Joel Thome by Suzanne McElfresh

BOMB 48 Summer 1994
048 Summer 1994
Joel Thome 01

Joel Thome.

Throughout his career, Joel Thome has been widely acclaimed as a composer and conductor of classical and contemporary orchestral music. His own compositions have been innovative, as evidenced by Time Spans, a 1974 work incorporating text from Finnegan’s Wake and radio signals from space; and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Savitri Traveller of the Worlds, which utilizes orchestra, pre-Colombian instruments, children’s band and chorus, short-wave radio, sound sculpture, and real-time electronic sound modification, among other elements. As a conductor, Thome has led major symphonies worldwide; interpreted the works of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Edgard Varese, Pierre Boulez, and George Crumb; premiered hundreds of new works; and, since 1965, directed an ensemble—known since 1977 as Orchestra of Our Time—dedicated to performing contemporary orchestral works.

Thome and Frank Zappa met in 1980 through their involvement in a Varese tribute. They discovered a shared musical and artistic philosophy and continued to work together until Zappa’s untimely death last year. The pinnacle of their collaboration was Zappa’s Universe, a four-night performance at New York City’s Ritz Theatre, in November 1991, for which Thome was the artistic director, arranger, and conductor. The project was a celebration of Zappa’s 50th birthday and the 25th anniversary of his first recording, Freak Out!, and excerpts of the performances are preserved on CD, cassette, and video as Zappa’s Universe (Verve Records). “Sofa,” a piece from the album featuring guitarist Steve Vai on Thome’s arrangement, received a Grammy this year for best rock instrumental.

Thome’s artistic involvement is a manifestation of the personal as political: This year, in July, Thome will travel to Sarajevo to conduct a work he composed for the Sarajevo Symphony and the industrial rock band Group SCH; the performance is a celebration of the reopening of Sarajevo’s Obala Gallery, an important multidisciplinary space destroyed during shelling.

Thome is an innovator for his blending of rock and symphonic music, a controversial act in itself. This fall, he will embark on a worldwide tour, performing two different programs of music for orchestra and rock group: “The Music of Frank Zappa Conducted by Joel Thome” and “Circuit Sound,” a collaboration with guitarist Steve Val. (“Circuit Sound” will be documented as an album and a film.) Of all this, Thome says, “To me, music is just a part of human expression. I like to try to open the minds of musicians and audiences alike, and to bring people together by creating music, by making these sound bridges.”

Suzanne McElfresh When did you first start working with Frank Zappa?

Joel Thome It was in 1980 for the Tribute to Edgard Varese at the Palladium in New York City. We became friends from then on. Friends and colleagues.

SM What was the next project you worked on with him?

JT At that point, we began to work on his symphony orchestra pieces. We went to Buffalo to work with the Buffalo Symphony, to try those works out.

SM Frank’s compositions?

JT Yeah. Frank had wanted me to get involved as a conductor with his music. He sent a mountain of scores, and I looked at them in depth to flesh out the balance problems that would occur in putting a rock group and an orchestra together. Then we began to test those pieces out in orchestra settings.

SM With a rock band also?

JT No, although the rock band was in the score, we weren’t using it in rehearsal situations. We brought it in later on.

SM I guess at that point, Frank thought he would be performing in Zappa’s Universe?

JT Yes. When we first began to discuss the project, we were talking about presenting some of his theater pieces in New York, off-Broadway. And I was very interested in doing music from the album Broadway the Hard Way as a symbol of protest, because it addressed the art—censorship issues that emerged from the Reagan-Bush years—the devastation of cultural and artistic endeavors, the Jesse Helms resurrection of McCarthy-ism and so on. When the idea evolved into the Zappa’s Universe project, we still wanted to make a point about art censorship and political repression, and we thought we could make that statement through terrific performances of Frank’s music. We did it in a concert/theater format, performing repertoire from Freak Out! [Zappa’s first album, released in 1966] to the present, making it very timely.

SM Let’s talk about “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” [from Zappa’s Absolutely Free. 1967], one of the compositions included on the Zappa’s Universe album. Was there an original score available for you when you arranged it for the orchestra?

JT Frank had a lead sheet. But there was nothing beyond what he had done with the rock group; there was no arrangement for orchestra. Frank and I discussed these pieces over a two-year period, and he wanted to do “Brown Shoes” because of his use of twelve-tone rows.

SM That’s in the original piece?

JT Yes. And he wanted to make sure that all of the serial compositional ideas were heard in the orchestra.

SM Could you discuss twelve-tone composition further?

