Technik und Tempo

Posted: May 13, 2014 in concert report, transcriptions, visual arts, zappa
From the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln – Freunde facebook page

From the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln – Freunde facebook page

On May 4, 2014 WDR Sinfonieorchester conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer performed music by John Adams, Bernhard Gander, Hans Abrahamsen, Steve Reich, Frank Zappa and György Ligeti. The concert belongs to the “Acht Brücken Festivals” and has been titled “Musik der Zeit: Stop Nonstop”. The program has been defined upon a fascination for technique and pace (“Das Programm lebt von der Faszination für Technik und Tempo”, from the WDR Sinfonieorchester web pages). Here it is in detail:

Tamara Stefanovich: piano
Dirk Rothbrust: drums
Thorsten Johanns: clarinet
Nicola Jürgensen: clarinet

Studierende der Musikhochschulen NRW
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln

Jonathan Stockhammer: conductor

John Adams
Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986)
Fanfare for Orchestra

Bernhard Gander
Orchannibal Corpse (2013)
for Orchestra
commissioned by WDR
world premiere

Steve Reich
New York Counterpoint (1985)
for clarinet and tape or 11 clarinets
(11 clarinets version)

Hans Abrahamsen
Concerto for piano and orchestra (1999/2000)

Frank Zappa
Four pieces for drums solo and Orchestra
arranged by Andrew Digby and Hubert Steiner (2014)
world premiere

György Ligeti
San Francisco Polyphony (1973-74)
for orchestra

An mp3 recording of the concert has been available for streaming for 30 days starting May 4 through a WDR3 web site (the link was here).

Of course I’m going to concentrate on the Zappa performance, but the whole concert deserves attention, the program has its own coherence, and presents some classics and less known pieces. The Gander premiere, for instance, effectively combines powerful orchestra blasts with low dynamics passages. There is a careful use of dissonance in a context where rhythmic references are always clear. Gander is known to possess a great pop background, heavy metal being one of his favorites, hence probably the “hard-dark” nature of the piece.

It would be interesting to ask Frank Zappa about such a program, since it is well known that he was not very fond of most 80s minimalism. As he said to Florindo Volpacchio (“The Mother of All Interviews: Zappa on Music and Society”, Telos, Spring, 1991):

“Minimalism, I think, is a perfect form of music to express the spiritual condition of the 80s.”

And here is what’s behind 4 Stücke fur Solodrummer und Orchester (4 pieces for drums solo and Orchestra, timings refer to the mp3 WDR3 recording):

1:25:57 – 1:29:45 (3:48) – Aerobics in Bondage
1:30:12 – 1:32:59 (1:47) – Navanax
1:33:27 – 1:36:08 (2:41) – Naval Aviation in Art?
1:36:32 – 1:42:21 (5:49) – Put a Motor in Yourself

And these are the timings for the respective reference versions (album title in parentheses):

Aerobics in Bondage
3:23 (Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention)
1:40 (Civilization Phaze III)
Naval Aviation in Art?
1:22 (Orchestral Favorites)
2:45 (The Perfect Stranger)
2:28 (Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions)
Put a Motor in Yourself
5:13 (Civilization Phaze III)
5:20 (Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions)

As far as I know, Aerobics in Bondage and Navanax have been executed by a human ensemble here for the first time, and thanks to the arrangers and the Orchestra, they reveal a great acoustic impact. In both pieces the “quasi-solo” (as defined by the speaker) drums parts are in evidence and give them a peculiar sound. The Naval Aviation in Art? arrangement is directly related to those presented by the Ensemble Intercontemporain (Boulez) in 1984 and by the Ensemble Modern (Stockhammer) in 2002, these three version have similar durations but slightly different orchestrations. For instance, it is interesting to note that this arrangement goes back to the Orchestral Favorites 1975 recording for the beginning, with the very first notes played by winds instead of the full strings start of both 1984 and 2002 versions. On a first listen, the arrangement of Put a Motor in Yourself sounds close to the Ensemble Modern one, i.e. it is quite loyal to the original. However Andrew Digby and Hubert Steiner introduced a lot of variations in the orchestration. To mention an evident one, there are neither synthesizer nor electric bass. A more defined recording would reveal much more details. The drums arrangement of this version is also distinctive, as far as the approach and general sound are concerned, Dirk Rothbrust often plays as for a progressive band, taking all related risks. During the first minute of the performance not everything went well, but later on the piece goes as fluid as the original, and with powerful drumming.

