Frank Zappa's not only in it for the money

By Derk Richardson

Bay Guardian, February 2, 1983

... and that's why he is conducting the SF Contemporary Music Players performing the music of Edgard Varèse.

When the phone rang at midnight, shattering the chilly, drowsy silence, it was bound to be Frank Zappa. By my semiautomatic time-zone calculation, it was 3 am in New York City when I plugged in the tape recorder. Three nights had been idled away waiting for a call from the eccentric rock and roller, founder of the Mothers of Invention, promulgator of Valley Girlism and “serious music” composer. Hope that the interview would take place was just slipping away when suddenly, announced by the clamorous ring, Zappa was ready —  ready to talk about his teenage idol, 20th century music composer Edgard Varèse.

Zappa is coming to the War Memorial Opera House next Wednesday, Feb. 9th, to conduct the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players in two works by Varèse. The program, a centennial celebration of the births of Varèse and Viennese composer Anton Webern, will also feature the Contemporary Music Players’ cofounder, Jean-Louis LeRoux, conducting the Webern selections and additional pieces by Varèse. This is not only the first time Zappa will conduct a classical chamber ensemble, but, he said, “It’ll be the first time I’ve conducted anything by anybody else.”

Waiting for Frank Zappa is a prerequisite for following the career of one of the most prolific and eclectic artists to have evolved out of the 1960s rock generation. His credits include over 300 recorded compositions, six albums in the last three years alone, revealing influences ranging from Varèse to Howlin’ Wolf. The endurance test that following Zappa’s career has been has often rewarded the patient listener with provocative humor, shrewd insight and musical intrigue — when it hasn’t ended in insult or self-indulgent weirdness.

Zappa’s fans had to wait 15 years after the release of the Mothers’ Freak Out for Zappa to score his first, genuine smash hit, “Valley Girl,” which made his daughter, Moon, more of a 1982 pop celebrity than Frank himself. Less hard-core Zappaphiles, who reluctantly waded through his misanthropic satires of ordinary dumbness and scatological redundancies to get to the musical pearls, were recompensed with 1981’s Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar, a three-record set of purely instrumental music with a ton of lead guitar by Zappa. Now, all of those who’ve wondered about this guy Varèse, whom Zappa has championed since the  ’60s, and about Zappa’s professed desire to record “serious” orchestral music, are about to be invited to the pay-off window.

Varèse‘s influence

Edgard Varèse, credited by many with introducing ostensibly “non-musical” sound into modern “classical” music, was born in Paris in 1883, lived much of his life in New York and composed a seldom-performed but extremely influential body of work, including “Ionisation’’ (1931), ‘‘Integrales” (1924-25), “Ameriques” (1922), “Arcana” (1927) and “Deserts” (1954). His work with tapes in the 1930s presaged the advent of electronic music. He died in 1965.

Frank Zappa was 15 when he discovered Varèse, first in a disparaging reference in Look magazine and then on a scratchy, used album, The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One. “For four years that was the only LP that I owned,” Zappa said from New York, munching on a sandwich and washing it down with coffee. “I used to play it every day and it seemed very normal and natural to me.” And lest anyone assume that you must have a trained ear and a refined understanding to appreciate Varèse, Zappa added, “When I got it I was a 15-year-old kid with no musical education whatsoever. I heard it and said, ‘Yeah, that’s entirely too correct.’ I loved it. ... I went directly from Howlin’ Wolf to Edgard Varèse, no problem. It’s on an animal level, I think.”

As his own musical career developed and he ran up against the stone wall of the conservative music establishment, Zappa’s kinship with Varèse grew. Initially, there was the attraction of Varèse’s unique compositional approach, bound to appeal to the longhaired San Diego kid who would write “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.”

“The problem of writing a piece of music,” Zappa explained, “is the problem of solving the blank page question. You’ve got a blank piece of paper: what kind of dots are you gonna put on there that will ultimately convert itself into sound waves? For my own taste, Varèse’s solutions seem far more rational than other solutions that have been offered by other people throughout the years.”

“You have to understand,” he continued, “that all the musical norms that they teach students in school are really compilations of the various habits of all the composers of the past. The harmony books and the counterpoint books, those aren’t rules that were carved in a stone tablet on a mountain someplace. Those are collections of the habitual patterns and styles of various people. And it seems like Varèse looked at all that and said, ‘This is not for me,’ and came up with another way to do things, and I like that attitude. ... To my taste, a lot of the so-called classical composers provide me with no thrills because there’s no mystery to what they do. It’s formula music. Just because the classical stuff was written by dead people doesn’t necessarily make it great music.”

