Les Fradkin

Les Fradkin is best known for being a member of the original cast of the hit Broadway show Beatlemania. He is an innovator on the Starr Labs Ztar and a virtuoso MIDI guitarist, defining his music as symphonic rock. Les is featured on our Progstravaganza XIV: Timeshift compilation and this was a good opportunity to have him interviewed for Prog Sphere.

Q: When did you first pick up music? What were some of your musical influences growing up? Tell us something more on your beginnings.

A: I’m both a Classically trained musician (Piano, Organ, Harpsichord, Timpani and Orchestration) and a rock guitarist and keyboardist (Guitar, Mellotron, Moog Modular, Organ, Bass Guitar). Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were introduced to me at a very early age by my Mother who was a Classical Concert Pianist. I loved Bach’s work immediately. It spoke to me, as did Mozart, Paganini, Vivaldi and other Classical and Baroque composers.

When The Beatles, The Left Banke, Procol Harum, The Moody Blues, King Crimson, The Yardbirds, Renaissance, Wendy Carlos, Stories, Silver Apples, Yes and other Artists came along, I saw that Classical, Baroque, Electronic sounds and Rock could be effectively combined. I wanted that Poly stylistic synthesis for my own music. As for Rock guitar, as a beginner, I started off with learning guitar music by The Ventures, The Beatles and other bands. The Ventures, The Yardbirds, Cream and George Harrison pointed the way to my lead guitar style which evolved from listening to a lot of Nokie Edwards, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and George Harrison solos. As time moved along, the Mellotron and the Moog gave me a way to portray symphonic sounds in a rock context. My influences there were King Crimson, Yes, ELP, Renaissance and Wendy Carlos.

Q: There are not many MIDI guitarists in the progressive rock world.

A: With traditional electric guitar, the number of famous guitarists is wide and the list is long. The list of prominent MIDI Guitarists is quite a bit more compact. In fact, Wikipedia lists me as one of the Top 25 Guitar Synthesizer players in the world. An honor, really. :-)


Q: I am not sure it is fine to label what you do as a progressive rock. Would you help me find some answers on this?

A: I have always referred to what I do as “Symphonic Rock”. Wikipedia defines this as follows: “Symphonic rock can be described as the combining of progressive rock with classical music traditions. Some artists perform rock arrangements of themes from classical music or compose original pieces in classical composition structures. Additionally, they may play with the accompaniment of a symphony orchestra or use a synthesizer or mellotron to emulate orchestral instruments.” This appears to be a fairly accurate description of what I do, musically. Symphonic Rock is categorized by Wikipedia as a sub genre of Progressive Rock.

As to whether the criteria for the label of “Progressive Rock” might apply for what I do, let’s explore that a little bit. Wikipedia defines “Progressive Rock” as follows: “Bands abandoned the short pop single in favor of instrumentation and compositional techniques more frequently associated with jazz or classical music in an effort to give rock music the same level of musical sophistication and critical respect. Songs were replaced by musical suites that often stretched to 20 or 40 minutes in length and contained symphonic influences, extended musical themes, fantasy-like ambiance and lyrics, and complex orchestrations.”

So let’s discuss this “definition”, for comparisons sake, in terms of what I do. My music uses Classical influences and performance techniques and approaches as it’s basic format, sometimes in short Pop culture “Song” form, other times, in longer traditional Classical forms. It would be, for myself, tough NOT to do this as I am a trained Classical musician. I play music, with the combined resources of Classical performance technique, merged with a Progressive Rock sonic texture (I often use the Moog Modular and Mellotron as my lead sounds) and, with the Ztar as triggering medium, can perform any part of a self composed, or existing Classical or Progressive Rock score, from a guitar-like instrument, regardless of the nature of the original orchestration. My specific approach is, perhaps, the reverse of many other Progressive Rock musicians who, customarily start with a rock, folk, or jazz base, and “incorporate” symphonic influences in their arrangements). By contrast, I tend to start with a heavier Classical foundation (in the manner of the first Renaissance LP) and mix in progressive rock instrumentation (Moog Modular, Mellotron, Bas Guitar, Electric and acoustic guitars, B-3, Drums, etc.).

