Planet Zappa interview with Olli Virtaperko

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Planet Zappa interview with Olli Virtaperko

PZ 1: First we would like to thank you for "The Zappa Album", we love it!

Olli Virtaperko 1: Thank you! Being able to arrange and produce The Zappa Album has been the culmination of my work as a creative musician, so far. To hear compliments about that work is, of course, quite rewarding.

PZ 2: What composition was hardest to do the arrangement for?

Olli Virtaperko 2: Surprisingly enough, Sofa. The piece in itself is quite simple, and the transcription process wasn't a problem. The problem was its simplicity.

It has long, sustained chords all along the piece and we didn't know how to avoid the feeling of music getting boring and dead. With the resources of an amplified group there is always the beat from drums or percussion going on, so you get the feeling that there are things "happening", even if the musical situation in itself was quite stable. We didn't have a drum set or percussions, so in the places where "nothing was happening", nothing really was happening.

The salvation came in the form of a Baroque mandoline. As we had recorded the piece and I really wasn't pleased with what I heard, I asked our lute player Tuukka to just play along with the tape. We secretly recorded his jamming and it turned out that it was exactly what the piece needed. When listening to the piece now, one (hopefully) gets the feeling of "freedom" and "lightness" and that's only because of Tuukka's naturally musical, affective mandoline playing.

PZ 3: This compilation is very unique because you are using Baroque instruments. Did you ever feel difficulty to get the right "groove" into the music?

Olli Virtaperko 3: Well, Sofa was one example of that. Basically, we solved the problem of having no drum set by treating harpsichord as a percussion instrument. That made it possible for us to create the feeling of "constant movement" in our playing. Another important thing was to apply the concept of the basso continuo group. In Baroque era they used to have a set of accompanying instruments that formed "the basso continuo group". At its largest it consisted of harpsichord, organ, cello, bassoon, lute and violone (the predecessor of double bass) and they all played the bass line as well as improvisatory, accompanying stuff in the middle register. The creating of that accompanying material followed pretty much the same rules that what there are in rock or jazz; you have certain things that you will have to do, such as playing the particular chords and bass line, but there are lots of improvisatory elements as well. When music is constructed this way, the audible result is considered "lively" and "grooving". The improvisatory elements in music got ignored when instruments changed in the 19th century and composers started to compose for large symphony orchestras. Modern string or woodwind instruments don't have these "grooving" resources. For instance, I would never have been able to realize my acoustic-bass-kind-of cello playing in "The Zappa Album" with a modern cello; the instrument in itself just doesn't have "the right attitude".

PZ 4: What influences do you have besides Frank?

Olli Virtaperko 4: I have always considered J.S.Bach's music to be the greatest achievement of Western civilisation. In early 70's when I was a child, my mother played me and my sister the Bach records by Nicolaus Harnoncourt all the time, and we just loved it. We were raised in a totally classical-music-oriented environment. It was only in high school that I got to listen to non-classical music. But once I heard Zappa, my musical world changed totally. I got interested in atonal music via Frank's orchestral works, and thus got aware of the existence of contemporary classical music. Of modern composers I have basically been influenced by Elliot Carter, and of course, Igor Stravinsky.

Nowadays, however, I mostly listen to non-classical music. I study composition and Baroque cello in Sibelius-Academy, Helsinki, so in my free time I don't want to deal with "high culture" too much. I listen to Finnish groups like Wigwam, Zetaboo and Pekka Pohjola Group (Pekka is a great composer and a wonderful bass player. In mid 70's Zappa asked Pohjola to join his band, but for some reason this project was never realized. Instead, Pekka ended up touring with Mike Oldfield (a poor choice...) before forming his own group).

I also like some lounge-oriented stuff, such as American groups Trans Am and Tortoise. But I'm also a great fan of Indian classical music, as well as Japanese Gagaku court music and Indonesian gamelan music.

I am also influenced to some extent by "ordinary" commercial pop and rock music. This is because I sing in the most popular rock group of Finland, Ultra Bra. With UB I have tasted the tempting "rock life" and long tours during past five years certainly have left an influence on me as a musician and a person. (Finland really is a strange country; the music of Ultra Bra is far from being compromizing and yet we have become incredibly popular here. The 200 000 records that we have sold in Finland really is a lot in a country of 5 million people.)

However, as far as "The Zappa Album" is concerned, the existence of Ultra Bra has been crucial: If it wasn't for UB, I would never have been able to raise enough money to produce "The Zappa Album". Remember, I financed "The Zappa Album" totally myself. I even provided the publisher of "The Zappa Album", BIS, with a complete artwork and graphic design.

PZ 5: Tell us about the work with the arrangement for Zoot Allures, did you get special permission from Gail?

Olli Virtaperko 5: It was never an issue. At the time we recorded "The Zappa Album" we weren't aware of Frank's wish that Zoot Allures should not be performed after his death. Anyway, as I spoke with Gail she didn't mention anything about the matter, so we figured out that we might as well release the CD with "Zoot Allures" in it. Luckily we did, since I think it is one of the best pieces in the record.

