Haas, Aspen Music Fest percussion take on Zappa

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Frank Zappa had a ritual for auditioning drummers for his band. Zappa would present the drummer with the score for his solo piece, “The Black Page,” then watch the reaction.

“They’d go, ‘I can’t read this piece,’ and Zappa would say, ‘OK, then you can’t be in my band. See you,'” Jonathan Haas, the director of the Aspen Music Festival’s percussion department, said. “It separated the wheat from the chaff.”

Zappa is no longer passing judgment on musicians, at least not on this earth. The guitarist and composer died in 1993. But his music lives on to torment, and at Monday’s Aspen Percussion Ensemble concert at Harris Hall, a high school student named Matt Shuman tries to pass the “Black Page” test.

“I asked who wants to play it, and one hand went up,” Haas said of Shuman, who will play the drum set, while his fellow students play the melody parts.

Haas knows first-hand how demanding Zappa could be, in his music and in his personal relations. In 1984, Haas wrote to the composer, using an address on the back of a record album released by Zappa’s Barfko-Swill label. Zappa called Aspen, where Haas was spending his first year as a member of the Music School faculty. Haas explained that he was interested in programming “The Black Page 2,” Zappa’s arrangement of the piece that included melody as well as solo drum.

“Zappa said, ‘I know what you want – to play a piece of my music, put it on a program with other, terrible pieces, and get people to see my one piece,'” Haas recalled.

In fact, the plan was to pair “The Black Page” with “Deserts,” by Edgard Varese, one of Zappa’s significant influences. Haas pointed out that the two works had a similar structure of alternating instrumental and electronic movements. Zappa liked the juxtaposition.

Still, nearly a decade went by before Zappa allowed the music to hit the stage. “He had given up on musicians. He thought they were finicky and didn’t always play his music well,” Haas explained, adding that Zappa had a period, including the 1986 album “Jazz From Hell,” where he used the synclavier, a synthesizer, over live musicians.

Finally, Zappa gave the go-ahead for Haas’ arrangement of “The Black Page,” and Haas produced a concert at Avery Fisher Hall that required a massive sound system borrowed from Studio 54. The director of the venue, part of Lincoln Center, was skeptical about the draw, until he saw lines of people down the avenue. “He said, ‘Where did all these people come from,'” Haas recalled, saying it was one of the best compliments he has received. “We could have done a week of shows.”

Haas is likewise pleased to have received permission to perform Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat.” It is the only all-percussion arrangement of a Stravinsky composition permitted by the Stravinsky Foundation. Haas performed it this past spring in New York University’s Percussion Theatre Arts program; Monday will mark just the second performance.

Aside from the all-drum musical arrangement, the piece features a libretto by Kurt Vonnegut, replacing the original libretto by Ramuz, about a soldier’s dealings with the devil. Vonnegut’s words tell of Eddie Slovik, a World War II soldier who became the first American executed for desertion since the Civil War.

“It’s a new look at a piece that’s done a million times a year,” Haas said.

Rounding out the program are works by Takemitsu, Cage and Manfred Menke.

Takemitsu’s “Rain Tree” includes a significant lighting element. “It’s a trio – but almost a quartet, because the lighting guy has to be like a drummer,” Haas, who did the U.S. premiere of the piece 28 years ago in New York.

Cage’s “First Construction (in Metal)” was previously played in Aspen, at a private concert for the construction workers who built the Benedict Music Tent a decade ago. The Percussion Ensemble wore hard hats for the performance, and used scraps from the construction project, including sheet metal and iron girders, as instruments.

Haas is dedicating Menke’s “Kitchen Music” to Aspen’s restaurants, chefs and kitchen workers. The piece is for a quartet, all playing wooden mixing spoons.

“Part of the orders from the Music Festival were to create a concert in which we did not have to bring out the kitchen sink,” Haas said. “So this is the most minimal percussion piece we could do. It’s the maximum amount of music you can make with the minimal number of instruments. And it’s a riot. It’s a chef’s dream come true.”


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