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Baron's Book of the Month Club Selection for September 2006-
Our current selection of reading is reprinted from the June 1971 issue of Stereo Review, pp 61-61.
Edgard Varese: The Idol of My Youth
By Frank Zappa
Article taken from Stereo Review, June 1971. pp 61-62.
I have been asked to write about Edgard Varese. I am in no way qualified to. I can't even pronounce his name right. The only reason I have
agreed to is because I love his music very much, and if by some chance this article can influence more people to hear his works, it will
have been worthwhile.
I was about thirteen when I read an article in Look about Sam Goody's Record Store in New York. My memory is not too clear on the details,
but I recall it was praising the store's exceptional record merchandising ability. One example of brilliant salesmanship
described how, through some mysterious trickery, the store actually managed to sell an album called "Ionization" (the real name of the album
was "The Complete Works of Edgard Varese, Volume One"). The article described the record as a weird jumble of drums and other
i dashed off to my local record store and asked for it. Nobody ever heard of it. I told the guy in the store what it was like. He turned
away, repulsed, and mumbled solemnly, "I probably wouldn't stock it anyway... nobody here in San Diego would buy it."
I didn't give up. i was so hot to get that record I couldn't even believe it. In those days I was a rhythm-and-blues fanatic. I saved any
money I could get (sometimes as much as $2 a week) so that every Friday and Saturday I could rummage through piles of old records at the
Juke Box Used Record Dump (or whatever they called it) in the Maryland Hotel or the dusty corners of little record stores where
they'd keep the crappy records nobody wanted to buy.
One day I was passing a hi-fi store in La Mesa. A little sign in the window announced a sale on 45's. After shuffling through their singles
rack and finding a couple of Joe Houston records, I walked toward the cash register. On my way, I happened to glance into the LP bin.
Sitting in the front, just a little bent at the corners, was a strange-looking black-and-white album cover. On it there was a picture of
a man with gray frizzy hair. He looked like a mad scientist. I thought it was great that somebody had finally made a record of a mad
scientist. i picked it up. I nearly (this is true, ladies and gentlemen) peed in my pants... THERE IT WAS! EMS 401, The Complete Works of
Edgard Varese Volume I... Integrales, Density 21.5, ionization, Octandre... Rene Le Roy, the N. Y. Wind Ensemble, the Juilliard
Percussion Orchestra, Frederic Waidman Conducting... liner notes by Sidney Finkelstein! WOW!
I ran over to the singles box and stuffed the Joe Houston records back in it. I fumbled around in my pocket to see how much money I had
(about $3.80). I knew I had to have a lot of money to buy an album. Only old people had enough money to buy albums. I'd never bought an
album before. I sneaked over to the guy at the cash register and asked him how much EMS 401 cost. "That gray one in the box? $5.95 - "
I had searched for that album for over a year, and now... disaster. I told the guy I only had $3.80. He scratched his neck. "We use that
record to demonstrate the hi-fi's with, but nobody ever buys one when we use it... you can have it for $3.80 if you want it that bad."
I couldn't imagine what he meant by "demonstrating hi-fi's with it." I'd never heard a hi-fi. I only knew that old people bought them. I had
a genuine lo-fi... it was a little box about 4 inches deep with imitation wrought-iron legs at each corner (sort of brass-plated) which
elevated it from the table top because the speaker was in the bottom. My mother kept it near the ironing board. She used to listen to a
78 of The Little Shoemaker on it. I took off the 78 of The Little Shoemaker and, carefully moving the speed lever to 33 1/3 (it had never
been there before), turned the volume all the way up and placed the all-purpose Osmium-tip needle in the lead-in spiral to Ionization. I
have a nice Catholic mother who likes Roller Derby. Edgard Varese does not get her off, even to this very day. I was forbidden to play
that record in the living room ever again.
In order to listen to The Album, I had to stay in my room. I would sit there every night and play it two or three times and read the liner
notes over and over. I didn't understand them at all. I didn't know what timbre was. I never heard of polyphony. I just liked the music
because it sounded good to me. I would force anybody who came over to listen to it. (I had heard someplace that in radio stations the
guys would make chalk marks on records so they could find an exact spot, so I did the same thing to EMS 401... marked all the hot items
so my friends wouldn't get bored in the quiet parts.)
I went to the library and tried to find a book about Mr. Varese. There wasn't any. The librarian told me he probably wasn't a Major Composer.
She suggested I look in books about new or unpopular composers. I found a book that had a little blurb in it (with a picture of Mr.
