The Yellow Shark

The Project

Ben Watson, "The Final Conflict," The Wire, February 1996

In April 1991, Dieter Rexroth, the director of the Frankfurt Festival, and Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, head of Frankfurt's deluxe contemporary orchestra The Ensemble Modern, flew to Los Angeles. Their mission was to persuade Frank Zappa [...] to contribute scores for an evening of concert music.

FZ, interviewed by Don Menn, Zappa!, 1992

How big is the work that you're composing for the Frankfurt Festival? Is it several little pieces?

They asked for 20 minutes of music to be divided into four or five sections, but it's not just the one piece, because what I've designed is a whole evening's worth of entertainment, including some older pieces that have been reorchestrated for this particular group, and pieces from the Synclavier. For the concerts, we will be joined onstage by a Canadian dance troupe called La La La Human Steps. They're quite unbelievable. The other thing that's going to be interesting about the presentation is the six-channel P.A. system. I don't think anybody's ever heard anything quite like this in a live situation. It's set up with a stereo pair in the front, a stereo pair in the middle, and a stereo pair in the rear.

[...] This group has been in existence for ten years, and the guy who did the most to organize and put them on the map was Karsten Witt. He had a real talent for organization and helped them make a deal to get an industrial building on the outskirts of Frankfurt, which is their permanent laboratory. It's fantastic what they've done to it: triple-walled rehearsal studios, a climate-controlled basement full of percussion equipment of every description, a massive collection of really good professional equipment, individual rehearsal halls, a small auditorium for press conferences and recitals on the ground floor. The third-floor offices are all modern office equipment and communications, and the top floor is a concert hall with a 20-foot ceiling with windows that look out over Frankfurt on the top of this industrial building out in cement-plant country, and that's their facility. Anyway, Karsten helped them put this together. When the project first began Karsten was about to turn over the reins to Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, who's the director now, because Karsten got the job of being the director of the Vienna Festvolker. So when he went to Vienna part of his concert schedule for 1992 was to bring in the Ensemble with my project.

A building like that must be very expensive. They must be well funded.

Well, they share the building with a group called the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, which is really their orchestra but it's all young non-professionals. Part of the money comes from the city of Frankfurt, and the rest of it comes from their concert revenues. They have records, but they're all on small, obscure European labels.

They must be really pulling people in to survive on concert revenues.

If they do 2,000 people a night, it's a major turnout. I think for modern music, even though it's supported more in Europe than it is here, still if you get more than 500 people at a concert you're doing something special, because there are just too many other things to attract the concert dollar. But this year's budget for the Frankfurt Festival, which is the overall umbrella in which this event is occurring, I think is $6.7 million for the month. And for that amount they have to mount all these concerts for Cage, Stockhausen, my stuff, and I think Knaifel. It's a week for each composer, and it coincides with what would have been Cage's 80th birthday.

There's no American city that would ever raise six million dollars for something like this.

Yeah, and you also have to realize that during this same period of time many other German cities have their own fucking festival going on with equal budgets. Cologne's probably got something just as big and just as elaborate. Berlin has something simultaneously. In fact, one of the orchestras in Berlin is playing my music at the same time. Also during that week in Frankfurt, the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie is playing "Bogus Pomp" after the Ensemble dates.

The series of concerts will be a gratifying honor. Are you looking forward to it, or dreading it?

Well, both, because this is probably the most complicated concert music project I've ever been involved in. The logistics of it are staggering. And there are budgetary constraints. I mean, if this was rock and roll, and you were going to go out to do all this stuff, you know you could sell a lot of seats, and you could make a lot of money, and you could do a lot of things if you took that money and turned it back into the production. But when you're dealing with a 2,500-seat hall and this kind of music, the economic structure is not the same.

Do you have to pay for a lot of this?

No. As a matter of fact, for the first time in history, ladies and gentlemen, they have paid me. And they've paid me enough money that I have been able to work on this thing for about a year. But that's just for delivering to them notes on paper. The problems arise when you start trying to figure out how to make the thing sound the way it's supposed to sound in these environments and pick it up and move it to two other locations. Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, the director of the Ensemble, has been going around Europe trying to find the extra financing to make all this happen. And if he does not succeed in doing that, we'll have to find some kind of a Plan B. [Ed. Note: According to our sources at Barking Pumpkin, Plan A was enacted, thanks to the Alte Oper and Siemens Cultural Program, among other funding sources.]


But I'll tell you something: This Ensemble Modern could play that shit with their eyes closed. In this incarnation of the group, there's an American guy living in Italy who is playing the tuba, a Swiss character, a couple of Canadians, and an Australian, but, of course, being based in Frankfurt, it's mostly German musicians. The total instrumentation for my piece was about 25. They had to add some outside musicians because they don't normally have a mandolin player. The Ensemble Modern [normally about 14 members] has been augmented by an extra percussionist, so we have three percussion, a guitar, mandolin, two harps (one doubling piano), piano doubling celesta, five woodwinds, five strings, and seven brass. The group has been around for about 10 years, and they own themselves. They have an elected three-musician board of directors which handles the aesthetic decisions on what they're going to play and when they're going to play it. In order to be in the group, you have to be voted in every year. If you fuck up, you're out.