JT It was a system of composition conceived by Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, principally Anton Webern and Alban Berg. It was a way of breaking free of tonality, and it had a great impact on post-World War II composers. It involves a vertical and horizontal organization of all twelve tones of the scale, with the tones organized into a serial pattern. The pattern can then be used in its original order and reversed, inverted, or reversed and inverted. And all the forms can be transposed, creating an enormous amount of variety. So I arranged “Brown Shoes” in a transparent, Webernesque way. Frank and I shared a lot of musical ideas, and he knew my music as a composer and my recordings of Varese, Boulez, Webern, Schoenberg, and others, so he had a lot of trust in me and gave me a free hand to do what I wanted to do. I considered the work a seven-minute opera, a rock opera in itself, and I considered that a Webern-esque way of working, because Webern, in 14 measures, could write pieces that were absolute gems. So with the orchestra, I was able to open it up even more and color it more. It goes from a high density piece to a transparent spatial piece, all within the duration of seven minutes. So it’s an exploration of space and time as well.

SM Your background is in 20th century, avant-garde classical music.

JT Yes, except the interesting thing is, by the time I was 21 I had learned basically all of the traditional orchestra repertoire as a conductor. I started studying that stuff as a child. But I grew up in an environment where I was surrounded by jazz, by folk music, by classical music, and rock and blues and world music. The earliest music I can remember hearing was on the steel guitar, that was the first sound I heard on the radio. I grew up in an industrial part of the world—I was born in Detroit and grew up in Pontiac, Michigan—and as a child I heard the Detroit Symphony, which really turned me on, and I heard all the visiting orchestras and opera, and I heard the music that came in through the factory workers who played blues and rock and jazz. Detroit blues, tremendous jazz. I heard Miles as a kid. And all that stuff. I heard world music: music from India, Africa, China, Japan, South America, and I heard a lot of rock. I later discovered electronic music. I heard John Cage and all that stuff. I grew up in a totality of musical environments, so it was very easy for me, when I later had jazz collaborations with people like Leroy Jenkins and Sonny Murray, it was very natural for me to do all of the crossovers. I mean I was familiar with everything from Bach to Schoenberg to Zappa. I had studied with Boulez and recorded Boulez’s music, and I had various principal positions as a percussionist at Eastman School of Music and was a percussionist with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and then, when I was 21, with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

SM And when did you first hear Zappa?

JT It was in the ’60s. And what struck me about Zappa was his tremendous knowledge of music, that he was able to encompass so much music that he was hearing: Stravinsky and Bartok and Webern and Schoenberg. And he was talking about the music that influenced him and I was very struck by the fact that he gave credit to the people who had influenced him and also in the depth of the music that had influenced him.

SM Your arrangement of “Nite School” [from Jazz From Hell, 1986] resulted in a very complex instrumental piece. How did you go about arranging that?

JT “Nite School” began as an instrumental piece composed on Synclavier, not with instruments. Frank sent me the version of the way it appeared on the album, a tape and a print-out score from the Synclavier. What I realized about “Nite School” was that it used archetectonic ways of thinking, which is a term that Varese used a lot, referring to the structural way in which he moved around blocks of sound. And in fact Frank, in his own way, was doing just that with “Nite School.” So I decided to highlight the archetectonic aspects in the piece. In fact it’s quite Varesean, but I don’t mean to imply that Frank imitated anyone, ‘cause he never did. But for any composer, it’s unavoidable. In fact it’s necessary that there are links to other composers. It’s sharing a certain musical-philosophical position. So, in doing this piece for symphony orchestra, I did it in a way that would point out the Varese relationship.

SM It’s rather unusual for a composer and conductor of your training to be so involved with rock music, isn’t it? This is not common among your peers.

JT Yes, it is unusual. I came out of the ranks of the orchestra, and I played with virtually every great conductor, But I also had a global musical awareness that started early on, from all the music I was hearing as a kid. My interest has always been to make musicians more cognizant of the music of their own time.

SM Including popular music …

JT Including popular music, yeah. Popular music meaning music which is a bridge. I guess. it’s hard to find a term, you know, what do you call Coltrane’s “Ascension,” or Ornette Coleman’s Skies Over America? For me, that’s a part of our existence, and it should be a part of our consciousness as musicians, in the same way that Anna Sokolow’s choreography should be a part of what we see and experience, and Erick Hawkins and Merce Cunningham, etc., or the paintings of Robert Ryman. This is a holistic way of conceiving the music of our time, and it’s not separate from painting and sculpture and dance and film and jazz and rock. I’ve just become music director/conductor of what is now called Music Theater New York, which is involved with the cutting edge of new opera and music theater. A place where Grotowski might emerge from, or a Kurt Weill or an Anthony Davis.

