Frank Zappa on Edgar Varèse

By John Diliberto and Kimberly Haas

Down Beat, November 21, 1981

If any composer has come to epitomize the neglected genius, it is Edgar Varèse. Born in France in 1883, Varèse was a student protege and friend of 20th century masters such as Debussy, Busoni, Richard Strauss, Ravel, Picasso, and Rodin. His quest for artistic freedom and a release from the traditions and dogmatism of the classical music hierarchy placed him on a search for the "liberation of sound" that culminated in his moving to America. This search led him to the use of new and found instruments in the from of sirens, Chinese blocks and countless other percussives, a break from traditional tonalities and structures, and eventually to the use of magnetic tape constructions – "musique concrete" – in composition and performance.

Until the last decade of his life (he died in 1965), Varèse created in relative obscurity. His works were performed only as controversial premieres by the likes of Leopold Stokowski, and they never entered into the standard classical repertoire. In spite of a lack of recognition in his lifetime, Varèse's influence was widely felt by those who subsequently questioned the creativity and meaning of music. Composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and George Crumb have all sought answers based at least partially on Varèse's work. Charlie Parker begged to be taken on as a pupil of Varèse, and in recent years his shadow has hung over Joe Zawinul, whose dynamic percussion figures in "Unknown Soldier" are derived from Varèse's "Ionisation". Many artists from the AACM, such as the Art Ensemble Of Chicago and Anthony Braxton, have Varèse as a precursor in the use of "little instruments" and atonal structures. In rock, Pink Floyd's earlier works, such as "Atom Heart Mother" and the studio album of "Ummagumma", employ the use of tape constructions interpolated with real time playing a la Varèse's "Deserts".

But for many people the first knowledge of Varèse's name came from a 1966 LP entitled "Freak Out!" by the Mothers Of Invention, in the form of a quote attributed to Varèse: "The present day composer refuses to die" (He actually said "The present day composer in America ... "). Though he has been one of Varèse's most ardent public supporters, the Varèse influence is not always evident in Frank Zappa's rock songs. It turns up in his more serious music, tape constructions, and arrangements, especially on "Lumpy Gravy" and the "200 Motels" soundtrack. It is more Varèse's spirit of breaking from conventions and finding your own voice that one finds in Zappa's work.

This past spring, Zappa served as master-of-ceremonies at a Varèse retrospective conducted by Joel Thome with the Orchestra Of Our Time, playing to an audience for whom Zappa was the principle draw at New York City's Palladium Theatre. Zappa's obvious regard for Varèse's music served him well in a role reduced to keeping the audience quiet during the performances. The day before the concert, Kimberly Haas and John Diliberto interviewed Zappa, during which he elucidated a contemporary perspective on Varèse and his music.

John Diliberto: How did you first find out about Edgar Varèse?

Frank Zappa: That's a very simple story. I read an article in Look magazine in the early '50s which was a feature saying what a great guy Sam Goody was because he was such an exciting merchandiser and he could sell anything, he could sell any kind of record. And to give an example of what a great merchandiser he was, it said that he was even able to sell an album called "Ionisation" which had a bunch of drums banging, and it described the album in very negative terms. When I read that, I thought it sounded exactly like the kind of album that I wanted to hear because I had been playing drums since I was 12. So I went looking for the album and I finally found it after a couple of months' search, and I took it home, put it on, and I loved it as soon as I heard it.

JD: What year was that?

FZ: '53

JD: So Edgar Varèse was still really active at that time?

FZ: Well, as a matter of fact he was just becoming active again. He stopped composing pretty much around 1940 because nobody would play his music, and he couldn't earn a living. So he was messing with various other odd jobs trying to keep himself afloat, and he just stopped writing. When I called him up in 1955, he had either just finished or was in the process of working on "Deserts", which according to his wife Louise (I talked to her last night) he just sort of did bits and pieces on for 15 years. That was the one he started around the '40s and just didn't have any urge to complete because he knew nobody was going to play it.

