Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger

Frank Zappa

Rykodisc, 1983

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


To call this disc a total collaboration between legendary conductor Pierre Boulez (helming the Ensemble Intercontermporain) and composer Frank Zappa is a bit of a misnomer, as only three of the seven tracks feature Boulez and orchestra. Yet the collaboration should have produced some of the strongest efforts to support Zappa's claim of being a serious composer. Instead, it provides some of the weakest.

The title track - commissioned by Boulez - is an absolute mess, taking various cacophonies and trying to pass them off as music. Maybe this was truly in the style of Edgard Varese, a composer whose works I've admittedly never studied - but to the casual classical listener, this is going to come off sounding worse than a disc filled with white noise. Whatever story is supposed to be going along with the music contained herein, I'll never comprehend - and, frankly, I no longer want to.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

"Dupree's Paradise" - an orchestral working of an older Zappa track - has a little more success, but even this one does not live up to one's expectations - and, though I admit my knowledge of classical music is limited, I'd have had higher expectations for Boulez. (Then again, from what I've read about him, he's always been a bit of a radical in the stuffed-shirt world of classical music.) The same can be said for "Naval Aviation In Art?" - listenable, but nothing special.

The remainder of The Perfect Stranger comes to the listener courtesy of the "Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort" - in layman's terms, Zappa and his newest toy at the time, the Synclavier. This keyboard-like device allowed Zappa to program in his music and have it produced in any instrumentation he chose. Of these remaining four tracks, the best that can be said about them is that most of them are brief - "The Girl In The Magnesium Dress" and "Love Story" being the most listenable of the bunch. "Outside Now Again" - a new take on the track from Joe's Garage - seems to be just a jumble of noise that never materializes into anything special, while "Jonestown" - a track I'm figuring was supposed to reflect the horrors of the massacre instituted by Jim Jones in Guyana in 1979 - never reaches that level of menacing horror that I believe Zappa meant it to.

In the end, The Perfect Stranger ironically becomes the perfect description of Zappa in this project. Reducing his music to unrecognizable sludge, Zappa gains no points in his attempt to be seen as a serious composer (despite the headway he had made with projects like Orchestral Favorites), and his early noodling on the Synclavier almost served as a warning that Zappa may soon decide he no longer needed a backing band to create his music in a way he saw fit. In that regard, Zappa came dangerously close to becoming a stranger to the audience who had followed his every move for nearly two decades at this stage.

2005 Christopher Thelen and "The Daily Vault." All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of the Zappa Family Trust / record label, and is used for informational purposes only.

Rating: D+

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© 2005 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rykodisc, and is used for informational purposes only.