The Rip Post                                Riposte Archive


riposte2.jpg (10253 bytes)

Jan. 16, 2008

"There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats." - Albert Schweitzer.

          Maggie the Cat could not be more different from her brother, Winky. She is a patchwork chaos of colors and patterns, he striped and sandy. She is unobtrusive, shy, undemanding; he swaggers around the place in search of food, catnip, trouble. She sleeps all day. He prowls all day. Her visits to the catbox are olfactorily incidental, his require one to come running with a scoop, firing up fans and air conditioning, throwing opening windows, yelling “My GOD!”
          Maggie is happy to eat, sleep in the sun, chase paper balls down the hall, and once or twice a day have her head scratched extensively. Winky is a study in exasperation. He is George Bailey stuck in this one-horse town. His favorite pastime is to be spun around at high speed in an office chair until he is so dizzy that his head keeps moving from side to side after the chair stops. He jumps six feet effortlessly. If he were human, he’d be ski-flying.
          Maggie and Winky never, ever groom one another, let alone sleep together. Not since they were spayed and neutered. “Get two cats---that way they take care of each other.” Yeah, sure. If I pick Winky up and hold his front legs down, and push his head into Maggie’s face with the entreaty, “Give Winky a bath,” the DNA clicks and she will lick his ears and neck and face for a minute. Until he violently wriggles free from this indignity.
          Other than that, both come individually to me for their various needs and diversion.
          Cat Man Do.
          Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the L.A. Philharmonic just ended a nearly 38-year drought of playing the music of Frank Zappa.
          You wouldn’t know this from reading the L.A. Times review.
          The Phil performed “Dupree’s Paradise,” a sort of serio-comic mini-tone poem inspired by Zappa’s observations of early morning patrons of a bar in 1964 Watts---part of the orchestra’s “Concrete Frequency” program of modern music evocative of "urban landscapes." The Jan. 5 and 6 concerts marked the premiere LAPO performance of the work.
          The last time the L.A. Philharmonic ventured anything of Zappa’s, I think, was the notorious “200 Motels” collaboration of 1970 at Pauley Pavilion, gamely taken on by Zubin Mehta. Orchestra members burped, grunted, shuffled their feet, and threw confetti as part of the score. Frank’s cue, “Hit it, Zubin,” still hangs in the air.
          L.A. Times music critic Mark Swed did not note this rather amazing turn of events in his Jan. 7 review of the concert, which also included works by Copland, Crumb, and Varese. He did not mention the dry spell, or the LAPO premiere. But then, Swed has never written, to my knowledge, about the fact that the Phil has ignored this L.A. composer for 37 years. Never mind that many of Zappa’s orchestral works have been conducted and recorded by Kent Nagano, Pierre Boulez, Ensemble Modern, and performed by orchestras around the world.
          After all, this is Frank Zappa we’re talking about, not Arnold Schoenberg, or some trendy Ivy League-educated composer working from a commission. This is the man who employs “Louie Louie” as a kind of leitmotiv pervading his oeuvre, whether rock, jazz, or orchestral. He of “Valley Girl” and “Jewish Princess” fame. Still, it’s decidedly odd, these omissions---as Mark Swed is nothing if not a cantankerous champion of modern music, and a relentless “homer” whose nearly hysterical shilling for Disney Hall actually (some say) helped get the place built.
          What’s more, not only did Swed make no mention of Zappa’s long, conspicuous absence from LAPO programs, but he took the occasion to trivialize “Dupree’s Paradise.” While allowing that it is "diverting" (quite a compliment!), the critic shrugged off the piece as a  “doodle,” “typically cynical,” and the “tamest” music on the program. Joining in this coy diminution was pre-concert lecturer Robert Fink, associate professor of musicology at UCLA, who simply dismissed “Dupree’s” as the “joker” of the concert.
          Mm-hm. And the trombone, as we all know from grade school, is “the clown of the orchestra!”
          Even in his unmarked plot at the Westwood Cemetery, poor ol’ Frank can’t get no respect in his hometown. Poetic that he’s buried near Rodney Dangerfield.

