The new album from the New Jersey-based composer/musician/educators – like all his music – a highly ambitious work and may be his magnum opus. Until the next one.
It’s impossible to write about Chris Opperman – composer, pianist, trumpet player, music professor – without mentioning Frank Zappa. An avid fan of the late musician, Opperman released his first album, Oppy Music Vol. 1: Purple, Crayon, in 1998 when he was a student at the Berklee College of Music and not quite 20 years old. Opperman recruited former Zappa bandmember and acclaimed solo artist Mike Keneally to produce that first album, which certainly sounds like the work of someone weaned on classic Zappa records. The social satire of We’re Only in It for the Money, the complex jazz chops of The Grand Wazoo, the classical music acumen of The Yellow Shark, and the crunchy rock riffs of Zoot Allures are all present on that wild, weird album.
Opperman followed up that first album with forays into experimental solo piano (Klavierstucke), beautifully strange classical/jazz hybrids (Concepts of Non-Linear Time), nods to prog rock (The Lionheart), and much more. Additionally, he’s performed and/or orchestrated music for Keneally, Steve Vai, L. Shankar and Zakir Hussein, among others. His compositions and orchestrations seem to embrace complex musicality but with surprisingly little pretense or bloat. It’s a tough trick to pull off, but Opperman – an adjunct music professor at Montclair State University with a master’s degree in music theory/composition – is well-versed in the art of creating and presenting music that is both knotty and weirdly entertaining.
Opperman’s latest album, Chamber Music from Hell, certainly takes its cues from “serious” Zappa albums like Civilization Phaze III, The Perfect Stranger, and Jazz from Hell – the latter likely being the inspiration for the title of Opperman’s latest. But the influences certainly go deeper than that. An avowed fan of 20th century classical composers such as Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg – including the much-vaunted Second Viennese School – Chamber Music from Hell is massively ambitious, and takes more inspiration from modern classical than complex rock (although there is definitely some of that here as well).
Billed as “a contemporary classical concept album about a posthuman civilization and the music that follows,” Chamber Music from Hell was produced by Kurt Morgan – a longtime bass player in Dweezil Zappa’s band and certainly no stranger to multilayered, complex musical structures. There is certainly levity among the clusters of atonality – the opening track, “Where is Everybody” features a computerized voice asking the titular question over and over as a buzzing, sci-fi landscape hums underneath (the computer narration continues in various places throughout the album, keeping the dystopian concept alive). Then it’s off to the races with the rich, multifaceted “The Fermi Paradox,” featuring lightning-fast piano, flute and violin in a frenetically paced yet highly intricate compositional structure. The relentless pace continues with “Four No More,” a lively piece for flute, oboe and bassoon.
Like the music itself, the pacing of Chamber Music from Hell is refreshingly diverse. “Owl Flight,” performed by the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, is a somber, tense piece with drums and cymbals rolling and clattering across the sonic landscape, taking obvious inspiration from the percussion-centric compositions of Edgard Varèse. “Waking Up” combines synthetic water sounds with soaring strings that evoke anthemic film scores. Keneally – Opperman’s frequent partner in crime – brings his considerable guitar chops to “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?”, a bit of beautifully self-indulgent rock bombast (in the best possible way) among the album’s moodier, more dissonant classical moments.
Chamber Music from Hell’s two centerpiece compositions are actually multi-part works and may contain the album’s most ambitious moments – “Composition V” is a five-part, computer-programmed piece inspired by Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky and features flute, cello and clarinet sounds – likely executed on the Synclavier, Opperman and Zappa’s high-end keyboard sampler of choice. It’s a sheer joy to hear the synthesized yet highly realistic instrumentation come to life with such a blend of complexity and playfulness. “The Cribbage Variations,” which closes out the album, was commissioned by former Zappa bass player Scott Thunes and is a set of fifteen variations strictly based on the tone row from Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, featuring the same instrumentation. The piece, which moves along a variety of avenues, instruments, and tempi, is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s both a fitting tribute to the Herculean compositional prowess of Webern and the mad musical mind of Opperman.
It’s easy for anyone who finds joy in the classical forays of Zappa to love Chamber Music from Hell, but this isn’t blind hero worship or a lazy exercise in derivativeness. Chris Opperman is obviously a rabid fan of modern classical music – as well as a variety of other musical hybrids – and on this album, he has once again translated that love into a richly diverse collection of unusual and highly accomplished compositions and performances.