Varese as a young man, staring into the camera very seriously) saying that he would be just as happy growing grapes as being a composer.
On my fifteenth birthday my mother said she'd give me $5. I told her I would rather make a long-distance phone call. I figured Mr. Varese
lived in New York because the record was made in new York (and because he was so weird, he would live in Greenwich Village). I got New
York Information, and sure enough, he was in the phone book.
His wife answered. She was very nice and told me he was in Europe and to call back in a few weeks. I did. I don't remember what I said to him
exactly, but it was something like: "I really dig your music." he told me he was working on a new piece called Deserts. This thrilled me
quite a bit since I was living in Lancaster, California then. When you're fifteen and living in the Mojave Desert and find out that the
world's greatest composer, somewhere in a secret Greenwich Village laboratory, is working on a song about your "home town" you can get
pretty excited. It seemed a great tragedy that nobody in Palmdale or Rosamond would care if they ever heard it. I still think Deserts is
about Lancaster, even if the liner notes on the Columbia LP say it's something more philosophical.
All through high school I searched for information about Varese and his music. One of the most exiting discoveries was in the school library
in Lancaster. I found an orchestration book that had score examples in the back, and included was an excerpt from Offrandes with a lot of
harp notes (and you know how groovy harp notes look). I remember fetishing the book for several weeks.
When I was eighteen I got a chance to go to the East Coast to visit my Aunt Mary in Baltimore. I had been composing for about four years then
but had not heard any of it played. Aunt Mary was going to introduce me to some friend of hers (an italian gentleman) who was connected
with the symphony there. I had planned on making a side trip to mysterious Greenwich Village. During my birthday telephone conversation,
Mr. Varese had casually mentioned the possibility of a visit if I was ever in the area. I wrote him a letter when I got to Baltimore,
just to let him know I was in the area.
I waited. My aunt introduced me to the symphony guy. She said, "This is Frankie. He writes orchestra music." The guy said, "Really? Tell me,
sonny boy, what's the lowest note on a bassoon?" I said, "B flat... and also it says in the book you can get 'em up to a C or something
in the treble clef." He said, "Really? You know about violin harmonics?" I said, "What's that?" He said, "See me again in a few years."
I waited some more. The letter came. I couldn't believe it. A real handwritten letter from Edgard Varese! I still have it in a little frame.
In very tiny scientific-looking script it says:
Dear Mr. Zappa
I am sorry not to be able to grant your request. I am leaving for Europe next week and will be gone until next spring. I am hoping however to
see you on my return. With best wishes.
I never got to meet Mr. Varese. But I kept looking for records of his music. When he got to be about eighty I guess a few companies gave in
and recorded some of his stuff. Sort of a gesture, I imagine. I always wondered who bought them besides me. It was about seven years from
the time I first heard his music till I met someone else who even knew he existed. That person was a film student at USC. He had the
Columbia LP with Poeme Electronique on it. He thought it would make groovy sound effects.
I can't give you any structural insights or academic suppositions about how his music works or why I think it sounds so good. His music is
completely unique. If you haven't heard it yet, go hear it. If you've already heard it and think it might make groovy sound effects,
listen again. i would recommend the Chicago Symphony recording of Arcana on RCA (at full volume) or the Utah Symphony recording of
Ameriques on Vanguard. Also, there is a biography by Fernand Oulette, and miniature scores are available for most of his works, published
by G. Ricordi.
THE FRANK BOOK - By Jim Woodring
"Manhog's Day In The Park" from Host was written Matt Chamberlain and is still performed by Critters. It is based upon a character Manhog from Jim Woddring's "The Frank Book". There is a bit of Manhog in all of us - just waiting to get out. This book is the perfect complement to any instrumental muisc. Textless art at it's finest.
The Baron's Book of the Month Club Selection for October, 2004 -
BLACK MUSIC / WHITE BUSINESS - Illuminating the History and Political Economy of Jazz by Frank Kofsky
Here are some random Chapter Titles -
"Part One: The Political Economy of Jazz, Then and Now
Chapter 2: Why Let a Little Thing Like Death Interfere with Exploitation?
Chapter Four: If You're Black, Get Back: Double Standards in the Recording Industry"
"Part Two: Approaching Jazz History
Chapter 5: You Don't Have To Be Intellectually Dishonest to Defend the Status Quo in Jazz/But it Helps"
The Baron's Book of the Month Club Selection for September, 2004 -
A LOVE SUPREME - ASHLEY KAHN
commemoration of (one of the greatest musician/saxophonist/composers) John
Coltrane's Birthday (September 23, 1926) we recommend any and all of his
the book "A Love Supreme" (by Ashley Kahn, Viking Penguin) tells the story of the making of one of the most important records ever made, "A Love Supreme", it includes a foreword by Elvin Jones.
