Review: Ensemble musikFabrik

First published on the Guardian on 29 August, 2013

Ensemble musikFabrik
Usher Hall, Edinburgh

With celebrations of his music at the Proms and Edinburgh within the space of a few weeks, Frank Zappa is looking suspiciously establishment. “I think it’s really tragic when people get serious about stuff,” he quipped back in the 1970s – the problem for any interpreters of his music being that his fiendish ensemble writing needs a serious ensemble to pull it off.

Cologne-based Ensemble musikFabrik get the balance exactly right. Powered from the drums by the puckish powerhouse Dirk Rothbrust, here is a group who can trade fusion guitar solos, who can swing the blues, who can unleash virtuoso percussion storms then cut to squeaking rubber duckies, chuck drumsticks at each other and babble gibberish through loudspeakers – all over watertight big-band grooves. They capture Zappa’s zany theatrics but they nail his rhythms, too.

Those who came just for the Zappa hits (Big Swifty, T’Mershi Duween, RDNZL, Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?, a blazing encore of Peaches en Regalia) might have been miffed by the long stretches of John Cage and Edgar Varese, and indeed there were several walk-outs during Cage’s Seven; even now this music stirs up a reaction. The point was that Cage and Zappa shared a love of Varese’s music, especially his landmark Ionisation. We heard that piece twice, presumably to bring home the impact that its lolloping panoply of percussion had on both composers.

And as much as Zappa learned from Cage, it was also good to hear Cage in the context of Zappa. Credo in US irreverently chops jazzy syncopations into The Rite of Spring; in Seven, an ethereal chorale ebbs and flows under the rumble of two cups rubbing together and the ‘shhh’ of an aerosol can. Cage’s humour was less brazen than Zappa’s, but it shared the same roots.