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Frank Zappa, London, 1973. Photo by Michael Putland.

On Frank Zappa’s “Relentless Pursuit of Interesting Sounds:” An Interview with Orchestra 2001’s Jayce Ogren and Zappa Expert Joseph Klein

In conjunction with Orchestra 2001’s Philadelphia premiere of the genre-defying composition The Yellow Shark, by maverick American composer and rock guitarist Frank Zappa, we invited Jayce Ogren, Orchestra 2001 artistic director, and Dr. Joseph Klein, composer and Zappa expert, to consider the artist’s legacy and approach to music, as well as the process of bringing scores to life for a contemporary audience.

The 17-movement, 75-minute The Yellow Shark will be performed at The Fillmore on April 28 (tickets here) on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the album’s release and of Zappa’s death. In the work’s lush sound world, relentless dance rhythms and surprising turns of orchestration are interlaced with original poetry by Zappa, and performed by an ensemble of 26 musicians on a vast array of percussion instruments, standard orchestral instruments, as well as banjo, cymbalom, lion’s roar, didgeridoo, and alphorn. Learn more about the project here.


Zappa’s music is complex on many levels—rhythmically, thematically, ideologically, with an array of unusual instruments and instrumentation. What is your approach to preparing to rehearse and conduct The Yellow Shark?

Jayce Ogren 
Preparing to perform Zappa’s music is definitely a huge challenge, from acquiring the scores and parts (which sounds easy, but is much more difficult than usual with Zappa!), planning a rehearsal schedule for more than a dozen pieces with varying instrumentations, and solving notational problems that seem impenetrable at first glance. There are rhythms in The Yellow Shark that are truly unplayable by any human being, and I’ve had to find creative ways to modify them while keeping the spirit of Zappa’s intent. Despite their fierce technical challenges, none of these pieces should sound difficult. Virtuosic? Absolutely. But my goal is that the musicians and I internalize and embrace all of Zappa’s quirks and roadblocks, so we can get to a place where the music grooves, bites, and howls—just like it should.

Joseph, you’ve taught a college-level course on Frank Zappa’s music for 17 years. What do you most want audiences to understand about Zappa’s approach to music?

Joseph Klein
I think audiences should be open to Zappa’s very eclectic sonic and aesthetic palette, which is evident even within his concert works. These works range from the most charming, pop-oriented tunes to rhythmically complex and harmonically dense modernist experimentations, to absurdist noise-oriented guided improvisations. Many of his works are also imbued with trenchant political and social commentary that, while addressing many of the issues of Zappa’s own time, are also (regrettably) just as timely today. Finally, audiences should expect a good dose of humor in these works—even Zappa’s most esoteric and “serious” works are full of irony, sarcasm, and self-deprecating wit.

Jayce, last season, Orchestra 2001 staged and played the monodrama Eight Songs for a Mad King and now, this season, The Yellow Shark. What interests you in restaging music that listeners may find challenging but that also represent ‘extra-musical’ demands on the ensemble? How to you think about bringing scores to life for a contemporary audience?

I love opera, and I’ve conducted quite a lot of it, especially pieces that float between classical and pop idioms, like Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place and Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna. There’s just something so powerful about the synthesis of music, theater, and visual arts. We live in a visually-oriented world with so many engaging entertainment options, and so with Orchestra 2001 I’ve looked for projects where music and visual elements can work together organically. There is and always should be a place for music to stand alone. But in presenting Zappa’s music, I thought it was important that we put on a great show. On April 28 at The Fillmore, we’ll have the capability to bring together virtuosic classical musicians with stunning lighting and sound design. It will be a singular experience, and the first time all of these pieces will be performed together in Philadelphia.

Joseph, how would you describe some of the important sound experiments that Zappa explored? In what ways do you see his compositional interests resonating in music today?

There are many reasons why Zappa’s work is still interesting and relevant a quarter century after his death—the provocative lyrics and subject matter of his albums, his biting social commentary, the amazing musicianship of his performers—but I think what really gets to the heart of Zappa’s work as a composer is his relentless pursuit of interesting sounds for their own sake. These range from the crude and banal—an obnoxious belch, the cackling laughter of one of his band members, or sexually suggestive grunts and groans—to incredibly sophisticated electronic experimentations and intensive instrumental and vocal explorations. While there are certainly precedents for this (e.g., Varèse, Stockhausen, Cage), Zappa’s earliest musical experiments were nearly contemporaneous with those of these other artists. What is unique about Zappa’s use of these sonic materials, however, is the way he would integrate them into the most unlikely of contexts in effective and surprising ways.

Zappa was influenced by Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, and Edgard Varèse, among others. Who are some of today’s composers that draw on Zappa’s legacy, and who you would you cite as influenced by his work? In what ways are these influences revealed musically and conceptually?

I believe that Zappa’s most significant influence on composers today has to do with his disregard for the culturally imposed barriers between vernacular and non-vernacular idioms. Not that Zappa was the only (or even the first) composer to address this, but he was certainly at the crest of this wave regarding the influence of rock music on concert music composers such as Steve Mackey, Bang on a Can composers Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon, and, more recently, the New Amsterdam composers such as Judd Greenstein and Missy Mazzoli. While none of their music sounds like Zappa’s per se, the fact that he was intermixing popular genres like rhythm-and-blues and doo-wop with musique concrète and atonality really helped to break down the culturally imposed boundaries between these two idioms, which has opened that door to subsequent generations of composers.

Joseph Klein is a composer of solo, chamber, and large ensemble works, and a distinguished professor and chair of composition studies in the College of Music at the University of North Texas, where he has taught a course entitled “The Music of Frank Zappa” since 2001. His compositions have been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, American Composers Forum/Jerome Foundation, and the American Music Center, among others.

Jayce Ogren is artistic director and conductor of Orchestra 2001. His compositions have been performed at venues such as the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music and the Brevard Music Center, and his work as a conductor includes the world premiere of Jack Perla’s Shalimar the Clown, the US premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna; and leading The Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris.