Frank Zappa: The Present-Day Composer Refuses To Die

July 2, 2000
52 min.

Directed by Frank Scheffer

Includes footage from:
See also:


From: Tom Bakker (July 18, 2000)

"Frank Zappa: The Present-Day Composer Refuses to Die" by Frank Scheffer.

Shown on Dutch VPRO tv 7/2/00 (July 2nd).

This documentary is an offshoot of the Holland Festival that was recently held (among things classical performances of Zappa music).

VPRO Website:

The VPRO will NOT offer this video for sale in their shop because of FZ copyright issues.

From: Corne van Hooijdonk (June 30, 2000)

Ok, here you have it, the translatium of the text WilleM posted.


Frank Scheffer: 'In the end, Zappa's work is one piece, one big collage'. Few people will not have noticed that Frank Zappa is the 'Major Composer' of the Holland Festival.

Director Frank Scheffer—at the age of thirteen he exchanged an album of Ekseption for a Zappa-album and he was lost immediately—seemed to be the person to make a film about the phenomenon. Sunday at VPRO television. Ok, he's a bit late, but you can't blame him for oversleeping this morning, when you see him grapping a cup of coffee immediately in the little kitchen of his office. Filmmaker Frank Scheffer is 'a bit in the Zappa-mode', he says apologetic, and that means it's a busy time during the Holland Festival. Two days ago for example he was in 'De Balie' for again another festivity honouring the superior-Mother. A successfull evening. Still, he's sore about something: the performance of his 'old buddy' Ian Kerkhof with theatrecompany Acephale. Banging on pieces of railroadtrack and shitting and peeing yelling for revolution, it's fine with him, but when even a member of the Concertgebouw orchestra found it rather bourgeois in all it's seriousness, Scheffer had to 'pull the plug'. Embarrassing, even more when Kerkhof terminated the friendship as well: "Art is more important than friendship", where did he get that! It made me think of 200 Motels right away. "I'm too heavy to be in this group", you know'.

But well, attend lectures, see concerts, and then in one and a half week his documentary 'Frank Zappa. The Present-Day Composer Refuses to Die' must be finished as well. Almost half is put together, so that means working through the night now and then. Who notice the alarm-clock in these circumstances. Last autumn, when it became apparant that FZ would be the major composer of the HF, Scheffer started working on the film. One might think that's a short preparation time, but his interest for 'Frank ' dated from much earlier. In retrospect he stumbled upon the title for the documentary in his puberty: 'When I was thirteen years of age, I exchanged an album of Ekseption for 'We're only In It For The Money', and that album had the song (... sic cvh) 'The Present Day Composer Refuses to Die, Edgar Varese'. When I heard that, I immediately ran to the record store to get me an album by Edgar Varese. It took some time to get accustomed to that, but with Frank it was imediately: bang! What is this?! It simply was a total revolution in my head. Suddenly it was clear to me that anything could be done with sound, music and funnyness. Wow, you know.'

That complete frankness and diversity in Franks work is what appeals most to Scheffer, and that is what he wanted to get accross. He doesn't see much in interpretation of music, as was obvious from the documentaries he made about among others Andriessen and Boulez. 'As Stravinsky said: music only expresses itself. In all my work about music I start off with the transformation of musical principles. I want to transform the structuuure, the character and the procedure of the music and composer to the structure, the character and the style of the film.'

Not an easy task, but the recollection of an interview he did in 1980 with Francis Ford Coppolla carried him through. 'He said: The electronic cinema will totally change the way we think. (...) And the difference will be the difference between a linear and a spacial thinking. One has this concept in one's head and by modulating the pieces of that concept, something new evolves. When I was making the film I realised that that visonary pronouncement of Coppolla totally aplies to Frank Zappa, in the sense that it doesn't matter to him if he's making a film, performing in front of an audience or recording a record. He worked with one conceptual continuity, for him all his pieces in the end are one piece. One big collage. For the editing this means that I don't compose the film in a linear manner, but I'm working with a sort of kernels. Picture kernels, subjectkernels or shape kernels that I suggest and mark out by the way I digitally mount specific building blocks.'