With respect to “musical suites that often stretched to 20 or 40 minutes in length and contained symphonic influences”, the “Suite for Ztar and Orchestra in G Minor” is a Musical suite which is 48 minutes in length. It certainly contains “symphonic influences”, specifically, Bach, Vivaldi and Paganini with respect to composition, performance technique and Orchestration, The “Suite” offers “extended musical themes” (variations on Bach’s works), “fantasy like ambience” (the electronic sections serve to offer that ambience, or, to put it another way, create hybrids to realize undiscovered territory, as the best Progressive Rock always strives to do) and “complex orchestrations”. Some of those Orchestrations are a hybrid of Baroque music, Electronic and Progressive Rock approaches. Some of these Orchestrations are a bit more complex than you might find in some Progressive Rock applications, in that they contain more involved use of Classical thematic content than one might find in Prog but are more commonly found in “Symphonic Rock”. There are some precedents for this in Progressive Rock (“Egg”, “Yes”, King Crimson”, ELP, The Nice, Renaissance). There are no lyrics, because I am an instrumentalist. And, with respect to a more “Progressive” approach, I do all this as a One Man Band/Orchestra, something, you arguably, never see in Classical Music and seldom see in Prog. Rick Wakeman and Mike Oldfield come to mind as an examples of a Progressive Rock Soloist’s approach.


Q: So, why MIDI guitar?

A: I have been playing Midi Guitar since 1983 (the birth of MIDI). Midi Guitar allows me to express multiple timbres from a guitar like instrument. For myself, Midi Guitar is a superior format. I am not a Blues influenced player and Midi Guitar offers more timbral variety. I used to play a Synth Axe, which while, it solved some problems (speed, accuracy), lacked in other areas (very weighty, not very portable for touring). It has taken a long time to find a MIDI Guitar (SynthAxe, excepted) that would transcend Pitch to Midi limitations, because the Baroque trills, hammer ons and other Vivaldi, Paganini and Bach-like performance techniques that I routinely employ, do not translate well to Pitch to Midi technology for guitar. Of course, in solving those performance challenges with the Ztar, other issues opened up that required a new technique, new tunings and new solutions. Actually,

I consider the Ztar to be an entirely NEW class of musical instrument. After all, the fretboard of the Ztar consists of buttons, not strings. And those buttons can transmit many messages besides just note on and note off. For example, the simple act of note bending has to be defined in a new way on this instrument. And there are many ways to define that with a Ztar- Neck sensors, ribbon controller, joystick, Touch Caps, aftertouch, etc. My vibrato and Pitch bend approaches vary, depending on the piece I’m playing. So, perhaps, that signifies a tradeoff in traditional guitar performance technique, that I, for one, was willing to make. In my opinion, my life observations have shown me that every musician, whether professional or amateur, establishes priorities that they use to make decisions as to what equipment will serve their vision.

The Ztar, as a specific type of Midi Guitar is, for me, a logical choice for what I do for these reasons:

a) I needed a Midi Guitar so that I could trigger symphonic sounds, Mellotron, Moog, as well as drums, bass, guitars, etc. Previous technologies did this but forced compromises I could not overcome with respect to proper performance technique. I, like Robert Fripp, embrace the necessity for proper technique if one is to realize one’s “craft”. I needed a Midi Guitar that didn’t suffer from tracking delay, was ultra portable and was light and compact and designed to be optimally used with a Mac Laptop. You know, I got tired of playing on top of the beat for 30 years!

b) I needed to perform on an instrument that could be used in a Solo context, as would a guitarist, and perform many different instrument sonic textures, all, switchable, at an instant. This complexity of setup across the fretboard of a conventional electric guitar, was not possible with earlier Pitch to Midi systems. And it’s certainly difficult with the Mellotron Mk II, a double keyboard instrument I used to own and regularly use. In fact, I still trigger those sounds to this day from the Ztar, via MIDI.

