Meeting Of Musial Extremes

By John Rockwell

New York Times, 30 September 1984

Despite several year intimations that such a thing was about to happen, the album titled "Boulez Conducts Zappa" (Angel DS-38170) will still come as a shock to two camps of people. One will be the hardline modernists for whom Pierre Boulez, the former music director of the New York Philharmonic and widely regarded as one of the great composers of this century, represents about as stern and serious a role model as possible. The other will be the teenage Zappa "freaks" who crowd into Frank Zappa's rock concerts.

Not that all moderators are prigs, or all of Mr. Zappa's rock audience barbarians. But those extreme stereotypes may still give some idea of what a gap is being bridged here. Or to it such a gup, after all?

Mr. Zappa emerged from the wasteland of Southern California suburbia with his first band, the Mothers of Invention, in 1966: their debut album was called "Freak Out!" From the first he was cleverer, both conceptually and musically, than most rockers. Which is not to say necessarily better: rock is an art form predicated on sincere and passionate minimalism, you might say.

Still, Mr. Zappa's tricky, virtuosic songs, his fractured meters and dazzling collages stretching across entire albums, his satiric, often scatological lyrics, all won him a fervert cult following – and, along with his then-sidekick, Captain Beefheart, a tiny following among classical avant-gardists, as well.

As the "freakish" eccentricities of the 60's faded into the blander 70's, Mr. Zappa was faced with a dilemma. His original band drifted away, and he found himself almost forced into the role of the cranky outsider. He sustained his commercial appeal with hard-working concerts featuring a jazz-rock idiom and long guitar solos, and achieved occasional hits with almost childishly "dirty" lyrics ("Yellow Show") or amusing social satire ("Valley Girl"). But he lost the loyalty of those who considered themselves rock's intellectuals.

His commercial work wasn't entirely cynical, however, even if his increasing sense of alienation from present-day rock undercut his commercial music with a corrosive irony. His bitterness was exacerbated by a tangle of legal battles involving present and former record companies and managers, and then by his difficulties in getting his noncommercial music played at all.

Still, he has managed to turn out some interesting projects in popular idioms over the past five years, among them a "rock opera" called "Joe's Garage" in 1980; a particularly ingenious rock album, "You Are What You Is," in 1981, and three disks featuring his guitar solos, "Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar," in 1981-82.

All along, though, Mr. Zappa has had a covert relationship to "serious" classical music – covert not through any conspiracy on his part, but through his inability to get his classical music performed. Mr. Zappa has always claimed Edgard Varèse, the French-American avant-gardist, as his boyhood idol, along with Igor Stravinsky from afar. From "Freak Out! " onward, his music had revealed a tendency toward a carnivorous, often parodistic eclecticism, a jumpy, rapid shifting of focus, rhythmic energy and coloristic variety.

As early as 1961, Mr. Zappa had hired a college chamber orchestra on his own, just to hear what his orchestral music sounded like. By the late 60's, when he could afford it, he was making use of classical chamber forces and even full orchestras (the Royal Philharmonic on his film soundtrack "200 Motels") mixed in with rock instruments and passages. This was not like the typical deployment of the orchestra by inflated British "art rock" bands, for pompous evocations of classical music's past. Mr. Zappa really used the orchestra, scoring with idiosyncratic sophistication and applying its coloristic possibilities with real assurance.

In 1970, Zubin Mehta conducted some of the music from "200 Motels" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Unfortunately for Mr. Zappa Mr. Mehta's concert was really an attention-getting gimmick aimed at the rock audience, and didn't lead anywhere. Mr. Zappa had hoped for a Holland Festival performance of "200 Motels," and all through the 70's he struggled unsuccessfully to get his orchestral music played in Europe – sometimes he lost money copying parts for performances that ever took place.

Finally, he sent some scores to Mr. Boulez, who took them and him seriously. Mr. Boulez commissioned a piece through his new-music center in Paris, and agreed to record a disk of Mr. Zappa's chamber music with his, Ensemble Intercontemporain – which is the new Angel disk.

