in his autobiography of musicians drinking during the recording breaks, Nagano and others do not corroborate his description of events. Interestingly too is the fact that while Zappa was essentially uninterested in the live performances – he thought of them as rehearsals prior to the recording – and criticized them, Nagano and others thought the performances went exceptionally well. And something that Zappa fails to mention, the orchestra itself gave Zappa a standing ovation. You don’t see an orchestra do that very often.

Despite Zappa lambasting his final product, when you read what others say at Kill Ugly Radio about the two-CD set, you find comments that reflect that just maybe this vile recording actually contains some very enjoyable music and pretty cool interpretations of more familiar pieces.

As ‘jim” mentions at KUR, the orchestral version of “Envelopes” becomes “so drastically mutated” from the release on “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch” that “it trumps it.” Despite that, jim and I both love the version on SATLTSADW.

“Bob in Dacron” almost takes on a story-like quality to the music, although one must remain dubious about this as often the titles Zappa gave to some of his more serious compositions were so absurd and irrelevant to the material that it seemed he was intentionally giving them nonsensical titles to diminish their sincerity.

Paul Semptschi describes the recording as one that grows on you and certainly one that has a rightful place in Zappa’s repertoire. And I agree with Marco J who opines if there is really something wrong and disappointing about the LSO sessions it’s the recording itself. I, too, thought it was a bit cold and stretched. While I agree with the assessment that “The Yellow Shark” is a much warmer recording more skillfully performed, I do think the LSO’s performance is on par with those on “Orchestral Favorites,” despite the latter also being better recorded and mixed.

True, as Marco J points out, the LSO sessions lack humor in any sense. Even with “Strictly Genteel,” one has a sense of a well-played piece that nonetheless fails to express any humor or satire to the listener. In fact, it comes off like a nice piece of sentimentality, one that you can enjoy over brandy with your grandmother.

But should these pieces, particularly the ones finishing the recording, be “humorous?” When you think about it, aren’t “Strictly Genteel” and “Bogus Pomp” more than just tangentially associated with “200 Motels”? For many of us, our first experience with these compositions occurred while listening to that soundtrack, which was filled with prurient humor. I don’t know. Perhaps someone can weigh in on this.

I rate this with three of five stars. Add your own rating below.

Two-CD set released April, 1995, Rykodisc; Recorded Jan. 12, 13, and 14, 1983.

Track listing:

Disc One
Bob In Dacron
• First Movement (5:36)
• Second Movement (6:32)
Sad Jane
• First Movement (4:47)
• Second Movement (5:02)
Mo 'n Herb's Vacation
• First Movement (4:47)
• Second Movement (10:04)
• Third Movement (12:50)

Disc Two
Envelopes (04:04)
Pedro's Dowry (10:25)
Bogus Pomp (24:31)
Strictly Genteel (06:56)


The London Symphony Orchestra
Kent Nagano, conductor
Frank Zappa, composer and arranger
David Ocker, solo clarinet
Chad Wackerman, drum set
Ed Mann, featured percussionist


Richard Harrold said...

You know, whoever rated this album with four stars, I am inclined to agree with you. I wanted to give this four stars, but decided not to based on how I had already rated Orchestral Favorites. Hmmm, I think I may need to change these ratings! said...

Thank you for this great piece of information. Although it relates to a "distant" era of music than what I'm accustomed to, it's still extremely relevent to me because it goes to show how much time and effort was (and for some, still is) dedicated towards making INCREDIBLE music.

I've been brushing up on some of Zappa's catalogue (simply because I dig his state of mind) and I never knew he did any work with the LSO. So this is news to me. Thanks.

Zapple100 said...

I really like Zappa's Classical work. I think if he had lived he would have left Rock and just wrote Classical.

Anonymous said...

Simon George said...

I didn’t really appreciate frank until I got older.however, a friend got me into him and he truly is a great guitarist in his own right. Great post keep up the hard work. Check these out IStillGotMyGuitar.

Rob Richardson said...

I don't agree with your 3-star rating. In my opinion this CD should be given four stars.
Check out some Frank Zappa apparel.

Stephen said...

Not to disagree with your conclusions, but it wasn't only FZ who mentioned the LSO's drinking; the magazine Private Eye around that time had a spoof serial about Andre Previn (principal conductor) which usually concerned the orchestra's drinking habits.

I've only just found this, and I look forward to reading the rest of it.