Zappa: The Perfect Stranger

By James Wierzbicki

High Fidelity, February 1985

ZAPPA: The Perfect Stranger*; Naval Aviation in Art?*; The Girl in the Magnesium Dress+; Outside Now, Again+; Love Story+; Dupree's Paradise*; Jonestown+.

Ensemble InterContemporain*, The Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort+, Pierre Boulez, cond. [Frank Zappa, prod.] EMI ANGEL DS 38170 (digital recording). Cassette: 4XS 38170.

"The Perfect Stranger" is an extraordinary recording, and its pairing of composer Frank Zappa and conductor Pierre Boulez is hardly as bizarre as some commentators have made it out to be. The official relationship between the notorious "fringe" rock and roll star and the famous champion of the mainstream European avant-garde dates only from 1983, when Boulez commissioned the album's l3-minute title cut for performance on the new-music concert series he runs from his base at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique / Musique (IRCAM) in Paris. But surely long before that, the eclectic Boulez was at least aware of Zappa's music. As early as 1970, Zubin Mehta – Boulez's successor as music director of the New York Philharmonic – had conducted excerpts from Zappa's quasi-operatic 200 Motels film score in Los Angeles, and the next year United Artists released the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's two-disc recording of the complete work (7C 138-92854/5).

In 1979, Warner Brothers issued "Orchestral Favorites" (DSK 2294), an album of "serious" Zappa compositions for chamber ensemble that included one short piece – Naval Aviation in Art? – that Boulez opted to re-record for "The Perfect Stranger." Early in 1983, another album of "serious" music, this time performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Kent Nagano, was brought out on Zappa's own Barking Pumpkin label (FW 38820). Boulez was familiar with this music, and he probably had some acquaintance with Zappa's essays in the rock idiom as well. Doubtless, in all of it he heard the influence of Edgard Varèse, the composer Zappa identified (in the liner notes he wrote for Finnadar's SR 9018 Varèse collection) as "the idol of my youth" and whom Boulez hailed (in an appreciation included in his 1981 book Points de Repère) as one of the foremost "formal thinkers" of 20th-century music.

What attracted the young Zappa to such works as Ionisation, Octandre, and Intégrales was Varèse's deft use of brilliant sound colors, the forcefulness of his gestures and-most important-the dynamic energy that resulted from rapid alternations of sharply contrasting sonic weights, densities, and textures. To a certain extent, one can hear these elements in Zappa's rock songs; aside from the deliberately raunchy lyrics, it's the constant, erratic shifting of gears that is the main source of the ditties' weirdness. Perhaps because there are no extramusical distractions, the Varèse influences seem even more prominent in Zappa's orchestral and chamber works. The juxtapositions are just as bold, but here they're effected with remarkable subtlety, and the overall impression they give – as with Varèse's music – is that behind all the appearance of chaos there lies an extremely refined sense of order.

Of the seven pieces on "The Perfect Stranger," three are scored entirely for standard instruments, four mostly for keyboard-operated electronic music synthesizers. (In the latter group, it often sounds as though the mix also includes marimbas, glockenspiels, and electric guitars, but it's hard to tell for sure, and the jacket gives absolutely no clue to the makeup of The Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort.) Zappa calls them "dance pieces," and he provides a synopsis for each. Presumably the synopses are delivered tongue-in-cheek, yet there's a wonderful gloomy mood conjured up by the sonically glittery and rhythmically steady Outside Now, Again ("the entire cast [is] in an endless soup line, [their] pitiful sustenance . . . dished out by people dressed to look like grantgivers from the National Endowment for the Arts"). Similarly, the jaunty title cut really does make reference – after a fashion – to the doorbell, vacuum cleaner, and dog mentioned in the blurb, and Dupree's Paradise (set in a bar where "winos, musicians, degenerates, and policemen . . . do the things that set them apart from the rest of society") blends silky strings and brazen winds with piano figures a la Gershwin's An American in Paris.

Zappa tells the reader-listener that "all material contained herein is for entertainment purposes only, and should not be confused with any other form of artistic expression." Be that as it may, these are beautiful works whose appeal is both visceral and intellectual. All of them are cast in an essentially atonal language, but nevertheless one easily capable of communicating a wide variety of warmly human emotional states. The craftsmanship is exquisite, and so are the performances.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)