Meeting Zappa

By Nicolas Slonimsky

Harper's Magazine, April 1988

From Perfect Pitch: A Life Story, by Nicolas Slonimsky, published in March by Oxford University Press. Slonimsky, who was born in Petersburg in 1894, is a pianist, composer, musicologist, and conductor.

One late Saturday evening in the spring of 1981, I received a telephone call. "Nicolas Slonimsky?" (correctly pronounced) the caller inquired. "This is Frank Zappa. I never realized you were in Los Angeles, and I want so much to get in touch with you about your book of scales." I was startled. Frank Zappa was the last person who, to my mind, could be interested in my theoretico-musical inventions. His name was familiar to me from a promotional album jacket showing him seated on the john with his denuded left thigh in view, and the legend in large letters: PHI KRAPPA ZAPPA.

We arranged to meet on the following Monday at 2:30 in the afternoon, and at the appointed time on the appointed day his assistant knocked at my door. I stepped out of my apartment and beheld something that looked like a space shuttle – a black Mercedes taking up almost half a block of Wilshire Boulevard. I could not refrain from asking the driver how much such a machine cost. "Sixty," he replied.

It took us nearly an hour to get to Zappa's place in the hills of Hollywood. Zappa met me at the door. He looked like a leading man in the movies – tall, slender, sporting a small Italian mustache. For starters, I asked him the origin of his last name; he replied it meant "the plough" in Italian.

Zappa's wife came in, an ample young woman, and served coffee and tea. Zappa told me he did not drink alcoholic beverages; contrary to the legendary habits of most rock-and-roll musicians, he never partook of drugs. But he smoked cigarettes incessantly, tobacco being his only, and quite venial, sin. Zappa led me to his studio, which housed a huge Bösendorfer piano. I asked him how much he paid for this keyboard monster. "Seventy," he replied.

Zappa declared himself an admirer of Varèse and said he had been composing orchestral works according to Varèse's principles of composition, with unrelated themes following in free succession. To substantiate this claim, he brought out three scores, in manuscript and each measuring 13 x 20 inches, beautifully copied and handsomely bound. Indeed, the configurations of notes and contrapuntal combinations looked remarkably Varèsian. Yet he never went to music school, and had learned the technique of composition from the study of actual editions. He had a contract with an orchestra in Holland to play one of his works, but they had demanded a piece from his recording royalties on top of the regular fee. "I offered them a quarter," Zappa said, "if they would put up a quarter." It took me some time to figure out that the fractions he used referred to millions of dollars.

Zappa's teenage daughter flitted in, introduced by Mrs. Zappa as Moon Unit. She did not seem to be embarrassed by this esoteric appellation. A year or two later she became a celebrity in her own right by making a record with her father's band in which she carried on a telephone conversation in a California language known as Valley Girl Talk. The valley in question was the San Fernando, nestled north of Los Angeles and populated by a gaggle of young boys and girls, but mostly girls, who seemed to exude a special joie de vivre.

Zappa invited me to tryout his Bösendorfer. I sat down at the keyboard and played the coronation scene from Boris Godunov, which requires deep bass sounds. Zappa was impressed by these Russian harmonies. He asked me to play some of my own compositions, and I launched into the last piece in my Minitudes, based on an interplay of mutually exclusive triads and covering the entire piano keyboard. "Why don't you play this piece at my next concert?" Zappa asked. "When will that be?" I replied. "Tomorrow. We can rehearse in the afternoon." I was somewhat taken aback at the sudden offer, but after all, I had nothing to lose. So I decided to take my chance as a soloist at a rock concert.

The next day I arrived at the large coliseum in Santa Monica where Zappa's concert was to take place. A huge, towering man led me to Zappa's room. "Mr. Zappa is expecting you," he said, after satisfying himself as to my identity. He was Zappa's bodyguard, hired after Zappa had been attacked during a concert by a besotted admirer.

On the stage during the rehearsal, I sat at the electric piano and played my piece. For better effect, I added sixteen bars to the coda, ending in repeated alternation of C major and F-sharp major chords in the highest treble and lowest bass registers. Zappa dictated to his players the principal tonalities of my piece, and they picked up the modulations with extraordinary assurance. I had never played the electric piano before, but I adjusted to it without much trouble.

The hall began to fill rapidly. Zappa's body guard gave me earplugs for, when Zappa's band went into action, the decibels were extremely high. Zappa sang and danced while conducting with a professional verve that astounded me. A soprano soloist came out and sang a ballad about being a hooker, using a variety of obscenities. Then came my turn. Balancing a cigarette between his lips, Zappa introduced me to the audience as "our national treasure." I pulled out the earplugs and sat down at the electric piano. With demoniac energy Zappa launched us into my piece. To my surprise I sensed a growing consanguinity with my youthful audience as I played. My fortissimo ending brought screams and whistles the likes of which I had never imagined possible. Dancing Zappa, wild audience, and befuddled me – I felt like an intruder in a mad scene from Alice in Wonderland. I had entered my Age of Absurdity.

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