The Stratospheric Colossus of Sound: Meet Frank Zappa’s mentor, Edgard Varèse
11:14 am
The Stratospheric Colossus of Sound: Meet Frank Zappa’s mentor, Edgard Varèse

We partly have French-American experimental, modernist, avant-garde composer Edgard Varèse to thank for The Mothers of Invention.

When Frank Zappa was a teenager, a musical prodigy living in rural Lancaster, California, he idolized Varèse. He tracked down The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One after a year’s search (this is what life was like before on-line ordering) and studied it obsessively. Zappa was graciously permitted an expensive long-distance phone call to Varèse’s home as a fifteenth birthday present from his mother. He ended up talking to Varèse’s wife, the famed literary translator Louise McCutcheon Varèse, instead, as Varèse was out of the country.

The young Zappa eagerly sought out a correspondence with the man he considered his mentor. Varèse wrote to him, describing his current work (Déserts) and telling Zappa to visit him if he ever came to New York. Zappa wrote an earnest and impassioned letter to him at 16 while visiting relatives in Baltimore, asking to visit him. He did speak to Varèse on the phone eventually, but the two men never met.

Zappa wrote to Varèse:

...It might seem strange but ever since I was 13 I have been interested in your music. The whole thing stems from the time when the keeper of this little record store sold me your album “The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Vol.l .” The only reason I knew it existed was that an article in either LOOK or the POST mentioned it as being noisy and unmusical and only good for trying out the sound systems in high fidelity units (referring to your “IONISATIONS”). I don’t know how the store I got it from ever obtained it, but, after several hearings, I became curious and bought it for $5.40, which, at the time seemed awfully high and being so young, kept me broke for three weeks. Now I wouldn’t trade it for anything and I am looking around for another copy as the one I have is very worn and scratchy.

After I had struggled through Mr. Finklestein’s notes on the back cover (I really did struggle too, for at the time I had had no training in music other than practice at drum rudiments) I became more and more interested in you and your music. I began to go to the library and take out books on modern composers and modern music, to learn all I could about Edgard Varèse. It got to be my best subject (your life) and I began writing my reports and term papers on you at school. At one time when my history teacher asked us to write on an American that has really done something for the U.S.A. I wrote on you and the Pan American Composers League and the New Symphony. I failed. The teacher had never heard of you and said I made the whole thing up. Silly but true. That was in my Sophomore year in high school.

Throughout my life all the talents and abilities that God has left me with have been self developed, and when the time came for Frank to learn how to read and write music, Frank taught himself that too. I picked it all up from the library.

I have been composing for two years now, utilizing a strict twelve-tone technique, producing effects that are reminiscent of Anton Webern.

During those two years I have written two short woodwind quartets and a short symphony for winds, brass and percussion.

Recently I have been earning my keep at home with my blues band, the BLACKOUTS. We have done quite well and in my association with my fellow musicians I am learning to play other instruments besides drums…

I plan to go on and be a composer after college and I could really use the counsel of a veteran such as you. If you would allow me to visit with you for even a few hours it would be greatly appreciated.

It may sound strange but I think I have something to offer you in the way of new ideas. One is an elaboration on the principle of Ruth Seeger’s contrapuntal dynamics and the other is an extension of the twelve-tone technique which I call the inversion square. It enables one to compose harmonically constructed pantonal music in logical patterns and progressions while still abandoning tonality.

Varèse became involved with the New York Dadaist circle upon moving to America as a young artist in 1915. His 1931 piece, Ionisation, mentioned in Zappa’s letter, was written for percussion instruments only. Varèse met and planned to work with Soviet inventor Léon Theremin, whose invention of the electronic musical instrument of the same name fascinated Varèse. His interest in electronic music, including the revolutionary musique concrète, frustratingly overreached what was technologically available to him at the time.

Surrealist Theatre of Cruelty pioneer Antonin Artaud wrote a libretto for Varèse’s futuristic, science-fiction stage drama, L’Astronome (The Astronomer), but the project was abandoned when Varèse become distracted by a different composition, Espace. Author Henry Miller wrote the libretto for the also unfinished Espace, describing Varèse’s music as “The stratospheric Colossus of Sound”.

Varèse’s influence cast a long shadow on Zappa’s massive body of work. The Mothers of Invention’s first album, Freak Out!, includes “In Memoriam, Edgar Varèse,” the second movement of “Help, I’m A Rock.” Zappa’s final project in July 1993 was The Rage and the Fury, a recording of Varèse’s music. Zappa said,  “Varèse’s music has never been given the credit it deserves and I believe it’s because the technology was never there to record the compositions properly.”




Varèse’s Offrandes conducted by Pierre Boulez, a longtime champion of his work, with Anna Steiger soloist.

Previously on Dangerous Minds
Poème Électronique: Le Corbusier, Edgard Varèse & Xenakis Collaborate, 1958

Posted by Kimberly J. Bright
11:14 am



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