The Composer Frederic Rzewski: In His Notes, Protest and Politics
By ZACHARY WOOLFEMAY 5, 2016
It sounds like the setup for a joke: An eminent composer and pianist walks into a fish market and starts to play a Chilean protest anthem.
But there it is on YouTube: a 2015 video of Frederic Rzewski pounding out his 1975 masterpiece, an hourlong fantasia on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” on an upright piano at Wholey’s, a Pittsburgh institution.
“Well, it’s kind of strange,” Mr. Rzewski (pronounced ZHEV-ski) recently recalled thinking of the invitation from the market, where his son works as a cashier. “But why not?”
From fish market to floating concert hall: On Friday, Ursula Oppens, who gave the premiere of “The People United,” will play it at the cozy Bargemusic, just south of the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo, as part of a rare New York visit by Mr. Rzewski and a weekend-long immersion in his work, which is both rigorous and eclectic.
And, crucially, political.
Mr. Rzewski, who at 78 is flinty and opinionated yet warm, is one of many great American composers whom a vast majority of America has never heard, or even heard of. But of that group, he may be the one with the most to say to us now. He has, for decades, been making thought-provoking, heart-wrenching music about issues that dominate the headlines today: the perils of incarceration, the tension between the government and the governed, the struggle for gay rights, the decimation of the industrial working class.
He may be particularly valuable at a moment when the political discourse produces only an unending, almost unlistenable, screech. Passionate but not strident, unsparing yet subtle, his work offers something increasingly rare: a space to be both angry and reflective.
Take “Coming Together,” composed in the aftermath of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. Lines from a letter written by Sam Melville, an Attica inmate who later died in the violence, are repeated, like incantations, over a seething, building din. When I heard it in 2011, performed outdoors in Bedford-Stuyvesant by the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Mos Def, it had a terrifying yet seductive force, the words retaining fierce integrity as the music churned around them.
In “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” the melody of a workers’ folk song is gradually engulfed by music as ruthlessly propulsive as an industrial engine. Not a word is spoken, but the moral is poignant: A way of life has been cruelly taken away. “De Profundis,” a setting of Oscar Wilde’s prison cri du coeur, makes Wilde’s suffering disconcertingly personal and physical. While playing the dizzying solo part, the pianist also speaks the text, hits his or herself, whistles and seems to sob.
Rzewski pieces like “Stop the War!” and “No More War” make no bones about their composer’s politics. But they’re not pamphlets in sound. They have wit, sensitivity. One of the dozens of what he calls “miles” that make up Mr. Rzewski’s sprawling solo-piano series “The Road,” “Stop the War!” bristles with crushing chords, and its performer even shouts out the title at one point. But the music keeps receding, as if stunned by the violence and rage it feels compelled to depict.
The son of pharmacists, Mr. Rzewski was born in Westfield, Mass., and educated at Harvard and Princeton, centers of mid-20th-century composition. He moved to Europe, became an important new-music interpreter, and in 1966 helped found the ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva, which used widely available electronic instruments for exercises in collaborative improvisation.
He now speaks a bit ruefully of those heady days. “Free improvisation was going to change the world,” he said of his generation’s 1960s dreams. “It was going to create an entirely new language, so that people could come together from different parts of the planet and instantly communicate.”
He paused. “Well, of course, we were wrong.”
But he hasn’t given up the fight. “This whole Black Lives Matter movement is very important,” he said. (Of course, ever the good socialist, he drew a distinction: “It’s not a party, it’s a movement.”)
His influence can be felt in pieces by much younger composers, like “sweet light crude,” a brooding mock love song to fossil fuels by David T. Little, who has also performed Mr. Rzewski’s music. When Andrew Norman, in his “Split,” used a piano concerto to reflect on power, on how a group (the orchestra) can exert control over an individual (the soloist), the effect was Rzewskian, even if the sound world was not. Ted Hearne’s WikiLeaks oratorio “The Source,” a driving and simmering reflection on the Iraq war that broods without settling for easy answers, feels as if it were in Mr. Rzewski’s lineage.
Mr. Rzewski practices the progressive ideas he preaches, making his scores available online and encouraging, rather than blocking, the dissemination of his recordings on YouTube. He remains, he says, a revolutionary optimist. Asked if it’s possible actually to affect politics through music, Mr. Rzewski answered, “Probably not,” before adding, with a wry smile: “But you have to write as if you could. You can’t be sure. You might.”