Uneasy listening

Special to The Times

FRANK ZAPPA -- composer, rock star, satirist, visionary, curmudgeon, iconoclast -- would have turned 65 on Dec. 21.

That milestone did not receive nearly as much attention as another sad reminder of mortality, the 25th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. But the symbolism was just as poignant, for both Lennon and Zappa were unfinished portraits, cut off in midcareer. Born in the same year (1940), they spent their lifetimes saying plenty of pointed, trenchant, often humorous things about the human condition and left plenty unsaid upon their premature deaths.

In the case of Zappa -- who died of prostate cancer in 1993, less than three weeks before his 53rd birthday -- one crucial piece of his portrait remains partly hidden: his touching reverence for the French American avant-garde composer Edgard Varese (1883-1965). Indeed, the last completed project of Zappa’s life -- an album of Varese’s compositions selected, supervised and, after a fashion, “conducted” by Zappa -- has yet to be released.


Recording sessions for the Varese album took place over 10 days in July 1993, five months before Zappa’s death, on a Warner Bros. soundstage in Burbank not far from Zappa’s home in the Hollywood Hills. The musicians involved were members of the German new music group Ensemble Modern, which had greatly impressed the demanding Zappa on a recording of Zappa’s classical compositions, “The Yellow Shark.” The Varese album was to include “Hyperprism,” “Octandre,” “Integrales,” “Density 21.5,” “Ionisation,” “Deserts” and Varese’s original tape of “Poeme Electronique” -- which is roughly half of Varese’s total published output.

The Zappa Family Trust, which controls Zappa’s musical legacy, announced the impending release of the album on its website back in 1997, complete with a listing of the selections and even brief sound bites from each composition (except “Poeme Electronique”). Little has been heard about it since.

Yet fear not, oh Zappa legions. The long-awaited Varese album may be coming out after all, possibly by the end of this year. “The Varese album is on hold for a very specific reason,” Zappa’s widow, Gail, said in December. “We documented three recording sessions with a film crew, and they absconded with the film and tapes, and it took me eight years and lawsuits to get the sucker back. And even so, they did not return the DAT. They were bad guys. I would never call them men; men don’t behave that way.

“Now my plan is, I would love to get it out next year [2006], to put out a recording and a film on DVD because I really believe in the power of the music as a visceral experience without the visual aids.”

Why is the Varese project so significant amid the miles of unreleased tapes of original Zappa music still locked up in the vault? (Zappa was a congenital workaholic; one person who has combed through the archive claims that a new album of studio or live Zappa music could be released every year for the next 100 years.) The answer is that this may have been the project that was dearest to Zappa’s heart, for it was Varese’s music that had made Zappa want to become a composer in the first place.

In his quirky autobiography, “The Real Frank Zappa Book,” and in an article written for Stereo Review in 1971, Zappa vividly remembered how a 13-year-old R&B; fan living in El Cajon discovered this then relatively obscure cutting-edge composer. It was in a chance reading of a magazine article about record retailer Sam Goody, who bragged that he could sell anything, even a crazy, noisy thing like Varese’s “Ionization,” as it was spelled. A nonconformist even at that tender age, Zappa figured that this stuff was right up his alley but soon found that apparently no self-respecting dealer in San Diego would stock it.

Finally, after searching for the record for more than a year, while approaching the checkout counter at a hi-fi store in La Mesa, Zappa spotted an LP with a picture of what he thought was a “mad scientist” on the jacket. It was the coveted album he had sought, “The Complete Works of Edgard Varese, Volume One” on the tiny EMS (Elaine Music Shop) label -- the only album of Varese works available in the 1950s. (There was no Volume Two; the owner of the label, Jack Skurnick, died in 1952 before he could continue the project.) The shop had been using the record to demonstrate hi-fi systems, but shoppers were driven away by the percussive racket it made. So the cashier let Zappa have the album for whatever he had in his pocket (the price was $5.95 and the boy had only $3.80) -- and he devoured it, playing it over and over, gleefully alienating some uncomprehending friends along with his mother.


