Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Crossing the line - Boulez conducts Zappa

One of the best things about experimentalism in music, like experimentalism in most things, is the disrespect for boundaries. Even if it means venturing into ugly, dangerous, or even just drab and boring, territory, the willingness to venture into unchartered places always raises that eternally exciting possibility that something new and wonderful will be discovered.

It’s refreshing that there are skilled and daring adventurers to be found in pretty well all musical genres, but what is especially interesting, and especially exciting, is when a couple of them, wandering outside their own respective home worlds, happen to bump into each other, and put their heads together, as Pierre Boulez and Frank Zappa did when they collaborated on Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger.

Pierre Boulez is one of the most important, and in some ways one of the most serious, of modern classical contemporary composers. He brings a whole lot of elements into his music – electronics, pre-recorded tapes, expansions and contractions of sounds and speeds, conventional instruments, unconventional instruments, mathematically ordered notes, controlled chance – all meticulously structured with the sort of pure mathematician precision that we have probably not encountered in music since the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Frank Zappa, who had absolutely no respect whatsoever for any musical boundaries, and who seemed to have left his mark on pretty well every bit of musical territory, was probably most of all at home when he was carrying bits of dirt from everywhere and building his own unique bit of land, eccentric, cynical and satirical and serious all at the same time.

Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger is the result of these two iconic musical innovators coming together and, while all of the music on this album is written by Zappa, it would be a mistake to understate Boulez’s influence on it. Boulez was obsessive about precision in music – both in what he wrote and in what he conducted and, on this album, thanks to that obsession, and the amazing meticulousness of his orchestra, the Ensemble InterContemporain, we hear a level of detail and intricacy in Zappa’s music that we may easily miss on a lot of his other recordings.

Boulez in fact commissioned the title track, which opens the album. As with all Zappa’s descriptions of his music on the album, there’s a pretty absurdist type of scenario given in the liner notes for this piece, giving you a bit of sense that maybe it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously. But, whatever story it’s meant or not meant to tell, the music itself is fascinating, with different tones and colours swapping with one another, orchestral instruments often pushed beyond their usual range, brass sliding, woodwind screeching, percussion tinkering and sparkling, strings shimmering, rhythms shifting ground every few seconds. It all would seem chaotic, were it not being created by such inspired musicians as Zappa and Boulez, who manage to weld all these strange strands into something weird, yet oddly cohesive, with its strange splashes of colour and its odd convergence of lines, like a painting by Jackson Pollock.

‘Dupree’s Paradise’ has heavier moments, along with more readily recognisable Zappa-esque rhythmic work, where the piano is brought into the fold, with jazz-like chords and syncopated rhythms pitted against a dark-toned orchestra, in a piece that pays tribute to society’s outcasts and misfits, gathering in a bar on a Sunday morning, in music that shows how, together, they can all belong and, even in the darkness, radiate their own colour.

Four of the album’s seven tracks actually don’t use Boulez’s Ensemble InterContemporain at all, but instead are performed on Zappa’s Synclavier, or his ‘Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort’, as he calls it. It’s probably better to get Wikipedia, rather than me, to explain exactly what a synclavier is other than to say that, as its name might suggest, it’s a kind an electronic synthesizer sort of thing.

It produces some incredible sounds, like in the dark and haunting music of ‘Outside Now Again’, part harpsichord, part marimba, part drums, part organ, a reworking of the guitar solo from ‘Outside Now’ from Zappa’s amazing opera(ish) Joe’s Garage (see 13th September 2009)

Even darker is ‘Jonestown’, a work that drones and clangs in the aftermath of global death, electronic sounds creating an eeriness and sense of doom, infinitely more apocalyptic than the religious dogma, in the name of which so many lives have been lost.

When a musician like Frank Zappa, who never seemed to take himself or anyone entirely seriously, collaborates with a musician like Pierre Boulez, who always seemed very serious indeed, the results are bound to be fascinating. And, here on Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, they certainly are. It shows that the line between the serious and the cynical, just like the line between the classical and the non-classical, is never as sharp as we sometimes think it to be.


  1. Fascinating indeed - zappa always has a raised eyebrow but was a genius musician - great post Ian

  2. Many thanks Matt! The greatest geniuses always, it seems, have raised the most eyebrows.