ENSEMBLE MODERN

EM-Hamburg-Ob.jpg

 

After many years of frustration working with various orchestras, Frank finally found an ensemble who could put the “eyebrows” on his orchestral pieces. Sadly, this would be just a couple of years before his passing, but his work with Ensemble Modern on The Yellow Shark concerts, swiftly followed by the recording of the still unreleased Varčse: The Rage And The Fury album, proved to be very satisfying for him.

    The last ‘gig’ I attended before the coronavirus pandemic hit was EM’s concert at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg in February 2020. A wonderful hall and a tremendous performance. And despite COVID-19, the ensemble has been unusually active over the last year and continues to produce high quality streaming concerts available worldwide. Have a snoop around www.ensemble-modern.com for more.
    Even after all of these years, the line-up still includes a half dozen or so members who worked with Frank back in the early 1990s. Current EM double bassist Paul Cannon got in touch recently asking if we would be interested in having some of them on a future edition of the ZappaCast. That should happen, but meantime I leapt at a chance to interview them all by myself.
    I cannot thank Paul enough for his approach and his part in making the following interview – with Ueli Wiget (piano), Dietmar Wiesner (flute), Uwe Dierksen (trombone), Rainer Römer (percussion) and Hermann Kretzschmar (piano) – happen.

 

Firstly, were you all aware of FZ’s music before you learned the ensemble would be working with him?
Dietmar:  YES!
Uwe:  Of course!
Ueli:  Not of his music – since I am a “classical” type, sorry! – but of his politically important role in the US of the 70s and 80s. And yes, we played Dupree’s Paradise, the piece he arranged for Boulez and the Parisian InterContemporain in the mid 1980s.

Rainer:  I had friends in the 70s who were absolute Zappa fans and I remember one of them played, in a whole afternoon and evening, all the music so I could dream that music in the following night. In the late seventies, I visited a concert in Offenbach.
Hermann:  I started to listen to Frank’s music in the early 80s. In 1984, some members of the EM and me joined a Zappa concert in September in Berlin. Later, I was at a Zappa concert in Offenbach.

 

When you first visited Frank in LA, was there an immediate rapport? He was clearly impressed by your ability to play anything. Tell me about some of the ideas he threw at you for your particular instrument.
Ueli:  Yes there was. The day we arrived we met at his place, and he invited us to have pizza on the roof terrace. The first musical encounter were sheets of a composition, called This Is A Test, which we had to play in unison – to his approval/disapproval.
Dietmar:  We passed that sight reading test!
Hermann:  Frank loved to give a guitar part to Rainer, asking him: “Can you play this part on the cow bells?”
Rainer:  The best representation of what we did in the studio in 1991 is on the CD, Everything Is Healing Nicely. He challenged me a lot which was nice, although it was clear I was not even near what he was used to getting from the drumset.

 

It appeared to be a lot of hard work, but also fun. Aside from having you quote Louie Louie, Catherine Milliken placing her Didgeridoo in a pot of coffee and Hermann reading Piercing Fans International Quarterly magazine – what other experiments did you try together?
Rainer:  The moments of easiness and explosion were rare and came always in the end of a long period of waiting and developing things slowly. Then there were the moments...
Ueli:  Yes, he would share the most crazy bits of collected items brought to him, and it was him who was down on the earth with laughter when Hermann read the piercing text with his German accent. All these parts started out of pure amusement, then all over sudden became part of the evening.
Hermann:  There were a lot more experimental pieces – for example, a joint venture of the EM with the son of Ravi Shankar,
[i] who played a double boarded violin in Joe’s Garage in 1991. Or Rainer Römer’s reading of Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter excerpts in summer 1992 in Frankfurt. Frank was also impressed by the special tradition of Karneval and Fasching in Germany, but I guess because of his illness he was not in the condition to realise all of these great ideas.
Dietmar:  There was a lot of improvising, especially on texts. But also on given riffs, or with guest musicians from the scene – for example, his sons and L. Shankar with his violin.

