Lessons for Zappa: Edgard Varese holds court

March 2, 2007

Rosemary Brown was using my computer the other day. What a surprise I had when I discovered that she had left the browser open to the Akashic Records. Silly woman, letting a mere mortal like me have access to such information. Being the curious chap that I am, I started routing around. I clicked on COMPOSERS IN PURGATORY as I figured that she wouldn’t be too upset with me, as that seems to be my job these days, being the mouthpiece for those poor souls, and I saw an intriguing link: Varese contacts Zappa. I clicked on it to find the following transcript of a lesson they had, not long after Zappa died. For those of you that didn’t know, Frank Zappa held composer Edgard Varese in the highest esteem and Frank’s greatest desire on earth was to have a lesson with him. I saw other folders with their names on them but was not given access. Still, this transcript was of interest, and may be of interest to you.


EV: Hello Frank, welcome to the other side.
FZ: I didn’t believe this was really true.

EV: Nor did I but here we are. Our records here indicate that [adjusts reading glasses] “Mr Frank Zappa (aka Francesco Zappa) has only one wish: to study composition with Edgard Varese.” I died with unfinished business as well. I was selfish in not teaching students who truly wished to work with me. My self image was too stubborn and grouchy to open myself up to too much one-on-one heart-on-the-sleeve conversation with young nerdy composers. I listen to your music and I kick myself for not being able to teach you what you wanted to learn. You imitated the surface of my music, but you kept falling back to humor and periodicity.

FZ: I don’t have a problem with that.

EV: You seem unable to transcend the beat. Just because it is there, it doesn’t mean you have to articulate it, much less hit us over the head at every opportunity.

FZ: I like to ride on the backbone of a beat in hopes people might dance to it.

EV: As I begin to compose, I close my eyes, and imagine being set in motion in space. I have the sensation of moving forward but there is no sound. No wind whistling through my ears. No clock ticking. No animal body pulse utterances from the act of walking, breathing, pulsing. There is no periodicity: only forward momentum in time. There are moments when periodicity reigns, but they quickly evaporate back into moving through space. For humans, time is the way the brain copes with matter moving through space, and to articulate that dance, in sound, is our job.

FZ: Everything in the universe is one note.

CB: Yeah but you’re supposed to say “bulbous also tapered.”

EV: Who was that?

FZ: Captain Beefheart.

EV: I don’t understand you young people these days. Where was I? I perceive your music often liked to flirt with, how do you say? the nasty, or the perceived nasty–pushing the boundaries of what can be talked about in a rock n roll song. I must confess that my favorite rock song you did was “What’s the ugliest part of your body?” [Here Edgard stands up, grabs an imaginary microphone, adapts a strikingly campy look on his face and sings], some saaay your nose, ba ba ba some saaaaay your toes, I think it’s your mi-hind, think it’s your mind, think it’s your mi-i-i-i-i-i-nd.”

FZ: Gosh Mr Varese, I’m flattered.

EV: I also like very much your Uncle Meat, not so much Yellow Snow.

FZ: It’s all about the big nasty.

EV: See. It’s your nasty obsession. Well, everyone can have their own demon. I had mine. One fantasy I always wanted to build into a composition was taking one of those spotlights from a corner of a penitentiary, and hide it in the middle of an orchestra. I’d have the music bring the listener to the place I want them to be, and then BLLLLLLAAAAAAAAGGGGGHHHHHHH! Up on a pole comes the spotlight. I move it all over the audience, blasting everyone with intense LIGHT! Ahhhhh! The brilliance of that move!

FZ: Sit down Mr Varese, you’re shaking all over. You’ll hurt your throat!

EV: Ah yes, carried away, where was I? Ah yes, moving through space. My music chronicles things I see as I move through that space. I, of course, “imagine” these things, but that’s composition. Now I don’t always compose that way, but it’s a technique I’ve heard you try to imitate, but never got to what was really behind the musical gestures.

FZ: Call any vegetable.

EV: [Oblivious] One more thing I want you to understand, is my alternative to sustained notes. TV and motion pictures have long stretches where all you have is long held notes.

