Monday, June 26, 2006

Varese, Zappa & Slonimsky

Earlier this year I received an email from Matthias Kassel of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland. He had a few questions about the music of Frank Zappa that I happened to be able to answer.

The Paul Sacher Foundation is mounting an exhibit honoring composer Edgard Varese. Part of the exhibition demonstrates the effect Varese and his music had on later composers. One such composer who was strongly influenced by Edgard Varese is Frank Zappa.

Included in the exhibit is the first page of full orchestra score from Frank's piece Mo 'n Herb's Vacation. Many years ago I autographed that and many other works by Frank Zappa. ("Autographed" means I copied it very neatly in ink.)

Frank ZappaIn exchange for my simple responses, Matthias offered to send me a copy of the exhibition catalog when it was published. I expected something modest. I forgot all about it.

Several weeks ago a mystery package arrived. Inside was an elegant, heavy, 500-page tome dedicated to the many aspects of the life and work of Edgard Varese. It's an Art Book fit for a coffee table. I can't remember ever seeing anything as impressive or complete dedicated to any other composer.

Click on the picture of the cat with the book on the coffee table for a close up view.

Matthias' fascinating essay is called "Frank Zappa and the Idol of His Youth." It discusses how Frank, a teenager in San Diego in the 1950s, tried to contact Varese. And continues with all the efforts Frank made to promote Varese's music throughout his career. Starting with the famous teen-age birthday-present long-distance phone call in 1956 and continuing though the Zappa-supervised recordings of Varese's music by Ensemble Modern just before Frank's death.

My favorite bit: Frank sent Varese a long letter of introduction which included this story: Frank wrote a school essay about Varese but had been flunked by the teacher who assumed Frank was making everything up. Read what Frank Zappa wrote in 1971 about his youthful pursuit of Varese. Of course Varese wasn't the only influence on Frank. Click here to see two pictures and read one sentence which comprise the most concise desription of Frank Zappa's musical heritage that I've ever seen.

Another famous musician linked to both Varese and Zappa was Nicolas Slonimsky. Slonimsky lived in Los Angeles in his later years and I had the privelege of meeting him a number of times. Nicolas had conducted the world premier of Varese's piece Ionisation. Here is a short recording of Nicolas Slonimsky talking about his relationship with Frank Zappa.

I was present when Nicolas, then in his 90s, visited Frank's studio UMRK. We showed him the Synclavier - and I remember Nicolas' childlike fascination playing on a re-tuned keyboard. He played one interval, but a different interval came out. Then he'd play the interval he heard, but of course he heard yet another interval instead. Each time he did this he became more and more excited.

Probably my most educational experience in graduate school was reading the entire "Music Since 1900", edited by Slonimsky. It's a massive chronicle of modern music from the beginning of the 20th century. (Yeah, I know the 20th century really began in 1901.) Slonimsky listed so many completely unknown pieces by so many totally forgotten composers that I gained valuable perspective about my own, or anyone's, long-term prospects as a composer.

After meeting him, Nicolas asked me to recopy a piece of his that was written in large notes on a Mobius strip. In performance he wore the music as a sash, moving it around his stout frame twice so that he could perform both sides. His previous copy had worn out.

Nicholas Slonimsky inscription for David OckerI would accept no payment for the job. When I delivered it to his apartment I got to spend some time talking with him. He gave me a copy of his book The Road to Music - which he inscribed to me. His mind seemed to go blank briefly, then he "awoke" and wrote this short poem.

"For David Ocker
a "heavy" talker
whose mind's so plastic
it is fantastic!
Nicolas Slonimsky
Los Angeles,
November 8, 1982

More information about Edgard Varèse

Here is a not-quite-complete radio documentary Edgard Varese' Sonic Liberation featuring interviews with Louise Varese and with people who worked with him. And, of course, with Frank.

And here's an animated video on YouTube entitled "Varese/Xenakis/Le Corbusier - poeme electronique (1958)"

Picture credits: Varese listening to tape recordings (October 1959), Photograph Paul Sacher Foundation Basel (Edgard Varese collection) Photo by Roy Hyrkin

Read about Varese here or here

Good Slonimsky links at Other Minds - including a video of Nicolas with his Mobius strip and John Cage. (not the greatest video) His picture came from here.

I was going to put a zillion Frank Zappa links here, including where I got his picture, - then I lost all my changes that day. If you need help finding Zappa info on the web, write for suggestions, 'kay? I read the blog Kill Ugly Radio to keep up with news of the Zappasphere.

Over 10 years ago I was interviewed online about my work for Frank. Click here for that. The essay I wrote for Frank's album Francesco Zappa is here.

Quotes On Death and Music

"The present day composers refuse to die."
Edgar Varese (1883-1965) and Carlos Salzedo (1885-1961) From the manifesto of The International Composer's Guild, 1921

"The modern composer refuses to die." Frank Zappa (1940-1993)

"The first requirement for a composer is to be dead." Arthur Honegger (1892-1955)

Blogger spellcheck suggested replacing "Slonimsky" with "cloning".

Other "scintillating" Mixed Meters posts which mention the word "Zappa"
NOTICE: The accented letters in Varèse, Möbius and other words, when posted on Blogspot, seem to dissolve into gibberish on about half of all computers. So, in this post I've replaced as many of them as possible with unaccented letters. Only those people who have inherited the foolish consistency gene will fail to forgive this transgression.


1 comment :

Anonymous said...


I found your blog a few years ago while looking for FZ related stuff on the net. Found the FZ stuff but also found so much more here.

Thank you for thinking the way you think and writing the way you write.