Zappa’s subsequent devotion to Varese never flagged. When he turned 15 or 16 (there is some question about the exact age), his idea of a birthday present was a long-distance phone call to Varese, who was listed in the Manhattan phone book. On the inside jacket of his first album, “Freak Out!,” Zappa prominently printed a Varese saying (slightly misquoted): “The present-day composer refuses to die!” The younger man’s compositions used Varesian techniques such as the electronic manipulation of real-world sounds on tape (musique concrete, or “organized sound” as Varese called it), big blocks of dissonant orchestral writing and novel deployment of percussion -- and he saw no distinction between using these techniques in classical or rock contexts. He was invited by conductor Joel Thome to host a Varese tribute concert in New York City in 1981, and even appeared as a conductor in an Edgard Varese Centennial Memorial Concert at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House in 1983.

Zappa may not have been the first to put Varese on the map; Robert Craft’s spectacular-sounding pair of LPs for Columbia in the early 1960s gave the composer some big-time exposure before his death. But Zappa was certainly Varese’s most prominent advocate, spreading the word to places that otherwise would never have heard of the composer.


A pleasure amid the pain

ZAPPA’S Varese album was to be his most direct homage to his idol, undertaken while he was struggling with the painful later stages of his terminal illness. “He never intended to do the recording of Varese,” says Gail Zappa. “But I just said, ‘Let’s take the quantum leap and do it,’ because I wanted him to have something to do to get up every day for. This was a really inspirational opportunity to do right by Varese -- to get him [Zappa] up and going.”

Rip Rense, a journalist and friend of Zappa’s, was present at the session that yielded “Ionisation” and some Zappa improvisations with the Ensemble Modern that remain unreleased. “He was in great discomfort and had difficulty getting through the sessions,” Rense recalls. “The cancer had spread to his bones. It was obvious that his love of Varese and the opportunity to realize the music with Ensemble Modern was sustaining him. He eschewed pain medication, because he wanted his mind clear. He only made one exception. As he told me, ‘Motrin has been my friend.’ ”

The noted new music conductor Peter Eotvos actually wielded the baton at the sessions, while Zappa rested on a couch directly in back of him, conferring frequently with the conductor, speaking directly to the musicians, using facial expressions to get what he wanted.

“Frank shaped the interpretations as much as one can without actually wielding a baton,” says Rense. “I do remember Frank stopping the proceedings a number of times and more or less encouraging the players to have a little more fun with their parts, to be more playful. Frank’s term was ‘putting the eyebrows upon the music.’ ”


Not exactly a secret, the sessions were attended by some celebrated contemporary music figures. John Adams showed up at the “Ionisation” session and according to Rense looked “utterly delighted” by the goings-on. And the 99-year-old Nicolas Slonimsky, who had conducted the premiere of “Ionisation” in 1933, briefly took the baton and led the musicians in the piece, an event that was captured on film (Slonimsky would ultimately survive Zappa by two years).

The result is an album that is bound to stir up some controversy, for Zappa and Eotvos put a spin on Varese that differs from that of almost every other Varese recording. Humor was always a part of Zappa’s musical lexicon, even in his most serious and stupefyingly complex pieces, and he lets his irreverence spill over into Varese. You can hear Zappa’s slapstick touch in the way the trombones wobble comically at the beginning of “Hyperprism,” the abruptness of some of the attacks and releases in “Octandre” and other pieces, the madcap percussion and saucy clarinet and oboe in “Integrales.” It’s as if Zappa were merging his unique persona with that of Varese, fusing them together in a throwback to a time before the Jet Age when performers routinely stamped their personalities onto the music they played.

Yet there is some textural justification for a humorous approach to Varese. The composer sometimes put weird instructions in his scores (for example, in “Ameriques,” after an orchestral cataclysm, the solo trombone line has the words “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” written underneath the notes). Also, if you listen to the 1950 LP that introduced Zappa to Varese -- which was supervised by Varese himself -- you can detect some of the roots of Zappa’s humor in the rough-and-ready performances of “Octandre” and ‘Integrales.” Something has gone out of our understanding of Varese in the half-century since that record came out, and Zappa can be seen as trying to turn the light back on.

