Frank Zappa: "What I do is composition"

a tentative short biography of Frank Zappa (1940-1993) by Francesco Gentile

In 1988 in his autobiography »The Real Frank Zappa Book« FZ wrote:

What Do You Do for a Living, Dad?

If any of my kids ever asked me that question, the answer would have to be: "What I do is composition." I just happen to use material other than notes for the pieces.

Composition is a process of organization, very much like architecture. As long as you can conceptualize what that organizational process is, you can be a 'composer' - in any medium you want.

Though he was mainly a music composer, since his early days Zappa expressed himself also through other media (in 1962 he designed a low-budget science fiction movie for which he painted the cardboard scenes but unfortunately he could not shoot it). His interests for various media soon brought him to be an expert in various audio and visual technologies. An interest which culminated during his last years with his intense work with the Synclavier computer. In 1993 Neil Leigh from BBC2 asked to what extent his work had developed in tandem with technology. "Right along with it," he replied, "because in many instances we were the bait, a test site for some of these things, or at least some of the first customers for the objects themselves."

Frank Zappa was born on December 21, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. In his autobiography he wrote: "My ancestry is Sicilian, Greek, Arab and French. My mother's mother was French and Sicilian, and her Dad was Italian (from Naples). She was first generation. The Greek-Arab side is from my Dad. He was born in a Sicilian village called Partinico, and came over on one of the immigrant boats when he was a kid." After a few years in Maryland and also Florida (for a short period), the Zappa family settled in California where, around the age of twelve, Frank started getting interested in the drums. A few years later, with some help of Prof. Ballard (his high school music instructor) started to learn music theory and to write orchestral music. "He let me conduct the orchestra a couple of times, let me write music on the blackboard, and had the orchestra play it." Zappa wrote in the autobiography.

In the same period he started playing guitar in some Rhythm & Blues bands and with his friend Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart). In 1960 he met Paul Buff who owned a recording studio in Cucamonga (in the Los Angeles area) equipped with a 5 tracks recorder designed by Buff, with whom he produced a series of singles. Surf, Rhythm & Blues, Doo Wop were the main influences all dressed up with his peculiar taste for irony, sarcasm and bizarre. In this studio, later taken over by Zappa and renamed »Studio Z«, he took complete control over all the phases of the process of making music: often together with Buff and others, he composed, arranged, conducted, recorded, edited and mixed in those productions. A work practice later refined also through the use of every latest technology, and utilised throughout his career. Unfortunately, with the exception of some tracks included in the beautiful leftovers anthologies »The Lost Episodes« (1996) and »Mystery Disc« (1998), and of the material included in the Del-Fi Cd »Cucamonga« (1997), these recordings are ultra-rare and available only through bootlegs.

Surf, Rhythm & Blues, Doo Wop were the pop side of his music tastes. On the classical (this word does not work always precisely, maybe one should use something like "not so popular") side he was fond of Edgard Varèse (especially of the percussive »Ionisation«), Igor Stravinsky (themes from »The Rite of Spring« or »Petruska« often occur in his music) and Anton Webern. He also liked Conlon Nancarrow, Henry Partch and John Cage, and more 'classical' composers like Béla Bartók or Charles Ives.

He was struck by Varèse in his teens and his passion for the music of the French composer remained alive until the end. The still unreleased recordings of THE ENSEMBLE MODERN conducted by Peter Eötvös playing Varèse (under his supervision) will be his last tribute to Varèse.

Frank Zappa was equally fond of THE TURBANTS (a Doo Wop group) and Stravinsky, this is one of the keys that open the door of his unique corpus.

In 1965 he formed THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION that throughout their career featured musicians such as Ray Collins, Roy Estrada, Jimmy Carl Black, Don Preston, and also Ian Underwood who appears in several future projects. Most people consider this point as the beginning of his career but, as we have just seen, the previous years were also very intense and included orchestral works such as soundtracks for a couple of almost unknown movies: »Run Home Slow« (1959) and »The World's Greatest Sinner« (1962). In 1963 he also participated to »The Steve Allen Show« playing a bicycle and instructing the Orchestra of the tv show to improvise in the background. Everybody laughed but Zappa did it very seriously!

THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION (MOI) lasted until 1969, it was a prolific period: more than 200 concerts, an unfinished movie (»Uncle Meat«, issued only in 1987), seven Lps (including an anthology) and two other records issued in 1970 but containing MOI recordings (»Weasels Ripped My Flesh« and »Burnt Weenie Sandwich«). Also a lot of material from this era has been included in the 6 volumes live series »You can't do that on Stage Anymore« (YCDTOSA) assembled at the end of the eighties, and in 1993 »Ahead of their Time« (an edited recording of a MOI concert at the Royal Festival Hall of London on October 28, 1968, "assisted by members of the BBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA") revealed another important piece of the MOI story. In the first part of this Cd the BBC SO and the MOI perform orchestral scores destined to evolve into the soundtrack for the movie »200 Motels« ('71).

Most of the music of those 7 Lps is worth knowing and consists of compositions of every nature. From the freak Manifesto »Hungry Freaks Daddy« (first track of »Freak Out!«, the first MOI album, a double Lp!), the bizarre beauty of the »Uncle Meat« soundtrack, and the 'greasy' sort of fifties songs collection »Cruising with RUBEN & THE JETS«, to the electro-acoustic frenzy of »The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet«, side 4 of »Freak Out!«, the almost camera number »Brown Shoes don't Make it« (from »Absolutely Free«) and the musique concrete of »The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny« (from »We're Only in it for the Money«). The other titles are also very important to know how the MOI sounded like especially on the live side. Particularly »Burn Weenie Sandwich«, being recorded during the last months of the MOI life, is the only official witness of the end of this era (actually »Little House I used to Live in«, the longest track of the album, probably contains also bits of material recorded after the MOI break up by one of the following bands).

In 1967 he married his "fabulous wife" Gail Sloatman with whom he shared the rest of his life. They had two daughters and two sons. Gail later became very important also for the management side of what will turn into a family conducted music affair.

An important role is played by »Lumpy Gravy«, an Lp issued in 1968 as the first FZ solo album and often referred by the composer as one of his favorite works. The album is divided in two parts in which orchestral music, and electronically manipulated voices and music are interpolated by surrealistic dialogues. This structure will be used again by Zappa in his very last project: »Civilization Phaze III« in which Synclavier generated music (with some ENSEMBLE MODERN additions) is interpolated by dada dialogues often coming from the »Lumpy Gravy« sessions. This album includes many musical and conceptual references (in the dialogs) to previous works, and future works will include many references of this kind to »Lumpy Gravy«. The creation of relations between different projects (in any media) has always been part of his work method. "There is, and always has been, a conscious control of thematic and structural elements flowing through each album, live performance, and Interview.", Zappa wrote in 1971 in »Circular« (a weekly news device from warner/reprise), and that is what he also called "the Conceptual Continuity of the group's output macrostructure".

In August 1969 The MOI broke up mainly for financial reasons. Zappa was not able to pay the salary to the band members anymore (he acted as the actual boss of this musical concern) and maybe was also willing to try something else. After a short tour with a band that featured Ian Underwood, Ansley Dumbar, Don "Sugarcane" Harris and Max Bennett, he recorded, also with Captain Beefheart and Jean-Luc Ponty, one of the first jazz-rock albums ever: »Hot Rats«.

Things were ready to change again. On May 15, 1970 Zubin Mehta conducted the L.A. PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA in a concert featuring also Zappa and a rock group still called THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION. The concert was not recorded because of some problems with the musicians union. This is one of the most unlucky holes in the Zappa corpus, only some bad bootleg recordings survived (zappaphiles dream of hidden tapes in the Zappa Family Trust Vault!). This music eventually mutated in the soundtrack to »200 Motels«, the first movie released by FZ. "All of this music was written for the movie, over a period of 4 years. Most of it (60%) was written in Motels while touring." wrote Zappa in the liner notes. Part of these scores will mutate again in the following years and will become »Bogus Pomp«, a 'classic' between the orchestral works of FZ. »200 Motels« deals with the crazy world of a touring band of the end of the sixties and was shot in videotape in a large studio in a few days in January/February 1971. FZ was the first using video technology to make a movie.

