music, technology & life in pasadena, california

The Girl in the Magnesium Dress

When I received the email asking if I’d like to participate in the LA Philharmonic’s Left Coast/West Coast Festival, curated by composer John Adams, I immediately said yes. I’ve written here before about my experiences playing John’s music and it is fun, challenging, sometimes terrifying but always incredibly rewarding. New music can be like that, walking through the ring of fire to prove to ourselves that we’re still alive and kicking.

Turns out John himself would be conducting five pieces from Frank Zappa’s The Yellow Shark, a collection of music Zappa had hiding in his Synclavier and realized late in life for Pierre Boulez and the Germany-based Ensemble Moderne. Some of it is pure Zappa, a faithful orchestral rendering of his trademark multi-time-signature and syncopated antics that he often used as episodic interludes between guitar solos or other comedic lyrics. Others inhabit a world that Frank was indelibly drawn to, the world of Varese and the early avant-gardists and the late ones as well, culminating in the crystalline order of Pierre Boulez. As John Adams writes in his blog (and if you haven’t discovered it yet, it’s a must-read…you can find it here):

Ah, but the timbres are super—all dazzling, hard-edged and brilliant. The ensemble for “The Girl” is pure magnesium. Total Pierre. Check out that cimbalom. And a mandolin and classical geetar! Un éclat of shattering crystal. A regular explosante-fixe in a glass factory.

Ah yes…The Girl in the Magnesium Dress. It seemed more like molybdenum to me, denser than dense, almost impenetrable in spots, but there also were islands of pure coherency, a near-miss and then, near-bliss. An attempt to fuse chaos onto a 32nd note grid and thereby tame the quark, but the quark laughs at such foolish behavior and bites you on the ass for trying. At least that’s what my mandolin part was like.

I met Frank Zappa in Buffalo, NY many years ago, before I moved west. He had hired the Buffalo Philharmonic to rehearse some orchestral music he’d been writing. A friend in orchestra management invited me to hang out in the hall and listen. After the rehearsal I ran across Frank backstage, sitting on an Anvil road case and having a smoke all by himself. I struck up a conversation that centered on the possibility of him writing for the guitar in an orchestral setting, and he mentioned that several of the afternoon’s pieces did indeed have parts but weren’t with him that day. We chatted about a mutual friend who had been playing in his band and Frank relished telling me more than a few Vinny Colaiuta stories. I invited him to dinner and he declined because he was flying out immediately after the rehearsal. That was the extent of my 15 minutes with Frank Zappa, never to be forgotten.

Meanwhile, back in LA, we had to rehearse this stuff, after everyone had already put in a bazillion hours on their own. The fact that the first rehearsal was two days after Thanksgiving meant that a lot of shedding and polishing was going to be happening during a busy, busy time.

The first thing John said at the rehearsal was, “Thank you so much for being here. Thank you for giving up your Thanksgiving.” We laughed a knowing laugh since we all knew how close to the truth it was, but we were ready for anything because, my God, when someone acknowledges a simple fact like that, you will go to the ends of the earth for him.

I imagined turkey roasting to the sounds of a violinist pizzing and plucking, smacking the instrument with an open hand, a quick arco gesture and returning to more percussive abuse. Questi Cazzi di Piccione (find your own Google translator cuz I ain’t writing it here, buddy) for string quintet was brilliantly played and to tell the truth, sounded damn near perfect at first run-through.

Ruth Is Sleeping, a four-hands piano piece was also brilliantly performed by Joanne Pearce Martin (LA Phil principal) and Vicki Ray (principal everywhere else). I heard a lot of stories about their practice sessions together for this piece and that’s part of the fun and excitement of being involved in something like this. They’re war stories, really, and the bonds they create translate to the commitment and performance of the music. I love the smell of 32nd notes over the barline of a compound meter in the morning. That kind of thing.

Uncle Meat/The Dog Breath Variations was pure Zappa writ large with an expanded ensemble. The mellifluously titled G-Spot Tornado was a manic romp/trance dance full of fractured energy, especially when Mark Watters’ baritone sax literally burst through the seams of the orchestra to announce its presence. John had wanted to play this one “as fast as we can play it, and then one notch more,” and he got his chance when four or five bows and curtain calls later from a hopped-up new music audience on their feet in Walt Disney Concert Hall, he turned to us and said, “Let’s do it again!”


Note: More pieces on new music and John Adams from this blog can be found here:

A Short Ride with John Adams
New Music, John Adams & Boulez
From Mahler to Adams
Preparing for Boulez, Part 1
Preparing for Boulez, Part 2
Preparing for Boulez, Part 3
Preparing for Boulez, Part 4

December 4, 2009 | Link to this entry


Paul Viapiano is a guitarist working in film, television and live performance based in sunny Pasadena, California.

You can email me here.

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