JD: Do you think the fact that Varèse was alive and relatively active during the time when you were getting into his music affected you differently than if he was an older composer?

FZ: He was already quite old at that time, and I just liked it because of the way it sounded. It didn't have anything to do with the splendor and charm of all the folklore that goes with being a composer. I was dealing with it just as something that I heard that provided enjoyment for me.

JD: Do you think that your response would be different if you were hearing it for the first time now, with the background that you have?

FZ: No, the only difference would be that the background I have now is probably stronger in the technical field, and I'd be able to listen to a recording, say, and make judgments about the quality of production, the quality of the pressing, the quality of the engineering, and the quality of the performance. Whereas at that time I didn't know any of those kinds of things, and I just accepted it and liked it. Today I would make more critical distinctions between one performance and another; I have just about every record of any of his pieces that's available, and I do have my favorites among those.

JD: Do you think that people in general would have a different reaction if Varèse's music was happening now as opposed to 70, 60 years ago?

FZ: People would have a different reaction to it today depending on the packaging in which it was presented. For instance, if he suddenly jumped on the scene with his fingernails painted black, shocking orange hair, some funny-looking sunglasses, maybe a skinny tie and pants that were too short, pointed shoes, and he bopped around a little bit while the thing was being performed, it would probably register as very exciting and new. But if a man who looked like Varèse actually walked out and presented this to today's world, I don't think that people would be too stimulated by it.

JD: What aspects of his music do you think have been absorbed into contemporary music now? On one level, say, the contemporary pop level or the rock level and on another level the contemporary classical music level?

FZ: Anytime you watch a show on television and there's a scary scene and there's one sustained chord and one or two tiny little percussion bips in the background, you'll know the guy who wrote that movie score, that TV score, never would have thought of it unless Varèse had done it first, because percussion just wasn't used that way, and he proved that one little knock on the claves or one little boop on the temple block against a tense chord told so much about a certain topic; nobody had done anything like that before. He just said hey, this will work, and he did it and a lot of people when they hear that scary music don't know where a lot of the mechanisms of scary music came from. But he didn't write the things to be scary, I don't think, he just wrote them because he was dealing with the musical raw materials in a very individualistic way.

JD: I think Varèse often said he wanted to liberate sound from the limitations of the keyboard. Do you think that he succeeded in doing that in his music?

FZ: I don't know.

JD: Do you think he would have succeeded more so had he had access to a current synthesizer?

FZ: No, not necessarily, I mean he would have written a different kind of music. But the thing that is fantastic about what he wrote for normal instruments is that he got sounds out of them that nobody had dreamed of before. For instance, "Deserts", which is probably the starkest of the pieces in terms of the way they deal with the raw material, there're special overblown chords that produce difference tones, which you wouldn't be able to get any other way – you know what I'm talking about? If you take two intervals and play them very loudly on a woodwind instrument – for instance, this one spot where two piccolos are playing either a Major second or minor second apart, very high octave – when you blow it real hard you hear a third note that's not there. To know in advance what's going to come out and to plan your composition to achieve effects like that was something that people just hadn't thought of doing before.

JD: Do you think that Varèse's work with electronics was very influential on the academic level and on the pop level?

FZ: No, because the things that he was doing with electronics were probably related more to sculpture than they were to electronics. The tapes that he did were collages of sound sources and not necessarily electronic music as people think of it today.

JD: It was musique concrete.

FZ: Yeah, it was musique concrete.

JD: But he was still breaking into new territory at the time with "Poeme Electronique" and "Deserts".

FZ: Well, I don't know historically who came first – the chicken or the egg – in that realm. I know there were some other composers working in that medium at that time – I don't know who fired the first shot, so to speak – but he didn't really have good equipment to do it on. I mean some of the tapes were distorted, and I don't think that he wanted to hear that rough kind of sound. I think that some of the effects are gotten just by over-modulating input and saturating the tape. To me it's like a guy who didn't really know how a tape recorder worked and wanted this part to be really loud, he didn't know that if you just cranked it up it wouldn't get really loud, it would just get really shitty. I mean that's what it sounds like to me, he might have had something else in mind, but the equipment that he had access to was not very elaborate – things were pretty crude back then.

