Frank Zappa’s 80th Birthday – by Rainer Römer (Percussion)

During the anniversary concert ›40 Years Ensemble Modern‹ on December 9, 2020, at the Alte Oper Frankfurt, the last piece, ›Marche Fatale‹ by Helmut Lachenmann, featured our extra large tam-tam on stage. It was Frank Zappa who first wanted this tam-tam, which was why we bought it. For ›Yellow Shark‹ at the end of ›G-Spo-Tornado‹ at the concert on September 17, 1992, also at the Alte Oper Frankfurt. Ever since, it has been known as the Zappa tam-tam.

›Yellow Shark‹ was conducted by Peter Rundel. He had been a violinist in Ensemble Modern. The anniversary concert was conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. He had been a pianist in Ensemble Modern.

Working with Zappa did something to the Ensemble. A great producer said at the party after the 1992 world premiere at the Alte Oper (this time, we couldn’t have one): »The ensemble will never be the same!« – You may interpret that as you like.

We experienced what it means when someone does not feel their work to be work, but work is woven into their life as an attitude; perhaps the two are even identical. In Zappa’s case, I observed that everything happened very slowly, but ceaselessly. There was no stopping. Everything flows and develops.

Frank, you are turning 80; we have turned 40. Half-time tempo, as we say in music. At the time, Udo Wüstendörfer did the sound for our Varèse CD, which Zappa began producing, and he was also the one who enabled our anniversary concert to resound out in the world. We filled the stage of the Alte Oper’s main auditorium to the last square centimetre. The last time that happened was ›Yellow Shark‹ in 1992.

In 1993, when recording Varèse’s ›Désert‹, Zappa asked during rehearsal: »Is it possible to have a stereophonic setup?« Brief irritation ensued, followed by that incomparable Zappa look: »They don’t get it.« But then the group reacted: »Okay.« Ever since, you can experience the sonic space onstage expanding in this work. One side effect of this whole distancing orgy is that we sound different, airier, larger. We are sitting further apart.

Frank Zappa, you had lots of plans. Producing New Music and Rock’n’Roll. That’s what you had offered us. Ali N. Askin orchestrated all that at the time, writing it into the ensemble. This year, we received a hand-written score from Ennio Morricone for our anniversary ceremony. Transparent notation, notes that almost seemed to dissolve. Paul Cannon, our bass player, studied it carefully and made individual parts.

You once asked us: »Have you ever played for 20,000 people?« The answer was: »No.« Today I know what it’s like, but with discerning, patient ears ...