PZ 6: There is excellent sound on the CD, can you tell us something about the recording sessions?

Olli Virtaperko 6: First of all, we wanted a recording and mixing engineer who would be familiar with Zappa's music and rock estethics and who would also have experience of recording Baroque instruments. Heikki Savolainen was just the right man for us. He had worked with both classical musicians and rock/jazz musicians and knew all our material before. He had also recorded some early music records, so he immediately got a clear picture of how the recording of the Ambrosius-CD should be done.

All instruments had induvidual microphones. The whole ensemble was playing together all the time in a room with naturally good acustics. The exceptions to that were "Night School" and "G-Spot Tornado", where we recorded violine and oboe separately from the rest of the ensemble. My violoncello piccolo solo in "Inca Roads" was also recorded that way, as well as some of Jonte's solos.Everything else in the record is live playing.

We were able to rehearse for seven days in the studio before the actual recording sessions started, so we knew excately how the ensemble should sound in that space. We worked for five intense days in the studio, recording all the material in that time. Then we used additional seven days for editing and mixing. I got the ready master on the 21st of October, 1999.

PZ 7: Is it true that you didn't use any printed material?

Olli Virtaperko 7: Our version of "Igor's Boogie" is based on the version printed in "The Frank Zappa Songbook". We also picked up the melody line of "Uncle Meat" from the same source. Everything else was trascripted from Zappa-CD's.

PZ 8: Can we expect a tour from Ensemble Ambrosius?

Olli Virtaperko 8: At the moment it seems unlikely. Only half of the members of Ambrosius live in Finland; Jasu Moisio is based on Paris, Jani Sunnarborg studies at Hague and Ere Lievonen at Amsterdam. It is extremely difficult to find time to just play together as a band, not to mention the trouble of organizing "a tour". However, recently we have performed in Finland as a five-piece band with my little sister Pilvikki in organ and with percussionist Ricardo Padilla . This "small" Ambrosius might easily do a tour of some kind, it's just that with this combination only few pieces from "The Zappa Album" are playable. The rest would consist of my and Jonte Knif's own compositions.

The other thing is that so far Ensemble Ambrosius has been a totally acoustic band. The Baroque instruments - as powerful as they might sound in the record - are not particulary loud instruments. We have played in small chamber music halls without any amplifcation. If we do "a tour", we should be able to play in larger venues in order to finance the touring. To do it, we would need a high-quality amplifying and a particulary capable mixing engeneer to control the fragile balance of the instruments. We would also need to learn to play with amplification. However, the idea of touring with Ambrosius is quite temptating and I will certainly do my everything to make things possible for a tour in the future.

PZ 9: Have you any further plans for Frank's music?

Olli Virtaperko 9: One of the first things Gail asked us was if we would like to do another record of Zappa in near future. In fact, there would be plenty of interesting material around, but I don't want to do the transcription work anymore. It took me weeks to transcribe the material of "Alien Orifice", not to mention pieces like "Inca Roads" or the weird harmonies in the middle section of "Big Swifty". If we do new Zappa material, I would ask Ali N. Askin or Todd Yvega to give us some existing, already trascribed material. It took us over four years to get the material of "The Zappa Album" together. I wouldn't have that much time anymore.

However, with pieces such as "Moggio", "Sinister Footwear III" or the whole Grand Wazoo album it is likely that we can't keep our hands away from that wonderful music. We are going to studio on January to record own material and after that we intend to do more of contemporary classical stuff, but in 2-3 year's time there would be a chance to record more Zappa. Meanwhile, we will keep the already existing Zappa-pieces in our repertoire and probably come up with some new pieces as well.

PZ 10: Do you have any memories of Frank that you can you share with us?

Olli Virtaperko 10: I never met him personally or spoke with him, so there are no memories to be shared. At the time of his death I was 19 and Ambrosius didn't exist yet. Unlike the Varése family in late 50's, the Zappas don't keep their privat phone numbers in telephone catalogues. There was no way I could ever have spoken with him or met him.

PZ 11: The only tune missing (because you're from Finland) must be Whipping Post, right?

Olli Virtaperko 11: Yeah, right...

PZ 12: If there's anybody out there, go and by this excellent recording by a brilliant Finnish Ensemble called Ambrosius! Hey, it's a way of life you'll love it...

Olli Virtaperko 12: The distributor of "The Zappa Album", Swedish BIS is a fairly conservative classical music company that concentrates on "the high fidelity classical records". Apparently "The Zappa Album" is best found from shops that are specialised in classical music, although I have made a wish that the CD should be placed among Zappa's own cd's in a rock store. If you can't find the record from your local music stores, I'd suggest you to order it from a Finnish store Digelius. It is an independend record store (run by decent people) that specializes in good music of "no commercial potential". You would also be able to check the music of the above-mentioned Finnish groups via them. Contact Aleksi c/o or check The total price of mail-ordered Ambrosius-CD would be 13 £ all over the world.

Interview by: Copyright© 2000

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