No tenure.

No tenure. And there's a waiting list of people who would like to be in this group. They do about 100 concerts a year all over the world, and it's a full-time job. These guys don't go out and do jingle dates, and none of them are making a lot of money from doing this. They all seem to be living pretty close to the economic borderline. About half of them go to work on bikes—rain, sleet, or snow.

Total commitment.

And can they play! It's unbelievable.

Are they young, old, or mixed?

Mostly young.

How did you hear of this group?

I was contacted by a guy named Henning Lohner, who had a documentary about me that's never been on the air in the U.S., but it's been on in Europe. It's all about the serious-type stuff. Henning knew a guy named Dr. Dieter Rexroth, who runs the Frankfurt Festival and was the director of the Hindemith Institute in Frankfurt. Dr. Rexroth, although he doesn't speak much English, is a big fan of my stuff, and Henning suggested to him that they invite me to do something in this festival. So they sent me an economic proposal that was insufficient and I thanked them and said no. What they wanted was impossible. So about four months go by, and I get another call, and they say they really want me to be involved in this festival, and would I meet with these guys from the Ensemble Modern, then they sent me some CDs that the group had made for some German label. And the thing that astonished me was that it was just a great album. They had recorded the music of Kurt Weill. The selections were all obscure, unique things, some of them with vocals, and the recording was great, the performance was great.

At any rate, finally we came to an agreement, and I definitely had the idea that these people really wanted to do this. I didn't realize the decision was not just coming from the director of the festival; the musicians voted to invest their time and energy in this project. The musicians themselves desired to do this. And so you know under those circumstances that, whatever you write, they're going to play the fuck out of it. So the next thing that happened was, I said let's construct the piece while you're here; why don't you come to Los Angeles for two weeks, and I'll rehearse with the group just like I would rehearse with a rock and roll band. And that's what happened: We did rehearsals, we recorded some improvisations, we did mass samples with the whole group and individual samples—things that never came out of notation in any textbook, things that you could never write down on paper.

How long did they stay?

For the entire two weeks. Now here's the other thing: During all this time none of them got paid anything!

Sounds like your type of guys.

There was nothing they wouldn't try. If we were after a particular musical result, they were all for it. The classic example was they are so sound-texture-oriented that they would try anything, even abuse their instruments. The French horn players were sitting there scraping the bells of their horns across the floor, and those things are very expensive. If I had the finest Hollywood musicians, at no price could I have gotten those sounds.

And they certainly wouldn't have been that committed.

The other great noise was—there are two people in this group who play didgeridus. One of them is the woman from Australia who is also the oboe player. And one afternoon, I imagined this awful sound that could be created if one were to take a didgeridu and play it into a partially filled coffee pot. And I asked her whether she would do it. She said yes, and let me say, it is truly nauseating. I was laughing so much I had to leave the room.

That sounds like a great group—fun to work with.

They're so serious. The kind of laughs that they gave are German laughs. You know what I mean? It's like there's a different kind of humor involved here. There's a different perspective on things. You can laugh, but not too much. Anyway, you know what happens if you take a little straw and blow it into a half-empty Coke bottle? Imagine a straw with a diameter of about an inch-and-a-half or two inches. It already has a wooden resonance to it. You know the noise that comes out of a didgeridu, that kind of circular-breathing-type low droning noise? If you plunged anything that would make that noise into a liquid, you get the tone and the bubbles at the same time. It's pretty nauseating, but fascinating.

How much do you feature it in the new piece? Is it just a little punctuation that comes and goes, or is it the whole theme?

She's going to have a solo.

Does she know that yet?

Oh, sure. They all—since they were using up their vacation time to do this project—she had to leave the day before the last day, and so I had to make sure I got all of her individual samples out of the way. I said goodbye to her and thanked her very much. And the next night, we were having our final jam session of the season. And she showed up again. She cancelled her flight, because she was having so much fun. And at the end of the thing, she said, "In all my musical life, I have never had as much fun as these two weeks working on this stuff." And I was stunned, because it was really such hard work and so many hours.

You allowed them to be so creative, and you asked them to draw upon all their skills and to expand their own borders in ways that they probably don't get a chance to do.

Well, for one thing, I wanted to find out whether they could improvise. Most of the musicians in that part of the musical world don't. And for the first time in their lives, these people got a chance to play a solo and they went from sheer terror to ecstasy.

Don Menn, "Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser—Paving The Way To Frankfurt With The Ensemble Modern," Zappa!, 1992, p. 12-13

Zappa came to the attention of the selection committee through Dr. Dieter Rexroth, who runs the world-acclaimed Frankfurt Festival. He felt it important that Frank be shown to the world not as a rock star but as a serious composer. That Zappa was singled out with John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Alexander Knaifel is the honor of a lifetime, because of the international prestige of the event and the individual focus given to the honored composers: an entire week of performances devoted exclusively to each of them during the month of September.