c) The Ztar is a very distinctive and novel instrument. I can play leads and accompaniments live that are impossible to play with only two hands on conventional instruments.The Ztar is completely Polyphonic on a per string basis. It yields Polyphonic voicings you wouldn’t hear on other instruments. A traditional acoustic or electric guitar can only play one note per string. That limitation is not present in the Ztar.

d) The Ztar allows me to explore completely new tunings, discard the chromatic scale, layer and mix sonic textures in a manner not possible on conventional instruments.

e) I chose the Ztar because it gives me a distinctive identity. And it’s about exploring new musical approaches to performance techniques. It always offers a new challenge.

f) It’s a “guitar” but it isn’t just, a guitar. With the exception of my Guitar spot in Beatlemania, all my innovations as a composer, producer, player and innovator have occurred thru the use of electronic musical instrument technology such as Mellotron, SynthAxe, Synclavier, Yamaha QX1, TX-816, etc. In fact, I was the Pioneer of Midi Guitar for use in Television Music. The Ztar allows me to continue to innovate in that tradition:


Q: I assume that MIDI guitar technique is more similar to a Chapman Stick tapping technique. Can you tell us something more on how the recording on this instrument looks like?

A: I generally Tap the Ztar like one would, a Chapman Stick. But I also use the string triggers, when I need to emulate a Classical or electric lead Guitar. So although the Ztar can be tapped like a Chapman Stick, it’s scales are not constrained to normal chromatic scales, as you would find with the Stick which uses strings across it’s fretboard. And the speeds at which I can play are, arguably, faster than can be realized on any other MIDI Guitar. In fact, each button of the Ztar, across the neck fretboard, can be tuned to any Pitch(es), in any sequential order, and layered in up to 8 mapped tunings and up to 32 zones. There is a very sophisticated Computer built into the body of the Ztar. It’s used to program MIDI setups, response curves, Program Changes, zones, etc. I always record to Ableton Live and / or Digital Performer on a Mac Mini Quad Core. For the Suite, I also recorded with Reason 7. It has a number of special effects, unique to that program which became intrinsic to the compositional approach of the Suite. For live, I use a Mac Book Laptop with Ableton Live which operates the Clip cues and busses the various synth and Mellotron sounds across 15 MIDI channels. Channel 16 is reserved for Clip cueing, and other MIDI functions in Ableton Live. I do not use wireless in the studio since it’s unnecessary, only on stage. The real programming challenge comes when preparing the Ztar for a live performance of my music. It generally takes 8 hours per tune to prepare the programs which routinely contain as many as 16 to 32 zones. I have to program zones to organize where things could be played, with comfort. Often, I’ll alter the scale tuning if I don’t have enough frets in a particular zone or use 3 or 4 nested tuning maps to play a left and right hand chordal accompaniment with shifting inversions on a single series of buttons across a single fret. You can’t do that with a conventional guitar. Of course, constant practice must be a regimen every day, since maintaing Ztar technique and speed requires vigilance and dedication to craft.

Q: When working on parts that demand classical or electric guitar, do you use emulators for your MIDI guitar or “real” instruments?

A: With classical guitar parts, I always work with a collection of sampled guitars. For electric guitar, it varies from real instruments (Rickenbacker 12 string, Fender Stratocaster, Gibson and Epiphone G-1275 6/12 Double Neck and Rickenbacker bass) in the studio, to samples on some of the pieces. It really depends on the music as to which I use.

Q: Your 2013′s album “Suite for Ztar and Orchestra” is a symphonic progressive rock piece based on J.S. Bach’s inventions. How long did it take you to complete the work on this album?

A: Yes, it is, indeed, as you suggest, a symphonic Progressive rock work! Actually, the Suite is not based on Bach’s “Inventions”. It is based on a variety and selection of various Bach works including Sonatas for solo Violin, Toccatas for Organ, a couple of Double Concertos and a couple of Brandenburg Concertos (#3 and #5). Only Invention #8 in F Major appears as part of this Suite. The album took about a little over a year to finish.

Q: What is your connection with Bach?

A: It was the very first music I was exposed to. And I love it!

Q: You added your own variations on top of the Bach tracks on “Suite for Ztar and Orchestra”. How have you approached them?

