Nagano On Conducting Zappa

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By Dan Forte
Mix, June 1983


Nagano 1983-06.jpg

In between his duties as assistant conductor of the Oakland Symphony, music director of the Berkeley Symphony and the Oakland Youth Orchestra, and conductor of the Oakland Ballet Orchestra, Kent Nagano somehow found the time to go to England and conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in a program of Frank Zappa's music. Here are some comments on the experience:

One of my big interests is new music. But not just any new music; it has to be of quality sufficient enough to enter into traditional repertoire. I'm not interested at all in experimental music or avant-garde music; I'm interested in new music that already has the bugs worked out of it and is a highly refined form of art. When I heard that Frank Zappa had been commissioned to write some pieces for Pierre Boulez, I was really curious, because that's one of the biggest honors a composer can possibly get – to have Boulez ask you to write a piece for his ensemble.

So I contacted Frank's management and met with him backstage when he played the Berkeley Community Theater, late in 1981. He showed me a score and said, "This is what I do." So I sat there and looked at it, and it was just an amazing score. It was not some thing that I could just sit and casually glance over. Very, very sophisticated stuff; I couldn't even hear it – I had to take it home and look at it at the piano. He let me borrow it to study and gave me a couple of other ones. It took me a long time just to get through it. Bear in mind, I'm one of those overly educated erudite jerks – heavy theory background. I was very excited by it. For someone like me, who peruses – without exaggeration – maybe 50 or 60 brand new scores a year, it was so refreshing to see a very finely crafted score like that. So I called Frank and explained that I'd like to perform the piece. His answer, which now I realize is typical but at the time sort of took me aback, was, "What makes you think you can play the piece?"

We had a meeting about it, but the main issue was being able to pull together enough rehearsal time to do it properly, which is a very expensive venture. The music is so difficult it requires maybe five times the normal amount of rehearsal, so if you're working with a union orchestra it means big dollars. But then Frank called me with the invitation to go to London.

The biggest obstacle to Frank's music entering into standard repertoire is the fact that it demands a technique that is not normally required of your average symphonic musician. That's not to say that they can't play it, but the technique involved is way ahead of its time; 30 years down the road, orchestral musicians will have that technique.

The composition itself uses very conservative elements, in terms of the basic constructs that go into building the piece. The form is identifiable and traces back through music history; there's nothing that radical about the harmonies – he uses the 12-tone scale in his own particular mode that he's invented. The meter sometimes is very sophisticated, but for the most part there's nothing really new there for symphonic players. But what is new for them – what I consider almost pioneering in symphonic writing – is his use of what are called "irrational" rhythms. An example would be 7 against 6, 8 against 3, 17 against 2, 9 against 2. They're just a very common part of Frank's language. When you have maybe 32 people playing the same rhythm in unison, you have to sit there and figure out how to do it precisely. That kind of discipline, I think, will have very far-reaching effects.

I'm very committed as a proponent of new music to Frank's orchestral literature, because of the very high quality of the techniques that went into writing the scores. There's no virtuosity for virtuosity's sake; there are no effects for their own sake. This is not fusion in any way; this is totally uncompromised symphonic writing, written within that tradition. And built into it are so many dimensions that every time you go back and work on a piece you see a new level of depth that you weren't able to see before – which is one aspect of the great works. Every time you hear the Mozart Jupiter, if you're a perceptive and sensitive person, you hear something that you hadn't really heard before. Another aspect of great works of art is that people of all levels of sophistication can hear it and relate to it on some level; from a person who only knows rock music and baseball to an overly educated, scholastic, erudite jerk, anyone can be moved in some way. And Frank's music passes those two tests.