JD: In Varèse's biography there are times where Louise seems to indicate where Edgar, like Stravinsky, didn't like emotion in his music.

FZ: Well, it depends on how you're going to use the word "emotion". I think that from a scientific standpoint the way that materials are put together you wouldn't think of as an emotional procedure, but the materials have a very emotional impact when you hear them put together. And there are certain indications in the score that aren't just "play this loud, play this soft." There's one part in "Hyperprism" where the trombone player is instructed to say "ho ho ho" through his horn. That's not much of an emotion, but it's not exactly scientific either. And in either "Ameriques" or "Arcana" it has that little piccolo melody that's doubled with bells dancing along up on the top, and when he wrote that she told me that he would demonstrate it and whistle it and kind of dance around the room a little bit, and it was a cheerful thing – not all deadly serious in the sense that these are measured qualities being played against each other in order to yield this scientific result at the end of the piece. I mean, it's human music, and that's one of the reasons why I get such a good feeling from it – because it's not based on a mathematical formula. It's not like that other sterile kind of music that's really pretty hard to take. He's dealing with SOUND; he writes that stuff because it SOUNDS good. 

JD: That's one aspect that I wanted to get into, Varèse's breaking away from common melodies, common rhythms, and the way he was dealing with SOUNDS. Could you talk about that a little bit?

FZ: Well, a lot depends on how much you understand about ordinary music, you know, music of the so called "real world" and what people normally think of as being "acceptable" classical music and what they think of as being "quality" classical music – the good stuff that had gone before. My theory about all that runs something like this: as soon as it was discovered that a man or anybody, even a dog, could write something down with symbols that could be decoded by another person, or dog, later to produce music, it was discovered right about that same time that you couldn't earn a living from doing this. And it was also discovered that if you wanted to do this and hear music, you had to be patronized – somebody had to pay the freight – this was either the church or a king. If the church didn't like what you wrote, they got out the red-hot tweezers and pulled out your toenails; if the king didn't like what you wrote he'd chop your head off. The kings all had syphilis and were crazy, and the church was, you know, the church. So, just because somebody is paying to have a composition done or is paying to support a composer doesn't necessarily mean that the music that is written to assuage the taste of the paying entity is good, but all the music that survives that we call classical music is based on the taste of either a clerical person or some crazy rich person with a crown on his head. Those norms are perpetuated by music critics who now stand in the shoes of the disgusting clerics and the crazy kings, and they keep judging the music based on these norms which shouldn't be applied, and it's unfortunate that the norms came into existence in the first place.

JD: So how did Varèse move away from these norms?

FZ: He just said that this is wrong. I never spoke with him about it, but I would imagine from listening to the music that he just chucked the whole thing out the window, and said "I'm going to do it my way." It sounds like that because it doesn't depend on any of those mechanisms; it has a whole different set of mechanisms that makes it work, and it's very ingenious the way it's put together, and it's a very brave step to take.

JD: The one thing I notice about Varèse's music is that you have to approach it with different ears so you can feel what's going on.

FZ: Right! I'll give you another quote that I got from talking to Louise yesterday. She told me, "I'm not a musician, I don't have any technical skill and I like his music," and she said that she asked Varèse to teach her some music, and he said it's not necessary – "just be like a blotter and absorb it."

Kimberly Haas: In retrospect, I've seen musical historians call Varèse the most influential or the most innovative composer of the 20th century. Do you think that is true?

FZ: Well, I would say that he's not the most influential. He was probably the most innovative in terms of one guy against the world setting out on his own and doing individualistic-type things. Probably the most influential composer in terms of how many people imitated his style, in recent years, that award would go to Webern first, for being the founder of the "boop-beep" school and also to Penderecki because of the "texture" music that a lot of people imitate. But I think that even his music grows out of some of the textural experiments that Varèse did.

KH: What about Aaron Copland?