That associative way of working is fine, but to give the viewer something to hold on to, it needed a structure to put on all those different motifs. Scheffer found two. To start of with there is The Vault, the strong-room where all (inherited) Zappa-tapes lie: 'The treasurer of the vault, Joe, ushers us in, and thus we go along rows of tapes and mini-kernels of all sorts of aspects of Frank's.' In that way Scheffer strings 'the things' together, as a second red thread using the 'Civilization-trilogy' WOIIFTM (1967), LG (1967) and the much praised swan-song CPIII (1994). 'Then you start filming, and suddenly also other periods come up for discussion—with George Duke and Jess (..sic) Simmons for example. But the creation of situations in which the unexpected can occur, fits completely with Frank. Not for nothing he always said: "Anytime, anyplace, anywhere, for no reason at all". (...sic cvh)

All this doesn't mean that all aspects of Zappa fit in this documentary. His criticism of society is mainly left out. 'In fifty minutes you can't finish otherwise. And besides, I think that Roelof Kiers did the best Zappa-documentary for that aspect. Especially because he had the advantage that Frank was still alive then and that he encountered him in a very interesting period in time—during 200 Motels. I had to do it my way ; aim at the music and inform, but not in an educative way.'

For that purpose he interviewed among others 'representative' bandmembers of the maestro, son Dweezil and Zappa-widow Gail. Relying on her reputation being a knuckle-bone defender of the man's inheritance that doesn't seem to be appealing. Last month she condemned a collection of program-texts of the HF and for each part of the program her approval had to be begged for extensively. According to Scheffer it was nevertheless very pleasant to 'make creative use' of her: 'The point is that Gail from my perspective is a very intelligent, sensitive woman. She was my first point of referral. She lived longest with him, so if I want to make a big leap in time, I like to hear what she has to say.' He quickly adds this doesn't mean he didn't have total creative freedom. 'Apparently now and then she trusts people.' Scheffer found it very interesting that she 'absolutely had the feeling that she was married to a composer, someone who made music during all his life'. But his work reaches beyond the 'serious composer' compartment in which people tend to push him last weeks: 'Frank is a slippery customer: the guy released eighty cd's, and he performed on stage, played the guitar and made a lot of films. Most serious composers maybe create one piece a year.' Scheffer doesn't acknowledge the idea that Zappa was frustated because he wasn't considered a 'serious composer' enough. 'He always said: music is purely for entertainment. He makes a clear statement there that he doesn't take himself too seriously. Ofcourse he wanted to be valued for his work, but not in a bourgeois-way. He never wanted to belong to the establishment, for that he was too independant. Ian Underwood says in the film: "He was an observer and a scientist." He observed what happened around him, and abstracted that to his music.'

And with that this film perfectly fits in the range of films that Scheffer made the last years. 'From Mahler to Schonberg, Stravinsky, Cage, Boulez, Stockhausen, Berlioz, Andriessen, Zappa. I absolutely see him in that tradition.'

That also shows when he shows the 'millenniummovie' that he made for the VPRO last year. It's named 'Ring' and we see speed-up scenes from Rinf des Nibelungen with in the right upper corner exactly those composers, with as last one 'Frank'. 'The complete serious music of the twentieth century put down in a point', as he calls it. And after a big project concerning Elliott Carter that he's still working on, he sees the circle closed. After that he wants to 'transform musical principles to drama' (in short: make a movie), and the longer he thinks about it, the more symbolic the Zappa-film gets: 'When I wrote the proposal for this film, I realised that that one sentence, The Present-Day Composer Refuses to Die', and the mysticism it had for me as a thirteen year old, could be the thing that led to the making of al my films. I wanted to know more of that.'

WilleM,, July 1, 2000

Nieuwsblad van het Noorden: Frank Zappa—The Big Note
(art. by Fred van Garderen)

The dead composer who refuses to die.

Annual events like the TT in Assen (motorracing, W.) and the Holland Festival have become the victim of EURO 2000. The soccer party requested every bit of attention, moreover because the Dutch soccer team was in the race almost until the very last minute. One of the big attractions of the HF was the music of FZ. VPRO television is going to broadcast a documentary about this American composer/musician.