A new line-up formed after the Mehta concert. The front characters were singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who also are in the movie »200 Motels«, and the band featured again Ian Underwood and Ansley Dumbar. They lasted until October 1971 after a hundred concerts and three albums plus a fourth one released in 1992 (»Playground Psychotics«). This band has been described as 'vaudeville' for their great theatrical performances which included the 30 minutes movie-for-your-ears »Billy the Mountain« included in »Just another Band from L.A.« (rumours say that ENSEMBLE MODERN was considering a rendition of it).

The band broke up because of a strange accident that forced Zappa to stop every activity: he was thrown into the London Rainbow orchestra pit by a person from the audience. He got a lot of injuries from the accident including a larynx damage that caused him a permanent drop of voice pitch.

In the following months he was on a wheelchair writing music for a different kind of band, a sort of big electric-jazz orchestra. At the end 1972 he produced two great albums: »The Grand Wazoo« and »Waka-Jawaka«. He also made a short tour with the big band and then a longer one with a smaller band nicknamed THE PETIT WAZOO ORCHESTRA. In this period he also composed the music to »The Adventures of Greggery Peccary«, the other FZ movie-for-your-ears with a lot of Conceptual Continuity clues to »Billy the Mountain« (»Greg Pec« was first released in 1978 in »Studio Tan«).

1973 and 1974 were full of live concerts all over the world (USA, Australia and Europe), about 300 dates! The group, partly derived from the Wazoo bands, was a 8-10 musicians line-up and featured Walt and Bruce Fowler, Ruth Underwood, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Jean-Luc Ponty and George Duke among others. Two great live albums witness this era: »Roxy & Elsewhere«, and volume two of the live series »YCDTOSA«. These were also the years of »Apostrophe(')« and »Over-Nite Sensation«, two of the most famous Zappa albums. »One Size Fits All« was also produced in that period but was not so successful although it includes one of the most beautiful FZ compositions: »Sofa«.

In 1975 drummer Terry Bozzio joined the band and was with Zappa until mid 1978. This band featured also Captain Beefheart, was on tour for 2 months and recorded another live album: »Bongo Fury«. In September the ABNUCEALS EMUKKA ELECTRIC ORCHESTRA, a 37-piece one, performed two concerts of Zappa music that was partially published in 1978 in »Orchestral Favorites«.

After those concerts he put together 2 of the smallest groups he ever had. These 5 (sometimes 6) pieces band performed almost 200 concerts until February 1977. An exception is the Christmas 1976 band whom featured a brass section with the Brecker Brothers. The album »Zappa in New York« was recorded with that enlarged band who also participated with John Belushi at »The Saturday Night Live« (NBC-TV, USA) tv show in December 1976. In 1976 he also published »Zoot Allures« which includes great guitar music such as »Black Napkins« and the title track.

In 1977 Zappa was looking for a new record deal because of problems with Warner Brothers (his record company at that time) and with his manager since 1965, Herb Cohen. It is a complicated story and there's not enough room here for this and the other similar stories of lawsuits that unfortunately occurred during his career. In this case he was trying to release »Läther«, an amazing four record set which includes music for both orchestra and rock bands (studio and live). Part of these recordings were already in the hands of WB who didn't let Zappa release »Läther«. The result was the WB release of the double album »Zappa in New York« (1978) and then (1978/1979) of three other records: »Studio Tan«, »Sleep Dirt« and »Orchestral Favorites«. Zappa broadcasted the entire »Läther« album from KROQ based in Pasadena (CA, USA) in December 1977. The material was recorded between 1974 and 1976 and was issued in his original form (plus four other tracks from that era) in a three Cd record set in 1996. »Läther« is one of the most outstanding feats in the Frank Zappa career.

Some years later Zappa told Den Simms: "I didn't have a recording studio at that time, and since I didn't have a contract, and I couldn't go into a recording studio, in an act of desperation, I took my four track and hooked up a bunch of little dipshit equipment here in (my) basement, just like every other garage band guy would do, and I was making some one-man tapes here." The only thing to do was put together a new line-up and in September 1977 he started touring. This band included some new members such us Adrian Belew, Ed Mann and Tommy Mars and was on tour until February 1978. The live tracks of »Sheik Yerbouti« were recorded in that period. The Halloween 1977 shows were filmed and included in »Baby Snakes«, "a movie about people who do stuff that is not normal" premiered in New York in December 1979. The movie was awarded the 1981 Grand Prix for musical film in Paris and includes some clay animation by Bruce Bickford.