FZ: I think Aaron Copland probably did more to foster the stereotype of American music as being any symphonic event that has a xylophone doubling the violin section. There is so much American music that has been written by the American academic branch of composition and you're going: "Hey it's an American symphony they're playing – it's a hoedown tune and there's a xylophone doubling the melody on top." I mean there're certain things that Copland has written that I really enjoy, like the "Fanfare For The Common Man" is one of the really hot tunes of the century I think, but there's something too easy about it.

KH: It seems like he's the mentor of many, many composer today.

FZ: Well, if you want to be immediately accepted all you have to do is write those American kind of tunes, put them in an orchestral setting, and then everybody will say that you are really great. Or you write fugues – well who gives a shit about that? That's not the problem anymore. I mean if you want to write a fugue, fine, but to use all of those norms to judge the quality of what's being done ... . that's a bad thing because there're people working in other fields of music looking to do other things, and as long as the music critics judge their work by those other standards, they're always going to come up losers. And with the public only being told negative things about new music, this image being perpetuated of this music being something for the few, is bad; it keeps you dumb; it keeps you mediocre. America should take pride in things that have been produced here that are exceptional, that are different, that are daring, not things that pretend to be artistic, things that pretend to be different, or things that pretend to be daring. America should opt for the real shit. But they don't because they never get exposed to it. The really dangerous stuff never gets on the radio, and you never hear about it. Because everything you hear about the so-called musical life in the United States is told to you in newspapers and magazines by people who are not qualified to speak of it, because they can't tell a good composition from a bad one, and they can't tell the difference between a great composition that has been badly performed or a mediocre composition that got the big MOLTO VIBRATO treatment by a major American orchestra. There's no taste involved there.

KH: I've never seen any of Varèse's music performed in concert. Is it captured well on record, compared to the performance?

FZ: It's two different experiences. In the performance you can see what the people have to go through in order to play it, and that's exciting; remember that when you go to a concert, easily 50 percent of what you experience is visual. But on record I would say that I've heard a couple of the pieces that I thought got real good performances. But not all of them have been performed greatly, yet. You know they're just sort of mediocre performances, because nobody spends the amount of time to perfect the recording. You hear of groups like Fleetwood Mac spending $1,300,000 over 13 months in the studio to record "Tusk", and they don't spend anywhere near that to get a good performance of orchestral music because the records don't sell, and the companies that put the records out don't want to invest a disproportionate amount of money on something that's not going to bring them a return.

KH: It was the last couple of years of his life, during the early '60s, when Varèse finally got some acclaim here. The way it's always described, it's like he got his first recognition from Columbia Records, and then all of a sudden everyone was applauding him.

FZ: I think that in order for him to make it, he had to get on Columbia Records so that the pieces could be heard, so that there could be some distribution of the pieces. I know that if Columbia hadn't recorded the music and done a certain amount of promotion for the release of those albums, then his royalties during the last years of his life wouldn't have been what they were. He actually managed to make $6,000.

KH: Do you think Varèse might have achieved his acclaim earlier, or that his career might have gone differently, if he had stayed in Europe?

FZ: If he had stayed in Germany, I don't know, it's hard for me to speculate about that because I'm not familiar with that part of his career. He did go to Europe for a while and achieved more success in France during the '30s than he had experienced in the United States. Even the critics that didn't like his music didn't dismiss him as a buffoon. You know, he was written about in the United States like he was some kind of quack who didn't know what he was doing, but even the people who didn't really care for the pieces in Paris still admitted the fact that he was a genius and he was definitely doing something that nobody had attempted to do before. Americans don't give you that break; everything in America is designed to be mediocre – everybody craves mediocrity here – and it's the wrong way to do it. Life is more fun with a few things that are excellent, that can be appreciated, you know. Life doesn't get better if everybody is that same; that's boring. You want that, move to Russia. Put on a grey suit and everybody do the same thing, work the same job. Being in a land that is supposed to provide opportunities to do things that are personal and individual – they're punished here. That's the temper of the times. You do something that is really daring, and you take your life in you hands. Everybody goes for the mediocre stuff.

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