At the Amsterdam Veemarktcomplex, nowadays a collection of small business companies, they worked feverish this week on the movie Frank Zappa—The Big Note (The Present-Day Composer Refuses To Die). Recent recordings of the German Ensemble Modern, specialized in playing Zappa compositions for some years now, still had to be edited. "And then watch out. If Holland wins the European soccer championship nobody will be watching at all next Sunday", says producer Rudolf Evenhuis. Meanwhile we all know that this will not be the case. And that would be a pity indeed, because the movie is worth while watching. Not just because it's about an interesting person, but also because the movie reflects the playfulness (speelsheid in Dutch, 'whimsical' might be a better translation maybe? W.) and the freedom the main character had in mind during his life. Self explanatory in the movie are the images from the vault. A huge cellar full of racks loaded with tapes and sheet music. Unimaginable that only one man, who became 53 years only, could have played the content of this cellar. "It was a man with a mission", explains son Dweezil.

Moviemaker Frank Scheffer watched, before he started to make the movie, very closely to the movie Roelof Kiers (VPRO as well) made of FZ in the beginning of the 70's. Scheffer:" The movie Roelof made is the best what has ever been made about Zappa". Fragments of that film have been used for Scheffers movie. But it's hardly noticeable as far as atmosphere is concerned. The wonderful atmospheric images of America have been made in the same loose, shaky way. The same approach Zappa did when making movies like 200 Motels. Scheffer:" It is a collage which reflects freedom. His name is Frank which means free..". Notwithstanding the liberal chaos the movie tells the live story very clear.

Really wonderful are the archivefilms of a very young Zappa, being a guest in the Steve Allen Show, a kind of an American De Vuist (one of the first and most famous Dutch talkshows, W.) by Willem Duys. Zappa is guest because he plays a bicycle. Also very impressive are the pictures of a concert in Berlin which almost ended up in a revolt. By intervening himself, Zappa could avoid a battle with the police, says Zappa widow Gail. Zappa in the movie:" It's time for a revolution, however not in the way people think it should be. A revolution means that the mass is going on the streets, lynching some rich guy from their neighborhood and distribute his properties among the poor. It can be done much more efficient, without anyone being slaughtered. A revolution via infiltration". Former musicians of the Mothers, Zappa's band, are talking about the way of making music. Bruce and Tom Fowler tell about his professional approach and Frank Zappa taught George Duke how to sing, from note to note. Duke for his part, asked him what he saw when he played a guitarsolo. "He said: I see shapes, triangles and circles which flow across each other when I play". Son Dweezil, a fair guitarplayer himself, about his fathers' guitar playing: "Jimi Hendrix has his own sound and Van Halen has so. When you hear that music, you know to whom it belongs and how to play it. Frank Zappa has his own sound as well, but you can't copy it. Too bizarre. Then you think: what's this? When I play a solo I hear the rhythm section, but when Frank played he heard every instrument. He heard everything".

In the movie we hear Zappa's great example, the French composer Edgar Varese. In the old-sepia archive films he proclaims the beautiful wisdom that every new generation isn't ahead of their time. "They are contemporary, but the rest walks behind".

Frank Zappa, from bicycle player in Steve Allen's show to an old sick man during the recordings of The Yellow Shark project together with the Ensemble Modern. From Joshua tree (FZ grew up in the little desert town Lancaster) to his private studio in Hollywood. But Frank Scheffer isn't finished yet. "I'm going to make a second part. That will be a different movie in which I want to let Ahmet Zapppa—voice over—tell the story as written in The Real Frank Zappa Book. And there will be fragments of the 200 Motels performance this year at the Holland Festival. The movie should be ready for the Film Festival in Rotterdam in 2001.

From: Dennis Versteeg (July 3, 2000)

I truly enjoyed last night's VPRO documentary, lots of interesting little bits, although I didn;t hear much I never heard before. My main enjouyment was to see people and places I heard about but never saw or never saw since the people left Zappa's band.

There were interview segments with Gail Zappa, Dweezil Zappa, Ian Underwood (!), George Duke, Tom Fowler, Bruce Fowler, Ali N Askin nad Pierre Boulez. Also there was a short piece of a very old interview with Edgar Varese, not talking about Zappa of course. Man, that guy sure looked intense.

