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Classical Music

Uneasy listening

Composer Edgard Varese was father to Frank Zappa's iconoclastic ways as well as the focus of the rock and jazz hall of famer's swan song -- which may finally get to be heard.

January 29, 2006|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

FRANK ZAPPA -- composer, rock star, satirist, visionary, curmudgeon, iconoclast -- would have turned 65 on Dec. 21.

That milestone did not receive nearly as much attention as another sad reminder of mortality, the 25th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. But the symbolism was just as poignant, for both Lennon and Zappa were unfinished portraits, cut off in midcareer. Born in the same year (1940), they spent their lifetimes saying plenty of pointed, trenchant, often humorous things about the human condition and left plenty unsaid upon their premature deaths.

In the case of Zappa -- who died of prostate cancer in 1993, less than three weeks before his 53rd birthday -- one crucial piece of his portrait remains partly hidden: his touching reverence for the French American avant-garde composer Edgard Varese (1883-1965). Indeed, the last completed project of Zappa's life -- an album of Varese's compositions selected, supervised and, after a fashion, "conducted" by Zappa -- has yet to be released.

Recording sessions for the Varese album took place over 10 days in July 1993, five months before Zappa's death, on a Warner Bros. soundstage in Burbank not far from Zappa's home in the Hollywood Hills. The musicians involved were members of the German new music group Ensemble Modern, which had greatly impressed the demanding Zappa on a recording of Zappa's classical compositions, "The Yellow Shark." The Varese album was to include "Hyperprism," "Octandre," "Integrales," "Density 21.5," "Ionisation," "Deserts" and Varese's original tape of "Poeme Electronique" -- which is roughly half of Varese's total published output.

The Zappa Family Trust, which controls Zappa's musical legacy, announced the impending release of the album on its website back in 1997, complete with a listing of the selections and even brief sound bites from each composition (except "Poeme Electronique"). Little has been heard about it since.

Yet fear not, oh Zappa legions. The long-awaited Varese album may be coming out after all, possibly by the end of this year. "The Varese album is on hold for a very specific reason," Zappa's widow, Gail, said in December. "We documented three recording sessions with a film crew, and they absconded with the film and tapes, and it took me eight years and lawsuits to get the sucker back. And even so, they did not return the DAT. They were bad guys. I would never call them men; men don't behave that way.

"Now my plan is, I would love to get it out next year [2006], to put out a recording and a film on DVD because I really believe in the power of the music as a visceral experience without the visual aids."

Why is the Varese project so significant amid the miles of unreleased tapes of original Zappa music still locked up in the vault? (Zappa was a congenital workaholic; one person who has combed through the archive claims that a new album of studio or live Zappa music could be released every year for the next 100 years.) The answer is that this may have been the project that was dearest to Zappa's heart, for it was Varese's music that had made Zappa want to become a composer in the first place.

In his quirky autobiography, "The Real Frank Zappa Book," and in an article written for Stereo Review in 1971, Zappa vividly remembered how a 13-year-old R&B fan living in El Cajon discovered this then relatively obscure cutting-edge composer. It was in a chance reading of a magazine article about record retailer Sam Goody, who bragged that he could sell anything, even a crazy, noisy thing like Varese's "Ionization," as it was spelled. A nonconformist even at that tender age, Zappa figured that this stuff was right up his alley but soon found that apparently no self-respecting dealer in San Diego would stock it.

Finally, after searching for the record for more than a year, while approaching the checkout counter at a hi-fi store in La Mesa, Zappa spotted an LP with a picture of what he thought was a "mad scientist" on the jacket. It was the coveted album he had sought, "The Complete Works of Edgard Varese, Volume One" on the tiny EMS (Elaine Music Shop) label -- the only album of Varese works available in the 1950s. (There was no Volume Two; the owner of the label, Jack Skurnick, died in 1952 before he could continue the project.) The shop had been using the record to demonstrate hi-fi systems, but shoppers were driven away by the percussive racket it made. So the cashier let Zappa have the album for whatever he had in his pocket (the price was $5.95 and the boy had only $3.80) -- and he devoured it, playing it over and over, gleefully alienating some uncomprehending friends along with his mother.

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