"Like many musicians, I was very interested in the music Frank wrote in the past, but there have been only a very few classical performances of his serious music," Mölich-Zebhauser says. "Besides, you cannot compare the music we play with either the rock or classical music he wrote before. It's a completely new thing."

In July 1991, the logistics began to solidify. The entire Ensemble chose to come to California to visit Zappa for two significant weeks. "This was the start of a very special and new way of composing," Mölich-Zebhauser states. "Normally in the classical field, a composer gets a commission, sits at his desk for a couple of months writing down notes, delivers a score to an orchestra which rehearses it, and in the last rehearsals the composer comes in and says, 'Oh yes, here you have to change something, and here please a little louder.' The opposite is true with our project. From the very beginning, we came together showing each other our capabilities. We played Frank some of the Ensemble's recordings. Frank let us hear some of his recent Synclavier music. In person, we showed Frank what level of difficulties in music we could realize, and on the other hand we saw what Frank was able to do. At the end of this working period we knew a lot about Frank Zappa, and he had very precise information about what he could do with and for the Ensemble. That was the basis of his composition for this event."

The project has proven to be enormously expensive, but worth it to all concerned. Travel alone to visit Zappa cost the group 500,000 marks. Financial support came primarily from the Alte Oper of Frankfurt and Siemens, the computer giant. "We wanted to make no compromise of what Frank wanted, and all we hoped was to cover expenses."

The historic Frankfurt world premiere occurred on September 17th, was repeated on the 18th and 19th, moved on to Berlin on the 22nd and 23rd, and concluded in Vienna on the 26th and 27th. The Zappa event marked the first time dancers had come into the building, the first time a lighted set was installed, and the first time an amplification system of such complexity was allowed in. It was also recorded and filmed. "Berlin was the largest surprise," Mölich-Zebhauser says. "That is the seat of the world-famous Berlin Philharmonic. It is a sacred area, like a church—no, more like a cathedral. It is the St. Peter's Church of classical music—not a place normally used for music of the style of Frank Zappa."


The Program

Chunnel Mr. Boogins?

Rip Rense, "Frank Zappa," The Los Angeles Times, October 1, 1992

Named after a fiberglass fish that used to rest against Zappa's listening-room fireplace, "The Yellow Shark" is a 90-minute program of transcriptions and new arrangements of existing Zappa works, such as "Be-Bop Tango," "Pound for a Brown," "G-Spot Tornado," "Dog Breath" and "Uncle Meat" (here combined as a suite, "Dog/Meat") and new compositions: "Chunnel Mr. Boogins," "Amnerica," "Get Whitey," "Welcome to America," "None of the Above".

Biffyshrew, November 17, 2007

An article in Society Pages USA #10 ("The Yellow Shark: A Preview") mentions that "Chunnel Mr. Boogins" is for "the full Ensemble," which rules out the strings-only "Questi Cazzi." The following issue [...] describes the music of "Questi Cazzi" as the second half of "Pentagon Afternoon."

"Pentagon Afternoon" itself is a full ensemble piece not mentioned either in the Rense paragraph or the Preview article. In the CD liner notes, Peter Rundel mentions that it used to be part of a longer piece.

Charles Ulrich, November 17, 2007

So I agree that Chunnel Mr. Boogins is most likely the title of the larger work containing Pentagon Afternoon, Questi Cazzi Di Piccione, and some other stuff that they didn't perform.


The Concerts

Rip Rense, "Frank Zappa," Los Angeles Times, October 1, 1992

The reports appeared last week after Zappa canceled his part in "The Yellow Shark," a series of European concerts of his orchestral music. Zappa hosted and partially conducted two of the initial concerts at the Frankfurt Festival Sept. 17-19, then flew back to L.A., too ill to continue. His condition has since improved, and the concerts by the highly regarded Ensemble Modern were completed in Berlin and Vienna without him.


The first night in Frankfurt, which ended with Zappa conducting "G-Spot Tornado" as the La La La Human Steps dance ensemble swirled about him, was hailed with a 20-minute ovation.

[...] "You know what normally happens at a modern music concert. If you have an audience of 500, it's a success, and you're talking about averaging 2,000 seats a night in these places, and massive, lengthy encore-demanding applause at the end of the shows. Stunned expressions on the faces of the musicians, the concert organizers, the managers, everybody sitting there with their jaws on the floor. They never expected anything like this."

On the second night, Zappa was too ill to go on. The concert went ahead, yet "they got the same response from the audience—it surprised the hell out of everybody." Zappa returned the third night, but his stamina gave out. While Zappa was weighing the prospects of going on to Berlin, his condition worsened, and he returned home Sept. 22, by ambulance. He was well enough to resume work by Friday. "It was a rough trip for me," he acknowledged.

FZ, interviewed by David Sheff, Playboy, April 1993

When I performed in Germany, we had television sets in the bar during intermission showing the finest of American cultural entertainment. On one set, nonstop [Los Angeles, 1991] riot. On another, nonstop televangelists. On another, C-Span. On another, Desert Storm. You got to have your light beer and watch the American media at its finest.


