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Bringing Zappa's "The Yellow Shark" to the Ojai Festival Stage: An Interview with Ensemble Modern's Uwe Dierksen

The 2010 Ojai Music Festival (June 10-13) spotlights the music and legacy of Frank Zappa, with panel discussions and performances of his music. The Friday-night concert on June 11 pairs Zappa pieces from the albums Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions and The Yellow Shark with Density and Octandre by Zappa's hero Edgar Varèse; these will be performed by Frankfurt's Ensemble Modern, who recorded Zappa's The Yellow Shark in 1992, the last Zappa album released before his death in 1993. Info at OjaiFestival.org or contact (805) 646-2094 for more information and to make reservations.

Getting a Handel on Zappa -- Trombonist Uwe Dierksen, a longtime member of Ensemble Modern, offers tips and memories:

L.A. WEEKLY: Can you remember your first experience with Frank Zappa's music, and what it was like learning how to play it?

UWE DIERKSEN: Well, my first time was when I was in the army, that was quite a long time ago; I always adored his music, this kind of mixture. I'm not that much a rock & roll fan, I always like more the little bit more complex pieces, when you use the mallets and the artistic switcharound between rhythms and melodies. It's music that is being a little bit like a toy. That is what I always liked.

With the Ensemble Modern's first recordings of Zappa's music, you had to have been presented with some big challenges; it's a complicated music to play, for example rhythmically, when you have time signatures often layered on top of each other or overlapping.

No, that was not that difficult for us. You know, we all met in Joe's Garage [Frank Zappa's L.A. studio], and then Zappa would ask us to play, would give us a task to solve, in a way, and so everybody had to sight-read -- we had to sight-improvise, too, and we had to be creative in a compact way. Zappa gave us material, and then the sight-reading for us was not a big problem, because we are all coming from contemporary music and are quite used to complex rhythms, and especially to sight reading, because that's what we are doing everyday, and you get used to it.

How well did you get to know Zappa?

Good question, because when we first came over there was a little bit an augmented side of Ensemble Modern, that is to say we had two trombones and two trumpets and two -- everything twice, so there was quite a large number of musicians there. And then the second time we reduced that, and we finally shrank to the right number of initial musicians for Ensemble Modern, which is about 18 to 20 musicians. The first time we were over there, there were so many musicians involved that it was really hard for Frank to know us personally; but as time went by, at night we would hang around his house, talk to him. We had quite a hard time rehearsing, like from morning to evening, although I must say there were some pauses in-between because he already was quite ill; you never knew how much energy he would have.

But you know, the reason we went over there was basically, we would ask ourselves the question, Look, what can we do in order to play Frank Zappa's music? And it makes sense that Ensemble Modern would play his music, because all the musicians here, in Europe -- well, the Mothers of Invention, everybody adored these musicians, I mean it was an absolutely fantastic band. So we had to find out what could be our role. And there were of course the Synclavier pieces he had, and we had played that before, and he had other special pieces written and it was very obvious that he wanted to continue that work, and he really liked working with us. He appreciated that very much.

You're familiar with the works now, but the performances surely require a lot of rehearsal.

The difficult thing was, we were so many people there onstage, and so many people would play in unison. Zappa's music is very often, like "Peaches en Regalia" -- no, that's straightforward, not very difficult -- but when you have all these rhythms, little buckets of 11 against 8 and 21 against 17 and all these subdivided or whatever [laughs], that is to be spread over all of the entire ensemble, and then the violins start it and then the percussion takes over, and it's not always only one player, it's a group of players. That was the real difficulty, to play that together and to feel it together. And then when you're onstage, very often you don't even hear yourself, you need the monitors and etc. That was quite tough.

It does sound like these pieces are a lot of fun to play.

That's true. You know, that is what I always admired in Frank Zappa's music, and that is something we understood in Ensemble Modern from the beginning on. When we established ourselves in '82-'83, we understood that the only way to be successful in the market is to understand the composer's language and then really play that, talk that language. We did that with Helmut Lachenmann [German musique concrète composer], these kind of noises he had; we did that with all these composers, and at that time the composers were so happy because I think we were the first real musicians in Germany who would like to play that music, and we did that in a very authentic way.

The same thing applies to Zappa's music; everybody had to understand the language of Zappa. For his last concerts, he took two months working with his band, and he lived with his band, and so they were breathing music together. And that is certainly what you need to do if you write complex music and you don't want the listener to think, "Oh, this is very complex." You want to lead the listener into a kind of shaky world which is very interesting.

And this is what Zappa's music is about and what makes it so interesting to listen to; with his band, in a certain moment he would take over and just play a rock & roll guitar solo so everybody then feels a familiarity, at least at that point [laughs].

Do you see anything characteristically American about Frank Zappa's music?

Frank would never take a type of orchestra-played music and play it to an audience and say, "Either you eat that and you understand or you just leave it." In Europe, we would do that -- and we did it in the '60s to the middle of the '80s. And Frank, he understood that that is simply impossible, and then, it's also not fun. So he always mixes up with other things, familiar things, like honest rock & roll -- that is a language that everybody understands.

We all know that Frank adored Edgar Varése, and this composer had at that time a new approach to what music could be; it was in a way very melodic but also in a way putting chunks of music together which have apparently no logical combination, where there is a melody and there is a harmony, but put together in a way we didn't know to that point. And that is something which I think could be American, and that's what I always liked.

You know, in Europe, they look at the music and think, "Okay, we invented the music and it must be very serious." It's a little bit of cliché , but then in America, the people have this generous freedom, they look at the music and think, "Okay, I'll take this and make this, and this is fun," like, "I took all the normal melodies and just put them together in different tempi." Which is fantastic! Or take Steve Reich, he invented the minimal thing by just using normal harmony music but putting that together in an unorthodox way. And then Broadway musicals -- you know, when Kurt Weill came over to the U.S., he adapted that style of Broadway, and there was nothing about "This is not serious." No, it is absolutely serious, but it's just of a different kind of serious. And I see Frank Zappa in the same role.

Frank Zappa was a very political artist, and he hit at the right time, the '60s, '70s and '80s. So he could provoke people, he could establish things, and that is very important. But for me, Frank Zappa as a musician, as the personality I got to know, is far beyond that. He is a real serious artist. The kind of music he composed was simply great, and it's still very much up to date. There are pieces that would fit exactly into this '60s-'80s time and political environment, but there are other pieces that could have been composed today.


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