“A composer is a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians,” Frank Vincent Zappa, modern master, composer, iconoclast, social critic, filmmaker and equal opportunity offender, once said.
This weekend, Zappa’s music gets the help of musicians who are very much on to the molecules. Leave it to the innovative ensemble concert:nova to present Shut Up and Play the Zappa! featuring chamber pieces by Zappa and his musical mentors, as well as covers of his Rock music, at the 20th Century Theater in Oakley.
It won’t be about yellow snow or valley girls, says concert:nova’s artistic director Ixi Chen. A protean composer who defies categories, Zappa created his own unique distillation of influences — everything from Rhythm and Blues to Jazz to serial, eastern and western Classical forms. By the time Zappa died from prostate cancer in 1993, his work had been recorded by Pierre Boulez, the London Symphony Orchestra (led by Kent Nagano) and Germany’s Ensemble Modern and performed by major American orchestras.
Though the music is beyond category, it’s highly accessible and wildly inventive, with Zappa’s trademark irony and blistering humor never far below the surface.
For artistic guidance, concert:nova turned to Dave McDonnell, a CCM doctoral student, saxophonist and Zappa authority. Both McDonnell and concert:nova cellist Ted Nelson have been Zappa fans since high school.
“He made his own image that didn’t fit any pre-existing mold,” McDonnell says. “He couldn’t be confined.”
“Most of what we’re performing is taken from projects he did before he died, the Yellow Shark concert with Ensemble Modern and his work with Pierre Boulez,” Nelson explains.
“There are also pieces originally done by his many Rock groups that were later arranged for chamber ensembles.”
The program includes “Bebop Tango,” the wildly kinetic “G-Spot Tornado,” “Outrage at Valdez,” “The Perfect Stranger” and “Peaches en Regalia.” There’s no definitive number for how many works are in his catalog; the best estimate is around 1,500. But Zappa took each one seriously, whether it was the orchestral mayhem of Hot Rats or Reuben and the Jets’ surreal Doo Wop.
Zappa viewed composition in architectural terms, along the lines of a balancing act. Like his compositional mentor Edgard Varèse, he used “a system of weights, balances, measured tensions and releases,” he once wrote, comparing his music to “a Calder mobile, a multicolored whatchamacallit dangling in space that has a lot of big blobs of metal connected to pieces of wire, balanced ingeniously against little metal dingleberries on the other end.”
A self-taught musician, Zappa started out as a drummer in R&B bands then switched to guitar. After reading a description of composer Edgard Varèse’s “Ionisations” (“a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds”), Zappa began a lifelong obsession with Varèse’s music, along with that of Anton Webern and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. concert:nova’s program includes Varèse’s “Octandre” and Stravinsky’s “Octet.”
Zappa began composing almost as soon as he started playing music. He wrote for his high school’s orchestra, for films and, of course, for his many bands, including The Mothers of Invention.
From the 1966 Mothers album Freak Out! until his death (and even after), Zappa’s output has been prolific and completely unique. To date, his discography features 91 official albums, including numerous posthumous collections. He maintained tight control over his catalog and recorded material.
“He was a classic Type A control freak when it came to his output,” McDonnell says.
Although arrangements are available for rental (through the venerable music publisher Schott, no less), the Zappa Family Trust has taken over the control freak role, limiting selections, performance practice and, yes, even how Zappa’s iconic mustache is used for promotional purposes.
Chen says the Trust expects the performances to sound as close to the original recordings as possible.
The audience for Sunday’s show should be as eclectic as Zappa’s catalog. His musical odysseys appeal to an ageless sense of irony and imagination.
“He insisted you had to be your own person,” Ted Nelson says. “The geeks love him for that.”
SHUT UP AND PLAY THE ZAPPA! is presented by concert:nova 8 p.m. Sunday at 20th Century Theater. Tickets: concertnova.com.