election poem '08 HERE

          Maggie is the Linus of my live cat comic strip. That is, she is seldom separated from her blanket. She wrestles and tussles with it, kneads it, bites it, drags it, and eventually pokes her head under and crawls beneath it.
          Where she remains. Indefinitely. If it were not for eating and visiting the cat box, she would live under a blanket.
          Now, it’s true that Maggie has been badly traumatized by Winky’s bullying, and this has shaped her personality. She is a fraidy-cat. Well, they both are, despite Winky’s husky bravado. But Maggie is one skittish kitty. If you reach out to pet her, she is gone in a streak of green-eyed calico.
          I often wonder what she might have been like, growing up without harassment, but then, I wonder that about myself, too.
          “Dupree’s Paradise” a “doodle?” This would suggest something sort of dashed off while musing, perhaps half-heartedly, certainly not with any serious intent. Hmm.
          Why Swed chose to take this swipe at “Dupree’s”---which is nothing if not complicated and difficult to perform---is unknown. What is known is that Zappa took his composing seriously. Even---maybe especially---his compositions which were written with a touch of satire, burlesque, as was the case with “Dupree’s.”
          But let the composer explain his own methods:
          "In my compositions," he wrote in The Real Frank Zappa Book, "I employ a system of weights, balances, measured tensions and releases---in some ways similar to Varese's aesthetic. The similarities are best illustrated by comparison to a Calder mobile: a multicolored whatchamacallit dangling in space, that has big blobs of metal connected to pieces of wire, balanced ingeniously against little metal dingleberries on the other end. Varese knew Calder, and was fascinated by these creations.
          "So, in my case, I say: A large mass of any material will 'balance' a smaller, denser mass of any material, according to the length of the gizmo it's dangling on, and the 'balance point' chosen to facilitate the danglement."
          Sound like “doodling” to you?
          Consider this short description of “Dupree’s” from my own program notes for a Florida Orchestra performance of the eight-minute piece:
          "'Dupree's Paradise’ is a kind of short suite, built around the insistent and exuberant eight-note theme heard at the start, later deconstructed, then recapitulated. On the way, the listener encounters percolating, almost chaotic woodwind passages, somewhat mawkish progressions in the horns, clarion piano outbursts, and a good sense of the push-and-pull, ‘weights and measures’ aspect described earlier."
          The orchestration seems hardly tossed-off: two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bas clarinet, bassoon, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, bass drums, bells, castanets, chimes, cymbals, Chinese cymbals, gong, maracas, marimba, piccolo snare drum, pop gun, slapstick, snare drum, tam-tam, vibraphone, woodblock, xylophone, harp, two pianos, celesta, strings.
           Doodle-doo-doo, Mr. Swed.
          Poor Maggie. First her right to have kittens has been deprived (spaying), and now an impulse developed over millions of years of evolution has been stunted: hunting. What, after all, is there to stalk inside a condo other than the occasional fly, termite, unsuspecting blanket?
          It’s true there are squirrels and rats outside, skittering impolitely across balconies and power lines at night, but Maggie has as much chance of sneaking up on these animals as I have. The squirrels enjoy taunting her, I notice, or perhaps they are just trying to make contact with another species. Either way, she would rather eat them.
          But she has compensated for this loss in the strangest way.
The back balcony contains several trees in pots, including two plumerias that give forth with ridiculously sweet and beautiful blossoms in summer. Maggie is not interested in the blossoms. But she has decided that the great, spreading leaves of the plumeria are an affront, if not her mortal enemy.
          Several times a day, I find her crouched on the “cat tree” outside, eyeing the evil leaves, making that stuttery “ack-ack” noise that some cats make when they are excited by potential quarry. How dare these leaves just spread out, languidly, arrogantly, on her turf! She balances precariously on the edges of the pots, stretches way, way up till she’s long and cheetah-like, and manages to bat the leaves free, one at a time, without falling off the balcony. Looks like she’s wearing toe-shoes.
          Then she parades through the house proudly, quarry in her teeth, and murders it in the hallway.
          As criticisms of Frank Zappa go, Swed’s “cynical” is hilarious for its mildness.
          Yet it is well in keeping with the historic need on the part of critics to haughtily castigate Zappa’s work as “mean-spirited,” “juvenile,” etc. (Yawn.) “Everything most people know about me comes from a poster of me sitting on a toilet,” was one of Zappa’s famous lines (or something close to that), and he was right---that did set a rather prejudicial tone, long ago. Well, what can you say? Amerryguns like their satire and irony safe and broad and stupid, if they like it at all. And most don’t. Frank touched on this in many a lyric. Here’s one:
          "The Po-jama people are boring me to pieces/ Feel like I am wasting my time/ They all got flannel up and down ‘em/ A little trap door back around ‘em/ And some cozy little footies on their minds. . ."
          Mark Swed, are your footies showing? You call “Dupree’s Paradise” cynical. Why? I smell a politically correct (hot) rat here. . .Let’s read the composer’s account of “Dupree’s” inspiration:
          "Dupree's Paradise is about a bar on Avalon Boulevard in Watts at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday in 1964, during the early morning jam session. For about seven minutes, the customers (winos, musicians, degenerates and policemen) do the things that set them apart from the rest of society."
          Correct me if I am hallucinating, but I think I detect the presence here of. . .humor. (A quality that is often lost on the humorless.) And if you listen to this music, you will also hear. . .humor! “Dupree’s” is a winking, wry, mordant, goofy depiction of the stumblebum scene Zappa witnessed. The principal theme sounds like a sort of Hollywood overture filtered through Stravinsky, with ADD. Fabulous cheapness.