The Original Album Project, c. June 6, 1997

The The Yellow Shark was originally conceived by FZ as a two disk set, but for various reasons was shortened to one. Rumor is, that it contained rehearsals, improvisations, readings and even FZ playing a solo with the Ensemble. Teams are searching the vaults for the missing masters day and night . . . and for what reason? Will there ever be another release? No one knows, Stay tuned.


The Cover Art

The Yellow Shark

Liner notes

It begins with L.A. artist Mark Beam, a longtime Zappa appreciator who felt compelled to anonymously bestow upon the Zappa family a Christmas present in 1988. Carved out of a surfboard, Beam's "kind of a mutant fish" arrive unnanounced at the offices of Intercontinental Absurdities (Zappa HQ), and eventually found its way to Frank's basement. A note inviting the owner to complete the piece of art by placing an item of choice into the fish's bloody jaw was ignored.

In the summer of 1991, one Andreas Moelich-Zebhauser, manager of the European contemporary music group, Ensemble Modern, sat in the basement with Zappa and EM conductor Peter Rundel, discussing the music the Ensemble had just commissioned from Frank for the 1992 Frankfurt Festival. Suddenly, Moelich-Zebhauser spied the fish. He took its sailfin for a dorsal.

"When I saw the yellow shark" Moellich-Zebhauser recalled in English he apologized for, "for me it was completely clear that it must become the symbol of our event, of our tour! Because the yellow shark, he's so pregnant with some of Frank's characteristics. He's very hard and a little poison, but on the other hand he's very friendly and charming. Two things which Frank can be very often: poison for bad people, charming for good ones! Of course, also it's such a good logo."

Not realizing Moellich-Zebhauser's bizarre plot, Zappa generously gave the "shark" to him, writing a "little deed" in order to get it past any suspicious customs agents. The deed read: "This is to confirm to whom it may concern that this yellow shark is Andreas Moellich-Zebhauser's personal fish, and he can do with it whatever he wants. -Frank Zappa." "Andreas would drool over that object." said Zappa. "He loved it. The next thing I know, the whole project is being called 'The Yellow Shark', which he said sounds really good in German ("Der Gelbe Hai"), and I said it sounds really dorky in English. People think the name of the music is 'The Yellow Shark'. I said we'll call the evening 'The Yellow Shark'. What the fuck are you going to call it? Doesn't make any difference."

Mark Beam, on Splat's Zappapage (now on United Mutations)

I heard of the yellow shark project when i got a call from a friend telling me to read an article on fz in the la times calender section. in the arcticle they are talkin about this fiberglass fish that frank had in his listening room...i thoughr,"hey, thats me" i called 818 pumpkin, the guy was suprised, said they were wonderin who the fish guy was.....a few minutes later frank called... he was real nice...said he would include my name in any future promotion of the project, and thanked me. Later i was contacted by the german organization who produced the project and they paid was a great little experience



Todd Yvega, Spence Chrislu & Dave Dondorf

FZ, interviewed by Don Menn, "The Mother Of All Interviews, Part 1," Zappa!, 1992, p. 41

Let me give credit where credit is due. Todd [Yvega] is really Mr. Synclavier.

The other guy whom I regard as a major talent and a major asset in preparing the work that I'm doing now is the new recording engineer, Spence Chrislu, because Bob Stone is no longer here. And this other guy who makes sure that everything works is Dave "The Tree Hugger" Dondorf. So between Dave, Spence, Todd, and myself, when we all get together and all the equipment is working, we can rule the world! The days on which everybody's here and all the equipment is working are so few and far between, I think the world is still very safe.

Spencer Chrislu, interviewed by Andrew Greenaway, March 6, 2020

What was your proudest achievement, working with Frank?

I think that was the attention that he got for The Yellow Shark. [...] I'm personally really proud of that album, and the fact that we did it in a live situation, and some of those pieces contain edits between different venues—in Frankfurt, Berlin and Vienna: three highly different sounding halls. We had to meld them together and make it all work. That was a lot of fun.

David Ocker

David Ocker, The David Ocker Internet Interview, 1994-1995

The one phone call I got from Frank was at the beginning of the Yellow Shark project. I was invited over to meet people from Ensemble Modern and I took samples of my computer music engraving to show them. Frank wanted me hired as musical assistant and the EM people were willing to do that. There were some problems getting a contract signed between me and EM—but I started work and made it through the initial rehearsals. Then it was clear that I couldn't come to an agreement (purely monetary) with EM and I was replaced by Ali Askin. I guess if I had kept the job I'd have been one of the piano people on CPIII maybe instead of Ali. It's okay, though. I had my time with Frank. Working with him was like standing next to a whirlwind. Things were always going on. I did it for 7 years—enough was enough.

