There’s a lot to like about the Mothers of Invention’s 1966 debut, Freak Out!, from its solarized cover—with bandleader Frank Zappa in a moth-eaten coonskin coat—to the music inside, a truly psychedelic mashup of sounds made by an artist whose only drug was the nicotine that eventually killed him.
Those sounds ranged from a wonderfully scabrous blues called “Trouble Comin’ Every Day”, so pointedly political it could have been written last week, to the sidelong percussion frenzy that is “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet”. But for a certain subset of young explorers, the most mind-blowing element was buried in the double LP’s liner notes, in the form of a “relevant quote” from 1921, attributed to one “Edgar Varèse”.
“The present-day composer refuses to die!” it read. Those who chose to follow that thread soon found themselves in a sonic landscape beyond anything they might otherwise have imagined—and some, like musical provocateur John Oswald and Turning Point Ensemble co–artistic director Owen Underhill, continue to find inspiration in that world.
“As a teenager, I followed Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention,” says Underhill in a phone call from his East Van home. “And then when I went to university and started doing composition, I started to make the link and became very interested in [Edgard] Varèse as probably the most innovative composer, in terms of sounds and orchestration and imagining a totally new music. He was imagining electronic music 20 years before he was able to actually do it.”
Oswald had a very similar experience, encountering Varèse and Zappa’s music when he was in his very early teens—the same age Zappa was when he first heard his Franco-American inspiration. And now he and Underhill are collaborating on Frank Zappa Meets Varèse and Oswald, jointly produced by Turning Point and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
Oswald’s contribution, Refuse, is an album-side–long collage of musical references—some immediately recognizable, others arcane—that alludes to both Varèse and Zappa’s ways of working. “When I got asked to do this piece, I couldn’t resist, just because of the nascent influence that both of these guys had on me at about the same time,” Oswald says on the line from his Toronto home. “And then there’s the pleasurable research that I had in preparing to do this project, which was re-immersing myself in the music of that period that I was probably listening to—which was everything from spy-movie soundtracks and hi-fi show-off records to the chiefly English rock bands that came to my attention around the time that the Beatles arrived on The Ed Sullivan Show, which was ’64.”
Varèse will be represented by a pair of breakthrough works from the early 1920s, while an expanded, 30-piece version of Turning Point will play Zappa’s The Yellow Shark, essentially the iconoclastic composer and satirist’s last will and testament. What links all three composers is their use of what Varèse called “sound masses”: sculptural blocks of tone that can be stacked or superimposed to achieve extreme density. It’s an approach Oswald often deploys, both in his “plunderphonic” compositions, in which digital samples of iconic pop songs and classical works are mashed together, and in what he calls “rascally klepertoire”, which involves the reorganization and superimposition of pre-existing scores to both insightful and parodic effect.
“In the early part of conceiving this piece, I was tempted to use samples that would be probably played from some kind of keyboard,” says Oswald of Refuse, which, apart from his use of electric guitar, is otherwise unamplified. “But I’m glad I left that behind. I’m trying to do well in this world that Varèse and Zappa really excelled in. The larger-ensemble pieces that Zappa has in this program are really gorgeously orchestrated, and Varèse’s stuff is unique, so the competition’s pretty high!”
Turning Point Ensemble and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival present Frank Zappa Meets Varèse and Oswald at SFU Woodward’s Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre from next Friday to Sunday (January 27 to 29).