The next band featured Vince Colaiuta who replaced Bozzio on drums and Arthur Barrow who substituted Patrick O'Hearn on bass, Belew also left to work with David Bowie. They were on tour from August to December 1978. Zappa was on tour again on February 1979 with a larger group now including Ike Willis who will sing in various Zappa bands until 1988. Half of the three record set »Shut up 'n' Play yer Guitar« and part of the double Lp »Tinseltown Rebellion« (both released in 1981) were recorded live by this band. In April 1979 they started recording the three acts of »Joe's Garage« released as a single (Act 1) and a double Lp (Acts 2 & 3) later in 1979. These two were the first releases of his new label »Zappa Records« distributed by Mercury Records. On September 1, 1979, the completion of the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen (UMRK), his new studio, increased his freedom of expression further.

In March 1980 FZ started a new US and Europe tour with a different and smaller group featuring David Logeman on drums (Colaiuta was busy somewhere else in this period). Live tracks were for the first time recorded digitally "Sony [...] was offering bands on tour in Europe the use of their new PCM 1600 2-channels digital recording system. [..] It is a live to 2-tracks original mix, executed from a makeshift 'instant studio' set up in the dressing room", wrote Zappa in the liner notes for »You didn't Try to Call me«, »YCDTOSA Vol. 1«. The live show had a lot of new songs which eventually became part of the next double album »You Are What You Is« (released in 1981), the first studio production of the UMRK. The beautiful and very complex vocal arrangements, with Ike Willis and Ray White as lead vocalists, are the main feature of this quasi-pop work. The album includes one instrumental only: »Theme from the 3rd Movement of Sinister Footwear« which is a rock version of an orchestral score (unreleased and very rarely performed in its orchestral form) with a very young Steve Vai doubling the FZ guitar parts. On October the band changed again and made an about 50 concerts tour with Colaiuta on drums and Steve Vai on "strat abuse". This is one of the best FZ bands of that era and some of their live recordings may be found on »Tinseltown Rebellion« and on »YCDTOSA«.


In 1981 the band changed again and new bass and drums players Scott Thunes and Chad Wackerman joined. They will be the rhythm section of all the following Zappa rock combos until the last 'Best Band' in 1988. They toured until summer 1982 when in Palermo, Italy the tour ended with violent riots. Zappa said he would not tour anymore but luckily he made two more rock tours in 1984 and 1988. The live tracks in »Ship Arriving too Late to Save a Drowning Witch« (released in 1982) were recorded by this group. This single album featured one of the FZ most popular pop songs »Valley Girl« sung by his daughter Moon. The song was a huge success in the L.A. area because Moon played with the slang and the strange accent of the teenagers from the San Fernando Valley. Further recordings from this band are available through the YCDTOSA series and also through the double Cd »Guitar«, a guitar album issued in 1988 featuring solos mainly from 81/82 and 84. The quasi-studio double album »Them or us« (released in 1984) also includes some live tracks of these era. The studio sessions for »Them or us« and also for »The Man from Utopia« (an almost completely studio issued in 1983) took place at the end of 1982 and they were the last sessions of Steve Vai with Zappa.

From the end of 1982 until mid 1984 (when he started touring again) FZ devoted all his energies working both with orchestras, and in the studio with the Synclavier. He first put the basis for a collaboration with Pierre Boulez that ended in the 1984 recording of »The Perfect Stranger« an album featuring THE ENSEMBLE INTERCONTEMPORAIN conducted by Boulez performing three orchestral FZ scores and four Synclavier tracks. Then he realised a controversial orchestral project with the LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA conducted by Kent Nagano that brought two album in 1983 (»LSO Vol. 1«) and 1987 (»LSO Vol. 2«). The latter waited some years because Zappa was not satisfied with the LSO performances. In the Vol. 2 liner notes he wrote: "It is infested with wrong notes and out-of-tunes passages. I postponed its release for several years, hoping that a digital technologist somewhere might develop a piece of machinery powerful enough to conceal the evils lurking on the master tapes." In 1983 he recorded »Thing-Fish« a triple Lp soundtrack to a failed Broadway project. A rock musical featuring also some Synclavier recordings. And finally, just before going back on tour, in June 1984 the BERKELEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA conducted by Kent Nagano performed a program of FZ compositions including the premiere of »Sinister Footwear« which is the only known orchestral rendition of this score.

