Chef Boy-Ar-Dee and the Red Diaper Baby

I keep forgetting we have the realm of music at our fingertips. Long-forgotten or barely remembered works are available if I’d only think to search online. Not long ago I went crazy looking through my LPs for the electronic manipulation of a Chef Boy-Ar-Dee jingle sung by the Andrews Sisters—not remembering I could have DuckDuckGo-ed the keywords. I couldn’t even remember the name of the composer. Turns out it was Jon Appleton, and I had it on a CD…

Tonight I finally wised up and did the search, which led me to a YouTube stream by way of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the label’s founder Moses Asch having recruited Appleton to help in the release of electroacoustic works. Chef d’œuvre (1967), the object of my pursuit, is emblematic of such manipulations, being so well known perhaps due to its popular-culture source material. In the notes for his CD collection, Contes de la mémoire (Memory’s tales, 1996), Appleton complains good-naturedly “that composers are often saddled by others with a ‘signature’ work.” And so it is with Chef d’œuvre. “It is my Boléro,” he writes. Its now-doubly-ironic title translates roughly as “masterpiece.”

Appleton’s various compressions in this composition can be seen themselves epitomized three decades later by rock musician Robert Fripp’s five-second condensation of what surely was a much longer “First Inaugural Address to the I.A.C.E. Sherborne House” by J. G. Bennett, included on the album Exposure but understandably absent from YouTube in our era of attention deficit, the Age of the Feuilleton (a newspaper’s necessarily lightweight literary pages), as Hermann Hesse put it. And as they say, “That’s five seconds I’ll never get back.”

There is much to take in on the Contes collection, explained beautifully by composer Alcides Lanza’s review, which appeared in Computer Music Journal, (Vol. 22, No. 3, 01 Sep 1998). Lest Appleton be reduced to an “almost Warholian” appropriator, as Lanza writes aptly of Chef d’œuvre, the composer can be a social observer and critic as well. In 1969’s Newark Airport Rock he employs the smug man-on-the-street interview format of Steve Allen and others, asking travelers what they thought of the “new electronic music,” presumably not explaining the tie-in with his profession, and then setting the responses to his electronic music score. In ’96 he followed up at San Francisco. “In a way,” Lanza writes of the original, “the piece criticizes itself”—self criticism and introspection being memorialized via this collection.

As Appleton explains in the CD notes, his parents (father and stepfather from the former USSR)

dedicated a large part of their lives to Communism. I was raised listening to Russian folk and symphonic music and to believe that the future could be found in the Soviet Union. Imbued with an interest in politics, many of my pieces would have both artistic and political purposes […].

Here Appleton hedges somewhat: according to his Wikipedia profile (which he mirrors on his own website), “In the 1950s both his parents were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee and lost their jobs,” having been employed in the Hollywood film industry.

No wonder it took him years to consider the flipside to un-Americanism. It was the defection of Russian author Anatoly Kuznetsov (Babi Yar) following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. “An epiphany occurred in 1969 when I was forced to think about the role I might have had as a composer of electroacoustic music had I lived in the Soviet Union.” The “direct result” is CCCP (In Memoriam Anatoly Kuznetsov), slyly titled since the Latin phrase most often is associated with a death. Kuznetsov wouldn’t die for ten more years—not so Appleton’s faith in the union of socialist republics.

Even to ears softened over the years by the electroacoustic explorations of rock bands like Radiohead, Appleton’s oeuvre still may be challenging—Chef d’œuvre notwithstanding. But his own choice to explore magnetic music, and thereby defy a theoretical tonal hegemony, can be seen as parallel with the demand he later placed upon himself, to confront a theoretical artistic hegemony vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Again, from the CD notes:

The serial music I was urged to compose while in graduate school, and that we were told would be the ‘music of the future,’ seemed emotionally vapid to me. In the final years of the 20th century, young composers look with nostalgia to the 1960s and the liberation artists were supposed to have felt. We did feel that there were no ‘rules’ and, as I told Nat Hentoff in 1968, “a revolution has not occurred in the arts so much as it has in our own attitudes. In this period of change we should feel elation at the approach of a new order of civilization.”

Appleton then expresses embarrassment at his innocence but recognizes “the excitement which propelled my work” in the new form. Having declined the two futures—twelve-tone, stifling state socialism—Appleton would go on to become co-creator of the pioneering digital Synclavier synthesizer. It was key to a new order of culture, if not civilization.

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