Frank Zappa and Keith Emerson: Sinfonietta Rīga in conversation with the musical prodigies
In two concerts - at the Great Guild Hall on Friday, November 29, and concert hall "Latvija" in Ventspils on Thursday, December 19, conductor Normunds Šnē and chamber orchestra Sinfonietta Rīga will take the audiences to the backstage of a rock arena, recreating the most brilliant works of American guitarist and composer Frank Zappa and British keyboardist and composer Keith Emerson. The program is complemented with new works by two composers residing here in Riga - Platon Buravicky's “EmersoniLaPa” and Jachin Pousson's “Tropos”, conceived in lively dialogue with the two 20th century musical prodigies.
The listeners are also invited to another "Conversation After the Concert" in the White Hall of the Great Guild, where music journalist Uldis Rudaks will talk with the evening's performers - conductor Normunds Šnē and musicians Dainis Tenis and Jānis Runģis.
Asked about the creative idea behind the programme, Normunds Šnē reveals that “the aim was to leave the ordinary, the comfortable and formulaic as far behind us as possible. Each work that we will perform in this evening challenges and crosses boundaries, in all manners. It might be the wildest programme in the history of Sinfonietta until now”.
Without doubt, the appearance of the names of two rock legends in Sinfonietta Rīga programme is a rare, if not unprecedented occurrence; however, it is in large part explained by a lesser known fact about conductor Normunds Šnē - his foundness for a wide range of musical expression in his younger days.
The programme includes compositions of American guitarist and composer Frank Zappa and British keyboardist and composer Keith Emerson that in Latvian concert halls will be performed for the first time ever. Both artists have certainly left an enduring mark in the Western culture of the 20th century, and, in terms of genre and contents, stepped far outside any one separate and hermetically sealed musical space.
Nowadays, Frank Zappa's contribution to the national cultural heritage of the United States has been fully recognized. His works have been performed by London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Pierre Boulez, Brussels Philharmonic and chamber ensembles Ensemble Moderne and Reinecke Trio, and he is considered to be among the most innovative and stylistically diverse contemporary composers, influenced not only by the 20th century classic modernism (Stravinsky, Varese, Cage), but also African American rhythm and blues, jazz, doo-wop and cabaret cultures. Novelty and experimentation, eclecticism of genre, irony and critical attitude towards American lifestyle, puritanism and political doctrines, as well as hippie counterculture and commercialization of arts, are integral to Zappa's music.
His belief in composer's creative mission is best expressed in his own words:
"A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians. [...] In my compositions, I employ a system of weights, balances, measured tensions and releases—in some way similar to Varese’s aesthetic. The similarities are best illustrated by comparison to a Calder mobile: a multicolored whatchamacallit, dangling in space, that has big blobs of metal connected to pieces of wire, balanced ingeniously against little metal dingleberries on the other end."
The history of Revised Music for Low Budget Symphony Orchestra goes back to 1969, when Zappa worked on a conceptually new studio album Hot Rats. One of the featured guest artists was French jazz violinist and composer Jean-Luc Ponty, who recorded violin solo for the track "It Must Be a Camel". Afterwards, Zappa and Ponty decided to continue their fruitful collaboration; producer Richard Bock suggested that the acclaimed jazz violinist records an LP of arrangements of Zappa's music, and in the autumn of the same year Ponty's album King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa was released. The track listing includes the title "Music for Electric Violin and Low-Budget Orchestra" - it should be noted that Ponty had intended to record the track with a 96-piece orchestra, but had to do with an ensemble of only 11 musicians. The extremely limited artistic resources thus became the basis for the expressively ironic title of the track, which includes the themes from two earlier Zappa's compositions: "The Duke of Prunes" and "A Pound for a Brown on the Bus".
In 1975, Frank Zappa reunited the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra that he had organized for his late-1960s studio recordings, intending to record orchestral arrangements of his previously composed songs for the album Orchestral Favorites. The recording took place in the Royce Hall of the University of California, and among other pieces, a heavily reworked opus from the Ponty album - "Revised Music for Low Budget Orchestra" - was recorded. The album was finally released only four years later, in 1979, and the "Revised Music" was not even included. Around the same time, another version of the track, arranged for a quintet - "Revised Music for Guitar & Low-Budget Orchestra" - was recorded for Zappa's 1978 album Studio Tan.
Similarly to Revised Music for Low Budget Orchestra, The Dog Breath Variations borrows themes and motifs from the 1969 double album "Uncle Meat" that Zappa recorded with his group "The Mothers of Invention" in 1967-1968. A veritable workaholic, Zappa rearranged and orchestrated one of the album's tracks - "Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague" - multiple times. Titled simply "Dog Breath", the piece is included in The Mothers' 1972 concert album Just Another Band from L.A.; this version has served as the basis for the following variations of the track, including one for symphony orchestra and small electronic ensemble.
In 1993, a month before Frank Zappa passed away, the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern released concert album The Yellow Shark, comprised of 19 compositions, including "Dog Breath Variations / Uncle Meat", rearranged for performance at the Frankfurt Festival. In 1991, Zappa had been selected as a featured composer of the festival (along with Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Alexander Knaifel).
The composer considered Ensemble Moderne's performance to be the best embodiment of his musical ideas, and the highest peak of his creative career.
Across the Atlantic, in the late 1960s, new features in the 20th century musical kaleidoscope were brought in by one of the founders of progressive rock, British keyboardist and composer Keith Emerson. He grew up in the town of Worthing, West-Sussex, and, by his own account, learned how to play piano from "local little old ladies". While Emerson's biography does not include mentions of serious and systematic studies of classic piano, his name is often associated with virtuosity and purposeful integration of academic music into popular culture.
In 1967, Emerson formed The Nice; the group gained popularity with their arrangement of the well-known song "America" from Leonard Bernstein's musical "West Side Story". The group's sound was dominated by Emerson's expressive performance and timbral texture of his Hammond electrical organ, however his "taste of sound" changed fundamentally in the late 1960s, when he encountered the music of American scientist and composer Wendy Carlos. In 1968, she had released the revolutionary album Switched-On Bach, in which the soundscapes of Johann Sebastian Bach were recreated on a modular Moog synthesizer, thus, one might say, Bach was reborn for the 20th century.
Together with bassist Greg Lake from the art rock collective King Crimson and drummer Carl Palmer from the outlandish rock group The Crazy World of Arthur Brown known for their theatrical performances, Emerson formed the trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP) in the early 1970s. This signals the beginning of Emerson's musical maturity. Similarly to Frank Zappa, the collective integrated serious academic repertoire, approach and attitude into the world of popular music. For their expressive megalithic compositions, ELP often drew from the heritage of Aaron Copland, Johann Sebastian Bach, Peter Tchaikovsky, Leoš Janaček, Modest Mussorgsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Bela Bartok, and every album the band released is an example of well-polished conceptual art piece, both in style and in contents.
ELP's fifth studio recording - the double album Works Volume 1 was released in 1977. The two LPs give a proportional share of time for each member of the trio, and the final side features the whole group. Keith Emerson's contribution for the album was his Piano Concerto No. 1, a radiant manifestation of its author's expressive nature, enthusiasm and keyboard skills. The composition synthesizes the tradition of Western classical music with the characteristic ELP soundscape and emotional tonality.
Sinfonietta Rīga will perform Emerson's Piano Concerto with Dainis Tenis, keyboardist from the Latvian band DAGAMBA as the soloist.