More than 150 concerts were performed by the new 1984 band that can be seen on the video »Does Humor Belong in Music?« (released in 1986 together with a Cd from the same band but recorded somewhere else) in their NYC performances interpolated by a FZ interview. Zappa had to be satisfied with these performances (all captured digitally) in fact he released a lot of '84 material also on »Guitar« and on »YCDTOSA«. In 1984 FZ also released the »Dub Room Special«, a video featuring the 1974 band (footage from KCET TV special never broadcasted) and the 1981 band live in NYC.

In 1985 Zappa went back in his UMRK working mainly with Synclavier but also in studio for the »FZ Meets the Mothers of Prevention« album (released at the end of the year). FZMTMOP is half studio and half Synclavier and includes »Porn Wars« which is a long track about the story of the Zappa fight against the PMRC (Parent Music Resource Center) culminated with his September testimony to the Senate concerning the PMRC proposal of a rating system for the contents of pop music albums. In his book Slaven reports that "[...] Allan Bloom said that PMRC only wanted to promote art that was 'noble, delicate and sublime'." Zappa had the opportunity to reply in 1988 to the Guardian: "This is not a noble, delicate and sublime country. This is a mess run by criminals. Performers who are doing the crude, vulgar and repulsive things Bloom doesn't enjoy are commenting on that fact."

In the same year the KRONOS QUARTET performed »None of the Above« a composition later partly included in »The Yellow Shark«. 1986 and 1987 saw some other performances of FZ orchestral and chamber music both in North America and Europe. »Dupree's Paradise« was performed by various ensembles including the ENSEMBLE MODERN later involved in one of the most important projects in the career of Frank Zappa.

Meanwhile he was occupied working on the Synclavier and on some sort of political activism concerning censorship matters started with the PMRC affair. In February 1986 he gave another testimony at the Maryland State Legislature on this issue. In 1986 he released »Jazz from Hell« an almost completely Synclavier album including a 'human' track only: »St. Etienne«, a guitar solo dated 1982 included in the 1987 »Video from Hell« video release, a compilation of other released and unreleased video projects. »Jazz from Hell« won the only music Grammy award of Frank Zappa for music content and received also other nominations. Being his first real Synclavier project, the album attracted the attention of the press and was on the cover to the February 1987 editions of »Keyboard«, »Music Technology« and »Sound on Sound«. »G-spot Tornado«, one of the most frenzied tracks of the album, later become the 'hit' of »The Yellow Shark«.

At the end of 1987 FZ started to rehearse with a new band for a new tour after four years. The band was larger than all the other 80's bands and included a very powerful brass section with Bruce Fowler on trombone who played with FZ in some of the 70's bands. The band included also some 80's veterans like Ike Willis, Chad Wackerman, Ed Mann and Scott Thunes who was in the middle of a controversial series of arguments between him and almost all the other musicians. Thunes was the designated rehearsals leader and the way he lead was not appreciated by all apart from Mike Keneally, the new guitarist of the band. Keneally approached FZ as Steve Vai did some years before, he was a fan and had a very deep knowledge of a lot of FZ material. He was immensely happy to play in the band and had good relationships with everyone, but unfortunately he was the only one who didn't want Thunes out of the band. Because of these discussions on Thunes, FZ decided to break up the band right after the Italian leg of the tour in June 1988, and that was a real pity because it was »The Best Band you Never Heard your Life« as FZ said in the title of the first of two double Cds of recordings by this group released in 1991 together with the other double »Make a Jazz Noise Here«. The first 'Best Band' release was the single Cd »Broadway the Hard Way« issued at the end of 1988. About six hours of live music (including some tracks in the live series YCDTOSA) are available from that tour that lasted about 80 dates, but many tunes are still unreleased like the cover versions of some Beatles songs (with FZ lyrics).

