Was Frank Zappa a musical genius? A modernist, avant-garde composer who just happened to work in an idiomatic pastiche of jazz, classical, progressive rock and juvenile shock tactics? The question can be a deeply divisive one. Zappa tends to inspire either intense devotion or intense dislike. But whatever one’s opinion of the man or his music, it’s safe to say that when he wasn’t working alone, Zappa worked in the company of some incredibly talented musicians. And he attracted, as John Rockwell wrote in 1984 at The New York Times, “a tiny following among classical avant-gardists.”
That year, one of his more genteel fans, Pierre Boulez—former music director of the New York Philharmonic and “widely regarded,” notes Rockwell, “as one of the great composers of the [20th] century”—decided to conduct a suite of Zappa songs. Zappa hoped the resulting album, The Perfect Stranger, would help him realize his ambition of having his music taken seriously in classical circles. (“A brief collaboration in 1970 with Zubin Mehta,” writes April Peavey at PRI, “went nowhere.”)
Boulez conducts his own ensemble for three tracks on the album, “The Perfect Stranger,” “Naval Aviation in Art?” and “Dupree’s Paradise.” The remaining four songs are performed by “The Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort,” a Zappaism for the Synclavier, Zappa's favorite electronic instrument. For all the high seriousness the collaboration implies, Zappa couldn’t help inserting his surreally sardonic sense of humor; always “a compulsive musical comedian,” wrote Rockwell, he wears here “the defensive mask of irony, again.”
Each of the songs has an accompanying scenario. “The Perfect Stranger” imagines that “a door-to-door salesman, accompanied by his faithful gypsy-mutant industrial vacuum cleaner, cavorts licentiously with a slovenly housewife.” In “Love Story,” Zappa wants us to picture “an elderly Republican couple attempting sex while breakdancing.” Many people have had trouble getting past the sophomoric posturing and seeing Zappa’s music as serious art. He often seemed intent on alienating exactly such people.
But perhaps Zappa did not need the pedigree Boulez lent to his work. When listening, for example, to the Mothers of Invention play Zappa’s original arrangement of “Dupree’s Paradise” (top), one has to admit, he created brilliantly complex, rhythmically exciting music and, in the final analysis, represented “a particularly appealing type of quintessentially American composer—genuinely defiant of established categories and divisions that others routinely accept.” Listen to the Boulez/Zappa collaboration The Perfect Stranger in the Spotify playlist above, or access it directly on Spotify here.