Commenting on my post the other day (in which I provided three tables listing Zappa’s borrowings from Stravinsky), Brett writes:
I’ve heard the claim before (don’t remember where) that the melody from “Magdalena” is based on the Violin Concerto. I’m not convinced, as its just a simple scale from 1 to 5. One could claim hundreds of pieces as models. Any comments by Zappa backing that up?
Good question, Brett! I wasn’t able to find any primary sources to confirm the borrowing, but took the opportunity to listen to the two pieces again. There are a few notable differences, but I remain convinced that Zappa had the Violin Concerto in mind with “Magdalena.” Here’s why…
I’ve been working on a couple of abstracts and am getting close to final drafts. It’s a tough process: coming up with a topic and then following through with devising an argument for a paper not yet written! I’ll post the abstracts that I come up with over the next few weeks or so.
As promised in my last post, here are several tables that account for most (if not all) of Zappa’s borrowings from Stravinsky. I’ve tried to provide as much information about each instance as possible and have listed the track title, the album title, the recording date and location, the title of the borrowed composition, the borrowing strategy employed, and details regarding timing and nature of the borrowing.
(You can sort the tables by clicking on the header cells, though in some cases, that won’t accomplish anything productive!)
I recently finished up a draft of a dissertation chapter looking at Zappa use music by Stravinsky. “Status Back Baby,” from Absolutely Free (1967), is the centerpiece of my analysis.: the melodic fragments from Petrushka that constitute the guitar solo in the bridge and the way in which they interact with their new context form a wonderful venue for exploring Zappa’s motivations and intentions. But there are a heck of a lot of other Stravinsky borrowings as well! Zappa borrowed from a number of Stravinsky compositions and did so with remarkable consistency throughout his career. Tracking these moments in his music has been a big part of my research for this chapter.
In interviews, Zappa frequently recalled his fifteenth birthday when, in lieu of any gifts, he requested permission to make a long distance phone call. Following some lead–he claims it was a hunch, deducing that “a person who looked like a mad scientist could only live in a place called Greenwich Village” –Zappa found Varèse’s phone number and address by dialing New York information.
His obsession with The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Vol. I had grown to the point of seeking out the composer himself. His timing, however, was less than ideal and the older composer was away. Louise Varèse informed Zappa that Edgard was in Brussels working on a composition–Poème électronique–for the World’s Fair, and suggested he call again 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. 
Earlier, I mentioned a 1989 interview in which Zappa described a performance by John Cage:
A short time after that, John Cage came to Claremont College and he was giving one of his … he does these performances with a throat microphone. He’d put this thing on his throat and drink a quart of carrot juice, or read something to you while he was drinking the carrot juice. 
I suggested that Zappa was referring to a concert he attended at Bridges Hall at Pomona College (in Claremont, CA) on March 7, 1962 in which Cage and David Tudor performed Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing? and Variations II. Neither of these pieces fits the carrot-juice description, so I thought I’d look into it a little more.
After my second post about John Cage’s influence on Zappa yesterday, Arthur left a comment directing me to a lecture that Zappa gave (along with George Duke and Captain Beefheart) at Gifford Auditorium in Syracuse on April 23, 1975. Arthur sent me a .torrent file (many thanks, Arthur!), but I see now that the lecture is available streaming at “The Captain Beefheart Radar Station” website. (Listen here.)
The image to the right depicts the cover of the Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume 1. According to Zappa, this was the first record he ever owned. (And one that changed everything for him!)
The story of how he came to discover the record was well-rehearsed. The following quotation is drawn from an article he wrote for Stereo Review:
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 Varèse, Volume One”). The article described the record as a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds. 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. 
Following up on my previous post (discussing Cage’s influence on Zappa with regards to performances they gave on popular television shows), I’d like to discuss some of Zappa’s comments on Cage and get into the issue of influence a little deeper. What follows is a (roughly chronological) account of instances where Zappa talks about Cage explicitly.
Most of you are probably already familiar with the following videos:
(The remainder of Zappa’s performance can be found here.) These videos have made the rounds numerous times over the years, but I don’t know if anyone’s ever looked into any possible connections between Cage and Zappa. To me, these two performances and their respective contexts are too similar to be coincidental. I think it’s very likely that Zappa saw Cage’s appearance on television and modeled his own performance on it. Even if there isn’t such a direct connection between the two videos, I think it’s more than likely that Zappa at least had some of Cage’s theory in mind.
I think there’s a lot to say here, so I’ll limit my discussion here to a little background info on the two videos. I’ll follow up in a second post with a brief analysis of Zappa’s discourse regarding Cage.