Frank Zappa’s Later Classical Works: Symphonies and Synclavier

By Philip Trapp | Mar 22, 2016 03:03 PM EDT
Rock musician, avant garde composer and writer Frank Zappa (1940 - 1993). (Photo : Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Pioneering composer and performer Frank Zappa was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1990. In the last years of his life, the musician set about writing and performing some of the most challenging and rewarding works of his entire career.

Zappa, unknowingly, had been living with prostate cancer for a decade. When the disease was declared past the point of medical intervention by his doctors, the trailblazer thrust himself further into his orchestral and electronic compositional work, illness be damned.

Acknowledged here, for your consideration, are the last two albums that the instrumentalist completed in his lifetime and the divide between his antemortem and posthumously-released catalogs.

The Yellow Shark is an LP of Zappa's orchestral arrangements performed by Germany's Ensemble Modern, while Civilization Phaze III is the musician's most realized collection of electronic compositions, performed nearly exclusively on early digital synthesizer, the Synclavier.

The Yellow Shark

After releasing two albums of performances with the London Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s, Zappa delved deeper into the world of classically-structured writing and performance. Selected as a featured composer for the 1992 Frankfurt Festival, the songwriter was asked by Ensemble Modern to collaborate. Inviting the ensemble to Los Angeles, the musicians constructed several new Zappa compositions, as well as contemporary orchestral arrangements of his previous material.

Ensemble Modern's performances of the work transpired in September 1992. Due to his health, Zappa was only able to attend two of the concerts in Frankfurt, and only conducted four of the presented arrangements. The results were recorded and released as The Yellow Shark, issued in November 1993. This was the last Zappa album released in his lifetime, as the musician died that December.

Though unrecognized by most '90s mainstream media, Zappa's admiration and passion for classical music was well-documented. The composer, often at odds with the status quo, appreciated his ability to present original works with respected orchestras. In a 1992 interview with Matt Groening and Don Menn, Zappa pontificated on the plight of modern composers wishing to contribute more than just a retread of the classics:

"[T]hings are getting especially tough now because there are no budgets for the performances, no budgets for rehearsal. If a chamber group or an orchestra does a performance of something, it's probably something that's already been written for a hundred years, and the orchestra already knows it, which means that they don't have to spend money for rehearsal. They play only the hits. And some guy who decides he wants to write music in the United States, what does he do? He may be able to write it down, but he's never going to get it played. And it takes so long to do it, and the mechanics of preparing just the paperwork to hand it to an orchestra are quite expensive, so it's an exercise in futility."

Civilization Phaze III

Frank Zappa became familiar with the Synclavier in the early '80s. The Synclavier, a "polyphonic digital sampling system and music workstation", was the flagship instrument of now-defunct New England Digital Corporation. After decades of rotating bands and interchangeable musicians, the composer grew fond of the synthesizer's seemingly limitless compositional and performance attributes.

The Synclavier began cropping up in Zappa's work after the 1983 London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I album. First appearing as dialogue accompaniment on 1984's Thing-Fish, the synth received billing as "The Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort" on four tracks of that same year's Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger -- an album whose remaining selections were classical orchestrations conducted by French composer Pierre Boulez.

1986's Jazz from Hell, which won the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, was Zappa's first album entirely composed and produced with the Synclavier (with singular exception in the song "St. Etienne," a live guitar solo). After the 1990 diagnosis, the composer directed most of his remaining artistic energy toward creating his Synclavier magnum opus, 1994's Civilization Phaze III. This would be the first album he did not live to see released.

Civilization Phaze III, an electronically-orchestrated avant-garde masterpiece, remains overlooked by all but the most ardent Zappa fans. Not included in modern waves of remasters and reissues of the artist's work, the album received no publicity at the time of its release and was only available as a mail-order curio.

Inches from death, the musician accomplished his most distinguished composition and identified his most complete collaborative accomplice: an electronically-programmed super-instrument, expertly conducted by the man himself. As Zappa proclaimed in a 1986 interview with Electronic Musician, the Synclavier was his devoted, unwavering electronic orchestra:

"Forget about the orchestra. It's beyond the orchestra. Because what this enables me to do is the same thing a painter gets to do. You get to deal with the material in a real and instantaneous way. You go boop and it's there. You don't sit down and write it out painstakingly over a period of years and have the part copied and hope that some orchestra will have enough time to devote to a rehearsal so they come within the vicinity of what your original idea is. There is no doubt about it that if you can play on this thing and hear what you're playing, you have total control of your idea."

Both The Yellow Shark and Civilization Phaze III (as well as the London Symphony Orchestra volumes) are highly recommended. All but Civilization are available from most digital music outlets.

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