Thursday, August 21, 2008

On the Dialectical Synthesis of Bach and Zappa

Regular readers know that SPIEGEL ONLINE is one of my favorite sources for news on a global scale, primarily where topics such as the economy, foreign affairs, and politics are concerned. However, when it comes to music, my major sources seems to be London (the Telegraph and the Financial Times) and New York (mostly Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times and Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review). Nevertheless, I had to turn to Sebastian Knauer for a thorough account of a legal battle between the Zappa Family Trust (run by Frank Zappa's widow Gail) and the Arf-Society, which organizes the Zappanale in the north-eastern German town of Bad Doberan. There is no reason to question the Zappanale's seriousness when it comes to maintaining performances of Zappa's music. As Knauer reported, "18 bands took to the stage in the 19th annual Zappanale last weekend."

However, I am less interested in how the legal dispute will ultimately be resolved and more interested in the innovative approaches that the Arf-Society is taking to musical performance. As Knauer reported, their activities are now extending beyond an annual gig in Bad Doberan:

Last week, Zappanale organizers put on a show at St. Katharinen church in Hamburg called "Zappa Plays for Bach." Some 600 guests showed up for a performance of variations on the famous Goldberg Variations. Indeed, improvisation is one quality Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) shares with his colleague Frank Zappa (1940-1993).

All proceeds from the concert went to the Hamburg foundation Stiftung Johann Sebastian, which is trying to raise money to recondition a Barock organ on which Bach played in 1720. And it was a fantastic show -- with nine musicians from the Florida group Bogus Pomp playing together with the former Zappa saxophone player Napoleon Murphy Brock putting on pieces ranging from "Absolutely Free Medley" to "Chunga's Revenge" to "Idiot Bastard Son."

Personally, I can think of few things more stimulating than an opportunity to listen to Bach in the context of Zappa and Zappa in the context of Bach, all in a single concert. When Zappa receives any attention in a concert setting, it always seems to be in conjunction with his work with the Ensemble InterContemporain with support from Pierre Boulez. Having seen these two men together on a stage at UCLA, I have to say that Zappa is the only person I have ever encountered who managed to get a smile out of Boulez; but, as far as the rest of the world has been concerned, there seemed to be a need to intellectualize Zappa's extremism as a prerequisite to enjoying it. Only Václav Havel seemed happy to enjoy Zappa's work for its own sake, although, as I wrote at the end of last season, there are some signs that the composer Magnus Lindberg is comfortable enough with Zappa's logic, grammar, and rhetoric to pick up where he left off and proceed beyond the "specialist confines" of the Ensemble InterContemporain to more conventional settings, such as the Berlin Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.

Thus, I shall close with a question: If our listening of Lindberg is well informed by past experience of listening to Zappa, when will the San Francisco Symphony program one of Zappa's works on its subscription series?

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