In the mid-1950s a high school kid from El Cajon named Frank Zappa read an article in Look magazine that said Sam Goody was so good at selling records, he could unload a copy of Edgar Varèse’s Ionisations. This piqued the curiosity of the restless, inventive young rocker, so he set about trying to find this extreme and unpalatable piece of music. It took him a year. (Apparently there wasn’t a big call for Edgar Varèse records in San Diego in the 1950s.) When he did find a copy, Zappa was informed the record cost $5.98. The young Zappa gave the store clerk $2 for it. The store was no doubt glad to get the record off the shelf, where it probably had sat for years.
Varèse is arguably the greatest American composer of the century. It is Zappa-esque that the composer of our most innovative orchestral music is a Frenchman, though the composer, born in Paris in 1883, emigrated to the U.S. in 1915 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1926. The year Varèse died, Frank Zappa joined a rhythm-and-blues band called the Soul Giants and appended to it the logo “The Mothers of Invention.” Fifteen years later, having declared in an interview that classical music was only “for old ladies and faggots,” Zappa gave a worshipful lecture about Varèse in New York and staged, at his own expense, programs of Varèse’s music in New York and San Francisco.
What Zappa, this prodigy of Antelope High, was listening to on his record player when he returned with his new record was, among other things, a piece of just under five minutes scored for an ensemble of 13 musicians who play a total of 37 percussive instruments, including two sirens (a Varèse favorite), one high, one low in pitch; two tam-tams, again high and low in pitch; gong; crash cymbals; three different sizes of bass drum; bongos; snare drums; guiros (a dry, serrated Cuban gourd that is scratched with a stick); slap-sticks; Chinese blocks in three registers; Cuban claves; triangle; maracas (Cuban rattles, gourds with ammunition inside); sleigh bells; castanets; tambourine; anvils in two registers; chimes; celesta; and piano.
“Ionisation” is regarded as Varèse’s masterpiece, or one of them. It is extreme even by the composer’s standards, focusing entirely on rhythm and timbre. It is a pioneering work in modern percussion and anticipates, in exploring the structural value of the nonpitch qualities of sound, electronic music, in which Varèse was also a pioneer. It is hard to know what the 15- or 16-year-old Zappa made of it, but something about it clearly bit him.
The Nobel prize-winning novelist Romain Rolland based the fictional hero of Jean-Christophe on Varèse: “The difficulty began when he tried to cast his ideas in the ordinary musical forms: he made the discovery that none of the ancient moulds were suited to them; if he wished to fix his vision with fidelity he had to begin by forgetting all the music he had heard, all that he had written…”
The clamorous New York City that Varèse would have entered into after a brief stint in World War I would surely have electrified the gifted young composer, trained and successful but in search of a new musical vision. He would have encountered what so many of the artists and writers of his generation experienced on their entry into this port of the New World: undifferentiated mass and force, speed and noise, which called for a new vocabulary, new structures, and methods to engage it. The task required not only genius but heroic fortitude. When Leopold Stokowsky bravely performed, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Varèse’s “Arcana” (1925–27) and the enormous “Amérique” with 27 woodwinds, 29 brass, and the largest percussion battery of the time, the performances were met with derision and outrage in the audience and the press. If not standard concert hall fare today, these pieces have long since taken their place in the modernist canon, thanks to Pierre Boulez, who pushed Varèse on resistant concertgoers during his tenure as director of the New York Philharmonic. Curiously, Varése’s work got a tremendous boost when it was learned that in 1940, the scientists working on the atom bomb at Oak Ridge played Nicholas Slonimsky’s first recording of Varèse’s “Ionisation” for relaxation.
This may have been the recording Frank Zappa heard in El Cajon way back when Zappa and Slonimsky (the great musicologist, conductor, and champion of experimental music) first became friends. Over time Slonimsky became a champion of Zappa’s work, giving the iconoclast more than a column of ink in his magnificent and authoritative Baker’s Dictionary of Musicians.
In 1970 I had the good fortune of hearing Zappa and his Mothers of Invention play live at a small college in Wisconsin, Beloit, not far from Madison. You had to be there to appreciate just how rotten the music was during the heyday of hippiedom. The Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead — unspeakable dreck. (And these were the flash acts; I’m not talking about Blue Cheer or Vanilla Fudge or the Strawberry Alarm Clock.) That’s why Zappa was such a tonic. He was wild, subversive, festooned with Dada shenanigans, but he was also a superb musician and put on a tight, funny, kick-ass show. When I saw him in 1970 he had just taken on Flo and Eddie from the pop group the Turtles (“Happy Together,” “She’d Rather Be With Me”). Zappa rechristened them the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie. I couldn’t imagine how they were going to blend with the Mothers, but it was great, I remember that, and the auditorium of that sedate little tree-lined college was rocking.
Zappa dabbled in “serious” music. He gave funny titles to his pieces (like “Bob in Dacron”) and incorporated wacky program notes. For instance, Zappa writes at the top of the notes of his collection The Perfect Stranger that the “album contains seven dance pieces, each with a story and built-in ‘sound effects.’ The style is preposterously nonmodern.” And he describes the title piece: “In THE PERFECT STRANGER, a door-to-door salesman accompanied by his faithful gypsy-mutant industrial vacuum cleaner (as per the interior illustration on the ‘CHUNGA’S REVENGE’ album cover) cavorts licentiously with a slovenly housewife.”
For all the disclaimers and silliness, this piece and the two others performed by Varèse’s old champion Pierre Boulez and his Ensemble Contemporain are quite good, if not especially far out, “modern” music for a first-rate chamber ensemble. The pieces incorporate the dissonance and what Varèse called “interpenetration of sound masses” and “sound constantly changing in shape, direction, and speed.” Dirty Zappa’s dirty little secret: his love of “serious music.”