But before that, Kent Nagano, a young conductor from Berkeley, Calif. was attracted to Mr. Zappa's music through Mr. Boulez's interest, and the result was an album of huge orchestra compositions underwritten by Mr. Zappa with the London Symphony that appeared last year on the composer's Barking Pumpkin label (FW 38820).

The Nagamo album is lusher in texture; the Boulez, more pristinely performed. But both disks reveal similar traits. Mr. Zappa is a compulsive musical comedian, at least in his titles and scenarios. For Mr. Boulez, Mr. Zappa offers "The Perfect Stranger" (the commissioned work), "Naval Aviation in Art?," "The Girl in the Magnesium Dress," "Outside Now, Again," "Love Story," "Dupree's Paradise" and "Jonestown." The Ensemble Intercontemporain is limited by the "Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort."

In the scenario for "The Perfect Stranger," "a door-to-door salesman, accompanied by his faithful gypsy-mutant industrial vacuum cleaner, cavorts licentiously with a slovenly housewife." "Love Story," which is one minute long, is about "an elderly Republican couple attempting sex while break-dancing." And so forth.

Mr. Zappa has always created musical theater of one kind or another – he has been struggling of late to get a massive mixed-media project produced on Broadway – and perhaps the scores on the Boulez record really are "tone poems" with precise programs, on the Lisztian model. If so, their sometimes disjointed musical logic might be explained on dramatic grounds. Maybe again, however, Mr. Zappa merely appends his music, either to amuse his rock fans or to protect his serious work from a too sober scrutiny – the defensive mask of irony, once again.

The fact is, the music on the Boulez record says a lot more, expressively, than the scenarios imply. They are notable first of all for their really alluring aural color, especially when the electronic instruments blend with the orchestral instruments. The idiom is basically tonal, with all manner of passing dissonance tossed in, as with jazz-rock. Sometimes one wishes Mr. Zappa would settle down within any given piece and explore a single idea or idiom as deeply as he could. But that is not his way, and the febrile fluctuations of his style do grow on one.

The hyper-complex Mr. Boulez may secretly find Mr. Zappa something of a primitive, albeit a quirkily imaginative one. Perhaps, as some American modernists will surely think, Mr. Boulez has chosen to make this disk to insult them, by perversely exalting a rock star when their own, supposedly far more "serious" works lie under-recognized. One wonders what Elliott Carter thought of being bracketed with Mr. Zappa at a Boulez concert in Paris last season.

For his part, Mr. Zappa defensively if amusingly assures us on the back of the record that "all material contained herein is for entertainment purposes only and should not be confused with any other form of artistic expression." Yet at the same time, Luciano Berle busily programs his music at the prestigious Maggio Musicale in Florence, and Mr. Zappa finds himself the keynote speaker at this year's annual convention of the American Society of University Composers.

Art music may well allow him an unfettered exploration of the knotty intricacies of his own sensibility; he has always had to fight against the logical extremes of such cleverness in his rock. But ultimately, one suspects, he will never simply transform himself into a conventional classical composer. This is not a crude question of the money to be made in rock. For one thing, his satiric bent will find the quainter conventions of the classics fully as ripe a subject for attack as the vagaries of hippies and rock denizens.

More crucially, Mr. Zappa represents a particularly appealing type of quintessentially American composer – genuinely defiant of established categories and divisions that others routinely accept. He composes music, and sometimes that music is "serious" and sometimes it's entertaining, sometimes it plays to rock fans and sometimes to the classical intelligentsia, sometimes it makes money and sometimes he has to pay for its performance.

This is not a case whereby a secretly serious musician must prostitute his art in order to compose his "real," serious statements. Mr. Zappa, apart perhaps from some pandering in his 1970's "Yellow Snow" period, is all of a piece. That may not facilitate his comfortable acceptance by any one audience. But it is probably an important source of his vitality. And if it took a foreigner to certify the importance of yet another American musical maverick – well that, too, is hardly unprecedented in our checkered cultural history.