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.”
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.
Two-CD set released April, 1995, Rykodisc; Recorded Jan. 12, 13, and 14, 1983.
Bob In Dacron
• First Movement (5:36)
• Second Movement (6:32)
• 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)
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