Letter to Edgard Varèse

Left to right: Edgard Varèse and Frank Zappa

16-year old Frank Zappa’s letter to Edgard Varèse (1957):

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.l.” 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 “IONIZATIONS” [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 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 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 in 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 movie 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.

[1957]

from Edgard Varèse, Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary (ed. F. Meyer and H. Zimmerman, Suffolk, Boydell 2006)


Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5 and Octandre will be performed in Zappa’s Radical Classical Roots - World Cafe Live, Sunday, April 22 at 7pm 

Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation for 13 Percussion, the piece that propelled the young Frank Zappa’s musical career, will open an evening featuring 16 compositions celebrating “The Yellow Shark” – The Fillmore, Saturday, April 28 at 7pm

Learn more about these concerts at http://orchestra2001.org/zappa.

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