Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa

Ask pretty much any contemporary musician who their musical influences are and their answers are usually instantly recognizable. Depending on the genre it can include everyone from The Beatles, Queen, and Bob Dylan to Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, and The Rolling Stones.

But what of those musicians who have become influencers themselves?  Who do they point to as having inspired them?

If you’re Frank Zappa, the answer includes French-born composer Edgard Varèse. Known as the “father of electronic music”, it was Varèse’s compositions that would spark Zappa’s interest in modern classical music, informing a 30-year career and over 60 albums.

Unlike Zappa though, mention Edgard Varèse and the name recognition is virtually non-existent. His music maybe even more. Thanks to the Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble, the connection between Zappa and Varèse is brought to life in a concert featuring the two men’s work.

“In this exciting concert, we will perform some of Zappa’s most beloved works from his brilliant Yellow Shark project,” says Owen Underhill, artistic director and conductor of Turning Point Ensemble.  “Varèse will be recognized, as the ensemble will play two works from the mid-twenties that show how revolutionary he was.”

Having wanted to present Zappa’s larger works from his 1993 album for some time, Underhill is finally getting that opportunity as part of this year’s PuSH International Performing Arts Festival.

“I told Norman [Armour] my dream was to do these large works of Frank Zappa from The Yellow Shark project,” says Underhill.  “We discussed Zappa’s music and I said I wanted to connect it to Varèse because he had been Zappa’s mentor.”

“This is the largest show we have ever done, with musicians who have a passion for this music” – Owen Underhill

A largely self-taught musician, Frank Zappa’s 30-year career embraced a wide variety of musical genres, including rock, jazz, synth and symphonies. Along with Varèse and other avant-garde composers, Zappa’s other influences included math and chemistry from his father’s work at a chemical warfare facility. This unique mix led to Zappa’s approach to his art. Zappa also directed films, designed album covers and spoke about social issues, and while his unconventional aspect often overshadowed his brilliance, Zappa is still regarded as a musical pioneer.

Born in Paris, Edgard Varèse moved to the United States in 1914, where he decided to destroy all his works composed up to that moment, and to set off in a radically new direction as a composer, researcher and innovator. In New York, he worked as a conductor and concert organizer familiarizing American audiences with contemporary music and introducing works and composers who had previously been ignored in the United States. During that time he also started composing again, and soon established himself as one of the most advanced and daring of composers of new music.

Vancouver's Turning Point Ensemble
Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble

With a reputation for linking music to present day, Underhill will also conduct the Turning Point Ensemble in a world premiere of a new work by Toronto based composer, John Oswald. Ironically, Oswald marks Zappa as one of his influences.

“John Oswald has been a follower of Zappa since he was a teenager, just like Zappa followed Varèse as a teenager,” says Underhill. “Also, Oswald’s piece includes elements of both Varese and Zappa’s music in a mash-up for 30 instruments.”

The larger ensemble for this concert is a departure for the Turning Point Ensemble, which normally consists of just 16 members.

“This is the largest show we have ever done, with musicians who have a passion for this music,” says Underhill, who is augmenting Turning Point’s numbers with freelance artists that the group has worked with in the past.

The concert will include Varèse’s rarely performed 1925 composition Intégrales for winds and percussion, and Zappa compositions from the Yellow Shark project including “Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat, Be-Bop Tango, Get Whitey, Outrage at Valdez, The Girl in the Magnesium Dress and G-Spot Tornado with new choreography by Rob Kitsos.

“It is an interesting combination of well-known tunes arranged for this large ensemble,” explains Underhill. “The concert will be a fantastic opportunity to hear some astounding music with so many instruments. It is really a fantastic sound.”

Zappa Meets Varèse & Oswald: The Present Day Composer Refuses to Die plays as part of the 2017 PuSh International Performing Arts Festival January 27-29. Visit for tickets and information.

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