Casey Dolan: State of Mind

By Casey Dolan

I live in a slim canyon in the west San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles and woke up this morning to the smell of smoke. Locals regard that smell as most fearsome. The density of oak, sycamore, pepper, Chinese elm, eucalyptus trees in our sliver of paradise would ensure that we’d all perish in a conflagration should a fire break out here. It’s a veritable forest and there is little a fire brigade could do to stop the spread of the flames.

Happily for us, the fire is in the north Valley, near Sylmar and Pacoima, but the high winds (gusts have been measured above 50 mph) have floated the smoke southwards across the valley.

None of this is unusual, of course. It’s fire season, and, as Mike Davis wrote in “City of Quartz,” burn it must. Part of the Los Angeles karma. A disquieting subliminal threat that festers in our consciousness, much like the threat of nuclear armageddon in the fifties and sixties.

But if imminent immolation is not enough to satisfy your sense of unease, listen to Frank Zappa’s late synclavier compositions, assembled into the “opera-pantomime” “Civilization Phaze III.” Composed shortly before his death, a sense of Beckettian desolation permeates everything; the stoned surreal dialogue (about such things as finding space inside a giant piano), amusing on “Lumpy Gravy,” is now sad, empty and alone.

Performing this cellular music are Zappa on synclavier and the German group, the Ensemble Modern (so brilliant on Zappa’s “The Yellow Shark”) on various reeds, brass, strings and percussion. There are whiffs of Messiaen, Schoenberg and Webern. George Crumb? Maybe Elliot Carter, too? (Apropos of nothing in particular, Carter will be 100 years old this coming Dec. 11). But comparisons have limited usage. Zappa stands alone, for better or worse.

This is not a review (I am writing a large piece for an “outside” publication on the who or what that most chameleon of composers Frank Zappa may have been and on the continuing efforts to ensure his legacy), but I noticed this morning that the synchronicity of the fire, wind and music all pointed to a similar charred landscape, both of the mind as well as upon Southern Californian hillsides.

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