Hear What Happens When Avant-Garde Composer Pierre Boulez Conducts Three Frank Zappa Songs

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Musi­cal Evo­lu­tion of Frank Zap­pa in 401 Songs

Frank Zap­pa Gets Sur­prised & Ser­e­nad­ed by the U.S. Navy Band at the San Fran­cis­co Air­port (1980)

Frank Zappa’s Amaz­ing Final Con­certs: Prague and Budapest, 1991

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • William W. Fraker says:

    Zap­pa may be one of the 20th Cen­tu­ry artists played not only in this cen­tu­ry but the next. He can be lis­tened to as a peri­od artist, rock and roll meets the iron­ic angst of the atom­ic age, or a clas­si­cal per­former who will have stay­ing pow­er far into the future — the way we appre­ci­ate Mozart or Beethoven. I am a fan.

  • Thierry Phillips says:

    From the out­set, I’ve ALWAYS been a fan from the first time my big hip­py sis­ter played “Freak Out!” for me- most­ly because I was in high school and real­ly latched onto the silli­ness and juve­nile humor.
    There have been thou­sands of “con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal” com­posers in the past 50 years with Zap­pa’s tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties. This is said not to dis­par­age his or their tal­ents and capa­bil­i­ties, but to decry the oxy­moron­ic “West­ern cul­ture” we exist in that enrich­es stu­pen­dous­ly the no-tal­ents in every genre while ignor­ing those who do worth­while work- but the only rea­son Zap­pa got ANY recog­ni­tion at all was due to his rock and fusion chops,business savvy, and fame. Some of those pre­vi­ous­ly-men­tioned thou­sands of com­posers attained their com­pe­tence through self-study to reach or exceed his lev­el of skill as he did (Har­ry Partch dropped out of music school after two years to become the rev­o­lu­tion­ary giant twen­ty years lat­er near­ly entire­ly due to his own efforts, but he’s the only oth­er Amer­i­can com­pos­er that comes to mind like that)- but ALL of their efforts are worth laud­ing; unfor­tu­nate­ly, there’s no like­li­hood what­so­ev­er that will hap­pen, but at least we can be grate­ful Zap­pa’s work won’t sim­ply van­ish in a decade or two.

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