Andrew Digby and Hubert Steiner work with the music of Frank Zappa since 2007 at least, being members of Ensemble Ascolta who has a well known Zappa project in repertoire (will it ever become an album?). Jonathan Stockhammer is a renowned conductor and was in charge with the Ensemble Modern for the Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions album. Conceiving an effective approach for the drums, an instrument that has a lead role in the whole production of the man from Baltimore, and delivering a solid performance, the arrangers, the director and the Orchestra designed a short but relevant Zappa episode worth to be known and continued.

This is particularly good news, if compared to a 2011 Rome concert, a project far below any expectation that involved both Stockhammer and Steiner, and that cause me to shout this blog.

Considering the release of Roxy by Proxy, the percussion oriented performances of Ensemble musicFabrik and this “Technik und Tempo” WDR Sinfonieorchester execution, 2014 seems a good year for Zappa and the drums.


Frank Zappa, Drum Shop, late 1950s/early 1960s, ink,  watercolors and collage

Frank Zappa, Drum Shop, late 1950s/early 1960s, ink, watercolors and collage


LANCASTER, CA - CIRCA 1957: Frank Zappa plays drums with his first band 'The Blackouts'; (clockwise from the bottom right) Wayne Lyles (on bongos), Dwight Bennett, Ernie Thomas, Terry Wimberley (on piano), John Franklin, Frank Zappa (on drums) []

LANCASTER, CA – CIRCA 1957: Frank Zappa plays drums with his first band ‘The Blackouts’; (clockwise from the bottom right) Wayne Lyles (on bongos), Dwight Bennett, Ernie Thomas, Terry Wimberley (on piano), John Franklin, Frank Zappa (on drums) []


  1. mmbalint says:

    Thanks for the links! (one note: Aerobics… is from the “Mothers of Prevention” album).

    I listened to it once only, quite interesting, but I’m not really blown away: have to listen to it a few times!

    • rhoerer says:

      Thank you very much for your note, my mistake needs to be corrected shortly! As for the recording, it is a good one but some details are not easy to catch, even through a headphone. Anyway what struck me about this project is that the drums are considered differently if compared with any other orchestral rendition. It is not easy to mix a jazz-rock sound with an acoustic orchestra, I think they tried an original approach, especially with Put a Motor in Yourself, it seems that the drummer had some room for real time improvisation.

  2. mmbalint says:

    Hm, after a few listens its somehow not my cup of tea. The concept is really exciting (solo drum + orchestra), but the realisation would need some more rehearsed group of musicians. They are somehow not togedher, thus the notes become a bit of a mess, „strange contemporary music played from charts.” (they might be good musicians, though: I liked their playing on the Reich piece and in the forst one – FZ’s pieces would have needed more practice I think.)

    As a contrast I would mention Kung Fu and Eric Dolphy… from Road Tapes #2: one can hear the months of rehearsals, the assurance, the freedom… (I dont think ANY other band could play those tunes). Or another great „drum and orchsetra” game for me is on the LSO album, Sad Jane is my favorite, but there are some great moments on Mo& Herb, too. Here I do not feel that the musicians are really togedher – strange but I have the same feeling on the „Greggary” album (conducted by Stockhammer as well): a good, professional drummer would have been good: just like FZ had Bozzion on the Orchestral Favorites sessions.

    And going back to „overrehearsed” bands: I still cannot get bored of the Ed Palermo concert mentioned above: they are REALLY together, the really can playfully change the themes (any motiv after ANY other: amazing!), and what you hear behind it is pure FUN.

    On the other hand a recording of this would be nice, I’ll try to make one, just to have it for the future.

