Skip to page content

About this Piece

Composed: 1983
Length: c. 8 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drums, bells, castanets, chimes, cymbals, Chinese cymbals, gong, maracas, marimba, piccolo snare drum, pop gun, slapstick, snare drum, tam-tam, vibraphone, woodblock, xylophone), harp, 2 pianos (= celestas), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

“In my compositions,” Frank Zappa wrote in The Real Frank Zappa Book (1982), “I employ a system of weights, balances, measured tensions, and releases.” He compares these to a Calder mobile: “a multicolored whatchamacallit dangling in space, that has big blobs of metal connected to pieces of wire, balanced ingeniously against little metal dingleberries on the other end.”

It’s an aesthetic that permeates Dupree’s Paradise – one of a trio of pieces Zappa arranged for Pierre Boulez and his Ensemble Intercontemporain, who recorded them on the 1984 album The Perfect Stranger. The release, which was nominated for a Grammy, pairs these instrumental compositions with pieces featuring Zappa at the Synclavier. Zappa had long been intrigued by modernist classical music since developing an obsession as a teenager with Edgard Varèse, “the idol of my youth.” Boulez gets a shout-out as early as 1966’s Freak Out!

Dupree’s Paradise wasn’t an entirely new work written just for Boulez. It began as the jazzy, meter-shifting tune we hear at the opening of the piece, which Zappa used in concerts starting in 1974 to introduce his band as they improvised around it. In his liner notes to the album (whose cover art portrays a dog wearing a dress and sunglasses, seated in a high chair), Zappa describes the quintessentially beatnik scene he had in mind: “Dupree’s Paradise is about a bar on Avalon Boulevard in Watts at 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday in 1964, during the early morning jam session. For about seven minutes, the customers (winos, musicians, degenerates and policemen) do the things that set them apart from the rest of society.”

Zappa’s Varèse-inspired point of reference is apparent in his sheer exuberance with the ringing, clanging, abutting piles of sound he marshals. Zappa takes the opening optimistic tune down the rabbit hole, from which it emerges at times sounding like Gershwin, at others like a serialist’s lost weekend. As for his rhythms, Zappa notes they are in general derived from speech patterns and “should have the same sort of flow a conversation would have.”

- Thomas May writes and lectures about music and the arts.