Ali N. Askin

Zappa!, 1992

[Ali N.] Askin spent two weeks in a music dictation nightmare, typing in the blur of notes as the assembled virtuosi imitated and expanded upon ideas improvised on guitar by Zappa. Askin has the appealing and appalling challenge of making arrangements for Zappa's contribution to the Frankfurt Festival in September. Besides the new material produced with the Ensemble last summer, Askin is working as an arranger, creating new versions of Zappa standards. Most difficult of all, he has been asked to make some of Frank's most rhythmically and melodically complex music from the Synclavier playable by human musicians. [...] When the Ensemble Modern decided to feature Zappa at the Frankfurt Festival, because of his prior association with the group, Askin received the call to come and start preparing scores on the spot. "It was fantastic, just fantastic," he recalls. "Frank had the idea to assemble so-called music objects—just dictating chords or lines on the guitar and getting the Ensemble to imitate them on their instruments. He was composing while playing trying every possibility. The musicians wrote down what Frank dictated or what he told them to improvise, and I was sitting there with my small keyboard and writing it down also. And then I went through everyone's stuff and compared what I had written with what they had written, and we finally came up with the best version." [...] Besides creating finished scores in conventional notation, Askin is also now transcribing earlier Zappa recordings for new arrangements. In particular, he cites a Bruce Fowler trombone line doubling a Zappa guitar solo where one layer is recorded at half-speed and then speeded up to sound like a trumpet. "Frank wanted me to transcribe it so he can maybe use it for some composition where it might be played by a viola, for example. There's another very nice piece with just Frank and someone else on acoustic guitars which someone has now played into the Synclavier, and Frank is thinking about possibly using that as a solo piece for strings. He's always experimenting with taking solos of his earlier works, having them transcribed, and transferring them to another instrument. Some parts are obvious as to which instrument has to play what. The problem is more with the Synclavier music, which is very difficult, often with very fast, tiny high notes that don't always have obvious relations to meters or measures. In general, orchestration and instrumentation are the hardest parts. You have to think about which instrument can play something so it sounds good. Is it in the range? Is it too hard to play? Can it be bowed by strings? I think about it, give my recommendations to Frank, and see what he thinks for a final decision." [...] All these tasks require a minimum of ten-hour shifts, six to seven days a week. "But I enjoy it very much," he emphasizes. "Long hours are not something new to me. I'm having a good time, so it doesn't matter. The thing is, it's challenging. Everybody who works with him is challenged to go to their limits. 'Can you do that? Can you do that? Can you transcribe that?' He's always asking for limits."

Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, quoted by Ben Watson, The Wire, February 1996

Ali [Askin] had nothing to do with the basic process. The Synclavier can print out music, what the notes are and the rhythms, what people need to play to make music out of it. It was a process of constant co-operation, to work out such material, and Frank followed up this work for a day to day. We sent over Ali [Askin] to Los Angeles for a long time period and he worked day by day together with Frank Zappa on these elaborations, so you couldn't say that the instrumentation is from Ali [Askin]. He is the arranger on some pieces, but he followed up the indications that Frank gave him. I can vouch for that!

La La La Human Steps

Neil Slaven, Electric Don Quixote—The Definitive Story Of Frank Zappa, 2003, p. 385-386

There was also the Canadian dance troupe, La La La Human Steps, three male and three female dancers who Frank had seen on video and requested their involvement.


Anniversary Version?

Paolo Biamonte, "New Edition Of Of Zappa's Last Album," ANSA, December 4, 2003

U.S. legendary composer Frank Zappa will be commemorated 10 ten years after his death with a new edition of his album "The Yellow Shark" [...]. The new edition will be produced by Gail Zappa, Frank's widow [...].

"We had not planned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Frank's death, if I have to be honest, I did not know until recently when the album would be published," she said. [...]

"The fact is that how could reject the 'Ensemble Moderne', the only group in the world capable of performing live the pieces from Yellow Shark like Frank Zappa himself, who for a year had repeatedly asked for my permission to record the album again, swearing they would follow the scores note by note?

"Then it was the chance that let the album to be released these days. There are strong emotions which makes Ensemble Moderne more appropriate than any other group because for Frank and for us, it was his last band."



Liner notes

Acknowledgements: Dr. Dieter Rexroth, Director, Frankfurt Feste / Frankfurt Projekte GmbH, President, Deutsche Ensemble Academy. Dr. Rudolf Sailer, Managing Director, Alte Oper. Michael Rossnagl, Siemens Culture Program. Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, Director, Ensemble Modern. Karsten Witt, Director, Concert House, Vienna. Gerbard Gruber, Siemens Audio Inc. Marvin Caesar, Aphex Systems. Steve Mason & Martin Hooker, Music For Nations. Than you for your support and commitment to this endeavor.

For making this Event possible: Brian Michaels, Bernd Layendecker. Eduoard Lock & La La La Human Steps: Louise Lecavalier, Pim Boonprakob, Sarah Williams, Donald Weikert, Marito Olson-Forsberg, Bernardus Bartels. Ilona Grundmann, Hennes Grossmann. Egbert van Hees, Astrid Babonnick, Marcel Osterweg, Gabriele Faust. The Fabrik, Andreas Knapp, Ulf Werner, Silvia Seibert, Monika Cordero, the fabulous Raymund Burghardt, Les Stuck. Arnie Tosbner. Joe's Garage: Marqueson Coy. For excellence beyond the call of duty: Le Voyageur. Rene Weis, Alain Leduc, Richard Parsons. Jurgen Dudda Audio Service: Ralf Freudenberg, Norbert Ommer. Special merit badges to Van Carlson, Peter Rundel and Family, Ali N. Askin, Henning Lohner.