A 1989 full of trips in east Europe started with the release in January of two video titles: the long awaited »Uncle Meat« and "»he True Story of 200 Motels«. Then between January and May he went once to Czechoslovakia and four times to Russia establishing both cultural and economical relationships. He always had enthusiastic welcome from everyone in these countries in which he was considered a cultural hero at the close of the socialist era. These trips brought him in close contact with Czech president Vaclav Havel. In this period he also considered running for the USA presidential election but, maybe mainly for health reasons, he renounced. In 1989 he also published his one and only autobiography »The Real Frank Zappa Book«. In the Introduction he writes: "One of the reason for doing this is the proliferation of stupid books (in several languages) which purport to be about me. I thought there ought to be at least ONE, somewhere, that had real stuff in it. Please be advised that this book does not pretend to be some sort of 'complete' oral history. It is presented for consumption as entertainment only." And in fact it is a great piece of entertainment!

1990 started with another trip in east Europe visited again in June. At the beginning of the year he also issued another video title: »The Amazing Mr. Bickford«, a collection of clay animation works by Bruce Bickford (part of them were already used in »Baby Snakes«) with an orchestral soundtrack from the Boulez and LSO recordings of the 80's. But 1990 was also the year he discovered to have an inoperable prostate cancer. He reacted strongly at the disease and fought until the end without renouncing to work as long as it was feasible. However, since he was undergoing radio therapy, 1990 was particularly hard. But he kept working at home with the Synclavier and at the 1988 band next releases to be issued in 1991. The most important Synclavier project was »Lumpy Gravy Phase 3« which later become »Civilization Phaze III«.

1991 was an important year for the career of the composer, it was the year he met the ENSEMBLE MODERN, maybe the only orchestra that came into a real, interested and close relationship with him. In April 1998 Ali Askin, assistant, arranger and copyist for the forthcoming project with the Ensemble, told me (in an interview for »Debra Kadabra«, the Italian FZ appreciation consortium) "During the work on »The Yellow Shark« he had perfect conditions for rehearsing and recording. Some of his older records probably would have being different if he had had the same conditions." In May the Ensemble manager, Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, Dieter Rexroth, in charge for the 1992 Frankfurt Festival, and the film-maker Henning Lohner went to L.A. to meet FZ. They arranged a trip of the ENSEMBLE MODERN in L.A. for the next July to prepare a set of compositions to be performed in the festival that eventually become »The Yellow Shark« named after a surf table in a shape of a Shark given to FZ as a present by a fan. In June he went in east Europe once more, he was in Russia, in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and in Prague and Budapest played with local bands. When he was back he rehearsed with the ENSEMBLE MODERN at Joe's Garage, his new rehearsals studio opened in 1989. He also sampled the Ensemble at UMRK for his Synclavier projects. 1991 ended with »Zappa's Universe«, a project that brought together the ORCHESTRA OF OUR TIME conducted by Joel Thome, two vocal groups and a rock band with Mike Keneally, Scott Thunes and the swedish Mats Öberg and Morgan Ågren who were featured musicians in the 1988 Stockholm concert. A lot of guests like Steve Vai, Moon, Diva and Dweezil Zappa were on stage. Frank couldn't came and the afternoon of the first performance Moon Zappa told the press about the disease of the father.

In the following year he rarely left home and worked as he could on closing the YCDTOSA live series, on the Synclavier projects and on the Yellow Shark concerts scheduled for September. In July he went to Frankfurt for two weeks of preliminary rehearsals that led to a one hour and half program which included new compositions, new arrangements of old classics and some Synclavier recorded music to be heard through a six-channel playback system designed for the event. He used the system to give a premiere of compositions that later become part of his final Synclavier project:

»Civilization Phaze III«, completed in 1993 but issued after his death in December 1994. The eight September performances were very successful but Zappa could appear only for a short time during two of the three Frankfurt dates. Peter Rundel was the 'fine' conductor (as FZ says in the Cd spoken introduction). The Cd, published in November 1993, includes recordings from various venues and "[...] Frank was able to make some very suave edits. You really can't hear the ambience change", said Spencer Chrislu (recording engineer and Cd mixer) in the liner notes to the Cd. German satellite TV channel »Premiere« broadcasted the September 17 Frankfurt concert and »AAAFNRA« a documentary on the making of »The Yellow Shark«.

