Music by the Zappa-Boulez Duo

By Michael Zwerin

International Herald Tribune, January 10, 1984

PARIS – Frank Zappa is on the road alone. He has been here since New Year’s Eve without his rock band, road crew, personal manager and bodyguard, which means he has to carry his own money, hail cabs, make his own appointments and call his bank to make sure the musicians are paid.

Last night, Pierre Boulez and his prestigious Ensemble Intercontemporain were scheduled to perform three of Zappa’s classical compositions at the Théâtre de la Ville. with the jumpy composer in the audience. The compositions are being recorded today and tomorrow – that is, if Zappa got through to his bank. One record company had proposed unrealistic financial conditions and another sent an unsatisfactory last-minute telex. During a rehearsal break on Friday, Zappa mumbled through his world-famous mustache: “I hate record companies.”

He was sitting at a table next to the rehearsal room podium turning score pages, as a serious and concentrated Boulez conducted the run-through. There was only one hour allotted for him, and there would be just one more hour on the afternoon of the performance. Zappa took notes and when the hour was over, he discussed a long list of corrections with Boulez at the lectern, while Boulez took notes.

The music is reminiscent of Stravinsky, Berg or Zappa’s early hero Edgar Varèse. “It has melody, chords and strict rhythms,” Zappa explained, “pretty old-fashioned stuff, but that’s what I want to hear.” One of the ensembles young musicians remarked that he had heard this kind of music before and would prefer to play something closer to Zappa’s rock. Zappa remarked that he would prefer to have his music played as written.

Later the same day, in the lobby of his hotel – an extremely expensive hotel few classical composers could afford – Zappa said: “My rock’n’roll band plays stuff like 10 notes in 3 beats or 9 over 7 all the time, though that seems to be difficult for an orchestra  that is not used to that sort of thing. But if you happen to like to write classical music you also have to get used to the fact that it is under-financed, the time allotted for rehearsals is inevitably insufficient and if it’s played anywhere near accurately it’s a miracle.

At the age of 14, Zappa was living in a “little stinky cowboy town” called El Cajon, near San Diego, playing snare drum in junior high school orchestra. Rehearsals were boring, he was always counting rests. Then one day he walked into a record store in neighboring La Mesa and was “bowled over” by a recording the store was playing as a hi-fi demonstration:  ’The Complete Works of Edgar Varèse, Vol 1’, which was “swimming in percussion.”

“Two months later I bought a recording of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring.’ Those were the only two albums I owned. Everything else was R&B singles by people like The Orchids. My friends would come to my house and I’d say. ‘Hey, listen to this,’ and they’d say, ‘You’re crazy. Take that of.’”

So the boy who was to be become a 1960s rock star with 1980s staying power began to write classical music (“I learned how from a book.”). It was performed only after his popular music allowed him to afford such a luxury. His symphonic works have recently been played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra and Boulez says he takes Zappa’s compositions very seriously. “I am interested by instrumental styles and disciplines that some from outside the usual ‘classical’ area,” Boulez said.

Zappa’s rock is itself “classical;” structured, ambitious, heavily orchestrated, with shifting tempos, keys, dynamics and textures played with incredible precision. He frequently conducts his band with a baton, stiff-backed, as though a symphony orchestra ought to be there. Boulez was impressed when he went to hear Zappa’s highly tooled rock some years ago, Zappa sent him some scores and this performance resulted.

The three pieces, which total a little more than 20 minutes and should constitute one side of the record are called “Perfect Stranger,” “Naval Aviation in Art?” and “Dupree’s Paradise.”  “Perfect Stranger” starts with a perfect third on the chimes, a vacuum cleaner salesman ringing a doorbell, and if you have that clue you can hear a hose sucking air in the middle. But it is not an essential clue, Zappa says: “Somebody asked Varèse why he named his pieces things like ‘Ionization’ and he said ‘It serves as a convenient way of cataloging the work.’ I mean. ‘Til Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks’ has already been used, so I have to find some other title, don’t I? 

“Somehow I stumbled on an article from an old Life magazine that had paintings done by guys on warships, planes going down and stuff like that. It was headed ‘Naval Aviation in Art.’ Are we supposed to take this seriously or what? I added the question mark.”

“Dupree’s Paradise” is the name of a bar in Watts “where we used to go for 6 A.M. jam sessions.”

On the difference between classical and rock musicians: “I hire the guys in my band myself, I have a psychological profile of them before we get to play anything. And usually you find with rock musicians a strong motivation to be spectacular on stage because after the show they’re looking for that groupie at the end of the rainbow. I’ve got some pretty distressing-looking individuals in my band but sill they’re convinced that if they play good they’re going to score. You take that into consideration when you hire the guy. What does it take to get a good performance out of him? The important thing is to get the piece played properly.

“Classical musicians are generally totally bored. It’s a constant battle to make people pay attention to what they’re doing. They often have no desire to hear the sounds they’re making.”

The other side of the record will be computer music he is writing on his Synclavier in the studio in his Los Angeles home, where he lives with his wife and four children: “There are also two engineers, two maintenance guys, a secretary and a carpenter generally around the house. I have what I consider one of the best digital recording studios in the world. I’ve got a new rock record coming out in six weeks. Writing classical music takes up little of my time because I’ve got a big overhead and it’s the least lucrative thing that I do.

“One nice thing about a computer is that you don’t have to worry about 9 over 7 coming out right. Everything is always lined up properly. I tell the machine what to do and it does it.”

Then why bother to write for real musicians?

“Look at it from my point of view. Pierre Boulez, one of the most famous contemporary musicians in the world asked me to write something for his ensemble which is, like the primo creamo of the contempo worldo; am I supposed to say no? Secondly the computer can not tell you the emotional story. It can give you the exact mathematical design, but what’s missing is the eyebrows.”

It was Friday and Zappa was going to have to move fast or this week’s recording session could not be set up to follow the Monday concert. So he excused himself: ”I have to go up to my room and call my bank in California. The ultimate indignity for a composer, to have to call his bank so he can get his music played.”