Thanks also to: The Conciergerie, the Porters and the fax ladies at the Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof, Meditrans: Mathias Schmidt, Lufthansa: Captain Wolfgang Dzulko, Blondr': Debbi Howard, Hilton Sound: Andy Hilton, Performance Trucking: Manfred Schacht, Volker Mohr, Olaf Winter, Firma StageLight, Rock-it Cargo: Duane Wood, Judy Green Music, Tracy Veal, Jesse di Franco, Don Menn and Family.

In addition to ALL THE MUSICIANS and every one at Ensemble Modern & Utility Muffin Research Kitchen Frank and Gall would like to thank the following people for their very special but no less significant contributions: Diva, Ahmet, Dweezil, Moon, Beverly D'Angelo, Crystal, Coralie, Chloe, Chi Chi & Claude Barthelemy, Pamela Wynn, Bob Kaban, Gary Iskowitz, Alison Van Pelt, Cynthia Watson, Susan Rubio, Ira Herzog, Giuseppe Franco, Yoko Ono, Dick Avedon, Utie. Matt Groening, Larry Flynt, Dave Moulder, Chris, Jamie Lee & Annie Guest, Lynda Barry, Rutger Hauer, Tory Mell, Michelle Matisse, Owen Sloane, Domenico DiGiacinto, Dottie Flynn, Mark Holdom, Garry Marshall, RJ Wagner, Tom Mitchell, Dean & Rochelle Kraft, Tom & Roseanne Arnold, Nicholas Slonimsky, Pierre Boulez, Kent Nagano, Stephen Hawking, Warren DiMartini, Don Cerveris, Johnny Carson, Dennis Miller, David Raksin, Rip Rense, Simon Prentis, Lois Mancuso, Jack Nicholson, Liz Wells, James Burke.


FZ's Ensembles

FZ, interviewed by Don Paulsen, December 22, 1966 (Hit Parader, June 1968)

The instrumentation of the ideal Mothers rock and roll band is two piccolos, two flutes, two bass flutes, two oboes, English horn, three bassoons, a contrabassoon, four clarinets (with the fourth player doubling on alto clarinet), bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxophones, four trumpets, four French horns, three trombones, one bass trombone, one tuba, one contrabass tuba, two harps, two keyboard men playing piano, electric piano, electric harpsichord, electric clavichord, Hammond organ, celeste, and piano bass, ten first violins, ten second violins, eight violas, six cellos, four string bass, four percussionists playing twelve timpani, chimes, gongs, field drums, bass drums, snare drums, woodblocks, lion's roar, vibes, xylophone and marimba, three electric guitars, one electric 12-string guitar, electric bass and electric bass guitar and two drummers at sets, plus vocalists who play tambourines. And I won't be happy until I have it.

The different ensembles

The instruments between parenthesis are doubles.

Ideal Instrumentation, 1966 The Grand Wazoo, 1972 AEESO, 1975 LSO, 1983 EIC, 1984 BSO, 1984 Ensemble Modern, 1992
2 piccolos (1 piccolo)   (2 piccolos)      
2 flutes (1 flute) (4 flutes) 5 flutes 2 flutes 7 flutes 1 flute
2 bass flutes            
2 oboes 1 oboe 3 oboes 4 oboes 2 oboes 4 oboes 1 oboe
1 English horn   (2 English horns) (1 English horn)     (1 English horn)
    (1 baritone oboe)        
4 clarinets 3 clarinets (2 clarinets) 5+1 clarinets 2 clarinets 9 clarinets 1 clarinet
(1 alto clarinet)            
1 bass clarinet (1 bass clarinet) (1 bass clarinet) (1 bass clarinet) 1 bass clarinet   1 bass clarinet
1 contrabass clarinet     (1 contrabass clarinet)     (1 contrabass clarinet)
1 soprano saxophone (1 soprano saxophone)          
1 alto saxophone (1 alto saxophone) 2 alto saxophones        
1 tenor saxophone (2 tenor saxophones) 4 tenor saxophones     7 saxophones (1 tenor saxophone)
1 baritone saxophone   1 baritone saxophone        
1 bass saxophone            
3 bassoons 1 bassoon 3 bassoons 4 bassoons 1 bassoon 5 bassoons 1 bassoon
1 contrabassoon   (1 contrabassoon) (2 contrabassoons)     (1 contrabassoon)
4 horns   4 horns 8 horns 2 horns 8 horns 2 horns
4 trumpets 3 trumpets 3 trumpets 5 trumpets 2 trumpets 4 trumpets 2 trumpets
3 trombones 3 trombones 3 trombones 5 trombones 2 trombones 5 trombones 2 trombones
1 bass trombone            
1 tuba (1 tuba) 1 tuba 1 tuba 1 tuba 1 tuba 1 tuba
1 contrabass tuba            
4 percussionists 2 percussionists 4 percussionists 7+1 percussionists 3 percussionists 8 percussionists 3 percussionists
2 harps   1 harp 1 harp 1 harp 1 harp 1 harp
2 keyboards 1 keyboard 3 keyboards 1 keyboard 2 keyboards 3 keyboards 2 keyboards
3 electric guitars 2 electric guitars 1 electric guitar     1 guitar 1 guitar
1 electric 12-string guitar           1 mandolin
20 violins   2 violins 24 violins 3 violins 29 violins 3 violins
8 violas   1 viola 12 violas 2 violas 8 violas 1 viola
6 cellos 1 cello 1 cello 12 cellos 2 cellos 9 cellos 1 cello
4 string bass     8 string bass 1 string bass 6 string bass 1 string bass
1 electric bass 1 electric bass 1 electric bass       (1 electro-contrabass)
2 drumsets 1 drumset 1 drumset 1 drumset      