SM Are you familiar with Butch Morris?

JT Yes.

SM Because he does something that he calls “conduction.”

JT Yes, I’ve always done that. Conducted improvisations. A good example of that is “Waka Jawaka,” which we performed at the Ritz. In that, I wrote in an homage to Coltrane’s “Ascension,” and I was conducting improvisations, using an on-the-spot improvisational technique. I would take an idea and create—changing color and density, conducting fractured aperiodic, asymmetric, rhythmic stuff. All sorts of extended ranges and expanded timbral techniques, like having a brass or woodwind player play multiphonics.

SM And how are you communicating that to the orchestra?

JT I’m communicating with signs, with hand signals.

SM That you have devised yourself? They’re not universal?

JT They’re not universal, but they’re very easily understood. In fact, Frank did that too, he had his own set of signals. But throughout my life I’ve done that with ensembles, and even with audiences, having the audience participate, and Frank had done that with audiences. See, this is a place that is interesting in music, because it’s a place that is another bridge between Frank and myself, the creation of improvisational pieces and the homage to another composer, as in this case, John Coltrane, and that particular piece, “Ascension”.

SM Was Frank into Coltrane?

JT He was. I told him that I was going to do an homage to Coltrane, and he really liked the idea.

SM But it’s not included in the album version.

JT No, because that version was edited, but the full version is on the video. Also in “Waka Jawaka,” I built on a lot of jazz stuff that Frank had in the original piece. I built in cross-rhythms between the brass and the woodwinds so there are a lot of complex, asymmetrical syncopations. The brass and woodwinds are alternating triplet figures at a very fast tempo. It takes a tremendous amount of stamina from the players, and they have to be perfectly in sync.

SM They’re splitting up a triplet figure between them?

JT That’s right. You can hear it in the background. The trombones are playing the first note of the triplet, and the saxophones are playing the second note, or the second and third note. And then Frank’s melodic line, the guitar melody, is flying over that, with the syncopation going on underneath it. I made the syncopation constantly change color, like a rainbow, by splitting the cross rhythms between the instruments. The syncopation’s going through these very fast color changes, and the melodic line is going through a very slow transformation of color. So I’ve compressed a lot of wild activity into a short duration of time.

SM And where were those triplets in the original version of “Waka Jawaka”? Are they implied by the drummer or something?

JT They’re implied in the keyboard part. I highlight them in a different way, color them in a different way, and then give them a more angular feeling. The essence of it is that it brings about incredibly fast changes of color under a very long beautiful line. Mozart referred to that as klangfarbenmelodie, which means that as the line continues, it constantly changes color. Webern was a master of klangfarbenmelodie.

SM When you wrote the arrangement for “Waka Jawaka,” did you look at a lead sheet?

JT I knew the original, of course, but listening to it triggered all sorts of possibilities in my imagination. A whole other level had been triggered, and that level was the orchestra. It’s a very mystical process.

SM I bet.

JT Yeah, it really is. You have a fusion … it’s a kind of melding of the imagination of the composer and the arranger, and in this case, because Frank was the composer and I was the arranger, and I’m also a composer and conductor, I was able to bring to that arrangement the experience of all of those other areas. On another piece of Frank’s, “Oh, No,” I told Frank that I was going to arrange it in a pointillistic way, and I was going to set it like Webern, using a crab canon—that is, I was going to have one instrument going in reverse, from the end to the beginning, reversing the whole part. A canon, of course, is a kind of imitation, where you have essentially one voice which is the subject and another voice which is the imitation of that subject, offset in time, like a round. And Webern used it brilliantly. And the end also triggered in me a memory of Mahler’s “Das Lied Von Der Ehrde,” so I set it as a reference to Mahler. But none of this was meant to be an imitation, it was only meant to come from the magic of the soul. And Frank loved the idea. He asked me to use bassoon and put the bassoon up very high, and I knew immediately what he meant by that. It was a wonderful idea, so I did it, as a personal reference between us.

SM It’s humorous then, isn’t it? Because the bassoon is a low instrument.

JT It’s a low instrument and it makes the bassoonist have to stretch. I know where it was coming from. It was a reference to Webern, but it was a reference to Frank referring to Webern. The danger of describing certain things as Webern-esque or Stravinsky-esque or Coltrane-esque is to imply a certain imitation, but it’s not an imitation. It’s these lines of the soul that reach out and connect with other musicians and other composers. It’s the greatest humanism.

SM I think the point is that all those influences you mentioned were influences on Frank or on yourself, but it still comes through a personal filter. I don’t think it’s diluted, I think it’s strengthened through that. And that happens in rock and R&B and jazz, and all music, really.