In spite of his bad health, in 1993 he worked as much as he could and completed two Synclavier projects: »Civilization Phaze III« and »Dance me This« (the latter is still unreleased). He also planned further collaborations with the ENSEMBLE MODERN but he could only complete one last project recording with them in June the still unreleased »The Rage and the Fury: the Music of Edgard Varèse«.

On March the MERIDIAN ART ENSEMBLE performed some FZ pieces at his home in L.A. "The composer worked with us by critiquing the performance, making corrections in the arrangements, and giving suggestions for further interpretation.", Jon Nelson wrote in the liner notes of »Smart Went Crazy« the Cd that followed what was one of the last contacts of FZ with a 'human' ensemble.

In his last year he was also active on other media as always. In March BBC2 broadcasted a 40 minute program which includes one of the last video appearances of the composer during a February soiree with THE CHIEFTAINS, L. Shankar, Terry Bozzio, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson and a trio of Tuvan throat singers. In June he also made a series interviews with Donn Menn, assisted by Matt Groening, for a special magazine jointly published by »Guitar Player« and »Keyboard« which eventually become a 100 pages special issue entitled »Zappa!«. The magazine includes articles by and talks with various persons from Slonimsky to Nagano and Mölich-Zebhauser, and from Warren De Martini to Ansley Dumbar.

"Composer Frank Zappa left for his final tour just before 6 p.m., Saturday, December 4, 1993, and was buried Sunday, December 5, 1993 during a private ceremony attended by the family. He was with his wife Gail and four children, Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva at home in Los Angeles at the time of his death", these were the words of his family.

In the last years the music of Frank Zappa was emotionally richer than ever. With some exceptions, like »Sleep Dirt« or »Outside Now Again« (from »The Perfect Stranger«), it was not so common to find sadness or dramatic tension in his works before »The Yellow Shark«. One of the main features of his work was the pure joy of 'music is the best' sometime expressed through his sharp social commentaries, sometime through the abstract beauty of his guitar solos, sometime through the rhythmic frenzy of compositions like »Moggio«. Some new elements can be found in »The Yellow Shark« and definitively in »Civilization Phaze III«. Compositions like »Outrage at Valdez« (from the former) and »Amnerika« (from both projects, but included only in CPIII), »N-Lite« and »Waffenspiel« (from the latter) are full of dramatic tensions and of new emotional elements. Probably this is due to two different factors. On one side the human suffering for his disease and the awareness of being in the final part of his life led him to a daily and emotionally intense struggle against the disease that would eventually take him away from the joy of making music. His final Synclavier work, »Civilization«, with its wide range of emotional expressions is a clear witness of his last years besides being a summa of all his work and perfectly part of the conceptual continuity of the whole corpus. On the other hand it was only at the end of his career that he found the appropriate media to express such feelings: the ENSEMBLE MODERN and the Synclavier. With some exceptions, rock oriented ensembles were never enough suitable to express emotional elements and, unlike the ENSEMBLE MODERN, other orchestras were never enough close to the composer to let him express himself fully. »The Yellow Shark« represents the beginning of a new era and Zappa and his audience could only experience its amazing dawn.


Frank Zappa, »Instructional Material«, Circular, vol. 3 number 29, September 20, 1971, Burbank (CA, USA).

Frank Zappa with Peter Occhigrosso, The Real Frank Zappa Book, Poseidon Press, New York (NY, USA), 1989.

»Zappa!«, Guitar Player Magazine, Special 1993 issue.

Neil Slaven, Electric Don Quixote, Omnibus Press, London (UK), 1996.

Greg Russo, The Collected History and Improvisations of Frank Zappa, Crossfire Publications, Floral Park (NY, USA), 1998.

Francesco Gentile, 'Ali(e)N. Askin', The Debra Kadabra Magazine, issue 19, July 1998.