As you say, out of the rehearsals for The Yellow Shark came Everything Is Healing Nicely. Were you aware he was recording everything? Were you surprised by the choices for that particular posthumous album?
Ueli:  We knew that the tape was always running, so no surprise for that.
Hermann:  As I remember right, Frank’s concept of The Yellow Shark was to release more than one CD: a CD as a performance documentation and some others to present the material we did in Joe’s Garage in 1991. And at least that happened: EIHN and Civilization III were released later. For me it was a special shock when I realized that all of our activities in Joe’s Garage and in his studio at home were recorded and filmed in total.
Dietmar:  Yes, it was clear from the beginning that everything is recorded and can be used in all ways. That was part of the agreement.
Rainer:  Every evening they took a box with recordings to his home. Everything was recorded at all times.

Did you record anything specifically for Civilisation Phaze III – or did FZ similarly extract performances from rehearsals?
Ueli:  Cannot tell.
Rainer:  I am not quite sure what was made especially for Civilisation. I think he edited some stuff he had recorded with us.
Dietmar:  Most of the stuff on that record came out in night sessions, at his private home.
Hermann:  There some scenes in Phaze III we recorded in 1991 in Frank’s studio in his home. For example, me reading the Entrance Card of the UCLA, where we stayed in this period, or the text of a telephone-card of the German Telekom. Also Ali Askin laid under the grand piano reciting some texts, and also Detlev Thewes, our mandolin player, and Bill Forman, our trumpetist.
    The text on Wonderful Tattoo! was recorded also in this time: it was a recommendation of the youngest daughter of Frank and appeared in EIHN.

Tell me about Ali N. Askin’s work as an arranger on several pieces for The Yellow Shark.
Uwe:  As far as I remember, we suggested Ali because we knew him before. He did a great job!
Dietmar:  Yes, we worked with him before. He prepared Frank’s ideas for the rehearsal sessions and also post-arranged them for further work and the final Yellow Shark tour, as well as further recordings of the Synclavier pieces and Greggery Peccary.
Rainer:  Our manager gave a hint to Zappa about Ali. 24 hours later, Ali was in the studio writing down material we were playing. I knew Ali Askin as a composer and editor before.
Hermann:  Yes, to include Ali in this project was the idea of Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, who managed in these days the EM.
    Ali was a great arranger and could also notate very fast all of the ideas Frank had.
Ueli:  At that time Ali was employed by the Munich branch of Ricordi publishing house, and in that function he was often dealing with their represented composers. Since Frank used a computer-bound keyboard which had all instruments in its library, and the pieces were born on that instrument, Ali was there to make sure that the range of the instruments was respected, and surely did he give comments and opinions on the instrumentation (consider we had also harp, classical guitar, mandolin and Hungarian cimbalom, next to didgeridoo, alphorn, etc).
    Nowadays, he is a full-time composer himself.

Yes, a fantastic composer.
    Did Frank know you had recorded the Nancarrow Studies album – did he talk to you about the composer?
Ueli:  Yes of course, and he liked it.
Dietmar:  Yes, we showed it to him on our first organisational meetings.
Rainer:  About this I don’t know much.
Hermann:  Yes, he got the CD of Nancarrow – and also the Ives, that we did before. These two CDs motivated him to invite us.
Uwe:  Nancarrow in particular, I can’t remember. But he had his eyes and ears everywhere.

 

The Kontinent Varčse album includes contributions from EM. Were you as surprised as us fans that that got released before The Rage & The Fury?
Uwe:  Yes.
Rainer:  I have no information about this.

 

It was released by Col Legno in 2011, and features performances from 2009 by EM of Ecuatorial, Offrandes, Hyperprism, Intégrales and Ionisation.
Ueli:  He spoke often about Varčse, that is how we had another encounter with him being sound engineer and artistic Master for a whole program of Varčse, conducted by Peter Eötvös and STILL not being released. This would and will be a milestone in the reception of Varčse, surely also in the classical world.

 

True.
    I assume Frank told you of his health problems at the outset?
Hermann:  Not directly, but we realised that he would like to work much more than he would be able to in these times.
Uwe:  We all knew.
Ueli:  Yes of course, he was open about it. And at some days, very quickly exhausted.
Rainer:  He didn’t like to talk about it, but he was open about it. We could tell he suffered.
Dietmar:  It was very obvious that he was very sick. With extreme discipline, and with the biggest joy for the music, he kept working and even performed with us in the premiere because that was part of the TV deal.