1. Intro

I understand there is a sign in the audience that once again says: "What's the secret word for tonight?" The secret word for tonight is . . .

FZ, interviewed by Michael Heinze, July 30, 1990

There are these three guys from Germany, Dirk [Weitz], Tom [Nagla] and Tommy [Mikkat], I don't know their last names, but they came to almost every concert in Germany in '88, and they would hold up a big sign in the audience that would say: "Frank, what's the secret word for tonight?"


2. Dog Breath Variations

cyranoDB,, June 16, 2013

Dog Breath Variations / Uncle Meat [tracks 2 & 3]

September 19, 1992
Alte Oper, Frankfurt, Germany


4. Outrage At Valdez

Richar Gehr, "Frank Zappa: Too Much Or Not Enough?", Jam Bands, April 1999

"Zappa constantly snuck in musical references, quotes, and parodies," [Matt] Groening explains. "Once he played me some music he'd written for a documentary on the Exxon Valdez disaster. 'Did you hear that?' he asked me. In the middle of this beautiful Synclavier score, he'd hid the 'What do you do with a drunken sailor?' melody."


5. Times Beach II

FZ, quoted in the liner notes

"Time's Beach" was commissioned by the Aspen Wind Quintet, and it was in five movements, one of which seemed to be unplayable at the time that they gave its premiere performance in Alice Tulley Hall, in 1985. Nobody has played it (in full) since they tried it. The title refers to our special little toxic town—you know, Time's Beach, the dioxin-infested town that was the first major U.S. environmental disaster where they had to move everybody out because of all the dioxin.


6. III Revised

FZ, quoted in the liner notes

This is one of the movements of the string quartet, "None of the Above," that the Kronos Quartet asked me to write for them. In this case, the revision includes making a string quintet out of it, so we wouldn't have the bass player just sitting around while the other guys were just sawing away. The whole of "None of the Above" was re-orchestrated to include the bass.


7. The Girl In The Magnesium Dress

Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, quoted by Ben Watson, The Wire, February 1996

I'll tell you a little story. I was in Los Angeles in late 92 when Frank was mixing down The Yellow Shark album, after the tour. He played the entire tape he had mixed down at that point, and the last piece was "The Girl In The Magnesium Dress". I said, 'Frank, I don't understand—why did you use the Synclavier version and not the live-played version?' and he said it was the live-played version! And I knew the piece quite well! It's incredible!


9. Ruth Is Sleeping

FZ, quoted in the liner notes

It was the first piece that I tried on the Synclavier. [...] It dates from around '82-'83. It sat around for a number of years until the Roland Digital Piano became available. This is a little MIDI box that you could hook up to the Synclavier, and the sounds that would come out really resembled a piano, which is something the early Synclavier could not do. When I heard that, I did some more work on it, and printed out the sheet music for it. There's a version for solo piano which is very, very, very difficult, and there's this version, for two pianos, which is less difficult, but still hard. Ali [N. Askin] took the version for one piano, and since he is a piano player, worked out the fingering positions and the ways to split up the solo piano version for two players. (...) The title derives from the fact that sometimes during rehearsal of the '72-'73 band, while I was giving instructions to other members of the group, Ruth Underwood would curl up underneath the marimba and go to sleep.

Jeffrey Burns, Jeffrey Burns Plays Frank Zappa (Pool Music 76013, 1992) liner notes

I met Frank Zappa in October 1991. The Academy of the Arts in Berlin was planning to present his new compositions in Germany, and I wanted to ask him if he had written any piano music which I could play on this occasion. In Zappa's living room we listened to each other's latest recordings. His newest works were composed on and performed by his computer, as their complexity rendered them very difficult to be written down and played by live musicians. He gave me the score of the piano piece, "Ruth Is Sleeping," which had been written some years before but had not yet been performed. Its simultaneous use of different registers of the piano to achieve multiple combinations of major sevenths made it an interesting challenge to me. I also found that Zappa, by not indicating any dynamics or tempo changes, stimulated the performer to improvise the interpretation, as it were, evoking sometimes dreamy, sometimes tempestuous moments of Ruth's sleep. I premiered the piece in Berlin on September 21, 1992.

