“The Counsel of a Veteran”; Zappa’s letter to Varèse

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” [1]–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. [2]

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. [3]

Zappa spent the summer of 1957 with an aunt in Baltimore. Recalling a casual offer from their telephone conversation, Zappa wrote to Varèse letting him know that he was “in the area” and would like to make a side trip to Greenwich Village. The reply, dated July 12, 1957 (actually August 12, 1957 [4]) read:

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.

Sincerely
Edgard Varèse [5]

Unfortunately, the two composers never did meet in person. Zappa, of course, framed the letter and hung it on his wall–another relic for his collection.

Varèse’s response has been reprinted in a number of publications including Zappa’s autobiography and a tribute article he wrote for Stereo Review entitled “Edgard Varèse: Idol of My Youth.” Zappa’s initial letter to Varèse, on the other hand, is rarely mentioned.

Recently, I came across a catalog for an exhibition of Varèse-related items housed at the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel Switzerland. One of the items was young Frank’s letter, which Varèse seems to have kept over the years. The letter, sent in early August 1957, consists of two typewritten pages (27.8 x 21.2 cm). I’ve never seen the text of the letter printed anywhere else, so I thought I could put it up here.

The text of the letter is as follows:

Mr. Edgard Varèse

188 Sullivan St.

New York, New York

Dear Sir:

Perhaps you might remember me from my stupid phone call last January, if
not, my name again is Frank Zappa Jr. I am 16 years old… that might explain
partly my disturbing you last winter.

The reason for my letter at this time is that I am visiting relatives in
Baltimore and as long as I am on the east Coast I hope I can get to see you.

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.
1.” 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” [sic]). 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 [recte: Finkelstein’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 [sic] 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 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 paint in oils and watercolor and last year produced a cartoon film in
school by painting color directly onto a 250 foot reel of cleared 16 mm
moving film. I painted on the color in such a way that I managed to closely,
but not completely, synchronize their movements to your “DENSITY 21.5” and
the second “movement” of “OCTANDRE”. It brought about some amazing results
from the audience and my counselors in the office allowed me to make a trip
I had planned to Walt Disney studios with the film.

Nothing ever came of my trip, but when I got back to school I was informed I
had a chance to be skipped from the Junior year in high school to the
Freshman year at the junior college which adjoined the school as an
experiment..

I went to the Jaycee and studied harmony and music appreciation and history
for one semester and came out of it with A’s and B’s.

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.

Would you please reply as soon as possible because I will not be here much
longer. My address here is 4803 Loch Raven Blvd., Baltimore[,] Maryland.
Phone Hopkins 77336. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Frank Zappa Jr. [6]

It’s a precocious letter, to be sure, and a little cocky to boot. But I think it reveals the depth of Zappa’s reverence for Varèse . The letter has a clarity and vitality that seems to be lacking in Zappa’s later accounts of his admiration for the older composer which, by comparison, seem lackluster and rehearsed.

References:
[1] Zappa and Occhiogrosso, The Real Frank Zappa Book, 33.
[2] Again, Zappa’s memory of this event is problematic. Zappa’s fifteenth birthday would have been in late December, 1955. The events surrounding Poème électronique do not align with Zappa’s account of the phone call. The Philips Radio Corporation appointed architect Le Corbusier to design their pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Much to the chagrin of Philips, Le Corbusier had insisted that Varèse provide the music. However, it wasn’t until June of 1956 that Le Corbusier wrote Varèse, inviting his participation in the project and it wasn’t until late August of 1957 that Varèse embarked on the eight month trip to Europe to work on the piece. See Fernand Ouellette, Edgard Varèse (New York: Orion Press, 1968), 198.
[3] Zappa, “Edgard Varèse: Idol of my Youth,” 63. (Text here.)
[4] Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann, Edgard Varese: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006).
[5] Frank Zappa, “Edgard Varèse: Idol of my Youth,” Stereo Review 26, no. 6 (June 1971): 63. (Text here.)
[6] Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann, Edgard Varese: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2006).
“The Counsel of a Veteran”; Zappa’s letter to Varèse
  • mwilli

    Not only is the letter precocious and a tad cocky, but it’s quite well written for a 16 year old. That, and the breadth of his musical knowledge at such a young age shows yet more examples of how brilliant this man was.

  • http://www.andremount.net Andre

    His knowledge of music was pretty broad, wasn’t it? If only there was some way of figuring out what books he was reading at his local library!

    Thanks for stopping by, Mr. Williams!