Born in Baltimore, Frank Zappa moved to California with his family in 1950. He played drums and guitar in high school bands and became focused on composing and new audio techniques. He had a strong interest in contemporary composers, particularly Edgard Varèse. “Varèse’s outlaw persona, coupled with the radical constructivism of his music, provided the perfect model for Zappa, who himself played the role of outlaw, angry individualist, and musical radical within the context of American pop music,” John Adams wrote in Hallelujah Junction.
Zappa’s first album with his band the Mothers of Invention was Freak Out!, released in 1966. He worked in an eclectic mix of styles and genres, and his work with classical ensembles included a locally notorious performance of music from his 200 Motels film in May 1970, with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic joining Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. He ultimately releasing nearly 60 albums before he died of prostate cancer, followed by another 20-some posthumous albums.
The last album released while he was still alive was The Yellow Shark, a live recording created from seven concerts given by the Ensemble Modern in Europe in September 1992. The title came from a sculpture of a fish made from a surfboard by Los Angeles artist Mark Beam, who gave it anonymously to Zappa as a Christmas present in 1988. When the Ensemble Modern manager saw the sculpture during meetings at Zappa’s house, he became entranced with the image. “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 sounds really dorky in English,” Zappa recalled in the Yellow Shark liner notes. “I said, ‘we’ll call the evening The Yellow Shark’.”
The project involved a mix of new works and arrangements of older works, 18 pieces for a wide range of ensembles. The German composer Ali Askin (b. 1962) was Zappa’s assistant on the project, arranging much of the music.
“The Dog Breath Variations / Uncle Meat” is one of the older pieces, dating back to the 1969 Mothers of Invention double album Uncle Meat (also the soundtrack for a Zappa film released on video in 1987). In their Yellow Shark versions for a substantial chamber orchestra, the raucously romping, irregularly metered variations slam directly into the demented, often incongruously waltz-like “Uncle Meat.”
“The Girl in the Magnesium Dress” is a dance piece in the “preposterously non-modern” style, according to the composer. Zappa originally created it on the Synclavier (an early synthesizer/sampler) for Pierre Boulez’ 1984 Zappa disc The Perfect Stranger, where the Synclavier was billed as The Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort (and the recording done at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, Zappa’s parody of Boulez’ IRCAM). Zappa considered this piece – like many of his Synclavier works – virtually unplayable by humans, with its fiercely syncopated, densely layered polyphony. There is a story about “a girl who hates men and kills them with her special dress,” but then Zappa also cautions the reader that “all material contained herein is for entertainment purposes only, and should not be confused with any other form of artistic expression.”
The string quintet “Questi Cazzi di Piccione” is one of the pieces newly composed for the Yellow Shark performances. In its fleet fluttering – the title is a rude reference to pigeons – the piece calls for almost every type of idiomatic string technique and articulation, plus some not-so-idiomatic tappings.
The piano duet “Ruth Is Sleeping” is another Yellow Shark original, arranged for piano four-hands but premiered on two pianos. An exercise in fastidiously controlled touch and tempo, it sounds like some of Conlon Nancarrow’s punched piano roll works.
“G-Spot Tornado” is another Synclavier piece, first appearing on Zappa’s 1986 album Jazz from Hell. “With his snarling, potty-mouthed titles and song lyrics he had a gift for appealing to the eternal six-year-old in all of us,” Adams wrote. “’Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,’ ‘Alien Orifice,’ ‘G-Spot Tornado’ were musically interesting enough to beg multiple listenings, more at least than most of what was being produced at the time.” A high-energy, insistently driven piece, “G-Spot Tornado” closed the Yellow Shark concerts, complete with two dancers (and Zappa himself conducting for the first concert of the series).