FZ: Everything in the universe is a….

EV: That’s fine in movie music, but in concert music, why not articulate it? Repeat the notes. Not just in periodic values, in new rhythmic arrays. [Here he sings something that sounds very Varese-like in a funny kind of trumpet tone.]

FZ: Uh huh. Do you mind if I smoke?

EV: And one last thing. I want you to study my IONISATION. I mean really study it. I’ll send you a PDF of MY score so you see my energy in the notation. I will ask you questions about the score in our next lesson.

FZ: Alright. What kinds of things do you want me to look for.

EV: I will expect you to know everything about the music. Now if you will excuse me, Louise and I are going to a new Moliere play and I can’t be late. Good to see you old boy. I’m happy that I can help you, even if it wasn’t until after we both died! [He slaps Zappa on the back, turns and walks towards the door and evaporates. Zappa remains behind, staring, smoking, legs crossed, thinking about how happy he really was having finally had a lesson the the great Varese.]


Update: This post has been translated into Spanish here.
[Varese photo and manuscript image © Museum Tinguely. Visit their amazing online exhibit of other Varese-iana.]

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March 5, 2007 at 4:26 am

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

PK March 3, 2007 at 6:59 am

Roger: Your blog is as wonderful as ever, these days, and your eclectic competence (competence meaning that I agree with so many of your evaluations of music from different genre 😉 ) is impressive. I agree exactly with your, ahem, I mean Mssr. Varese’ critique of Zappa, but I might point out to him (EV) that the biological aspects of periodicity are still being explored. There could be some larger reasons for this late 20th century insistence on hitting it over the head. I have been playing with the idea of pop culture being a form of a multiprocessor distribution device, where strong clocks are needed for synchronization. Of course that is a good example of the urge to equate human cognition and computers, and as such, perhaps silly.

Brad Wood March 3, 2007 at 6:09 pm

My friend David Crane did his dissertation on Arcana, and I must get him to start frequenting this blog.

PK, that is one approach to multiprocessing, but perhaps the asynchronous machines are more interesting. At least I hope so, as I find simple-minded rhythms pretty boring in music and machines.

Also, meaning no offense but since you are questioning it already, I think the comparison of human cognition and computers, at least von Neumann machines, will turn out to be one of the least productive and overall worst ideas of the twentieth century.

PK March 4, 2007 at 3:27 pm

Brad, I bow to all other knowledge in the area of cognition, computing comparisons, as I only ponder this stuff when I start channeling my late cat after smoking my shorts (no offense taken, as you point out, I question it all, myself). But then, I do know humans to be wonderfully capable of perversion, that is, to like the complex over the simple (otherwise why would I smoke my shorts?) or the other way around. I have, also, seen some natural truths hide in plain sight. Four on the floor may seem crude and boring, but I have watched humans pack dance floors, and even listen to radios playing the stuff, for amazing amounts of human hours.

But to wonder about ol’ EV’s comments to Frank, I remember, as amplifiers grew and grew during the sixties, the visceral thrill of great wattage at one’s back (and suffer from permanent tinnitus for it), and then the disco 70s quarter note kick drum. There has been a growing emphasis on visceral, simple pulse (aesthetic and cultural questions aside), I wonder why? Oh, maybe blame it on The Dave Clark Five and Paul Revere & The Raiders, glad all over, my foot! And is it really fair to critique Frank for the elements of his time?

Brad Wood March 5, 2007 at 8:42 am

PK wrote: “And is it really fair to critique Frank for the elements of his time?”

No. And in fact as I scan the content-addressable memory banks I recall that he did some fairly complex rhythmic constructions in his more durchkomponiertische works, bedeviling his musicians.

I guess it’s just the relentless character of his stuff that puts me off. But he will always have a spot in my heart for his witty repartee: my favorite the exchange with the obnoxious “opinionated but lovable” Joe Pine, an LA radio personality of some years back. When Pine said “So you have long hair. You must be a woman”, Zappa responded “You have a wooden leg, so you must be a table.”

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