 

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© Hans-Jörg Michel

 

How did it feel recording his music after his passing – for the Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions album?

Ueli:  Oh, it felt normal and very fresh indeed, not as a reissue of The Yellow Shark.... at the same time, since we played the previous so often, his language between pop/rock and high dodecaphonic had already its place in the canon of repertoire.
Dietmar:  Our relationship was wonderful and we knew that it was in his sense. And also our contribution to him.
Uwe:  I personally adore him especially because of his attitude towards life and death. He is very smart and clever and not at all self-referential.
Hermann:  The arrangements were also done by Ali N. Askin, whom we trusted a lot. So we felt familiar in handling the material. The experiences in performing with Frank on The Yellow Shark helped also a lot.
Rainer:  We slowly slipped into his world. It’s a pity he wasn’t around any more when we recorded it. We knew Ali was allowed to access material to arrange for us.

 

Tell me about the different approaches taken towards Frank’s and Varčse’s music by the various conductors the Ensemble has worked with (Peter Rundel, Peter Eötvös, John Adams, Jonathan Stockhammer).
Dietmar:  They are all fantastic personalities and driven like us by the wish to perform these two composers in the best way.
Ueli:  That proves, that the different approaches of the four, interpretation-wise, the quality/standing of him being a true composer.
Rainer:  Zappa asked in the studio for a stereophonic set-up of Varčse’s Déserts. This is how everybody is performing it now.
Hermann:  Peter Rundel started his career in these times and he was for us very close. That was a good combination. Peter Eötvös conducted in 1993 the sessions to record the Varčse pieces; later he premiered the Greggery Peccary shows.
    In 1993, Eötvös impressed Frank a lot because of his precision and professionalism. Eötvös later wrote a percussion solo piece, Psalm 151: In memoriam Frank Zappa.

Have you seen Alex Winter’s new film on FZ? The final scenes involving EM are very moving. What was your reaction to seeing scenes of rehearsals and the Frankfurt concert?
Ueli:  No I haven’t seen, unfortunately. Yet…
Dietmar:  Very touching.
Hermann:  No, but I would be glad to see it.
Rainer:  I haven’t seen it yet either.

 

Uwe, you recorded Revised Music For Low Budget Orchestra for your 2011 solo album, ROOR. Are there any plans for any more recordings of FZ’s works – either collectively or from individual members?
Dietmar:  I don’t know precisely for the moment, but I hope so.
Uwe:  No plans so far. I was lucky Gail gave her permission to release my version of Revised Music. Guess that’s because she knew me quite well.
Rainer:  Not at the moment, who knows. Ali has the key.

 

Ahmet has said he is keen to have more of his father’s orchestral works out there. Are you still in touch with the Trust these days?
Uwe:  Not personally.
Hermann:  I don’t know.
Rainer:  I know about loose contacts.
Dietmar:  There are meetings planned.
Ueli:  It would be great to discover new pieces by him and bring them to life in concert and recording.

 

Okay. So are their any definite plans for EM to perform excerpts from Yellow Shark or Greggery again in the future?
Ueli:  Of course this happens here and there again, and every time we do so, the reaction is enthusiastic and fresh.
Dietmar:  Plans yes, but not definite yet.
Rainer:  Not definite, but wanted.
Hermann:  Ask the Man From Utopia!

 

Gentlemen, thank you all so very much for your time. I look forward to whatever the future brings.

 

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Photo of Ensemble Modern at the Elbphilharmonie on February 22, 2020 by Sir Ob of Obshire. Photo of FZ during rehearsals with EM in Frankfurt taken by Hans-Jörg Michel (with thanks to Marie-Luise Nimsgern).

 

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[i] There is some confusion between different players’ recollections of whether this was Ravi Shankar’s son or nephew, or even Ravi Shankar himself. It is clear they are talking about L Shankar, who appears on EIHN on Strat Vindaloo. Adds Hermann: “You can let it be wrong, because on this day there was a big hype about that it was the son or a person near related to Ravi Shankar. If it’s not so, then it’s my authentic mistake.”