What drew John Cage and Frank Zappa into the same programme was their mutual admiration of Edgard Varèse, at its most striking in their use of percussion. Somehow I feel Cage would have been delighted to be the one out of step with an otherwise perfectly symmetrical programme. Flanking the interval were performances of Varèse’s Ionisation (1929–31).

musikFabrik © Klaus Rudolph
musikFabrik
© Klaus Rudolph

One of the twelve musicians present must have been doubling, as Ionisation was written for thirteen players. Could it have been Ulrich Löffler on piano and siren? Arguably the concert hall’s first discrete piece scored entirely for percussion, this gem was well worth hearing twice. A musico-biographical pun might have been taking place here as Zappa’s mother forbade him a second listening when he brought home a recording after much searching. What struck me particularly was the magical combination of piano and tubular bells. The work’s scientific name might lead many to regard it as serious, but I would say that these musicians felt it as more of a dance piece; several of the centrally placed members were so involved in its rhythms as to be not far off dancing.

Cage’s Credo in US (1942), the first half’s centrepiece, featured two seated percussionists addressing an array of suspended tin cans, ranging in size from the domestic to the industrial. While not “prepared” à la Cage, the piano emitted some ear-catchingly percussive sounds when the pianist’s left hand dampened strings at strategic points. Cage’s beloved indeterminacy kicked in when the volume of an LP being played was raised from zero to just enough to inform the piece without dominating. Touchingly, the music chosen was Stravinsky’s hundred-year-old Rite of Spring, its primitivism matched by the largely pentatonic and unpitched sounds from the other instruments. This piece was paired with Cage’s Seven (1988), whose number comprised flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola and cello. The centrally placed percussionist – literally the keeper of the time – controlled the “time brackets” within which each soloist had freedom to begin, end, repeat etc. their musical “fragments”. With the exception of the piano, these fragments consisted of quiet, sustained sounds and, while the idea behind the piece was interesting and some of the sounds lovely, something of around half the length would have been fine. The audience, most of whom I imagine had come along from the livelier Zappa element, seemed a little restless during this introspective item.

Ensemble musikFabrik’s thrilling arrangements of 1970s Frank Zappa originals framed the programme. A sextet of French horn, two trumpets, trombone, tuba and drums opened with a segued pairing of Big Swifty and t’Mershi Duween. The latter’s intriguing title is the name given to a camel in a story by Zappa’s daughter, Moon Unit. Led from the drums by the ebullient Dirk Rothbrust, these energising arrangements were quirky and imaginative. The replacing of drumsticks with squeaky toys at one point might give some idea of the overall mood. Within this sextet, trombonist Bruce Collings took the main improvised solo while Marco Blaauw and Melvyn Poore engaged in a comedy dialogue for trumpets. Rhythmic playing, articulation and dynamics were as admirably tight as you’d imagine necessary to survive Zappa’s demanding music.

The skill, energy and personnel on show in the sextet arrangements returned fourfold to finish the show. An oboe, a bassoon, a second violin and a double bass joined those already seen and heard. Centre stage was a rhythm section of guitar, keyboards, bass guitar and drums. In this set, most of the improvising was done by Frank Wingold (guitar), Ulrich Löffler (keyboard), and Christopher Brandt (bass guitar) and Rothbrust. There was also an astonishing tuned percussion solo by Johannes Fischer.

Three seamless versions of The Black Page opened this final set. The polyrhythmic drum feature original was followed by no. 1, a version including pitched instruments, and then no. 2, humorously referred to as the “Edinburgh Festival Disco Version”.

Guitarist Frank Wingold stepped ably into Zappa’s big shoes with a suitably frenzied solo in RDNZL, from the as-yet unstaged sci-fi rock opera, Hunchentoot. The joyously delivered Echidna’s Arf (Of You) highlighted a favourite Zappa compositional trademark: frenetic unison passages where even the drummer(s) join in the singular rhythm. Hot on the heels of this came Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing? which featured some outstanding drumming by Rothbrust. Deviating from Zappa’s recording where the audience are petitioned to “watch Ruth”, we were advised to keep an eye on the string section who then delighted with a cheery pizzicato section. The happy audience response was rewarded with Peaches en Regalia. I thoroughly enjoyed all the Zappa items and feel that my subsequent Zappa Spotifying would delight musikFabrik.

****1