It was also very nice to see the Zappa house: the kitchen, the listening room, the synclavier and a great tour through the vault by Joe Travers (showing the original reels to Freak out and WOIIFTM). Some cool live performance snippets were shown as well, including what I believe was a cool section of the Roxy video (I'm not sure, but I never saw it before) with Duke turning lots of knobs on his synth and Zappa conducting the band. There were also some 60s live clips, Black napkins from Baby Snakes and a bit from inca roads form that 19764 TV show in LA. Also, some parts were shown with the ensemble modern conducted by Zappa (e.g. the Everything is healing nicely bit with the piercing story), also some shots of the EM performing Amnerika.

From: Tal (July 3, 2000)

Don't forget the Steve Allen show in perfect black and white (although edited down). For me though, the highlight was a nice clip from what I think were the Studio Z years (FZ sans moustache) with Kenny and Ronnie while the WOIIFTM version of Let's Make The Water Turn Black was playing.


Table Of Contents

Draft. Timings approximate.

00:00   ...
01:15   Gail Zappa
01:24 Vienna, 1968  
01:55   Tom Fowler
02:12 Vienna, 1968  
02:31   Ian Underwood
02:45 Vienna, 1968  
02:51   Ian Underwood
02:55   ...
03:02   George Duke
03:20   Dweezil Zappa
03:49 Mayfair Studio, 1967  
04:11   Joe Travers, The Vault
05:10 Shrine, 1966  
05:49 VPRO, 1970  
06:11 Shrine, 1966  
06:23   Joe Travers, The Vault
06:45 WOIIFTM Photo Session, 1967  
07:01   ...
07:42 Garrick, 1967  
09:12   Gail Zappa
09:32 Garrick/Dummy, 1967  
09:47 Interview, 1970  
09:53   ...
10:00 Berlin, 1968  
10:34   Gail Zappa
10:49 Berlin, 1968  
11:29 Interview, 1970  
12:04 c. 1968-69  
12:55   UMRK?
13:09 Festival Hall, 1968  
13:27 Mayfair, 1967  
13:48   Ian Underwood
13:59 Mayfair, 1967  
14:02   Ian Underwood
14:03 Mayfair, 1967  
14:38 Pal Studio, c. 1963  
15:04 Mayfair, 1967  
15:08   Ian Underwood
15:32 Festival Hall, 1968  
17:15   Joe Travers, The Vault
17:32   ...
17:45   Joe Travers, The Vault
18:01 Fillmore West, 1970  
19:22   George Duke
20:19 Fillmore West, 1970  
21:08   George Duke
21:31 KCET, 1974  
21:36   George Duke
21:53 KCET, 1974  
22:22   George Duke
22:52 KCET, 1974  
23:47   George Duke
24:05   Tom Fowler
24:21   Bruce Fowler
24:31 Stockholm, 1973  
25:09   Tom Fowler
25:18 Stockholm, 1973  
25:39   Bruce Fowler
26:05 Stockholm, 1973  
27:15   Bruce Fowler
27:30   George Duke
27:47 Palladium, 1977  
28:11   George Duke
28:46 Palladium, 1977 ...
30:38   Dweezil Zappa
31:00 Palladium, 1977  
31:52   Dweezil Zappa
32:10 Palladium, 1977  
32:32   Dweezil Zappa
33:08   George Duke
33:35   Joe Travers, Zappa House
33:48   ...
34:43 Steve Allen Show, 1963  
38:00   ...
39:19   Pierre Boulez
39:55   ...
40:18 VPRO, 1970  
40:36   Pierre Boulez
40:48   ...
41:30   Edgar & Louise Varèse
42:17   Synclavier, UMRK
42:58   Todd Yvega
43:40   ...
43:51   Ali N. Askin
44:16 Ensemble Modern, Frankfurt, 1992  
44:33   Gail Zappa
45:21 Ensemble Modern, LA, 1991  
46:14   Ali N. Askin
46:36   Ensemble Modern
46:46 Ensemble Modern, Frankfurt, 1992  
46:50   Ensemble Modern
47:02   Ali N. Askin
47:28   Ensemble Modern
48:21   Ali N. Askin
48:41   Ensemble Modern
48:53   Pierre Boulez
49:22   Ensemble Modern
49:33   Gail Zappa
50:00 VPRO, 1970  
50:12 LA, 1991  
50:16 c. 1968-1969  
50:28 VPRO, 1970  
50:55   ...


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