“That’s the true taste test for me -- if I hear Frank’s music that made me laugh,” says Gail Zappa. “It’s not that he wasn’t serious about his art -- he just didn’t take himself seriously.”


Channeling Varese’s style

THE mix is unusual too, with sometimes extreme separation of the instruments on the stereo channels, and the sessions were recorded with all-tube microphone preamps connected to a digital tape machine in another studio. Zappa “wanted to record it the way he thought Edgard would want it to be recorded had he been a record producer,” Gail Zappa recalls. “We had to find a place that could record the way Frank intended and mike it the way Frank intended. Warners had one old studio that we could set up the instruments in, but the control room wasn’t up to the task, so we built a special snake [a cable that accommodated all the wires] from a brand-new control room to the old studio with the wood floors.”

Did Zappa want to record the complete Varese? His widow doesn’t think so. (“His days were severely numbered at that point, and he couldn’t manage the larger pieces,” she says.) In any case, the remaining works demand either huge, expensive orchestras (“Ameriques,” “Arcana”), voices (“Offrandes,” “Ecuatorial,” the unfinished “Nocturnal”) or some hard-to-find instrument such as the obsolete electronic ondes martenot.


So, like the Varese album of his youth, Zappa’s thank-you letter to his idol was limited by fate to one volume. But if it manages to raise Varese’s profile to a new level -- and show us a good time in the process -- Zappa’s mission will have been fulfilled.



The essential Varese, in its available interpretations

For those who cannot wait for Frank Zappa’s Varese tribute to come out, there is a distinguished, if limited, selection of recordings of Varese’s music. Varese’s published works are compact enough to fit on only two CDs, making a thorough immersion in his unique sound world possible in only half an afternoon.

Essentially, the top Varese choices come down to three conductors: Pierre Boulez, Riccardo Chailly and Kent Nagano. Chailly’s two-CD collection with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and ASKO Ensemble (Decca) gives you all 12 published works and some invaluable extras available nowhere else -- the only surviving fragment of Varese’s pre-American output, the song “Un Grand Sommeil Noir” (in piano and orchestral versions); “Tuning Up,” a hilarious sendup of American tunes and Varese’s own music; and the tiny, antic “Dance for Burgess.” There is also a reconstruction of the original massive version of “Ameriques” by Varese expert Chou Wen-Chung. Chailly’s performances are bright and explosive -- the best things he’s ever done on recordings -- and the sound is terrific.

Boulez’s two CDs with the New York Philharmonic and the Ensemble Intercontemporain (Sony, available separately) contain 10 of the 12 works, leaving out “Nocturnal” and “Poeme Electronique.” His rendition of “Deserts” uses the composer-authorized instrumentalportions-only version, which robs the piece of its contrasting tape interpolations (Boulez claims that Varese’s tape is no longer usable, but that’s not true -- it sounds perfectly good on the Chailly set). Nevertheless, Boulez’s superhuman ear for color and pitch produces performances of razor-sharp precision and often enormous power. Boulez also remade “Ameriques,” “Arcana,” “Deserts” (again without the tape) and “Ionisation” with the Chicago Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon); these performances are more refined and better recorded but not quite as viscerally thrilling.

Nagano’s Varese discs with L’Orchestre National de France (Warner Apex) have recently been reissued as a bargain-priced two-disc import. This is Varese for those who might want a less extroverted, more elegant approach; the essential explosive violence is present but not in such heaping quantities as in the Boulez and Chailly recordings. The set contains 11 of the 12 pieces (omitting “Poeme Electronique”).

Out of print, but worth seeking out: Zubin Mehta’s exciting, blunt-force performances of “Arcana,” “Ionisation” and “Integrales” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (London).


-- R.S.G.