Archive for November, 2012

Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble / Franck Ollu – ZAPPA (2012)

On April 24, 2012, a new album entitled ZAPPA has been released, quite silently. A short press release is available through the Royal Academy of Music web site.

I have become aware of it a few weeks ago only, thanks to an Idiot post on zappateers that has not been discussed that much, understandably enough, since everybody is listening to reissues (some of them truly fantastic) and to new surprising releases.

However, I think it is worth dealing about and listening to it, for sure more than it is seems it has been done until now (I have just googled <“ensemble mason” +zappa> and I have got 4 results back!).

It is the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble conducted by Franck Ollu (horn player in the Ensemble Modern for the Yellow Shark recordings) playing a repertoire performed live at the Roundhouse Zappa Festival on November 13, 2010. This recording was made immediately after that concert. Actually, the festival main events, including the London Contemporary Orchestra and Zappa plays Zappa concerts, took place one weekend before on November, from 5 to 7. This schedule may have caused little attention to the RAM Manson Ensemble concert, and therefore to the album. For instance, here a festival review is available, but includes just a few words about the RAMME concert (that has been available through zappateers).

Anyway, let us try to see what is behind this project. As far as it can be argued from the information included in the booklet and in the press release, it has been a ZFT approved initiative and includes “new transcriptions by Head of Composition, Philip Cashian, and current composition students”.

The concert program is available here the cd booklet almost entirely reprints it. It is interesting to note how old are the Cashian (who is born 1963) students involved for the transcriptions (this information is available in the program only):

  • Chris Lyons (1987) transcribed “Twenty Small Cigars”
  • Robert Peate (1987) “The Legend Of The Golden Arches”
  • Charlie Piper (1982) “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast”
  • Joseph Davies (1987) “Little Umbrellas”

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While the teacher have transcribed the following:

  • “Black Page #2”
  • “Music For Low-Budget Orchestra” (based upon the Ian Underwood arrangement included in Songbook, vol.1)
  • “Alien Orifice”
  • “Little House I Used To Live In”

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I think these alone are interesting and good news: ZFT has agreed with a reliable Music Institution a performance of one of the Institution ensembles, conducted by an experienced Director, working on a program that includes new transcriptions done by selected young students and their composition teacher, who belongs to that Institution. Reliable here means, for instance, that an appropriate amount of rehearsals has been planned.

If the aim is to keep the interest on the orchestral side of the work of Frank Zappa high, this could be a very effective approach. At present, in fact, almost all the orchestral renditions are mainly based upon the well known repertoire included in the London Symphony Orchestra, Ensemble Modern and (rarely) Meridian Arts Ensemble FZ albums. Thanks to such projects, this repertoire may be extended, giving to who come next the opportunity to work with new material, accordingly giving more appeal to future concert programs.

By the way, a similar objective may be reached through the work of independent groups, like Ensemble Ascolta (here in German with sound samplers) or the Fireworks Ensemble, I do hope there will soon be the chance to listen to their announced FZ albums.

I understand it is not easy for the ZFT to choose the right Music Institution and/or independent ensemble, the risk of a negative result is always there, but it is worth trying, as this album proves.

Almost all the new transcriptions are convincing, and in many passages give new highlights to the music. “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” only leaves some doubt, especially in the first part, which sounds a bit confused. It may be a sound issue: some melodic lines, that are particularly relevant, are too much backwards. It could also be a performance issue, but it would be an exception in the album, the ensemble is always precise, even though sometimes too slow, as they are for “G-Spot Tornado”, and a little bit for “Peaches en Regalia”, but the Ensemble Modern renditions of these classics remain unparalleled.

To me “The Legend Of The Golden Arches” and “Alien Orifice” are the most successful new transcriptions, but in all the others a lot of nice ideas can be appreciated, like the extremely slow finale of “Little House I Used To Live In” or the low-pitched horns parts on “Little Umbrellas”.

St. Alfonzo would deserve a revision aimed to a well balanced orchestration. This issue may be linked to a very effective metaphor described in The Real Frank Zappa Book (thank you LA Philharmonic for the recollection):

In my compositions, I employ a system of weights, balances, measured tensions and releases — in some ways similar to Varèse’s aesthetic. The similarities are best illustrated by comparison to a Calder mobile: a multicolored whatchamacallit, dangling in space, that has big blobs of metal connected to pieces of wire, balanced ingeniously against little metal dingleberries on the other end. Varèse knew Calder, and was fascinated by these creations.

So, in my case, I say: “A large mass of any material will ‘balance’ a smaller, denser mass of any material, according to the length of the gizmo it’s dangling on, and the ‘balance point’ chosen to facilitate the danglement.” The material being ‘balanced’ includes stuff other than the notes on the paper. If you can conceive of any material as a ‘weight’ and any idea-over-time as a ‘balance,’ you are ready for the next step: the ‘entertainment objects’ that derive from those concepts.

Alexander Calder, Rouge Triomphant, 1963, sheet metal, rod & paint 110 x 230 x 180 in., Courtesy of O’Hara Gallery

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Google-images “alexander calder mobile” for more!

Going back to the album, Golden Arches is my favourite, I particularly like the second part, right after the 2 minutes mark, especially the strings arrangement.

Also, nice to hear a new rendition of the Jon Nelson (Meridian Arts Ensemble) brass quintet transcription of “Big Swifty”, but also “Dupree’s Paradise” and “Perfect Stranger”, very well executed. “Dupree’s Paradise” in particular is slowed down if compared to the 1984 Boulez rendition (9:45 vs. 7:54), and sometimes the outcome is more dramatic, like the piano interlude that occurs at about 4:00.

Last but unfortunately not at all least, this album is badly affected by some considerable sound issues. The main one is the drums which are frequently distorted and, when not distorted, very often disturb all other instruments with their reverb. When there are no drums the Orchestra sounds much better, even though some instruments position/distance issues remain.

Hear the second movement of “Perfect Stranger” for instance, it sounds always quite nice but in the centre of the piece (about at 4:50), when some timpani hits destroy all the air. Pieces with a lot of drums like Peaches can’t be fully appreciated.

This is the only real drawback of the album, admittedly a significant one, however the music and the project behind are really promising.

I would like to close this post with a quotation from the short essay by Philip Cashian, included in the booklet:

“At a time when classical music had become far more of a profession and composer/performers few and far between, Zappa worked very much in the tradition of the nineteenth century composer/virtuosos”

“The future looks very challenging for young composers in 2010 but they can not have better role model than Frank Zappa”

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I think I should revamp this blog. Meanwhile, some sort of a Z Twilight Zone corner.

I was watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with my little daughter, and that’s what everyone can stare at

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 23:10 frame

at about 00:23:00 into the movie!