The day Jonathan Haas arrived on campus to join the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival and School 30 summers ago, he had a memorable message waiting for him in the administration building.
“Somebody said, ‘Frank Zappa just called for you’,” Haas said. “I thought this was a joke.”
Haas had written a letter to the rock-music innovator and prolific composer after hearing his album “The Perfect Stranger” — a collaboration with the French conductor Pierre Boulez. Haas had offered to put together a contemporary ensemble arrangement of Zappa’s work for a concert in New York City. Zappa was unconvinced of the notion, Haas found, when he returned Zappa’s call.
“I know what you want to do,” Zappa said. “You want to produce a concert and play one of my pieces and have a bunch of contemporary music composers and lots of people will be coming because of my one piece and it absolutely won’t happen!”
Haas then explained that he felt “The Perfect Stranger” was written in response to Edgar Varese’s “Deserts,” because of its blend of instrumentals and electronics, and that he wanted to play the pieces together.
“Then there was silence on the phone,” Haas said. “’Mr. Zappa, are you there?’ And he said, ‘That’s a very good idea Mr. Haas, I think we should do it.’”
Thus began a collaboration and professional friendship that continued through Zappa’s death from prostate cancer in late 1993. Months earlier, Zappa and Haas finally had staged the Varese-Zappa concert at Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan, New York. Haas also played percussion on 1993’s “Zappa’s Universe” with Zappa’s bandmates, taking over for longtime Zappa percussionist Ed Mann after he and Zappa had a falling out. Haas lobbied Zappa to write him a timpani concerto, which Zappa was unable to undertake due to his illness (Philip Glass proved a suitable second choice).
Haas also put together a percussion ensemble of Zappa’s “The Black Page.”
“I thought since percussion was such an important and integral part of his rock band, why not throw the nets out a little bit further?” Haas said. “He looked at my arrangement and said, ‘Yes, I approve this.’”
That arrangement, along with several others, and pieces by Varese, will be center stage at Belly Up tonight, with a tribute to Zappa performed by the Music Festival and School’s Percussion Ensemble, of which Haas is director.
The show will include Varese’s “Ionization,” along with Zappa’s “The Black Page,” “RDNZL,” “We Are Not Alone,” “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” “Regyptian Strut,” “G-Spot Tornado,” and “Peaches En Regalia.”
This spring, Haas learned that another composer, Mike Myers, also had collaborated with Zappa on percussion ensembles. The Belly Up concert will include Myers’ arrangements, along with those by Haas, alongside the Varese.
“You’ve gotta have Varese if you have Zappa, and I think Frank would have agreed,” said Haas, adding, “Though, I think if you put any other composer’s piece on, he’d be very unhappy.”
Haas’ ensemble for the performance includes 19 musicians in all, playing five marimbas, two timpani sets, two xylophones, two vibraphones, two glockenspiels, one drum kit “and a million percussion instruments.” It’ll be a tight squeeze on the music club’s stage. To prepare, the ensemble has been practicing in a marked-off space of the Belly Up stage dimensions in the practice room at the Music School’s percussion building.
Haas’ students came to Aspen early for the summer season to begin practicing the pieces in the hopes of meeting Zappa’s notoriously high standards for musicianship.
Between pieces tonight, actor David Ledingham will perform Zappa monologues, excerpted from interviews and from Zappa’s incisive testimony at the 1985 U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings on music censorship.
“For people who don’t know what Frank Zappa was all about, it’ll ground it,” Haas said. “And for Zappa fans it’ll just be trip through nostalgia.”
Long before their collaborations, Haas, at age 13, saw Zappa perform with the Mothers of Invention at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago. He recalled seeing drummer Ainsley Duncan and Zappa’s band running up and down the aisles.
“Nobody had any idea what was going on, and I said, ‘This is the greatest thing in the world. I want to do this.’”
Haas, who founded the percussion ensemble with performances at the Wheeler Opera House in the mid-80s that were off the official Music Festival calendar, also came here as a student for three summers in the ’70s.
The Zappa performance comes in addition to the percussion ensemble’s Harris Hall concert on Aug. 4. His students were eager to put in the extra effort for the chance to play Zappa, Haas said.
“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” he said, “but it means they’re getting their money’s worth. When I was a student here you could never give me enough parts and enough music to satisfy my desire for the experience. So I assume these students have that same spirit, so let’s do a lot of music.”
Zappa’s chamber-music compositions number over one-thousand, Haas noted — an output equal to Mozart’s. Along with continuing Zappa’s compositional legacy with tonight’s performance, Haas is championing an opera and a Broadway musical, both written by Zappa but never produced, to get an audience someday.
Zappa deserves a place in the classical tradition beside Varese, Haas argues.
“There are naysayers, who say, ‘Well, this isn’t on the level of Schoenberg or somebody like that,’” he said. “But he wasn’t trying to be any of those composers. Varese was a great iconoclast, and he saw himself the same way. Tonality was really important to him. He wrote some of the great melodies.”
Tonight’s performance is the first at Belly Up for the Music Festival. Haas said he was inspired to bring the percussion ensemble to the club last summer, when he saw the Michael Jackson tribute, Foreverland, led by Music Festival vice president of development Alex Brose, in the club.
Brose will join the ensemble at tomorrow’s show to sing “The Idiot Bastard Son.”