One of Critters Buggin's favorite John Coltrane records is "Sun Ship". Please listen to the music of John Coltrane. Also check out johncoltrane.com
The Baron's Book of the Month Club Selection for August, 2004 -
MELVINS - NEITHER HERE NOR THERE (228pg w/CD)
The majority of the book is art - but here is a fine literary excerpt written by Buzz Osbourne (vocalist and guitarist of the Melvins):
"In 1985 we had driven from Reno, Nevada with the vague possibility that we MIGHT get to open a show at the "Viz Club" in San Francisco. In Reno we had played two nights in a basement they charged two bucks to get into and we all got roaring drunk. A totally wired metal head from a band called "Punisher" handed out speed to everyone there except us. Actually, what he said was IF he had a metal band he would call it "Punisher"...Anyway, people from Reno call San Francisco "The City". We told them we were on our way to "the city" and soon they were giving us long winded speed raps about every aspect of "the city", as well as anything else they could think of including the rules for every type of gambling they do in all of Nevada. We met the singer from the band "jack Shit" who carried around a four foot club he called his "asshole be good stick", a precaution taken after some unpleasant altercations with violent redneck locals.
If SF at the "Viz Club" we watched backstage as the drummer of the biggest political punk rock band in town laid out rails of blow for two strippers and two fat transvestites who were grotesquely out of drag. Later, during our set, we were hassled mercilessly by these same two TV's who were then coked to the eyeballs. They kept screaming at us to "play it dirty for San Francisco" as they danced wildly right in front of us whether we were playing or not. All of this was made even weirder by the fact that there were about seven people in the audience..."
(SPECIAL THANKS TO HENRY GRIFFIN FOR THE SOURCE MATERIAL)
The Baron's Book of the Month Club Selection for July, 2004 -
I HATE THE MAN WHO RUNS THIS BAR!: The Survival Guide for Real Musicians by DR. EUGENE CHADBOURNE
There's a story about blues singer Georgia Bill, who was driving up to Toronto for a gig at the famous Colonial Blues Tavern. Bill liked to have a backup band but was such an eccentric character that no one stayed in his band ling. (Just watching Bill eat one of his normal meals was enough to inspire walk-outs) A hitchhiker caught Bill's eye somewhere around Sudbury. Bill picked up the kid, a typical greasy, heavy metal guy, the type that gets called "B.C. Hippie: in Canada. The B.C. saw the guitar and asked "You play music, man?". Bill affirmed the B.C. Hippie's suspicions.
"I play, too" the kid said. "I play bass."
"You play blues?" Bill asked, keenly interested.
"What? Blues? I don't know if I've ever heard of that."
"Heard of blues? You haven't heard of blues?"
"No, I play Heavy Metal"
Then Bill offered the kid a job at the upcoming gig. "I got a bass in the trunk, just in case," he coaxed. This shows you that, when worse comes to worse, a bass player can always be found if your standards are nonexistent and you have a spare bass in the trunk.
At the club, the booker, a blues purist, was absolutely disgusted with Bill's hiring policy. When he heard the heavy metal guy fumbling around on the bass, he fired both of them. This illustrates another basic lesson: If you are a bandleader, try to have some standards. It might not seem like it, but someone is listening. Sometimes.
The Baron's Book of the Month Club Selection for June, 2004 -
NEVER MIND THE POLLACKS by NEAL POLLACK
STEVE ALBINI: Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine the band at one end of this trench. I imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract. Nobody can see what's printed on the contract. It's too far away, and besides, the stench is making everybody's eyes water.
NEAL POLLACK: Tell us something we don't know, Steve. Is the moon round, too? Do you have a tiny little indie weenie? This festival is for yuppies, like you, with your one-piece mechanic's jumpsuit and elitist noise. Celebration of music, my ass. Sixth Street is completely gentrified. This ain't the Willie Nelson picnic at Dripping Springs, pal. They're gonna tear down Liberty Lunch and the Armadillo World Headquarters someday. Then The Hole In the Wall won't be able to make it's rent, and Austin will be ruined!
The headline in the next issue of the Austin Chronicle read: POLLACK RIPS ST. PIERRE, ALBINI NEW ONES.