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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