NEW YORK — `THE modern-day composer refuses to die."
That statement was made by Edgard Varese, a radically modern-day French composer who died in 1965 after a long and difficult career.
If his statement about the staying power of modern-day composers has a familiar ring to pop-music fans, it's probably because they've seen it emblazoned on a Frank Zappa record album. An outspoken supporter of Varese's work since his early teens, Mr. Zappa is himself a radical musician with a long history of breaking artistic rules.
One of his most persistent qualities has been a dogged insistence that the boundary between "popular" and "classical" music is arbitrary, oppressive, and exactly the sort of thing that keeps modern-day composers like himself and Varese in cramped little pigeonholes.
A recent concert called "The Music of Frank Zappa," presented in Avery Fisher Hall by the Great Performers at Lincoln Center series, gave admirers of Zappa and Varese an opportunity to compare both composers in a single evening. The emphasis was on Zappa's compositions, including his "Perfect Stranger" suite and world premieres of four additional works; but Varese's celebrated "Deserts" was the second item on the program, supporting the concert's argument that Zappa's serious pop and Varese's ornery clas sical music deserve roughly equal status.
The urge to wipe out distinctions between pop and classical categories is nothing new. Many artists and critics with post-modern leanings are quite hostile to notions of low versus high art - consider Philip Glass and his recent "Low Symphony," for instance, based on a David Bowie rock album. Zappa helped shape this sensibility some 25 years ago, when he started cooking up ambitious suites for his iconoclastic rock group, the Mothers of Invention.
Nor is it difficult to find earlier musicians who bridled at having "popular" labels affixed to their work; one example is Charlie Parker, whose acclaim as a jazz artist didn't keep him from yearning to play European-style compositions with orchestral strings and other classical trappings. The psychedelic '60s found popular and classical forms joining forces in other ways, as groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones incorporated string arrangements into superb hits like "Eleanor Rigby" and "As Tear s Go By."
I have felt that Zappa's ambitions toward classicism constitute more a weakness than a strength in his overall career. True, he has a flair for concocting offbeat textures and dodging conventional rhythms. But this is offset by his too-frequent reliance on a limited repertoire of compositional habits, such as fanfare-like themes and melodies that are more coy and flirtatious than insinuating and incisive.
The very thing that doesn't quite carry over into Zappa's more high-flown compositions, it seems to me, is Varese's tough-minded determination to follow an idea to its rigorous conclusion no matter how confrontational the results might seem on a superficial level. Zappa, ironically, is a little too eager to please his audience - a charge that has rarely been leveled at Varese.
For this reason, the best of Zappa's rock-and-classical hybrids are those that tilt toward the rock side of his personality. It's not surprising that the most exhilarating Zappa piece on the Lincoln Center program was a new work called "Inca Roads," in which he indulges his classical leanings without relinquishing lessons he has learned from his rock-band experience - creating a work that truly swings while incorporating a complexity of structure and a density of sound that are entirely worthy of Varese' s heritage.
The other Zappa works played during the evening all had compositional merits, but none attained such gut-level impact while avoiding so successfully the more ponderous elements that creep into Zappa's conception of musical classicism. It was the concert's most successful demonstration of the kinship between Varese the master and Zappa the successor; and it showed once again that excellent music can indeed arise from an aggressive assault on the spurious borders between "high" and "low" artistic tradition s.
Zappa was unable to be present at the concert, but his work was ably played by the Music Today Ensemble and the Orchestra of Our Time under Joel Thome's baton. Mats Oberg deliciously interpreted "Ruth Is Sleeping," in a new version for solo piano, and Mike Keneally played some very strong guitar, although he was no match for Zappa himself. Zappa is one of the greatest rock instrumentalists of all time and may be longest remembered not for his most ambitious compositions but for his extraordinary contribu tions as a bandleader and a rock-guitar virtuoso.