A: I record each line of the score, one overdub at a time. Generally, a chordal sketch or top line melody, followed by accompaniment. For example, when I’m recreating a Bach score, I record that first to a click track, and then, I layer on the Rock accompaniment. This is the reverse of how rock bands generally handle Classical influence or Orchestral arrangements. It is probably the main reason that my musical approach shows a strong Classical influence. I like to work in small sections, sometimes, a couple of bars at a time, the way a painter brush strokes a canvas, one segment at a time or the way a Classical Composer writes a score, one section at a time. When all the segments are done, I assemble the sections linearly for final mix down. This approach gives me the opportunity to assemble intros and outros which only become apparent as variation ideas, after the initial work is done. Each composition has to be programmed for tuning, synth setup, sonic choices, response curves and where on there fretboard it can/might be played. This requires in depth knowledge of the MIDI spec and takes great patience. It is not for the MIDI faint of heart.

Q: Were there any reactions from the classical music community regarding your work on Suite? What does the reception look like?

A: Well, so far, a number of prominent Conductors seem to like it very much. I’m followed on Twitter by over 80 Orchestras, conductors and Classical musicians, so, despite the noteworthy conservatism of the Classical community, I suspect and hope that this work is making some positive inroads. Since it’s a hybrid, it represents a bit of a challenge to preconceived notions of what might be possible with respect to Bach..

Q: We mentioned your connection with classical music, but what about progressive rock? On your 2010′s album “Hyper Midi Guitar” you covered King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”, Yes’ “Roundabout”, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”, etc. How hard was it for you to adapt these technically demanding tunes to your template?

A: Yes, they are, to a certain extent, technically demanding. That said, there were a number of performance innovations that had to be developed by me in order to realize some of these works in a Midi Guitar context. And that could only be done on a Ztar. Pitch to MIDI systems, as Robert Fripp has correctly noted, are not fast enough (too much tracking delay) and I had to develop several different tunings and pitch bend and vibrato approaches to solve certain problems of performance. For example, Robert Plant’s “Tarzan”-like scream on “Immigrant Song” is played by tapping with the left hand on the fretboard, whilst manipulating the ribbon control with the right. The Ribbon is not only controlling pitch bend but is altering delay feedback at the same time. As a matter of note, each sensor on the Ztar can send up to 8 messages at once. The King Crimson piece presented a number of interesting challenges, not the least of which was Michael Giles’ drumming score. Tuning a section of the fretboard in Unison mode (every note is the same pitch) allowed me to execute flam and different attack variations across the drum kit to recreate his distinctive approach to percussion. “Roundabout” had it’s own issues. Guitar harmonics, backwards piano, B-3 phrases, etc. All of these were solved and realized with different programming solutions on the Ztar. Generally, that Hyper Midi Guitar album was recorded to show that the Ztar could recreate different Classic Rock and Progressive Rock sounds.

Q: What is your look on the modern technology in music?

A: Well, things are moving so fast that, eventually, humans might not be able to keep up! I remain concerned that technology gives many people, too many choices. This, if misused, can result in sterile “music”. It can also result in genius creations. So I suppose, it depends on which technology we speak of, and who specially is using it, and for what purpose. My purpose is to use technology to achieve music which can’t be done by a single musician live, in real time, with conventional approaches. For myself, I simply see the Ztar as a logical development in my quest, since the introduction of the Mellotron, to find a way to express and record symphonic and rock sounds in a single manageable instrument from a single player using unconventional approaches.

Les Fradkin as George Harrison

Les Fradkin as George Harrison

Q: How do you look at the 1977′s Broadway Beatlemania show from this time distance?

A: “Beatlemania” is a great memory. We made history and I’m proud of what we collectively accomplished. We were a great Team.

Q: What are your future plans?

A: I see myself as a painter of sonic canvases with a musical vision and I’m creating that canvas, one brush stroke at a time. I do feel that the “Suite for Ztar and Orchestra” is the best CD of my career. Hopefully, your readers will agree.

Nikola Savić is a prog enthusiast, blogger and author, in addition to being the founder of Prog Sphere, Progify, ProgLyrics and the ongoing Progstravaganza compilation series.

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