Beyond rock and roll

And just because Frank Zappa, now 42, has a long track record, his own record label and a couple of oddly named children doesn’t mean that his own non-rock compositions will be much more widely heard than Varèse’s. It was not until January 1983 that Zappa was able to have some of his own orchestral pieces performed and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, and it won’t be until next January that French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez will perform and record the compositions he commissioned from Zappa.

So while Zappa never met Varèse (he did, as an awestruck teen, correspond with his idol), what began as a musical affinity grew into an artistic bond forged by the exigencies of the music “industry.” “It’s probably the same as happens to every composer who writes for large orchestras,” Zappa said of his frustrations, “and it’s probably one of the reasons why most modern composers don’t write in that vein. Because it’s so fuckin’ hard to get anybody to play it. And these guys (the London Symphony Orchestra) wouldn’t have played it if I hadn’t raised the money myself and financed the project.”

Probe Zappa about the reasons “new music” isn’t more widely played, and you get an articulate rapid-fire lecture on the pernicious plutocratic system resting on the backs of the stupid slobs. “I’ve always felt that the business of serous music in the United States was really an insidious, conspiratorial situation,” Zappa said. “This is my own personal jaded view backed up by no statistics. Orchestras like to look good and so do the conductors. There’s no way that an orchestra or a conductor is gonna look good by playing a hard piece of music or an unusual piece of music with today’s budgets for rehearsals because the piece isn’t gonna come off until it’s really perfected.

“Whereas, if you limit your repertoire to music of dead people who wrote easy notes, many of which could be hummed by people in the audience, and if those pieces were already part of the repertoire that the individual members of the orchestra learned while they were in a conservatory, that puts it roughly on the plane of musicians who work in a bar and a guy comes in and he wants to jam, right? So what do you jam on? The lowest common denominator. The easiest thing you can get away with is ‘Louie, Louie,’ something really crummy like that.”

And the conductors? “If you look good from the back, then all the little old ladies say, ‘He’s a great conductor.’ And the way these guys make their money is not staying in one place and being a great swooning conductor, but by spreading their aura across vast continental areas as a guest conductor. It’s mix and match. So how are these people gonna play anything new? Or why should they when they can keep this fuckin’ scam going for centuries because the American public will never know the difference.”

Which brings us to the people: “Americans always like to think of themselves as very modern, raring to go for the future. But they’re not, they’re fucking terrified of it. Artistically, this is probably the most chicken-shit nation on earth. It just won’t try anything because all their taste is made for them by people who are even dumber than they are, people with a narrower view.” End of sermon.

Creative crazies

Without a doubt, Zappa is very serous about all this. But in the past he would content himself with dropping Varèse’s name, working privately on his serious music and penning ever more vitriolic rock and roll diatribes against the common lout. Even now, when pressed as to whether he finds anything of value in popular culture, Zappa will answer rotely as if he is reading his words in print and is already bored. “I believe that anybody is entitled to enjoy any kind of music they like and have as much of it as they want at a reasonable price,” he said.

But belying that liberal pluralism is his belief that “the basic problem is a mental health problem. Because the thing that keeps the artist isolated is the bad mental health of the people who consume art. It gets back to that fear of the unknown. A person who doesn’t do art can’t conceive of how art can be done. It’s scary to them and all that is reinforced by TV and the movies. Whenever an artist is shown it’s always as some kind of deranged crazy, like they have the creative disease.”

And now, instead of just blatting his contempt, Zappa is putting himself out to reunite at least one artist with a contemporary audience. By lifting his baton for Varèse, Zappa is lending himself in a new and perhaps more vulnerable way to a venture he believes in as more than a public relations effort. He does have grander projects in the works. In New York, Zappa was negotiating with theatrical producer Joseph Papp about a prospective Broadway musical. And if that doesn’t come off, he will consider doing film scores back in Los Angeles for upcoming productions of Scarface and Dune.

But, even if he purports to believe that “this concert won’t change anybody’s mind,” Zappa gives import to next week’s evening of Varèse. As late as the end of January, he still did not know whether he would conduct only the percussive “Ionisation” or would also attempt the more complicated “Integrales.” “If I’m gonna stand up and wave a stick,” he said, “I don’t wanna just be a hood ornament just waving my arms while the musicians pretend to watch me and then go their own direction.”

Longtime Zappa fans who relish his perverse and exotic rock and roll, however, should not worry that their avatar of anti-pop is abandoning the genre that produced Uncle Meat and You Are What You Is. “No way,” he said in his insistent deadpan. “Cause I have to earn a living and I certainly can’t do it by conducting or doing orchestra recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra. No Way. It can’t be denied, this is America, my boy. No fucking way.”

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)