Morgan Ågren, Facebook, June 25, 2015 (quoted by DoctorNerve, Zappateers, June 25, 2015)

In 1993 Zappa invited me and Mats to be a part of an orchestral project at Lincoln Center NYC, playing Franks music w full orchestra. One of the cool things was that Mats was going to perform the world premiere of Franks solo piano piece called "Ruth Is Sleeping". Mats got very excited off course, until he received the tape of the piece . . . Mats started bravely to pick out the notes but it was too fast and too hard to hear the notes on this tape (in original speed). So a score was sent over. Mats borrowed some time from the great pianist Carl Axel Dominique who recorded the whole piece for Mats in a slower tempo. Mats got reliefed and continued to work on the piece. Just a few weeks before the concert Mats was only 60-70% through the piece and had to call Frank about this. Knowing how strict Frank could be, his answer was just amazing. He told Mats "play the parts you know, then improvise, and just add the ending" . . .—which he did. When it was time for this piece to be performed me Scott, Keneally & co. was standing on the side of the stage watching Mats go for it. It was dead silent in the hall, and it was sooo great, the improvised parts too off course. In my opinion Mats version had moments that was even better than the original Yellow Shark performance. Now the funny thing was that Scott had asked Mats if he wanted to stop halfway through his performance and shout to the audience "oh my God I'm blind!"—but that didn't happen! Hahahaha . . . Happy memory anyways!

FZ, interviewed by Carl Stone, c. 1989

When I first bought the machine I didn't know how to operate it, I just, you know, knew that it was something I wanted to own and I hired a guy named Steve DeFuria, who was probably pretty well known to the people in the keyboard world as he has written a lot of columns and stuff. Steve used to work here and, the way I got into typing on the Synclavier was, my first composition on there was something called "Ruth Is Sleeping." It's a piece for keyboards. And to do this I sat in a little chair behind Steve DeFuria and I told him, "Change this pitch to this, da-dooh ta-dah ta-dah . . . " I told him every thing and he sat there and operate. It was the most gruelling horrible thing. Till one day he said, "Here, let me show you how to do this." And I sat down on the chair and he showed the basic commands to do it and that was it. And he had to beg to get back on the chair around the machine because he was hooked on it and I just been typing away ever since. You know I spent months working on this piece and I'm sure he went out through hell having me whispering in his ear, "Move it to here, move it to there." Because at the time I wasn't even thinking in terms of the name of the note plus the number of the octave. I really had to scratch my head to figure out where C5 was, and this mysterious C3. Now what key really is that on there, you know? And so now, you just get used to thinking a different way.


10. None Of The Above

FZ, quoted in the liner notes

It got the title because I didn't think that it fell into the normal descriptive orbit of what string quartet or string quintet music is supposed to be. (See "III Revised.")


11. Pentagon Afternoon

FZ, quoted in the liner notes

That's a tone poem. You just have to picture these guys, these dealers in death, sitting around a table in the afternoon in the Pentagon, figuring out what they're going to blow up now, who they're going to subjugate, and what tools they'll use. It ends with the sound of those cheap little plastic ray guns. And on stage, the rest of the Ensemble aims ray guns and kills the string quintet. And they all slump to the side in their chairs.


12. Questi Cazzi Di Piccione

FZ, quoted in the liner notes

That means, "Those Fucking Pigeons." If you've ever been to Venice, well, instead of trees, they have pigeons, and pigeon by-products. Which is probably one of the reasons why the town is sinking. The title was an afterthought. There are all those knocking sounds in that piece, and the knocking sounds were an invention of the string players. When they tried to learn it, it was very difficult for them to count it, and keep it even. So one of the guys said, "Well, why don't we just beat time on our instruments in between what we're playing?"—because they rehearsed without a conductor. When they played it for me with the knocks in it, I told them to leave it in. So you can just imagine those are pigeons.


14. Food Gathering In Post-Industrial America, 1992

All floating in a broth of tritium-enriched sewage

FZ, quoted in the liner notes

At the point where she gets to the text, "tritium-enriched sewage", there's an awful gurgling sound. That's Cathy (Catherine Milliken), the Australian horn player, sticking a Didgeridoo into a spitoon full of water with Vermiculite floating on the surface. Vermiculite is a kind of 'humus helper'. It didn't really help the tone, but it looked good for the television cameras that zoomed in on these little brown scummy things floating on top of the water, and this girl earnestly honking into the spitoon with this enormous wooden dork sticking out of her mouth.


17. Exercise #4

FZ, quoted in the liner notes

"Exercise #4" is another one of the tunes from the Uncle Meat album. The theme actually dates from about 1962.


18. Get Whitey

FZ, quoted in the liner notes

The title originally came because the first version, the prototype "Whitey" that was rehearsed in '91 when the group came to Los Angeles, dealt only with the white keys on the piano. But this version is more chromatic. I was thinking about changing the title to something else, but the general opinion of people in the group was they liked "Get Whitey".



Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos
This page updated: 2024-03-02