          Cynical? Let’s examine the key word in the composer’s description of this music:
          Uh-oh, that means that the piece is probably, judging by the locale, somewhat inspired by. . .black people! Uh-oh! And the music isn’t. . .isn’t. . .flattering. . .sympathetic! Let alone a sober essay redolent with guilt, tragedy, compassion, heavy-handed condemnation of racial and economic inequality, etc. You know, atonal ugliness tinged with a little blues sax poking through. Nope, no grand Copland-esque humanitarian exaltation here! Social commentary? Har. This is Fanfare for the Common Miscreant. (The Phil, by the way, preceded “Dupree’s” with Copland’s grandiose illustration of a film made for the 1939 World’s Fair, “The City.” Which was easily, contrary to Swed’s assertion, the “tamest” music on the program.)
          In other words, “Dupree’s” is not quite. . .politically correct.
          I have to wonder if Swed wrote unfavorably, at least in part, out of concern for appearing politically incorrect. Endorsing a piece of music that mocks a neighborhood that happens to be black---not because it is black---could get the P.C. Nazis on your case. Never mind that the scene involved (probably white) cops. Never mind that Zappa employed black musicians all his life.
          Or maybe Swed just found the subject matter less than appropriate---harrumph!---for “serious” music.
          Winky the criminal cat is quite puzzled by his sister’s need to capture and kill the large plumeria leaves. But he is puzzled by a great many things, including why he cannot eat from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to sleep. I share that particular bafflement.
          Winky stares intently, green eyes big and round, as Maggie toys with the leaves, then abandons them for dead when they don’t fight back. Stare as he might, no light of understanding ever comes into his eyes. His sister is obviously mad.
          Another thing Winky does not comprehend is exactly what is happening when the office chair goes round and round with him on it. He seems to think that the chair is alive, as he sometimes sinks his fangs and claws into it. But for the most part, he either stares up at the ceiling or watches the room go round and round, highly entertained, as I spin the thing.
          Then he gets up and promptly walks into walls.
          Next stop: “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”
          As to the performance itself, well, the L.A. Phil under the marvelous guest conductor David Robertson dispatched        “Dupree’s” with exactitude and adroitness. This was a studious, respectful, taut rendition, carefully executed, with great attention paid to dynamics and transparency. Zappa, a stickler---almost fiendishly so---for exactness of performance, would have enjoyed it, especially in the context of the detail-revealing Disney Hall acoustics.
          Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony (and runner-up choice to new LAPO conductor Gustavo Dudamel) took a user-unfriendly program that also included the elegant abstractions of George Crumb (“A Haunted Landscape”) and Varese’s riotous “Rite of Spring” semi-ripoff, “Ameriques,” and made it affecting (the former) and great fun (the latter.) Crumb’s piece, a spacious study in texture and quiet, proved to be surprisingly moving, at least for this listener. (Robertson’s comparing it to an Edward Hopper painting was apt.) Silly arguments that tonality is the reserve of poetry should be stilled by this ravishing piece. Beauty is beauty.
          “Ameriques,” aside from its obvious cribbing of Stravinksy, is noteworthy for sheer mad scientist nuttiness. Imagine an orchestra trying to play blindfolded while in the throes of advanced rabies, and you get the flavor of things. True, you could call this a sort of early musique concrete, as it was meant to conjure the mighty sounds and machinations of New York City. (And succeeds.) But there should be a category for Varese alone: Musique Noisette.
          Well, there are themes, sort of, and rhythms (think: Khatchaturian’s “Saber Dance” played very badly, by drunken giants), and just lots and lots of very wonderful, thrillingly loud, very elaborate, mountainous. . .noise-making. (Listen here.) I haven’t had as much fun experiencing musicians at work (the percussion section alone was sixteen-instruments strong, including a siren and “lion’s roar”) since the better “drums and space" jams of the Grateful Dead. Small wonder that teenaged Zappa was inspired to write for orchestra by Varese’s overwhelming, madcap music. This piece really should be part of the standard repertory.
          But being a Zappa fan, I had gone to the concert primarily to hear “Dupree’s Paradise,” and it was lovely to encounter orchestral Zappa, at last, in an acoustically pristine concert hall. No, Mr. Swed, this is not the composer’s masterpiece, but it is perfectly rewarding listening. And while hearing his music so well realized by the LAPO was a great treat---I must also point out a drawback to Robertson’s nothing-if-not-serious rendering of this um, “doodle.”
          No eyebrows.
          The composer had his own musical lexicon, and “eyebrows” was his shorthand, more or less, for “attitude.” “Dupree’s Paradise” is droll, rollicking, drunken, sardonic, cockeyed, and funny---or at least it is supposed to come across that way. I’ll bet that these qualities were intelligible only to the cadre of Zappa fans sprinkled throughout Disney Hall---one of whom expressed disappointment to me that the work was so “dry.”
          True. As “fine” as the performance was, it had no eyebrows (or maybe tiny, tweezed eyebrows)---and therefore was not very competitive with the rousing, mirthful, boisterous rendering last year by the UCLA Philharmonia under Neal Stulberg. To use an obnoxious trendoid-ism, those UCLA kids and their conductor really “got it.”
          Well, maybe next time, LAPO. Perhaps try playing “G-Spot Tornado.” Comes with its own eyebrows.
          Gotta go. Winky has just visited the box. My GOD!

* "Music and Cats" is a trademarked term.

                                             BACK TO PAGE ONE

© 2008 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.