    • rhoerer says:

      I think your view is a bit too harsh, but I totally agree with you when you write that the music of Frank Zappa needs to be rehearsed a lot, often more than such orchestral projects can afford. Groups like Ensemble musikFabrik or The Norwegian Wind Ensemble sounds more “together” than this Orchestra, for sure because of they have been playing their Zappa repertoire regularly. That said during Aerobics in Bondage and Navanax the Orchestra sounds tight to me. Naval Aviation in Art? has the right drama. Put a Motor in Yourself is the only piece that sometime sounds a bit under-rehearsed, but the approach seems the right one to me, I do hope they will have further chances to play these pieces.

      Back to the Zappa catalogue, once again I agree with you as for Sad Jane and the drums in the LSO series. And I also think that if there’s something that can be improved in the “Greggery” album is the drums, but to me the Ensemble Modern personify the idea of being together. I have just made a pause in writing you to listen again to their rendition of Put a Motor in Yourself from “Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions”, and I think it is outstanding.

      Anyway thank you for your comments mmbalint, you made me go and have another careful listening, and I enjoyed it a lot!

  3. mmbalint says:

    Well, that’s what criticism/conversation is for: re-listening and re-considering stuff. 🙂 By the way: I just remembered that long (~2 years) ago I’d just made a collection called “The drum and the melody”:

    • rhoerer says:

      A nice one mmbalint!

      BTW, have you ever heard this recording?

      it’s an unreleased early ’80s studio version of Mo’s Vacation, for drums and (overdubbed) clarinets

  4. mmbalint says:

    (but now you’ll have to tell what do you think of the Ed Palermo concert I’ve posted above! 🙂 )

    • rhoerer says:

      Well this thread reminds me of a discussion I had long time ago with an old friend and listening pal. The subject was The Beatles and the fact he was (and still is) fond of the fab-4 while I was not (and still I’m not). To make a long (very long!) story short, he claimed that, knowing me and my interests, it could not be possible that I didn’t like them four. At least I should have been interested, and sort of go into them for the sake of their importance for pop music. Well I did not. My only Beatles album is Sgt. Pepper and is a gift. My wife likes them, so from time to time we dig into the Internet and listen some. I think I liked Revolver, but for some reason I have never investigated (and I do not think I will) after a short while I find myself distracted and my musical ear looks for something else. I know this is a problem of mine (also I don’t like cream in salty foods, but I digress), but I do not think it is necessary to solve this kind of problems, you simply live with them.

      My relationship with Ed Palermo is quite similar, I can recognize is all very well played, humor belongs to them, the band is tight and swings a hell of a lot, but I get distracted. I would run to listen them live if I will have a chance, but in a home environment it does not work with me. It is my fault!

  5. mmbalint says:

    “he claimed that, knowing me and my interests, it could not be possible that I didn’t like them four” – with your sentence here it seem to me that you totally misunderstood me. No, I do not want to convince you, no I do not want to say that you “should” or “must” like this ot that: its just conversation, when one person is curious about the other one’s opinion. Since Ep Palermo was mentioned days (weeks?) ago, with no answer, I was curious about your point. It’s a pity it took so long, and its a pity that instead of the music (you were talking about EP in general, not a word about THAT very show, lasting more than 90 minutes – I’m not sure you had the time to really listen to it) you cited some old conversation of yours… 😉

    Never mind – but music is always something that is worth discussing; but instead remembering some ill-fated (not-really-similar) conversation from long ago is not that much fun. 🙂

    • rhoerer says:

      I never thought you wanted to convince me, I mentioned an old discussion (it was fun, not at all ill-fated!) because to me it is the same situation: I can not get into The Beatles as well as into Ed Palermo and I’m not able to explain precisely why. As for that very show, I started to listen to it, but after a while a went to something different. I didn’t write anything about it because I have nothing clear to report. Anyway taste may change, sooner or later I could begin to appreciate cream with salty food as well as that 4 and Ed!

  6. […] here, the performance sounded below the standard of other European orchestras or ensembles (namely WDR Sinfonieorchester, The Norwegian Radio Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, Ensemble Ascolta, Royal Academy of Music […]

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