JT Because no music exists in a vacuum. If you’re talking about Indian music or Baratnathyam dance, you’re talking about hundreds of years of handing it down from one person to the next. And the study of that music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Mozart did not exist in a vacuum. Or Coltrane or Steve Vai or the Persuasions. It’s all connected. It’s beauty. It’s the collective consciousness expressing itself in the most extraordinary delight of existence.

SM When you’re conducting, how do you communicate to such a large ensemble—50 orchestra members, singers, and a rock group. I mean, you only have two arms.

JT And you have your eyes. Once you have the craft, a lot of the conducting has to be done telepathically, with your eyes. And you learn that. If you’re not careful with what you’re doing in conducting and you stress one instrument over another, it’s possible to throw the whole balance out of whack or cause a musical train wreck. You’ve got to listen like crazy. You have to hear everything, paying attention to intonation, to rhythmic precision, to enabling the line to soar without being confined into a rectangular shape. That’s why the knowledge of classical conducting is so important to this. In fact now a lot of musicians—rock, jazz, and classical—are asking to study conducting with me.

SM In “Waka Jawaka,” are you using traditional conducting gestures?

JT They’re traditional to me, because I come from a traditional classical training, but I also devised new techniques because of my involvement in 20th century music, techniques that have now become more traditional. See, it’s so tricky, the rock group shouldn’t sound like it’s something apart from the orchestra. It’s all one music.

SM When did you form the Orchestra of Our Time?

JT Orchestra of our Time is an offshoot of a group I started in Philadelphia in 1965 called The Ensemble of the Philadelphia Composers Forum. We moved to New York about 1977, and performed a collaboration between myself and [sculptor] Alexander Calder and [composer] Virgil Thomson. The piece was a re-creation of Erik Satie’s Socrate. It’s interesting, because Orchestra of Our Time has had a history of collaborations. We have made many major recordings of 20th century composers, toured worldwide and premiered hundreds of new works. We have performed pieces by a wide range of composers, from lgor Stravinsky and Lucia Dlugoscewski to Sonny Murray and Leroy Jenkins. We have performed and taught in prisons and given concerts in the South Bronx. The Orchestra has a wild history.

SM You gave performances in the South Bronx?

JT Actually we set up offices in the South Bronx for a couple of years. I’ve had a long association with the South Bronx, which continues today. We’ve done performances of various kinds, from very traditional to very avant-garde, a whole realm of stuff, exposing people to different music. But more importantly, the community has shared their culture with us. There are some tremendous musicians—there’s more talent walking around the streets of the South Bronx and El Barrio and Harlem than practically anywhere I can think of.

SM Getting back to the Zappa’s Universe recording, what was your thought process for the arrangement of “Nite School?”

JT Frank originally wrote this piece on the Synclavier. It was all electronic, and I took it and set it for orchestra. The thing that’s interesting about it is that Frank said at one point that he would never compose for human beings anymore, he would only write for Synclavier, and I reversed it here. I took the electronic thing and arranged it for human beings.

SM That’s great. You fooled him.

JT Yeah. I did that because I knew that regardless of what he was feeling about the occurrence of bad performances, that the human element was very much a part of him. Working from his original ideas, I arranged it so that these asymmetrical attacks occur in the strings and brass and woodwinds at very diverse register placements, from high to low. They’re just sitting there but they enter at unsuspected places. There are blocks of sustained sounds, and then there is this long guitar solo and driving rhythms in the bass and drums. So on one hand, you have the suspension of time, and on the other, you have a very intense movement of time. It’s like the architecture of a Frederick Kiesler, or a Corbusier. And I also incorporated what I call “pyramid shapes,” interpreting the way Frank had composed the piece on the Synclavier. The pyramid shapes create a kaleidoscope of colors; it’s quite psychedelic. I did that by using expanded timbral techniques, changing the color of the brass, using flutter tones, various mutes, etc.

SM On the recording of Zappa’s Universe, you can hear the audience cheering and screaming wildly. You can tell that it was a very exciting event.

JT It was pretty exciting for all of us. It was a wonderful feeling, and everybody gave so much love for Frank. By then, people realized how sick he was, and there’s so much love in the performance, in the music.

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Originally published in

BOMB 48, Summer 1994

Featuring interviews with Eric Bogosian, Rick Moody, bell hooks, Dennis Cooper, Jack Whitten, Michel Auder, Hanif Kureishi, Joel Thome, Keith Antar Mason, and Allison Anders.

Read the issue
048 Summer 1994