Perfect Sound Forever

Frank Zappa and new music in Cleveland

Anders Paulsson
photo by Adam Stefan de Bassac
Jonathan Sheffer
photo by Lara Rossignol

by Kelly Ferjutz
(April 2007)

I am not a rocker girl, er, woman. I never did rock, at any point in my life--only classical, jazz, Broadway and film music, plus a bit of country. I write about these kinds of music, which takes me to a lot of concerts and brings me a variety of CD's to listen to and write a review. It's fun. Most of the time, that is.

Every now and then, I find myself in over my head. Cleveland has a huge musical tradition. We are, after all, home to the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra. now almost 90 years old. In the middle of the last century, we were home to one of the greatest polka bands that ever was- Frank Yankovic, who won the first-ever Grammy for polka music. This year, another of our own won a Grammy. CSU professor Angelin Chang is a remarkable pianist in all the various aspects of her instrument. This award--[Category 100--Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance (with Orchestra)]--shared with fellow-Clevelander John McLaughlin Williams, conductor of Cleveland Chamber Symphony, recognizes their amazing collaboration for Olivier Messiaen's "Oiseaux Exotiques" (Exotic Birds).

There are lots of other exciting groups performing here, too, ranging from Baroque (Apollo's Fire) to contemporary--as in Red {an orchestra}, which sort of specializes in adding non-musical components such as film or video or puppets to concerts. Most of the time this works really well, but sometimes not. And of course, there is the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Last spring, I went to my first ever rock concert, which featured the Contemporary Youth Orchestra with '70's/'80's rock legends Styx. This time around though, it was a collaboration between Red {an orchestra} and the Rock Hall to feature the non-rock music selections of Frank Zappa. Until this program was announced, I don't think I'd ever heard a note by Zappa. To be sure, I wouldn't have recognized any of them anyway. All I knew of the man was that he was a first-class rebel, even carrying that quality over to the names he gave his children.

It seemed a natural match then, when Warren Zanes, the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame's vice president for education, suggested to Jonathan Sheffer, music director of Red, that he devise a program of or about Frank Zappa and his music, in a co-presentation with the Hall. "Frank Zappa, of course, was a true iconoclast. An original," Zanes adds with a laugh. "If you put up a boundary, he'd cross it. He was special. But then, Jonathan is also such a beautiful iconoclast. He's really adept at breaking apart conventional music and putting it together again--but differently."

It's a known fact to rockers and fans alike that Frank Zappa was greatly influenced by classical music composers, especially those considered a little 'out there' themselves: Edgar Varèse, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky, John Cage and others. It was a recording of the music of Varèse that first got Zappa hooked on classics, at the age of 15. The younger man listened and listened, learning all the while, until eventually he could begin to produce sounds like those he most enjoyed hearing. He didn't much care if anyone else enjoyed hearing them, but if they did--great! In fact, Sheffer prefaced the concert with "You'll hear noise that Frank Zappa found beautiful."

First though, we heard music Varèse ("Integrales"), Stravinsky ("Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments" with the award-winning young pianist Spencer Myer) and Webern's "Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10." Then came the Zappa part of the program and even in such heady company, it was not bad at all. Actually, I quite liked it. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this concert converted me, exactly, but I wouldn't mind hearing more of the 'classical' Zappa, if not the 'rock' Zappa.

What we heard was "Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat" which Sheffer referred to as a "sweet suite." I'd agree with that. To my surprise, it was actually quite melodic with traditional harmonics to go along with the strong rhythmic underpinnings.

"Naval Aviation in Art?" was rather short and featured electric strings, especially viola. "Be-Bop Tango" would have been difficult to dance to, I think, but it was fun to hear and to see. Mere instruments alone weren't enough for the composer so he had the musicians burst into laughter in the middle of it. There was some neat saxophone playing in there as well.

The final piece was "G-Spot Tornado" which was pure fun. The horns and saxes took turns at the melody along with the low brass and even percussion here and there. Sheffer acknowledged each musician in turn (a neat touch, not often done) and, responding to the prolonged applause, launched into a short reprise of "G-Spot Tornado."

So, that was "The Importance of Being Zappa" at least according to Red and the Rock Hall. But that's not all the new music for this season either. In mid-April, we'll hear a concert of music composed by Sheffer, who was, in his slightly younger years, a composer of film and other music. His music is bright, cheeky and accessible. Fun, in fact.

A few years ago, Sheffer wrote a concerto for the internationally renowned soprano saxophone virtuoso Anders Paulsson. It's called "Romp" and will be part of the first half of the program along with some Sheffer arrangements of Bach preludes in the manner of minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Not hardly enough for an entire concert. But nothing else presented itself right away. And then, a bit more than a year ago, he discovered a book of writings about Cleveland, which enticed him into buying it for a closer inspection.

It was love at first reading. Within an hour of opening the book, he'd found his muse. He chose several poems, mostly by Cleveland poets, and a few prose statements from famous folks who visited. "Great things were said here," says Sheffer. "It was a natural, although not all the words I used are from the book. I Googled some," he adds with his irrepressible grin.

In case you're wondering which comes first, the music or the words, in this instance, it was the words. "I wanted the libretto done before the first note of the music," states the ebullient composer. "Of course, some of my first choices wouldn't work; they were too long or too difficult. Not all poems can be set to music, while others just lend themselves to the collaboration so beautifully."

Having done his homework, Sheffer knew some famous writers needed to be included. Hart Crane, for instance, and Richard Howard. Crane's words were especially difficult. "His word associations were very modern for the time, and really resisted the music. I finally found two lines that worked, although not everyone will understand them, either." Studying Cleveland's history made it fairly easy to come up with five themes that define our city: Symbols, Music, Sports, Weather, and perhaps the most important of all, Regeneration.

He ended up with ten sections of music for five singers and orchestra- a cantata, maybe, or a symphony for voices. Oh, and the name of this piece? It's no wonder he fell in love with the book and this one particular poem which was written several years ago. It's called "Red Couch Floating on Lake Erie." Serendipity.

"Red Couch Floating on Lake Erie" had its world premiere on Saturday April 14, with a repeat performance the next day. For more information, visit the web-site:

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