Some may think it out of place for a site concerned with classical music to reflect on the unveiling of a bust of Frank Zappa yesterday afternoon in Baltimore, but this is a story that resonated with me for some personal reasons that have a lot to do with current music practices. The fact is that I saw Frank Zappa only once, and on that occasion he was sharing the stage in the Schoenberg Auditorium of the University of California at Los Angeles with Pierre Boulez. Those who associate Zappa only with The Mothers of Invention may still need to be reminded that Boulez commissioned three compositions from Zappa, which were performed by his Ensemble InterContemporain and included on the CD The Perfect Stranger. What I remember most about the UCLA event is that Zappa is the only person I have ever seen to get anything more than a wry smile out of Boulez, and that was the night I discovered that Boulez was as capable of a good belly-laugh as the best of us!
About a decade later I found myself reminded that the impact of Zappa’s encounter with Ensemble InterContemporain extended far beyond making a single set of recordings. In June of 2008, when Sakari Oramo conducted the San Francisco Symphony in the West Coast premiere of “Seht die Sonne” by Magnus Lindberg, I wrote on my Rehearsal Studio blog:
However, one cannot listen to the closely-knit passages of a large number of distinct wind voices cavorting through eccentric rhythmic patterns without thinking of all that Boulez had done, particularly with his Ensemble InterContemporain, to champion the compositions of Frank Zappa.
A more specific local endorsement of Zappa’s current significance took place during the inaugural season of the new home of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. For one of her BluePrint concerts, Nicole Paiement programmed a performance of “Duprée’s Paradise,” a selection on The Perfect Stranger performed by Zappa’s own Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort. The BluePrint performance was supplemented with a piece of solo choreography by Lawrence Pech that seemed to cover every imaginable piece of space in the Conservatory Concert Hall; but I have to confess that I was so drawn into the intricacies of the music itself that I could not take my eyes off the musicians. There is also a recording of the Mothers performing this piece live in Stockholm in 1973, which is far raunchier and includes some of that Zappa patter about rhythms that could send Boulez into an uncontrollable fit of the giggles; but executing this score with a reading that honored both its irreverence and its technical demands struck me at the time as a perfect “initiation rite” for the Concert Hall.
Going back to Baltimore, it is worth noting that the bust unveiled yesterday is actually a replica. The original is in Vilnius and is significant enough to have been included in the Wikipedia entry for Vilnius:
In 1995, the world’s first bronze cast of Frank Zappa was installed in the Naujamiestis district with the permission of the government.
Zappa was born in Baltimore; and, while it is good that his native city has finally recognized him in an official capacity, one still must wonder why it took them fifteen years to catch up with Vilnius.