Frederic Rzewski at 80: Directions Inevitable or Otherwise

by Michael Schell

Photo by Michael Wilson.

Composer/pianist Frederic Rzewski, who turned 80 on April 13, has had one of the most impactful careers in modern music. He has experimented with, embraced and advanced many of contemporary music’s most significant ideas, and his credits include such landmarks as the minimalist masterpiece Coming Together and the monumental piano variations The People United Will Never Be Defeated!. He’s arguably the most important living composer of piano music, and is surely one of the dozen or so most important living American composers.

Beginnings and Musica Elettronica Viva

To his colleagues he’s “Fred Shevsky,” the silent “R” a marker of his Polish-Jewish parentage. Born near Springfield, Massachusetts in 1938, he studied music at Harvard and Princeton, then went to Italy on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1960. There he joined the circle of Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–1975), a much-admired teacher and composer whose music was an important bridge between the neoclassicism of older Italian composers like Respighi and the post-WW2 radicalism of Berio and Nono. Rzewski quickly made a name for himself as a piano virtuoso capable of performing new and difficult music, and he went on to premiere and record works by Stockhausen, Pousseur, Christian Wolff, and others.

MEV in the 1960s, with ample hair and idealism. (Left to right: Rzewski, Teitelbaum, Curran.)

Living in Rome in 1966, Rzewski and two fellow expatriate Americans, Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, began presenting group improvisations using a mix of acoustic instruments, vintage synthesizers, and homemade electronic gadgets. They called themselves Musica Elettronica Viva, or MEV for short, and their performances, often augmented by a rotating roster of vocalists and other musicians, frequently went on for hours.

SpaceCraft was an early MEV workhorse, ultimately receiving over 80 performances in Europe. Its “score” was an elaborate set of abstract verbal instructions written by Rzewski as an example of what he called prose music (other examples are Pauline Oliveros’s meditation pieces, and Stockhausen’s intuitive music pieces in the collection Aus den sieben Tagen). Conceived in the social and musical maelstrom that was the 1960s, SpaceCraft’s goal was to “create unity and harmony among human beings through the creation of a sound-space environment.”

But heady idealism aside, the sonic results bear comparison with contemporaneous free jazz epics such as Song for Charles (recorded by the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969, when they were based in Paris) as well as more conventionally composed works like Mauricio Kagel’s Acustica (1970). Although MEV’s own inspiration had been primarily drawn from the live electronic music of John Cage and his brethren, they would soon collaborate directly with prominent African-American musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis, helping to link these traditions in anticipation of the international free improvisation movement that rose to prominence in the 1980s.

MEV’s activity peaked in the late 1960s, but its core musicians have continued to perform together over the years, including a 2016 appearance here in Seattle.

Minimalism

Photo via Lovely Music.

Rzewski spent the early 1970s back in the US amid the rising tide of musical minimalism. He had been an evangelist for the movement in Europe (it was Rzewski that introduced Louis Andriessen to Terry Riley’s In C, something that the Dutch composer later acknowledged as a turning point in his career). Rzewski’s own innovation was to combine the rhythmic energy and musical process of a piece like In C with the collectivist philosophy that informed MEV. Several of the resulting compositions have become classics of their genre.

Les Moutons de Panurge is one of those classics. The instrumentation is unspecified, and everyone plays the same 65-note tune. But they play the notes as follows: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3 etc., until the entire melody is heard. Then the musicians begin subtracting notes from the beginning, playing notes 2 through 65, 3 through 65 and so on, holding the very last C♮ until everyone has finished. A key performance direction reads “Never stop or falter…Stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost. Do not try to find your way back to the fold.”

If things go as expected, musicians gradually lose their place, and the unison turns into a multi-voice canon that resembles a line of sheep meekly following one another, hence the reference to the character Panurge and his gullible flock in Rabelais’ Gargantua. Rzewski’s piece succeeds because of the elegant simplicity of its form and because it has a really great tune.

Coming Together, from 1972, is an even more iconic classic. It uses a text adapted from a prison letter written by Sam Melville, an anarchist bomber who was killed in the Attica uprising in 1971 (depending on your politics he was either a political prisoner, a domestic terrorist, or both). 

As usual with Rzewski, the text is declaimed, not sung, to ensure its comprehensibility and emotional impact. Its treatment in Coming Together is similar to the treatment of the melody in Les Moutons de Panurge—that is, we hear the first sentence, then the first two sentences, then the first three and so on (an effect akin to stuttering), after which sentences start getting dropped from the beginning until we’re left with only the last one:

I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

The accompanying music is remarkable for its limited range, constrained to a mere seven pitches in a simple G minor blues scale:

From this, Rzewski spins 392 bars of continuous single-line sixteenth notes. They start out tethered to low G, trying to climb the scale, first to B♭, then as high as C in bar 2 and D in bar 4. But we keep stumbling, falling back to G, starting over…

The incarceration metaphors are obvious: prisoners trying to escape, to find some variety within the drudgery of their daily lives, or even to “feel for the inevitable direction” of their lives. Rzewski is a practical musician, so for textural variety he gives performers the latitude at various points to choose notes to sustain or play in counterpoint with the running bass line. And none of the measures are literal repetitions (this idea of a continually striving but never repeating bass line was embraced more recently by David Lang in his symphony without a hero, which was premiered by Seattle Symphony in 2018).

But though we finally make it to the end of the text, the music winds up where it started: chained to low G. In fact, the ending of the piece is an exact retrograde of the beginning, and the final three-quarters of the piece are constructed from serial-style inversions and retrogrades of material in the first quarter. Whatever inevitability is attained is only partially liberating.

Rzewski’s own musical direction seemed to be inevitably leading him toward postminimalism, but in a remarkable career shift, his next major piece became a landmark of a different kind.

The Composer-Pianist

The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, composed in fall 1975, is an hour-long set of variations on a protest song associated with resistance to the 1973 CIA-backed coup in Chile that ushered in the brutal Pinochet dictatorship. Premiered in 1976 and first recorded in 1979, the piece was widely embraced as a breakthrough for what was then called the New Romanticism: a prominent move away from the Darmstadt-era avant-garde toward traditional tonality and forms.

The categorizations of the moment are often simplistic though, and Rzewski’s work, while predominantly tonal, includes enough atonal passages and postmodern devices such as verbalizations, proportional notation, piano harmonics, and noise effects to be more appropriately positioned within the American tradition of eclecticism that originated with Ives. Regardless, it has since become Rzewski’s best-known and most recorded piece, firmly ensconced in the pantheon of the 20th century’s epic piano compositions. So powerful and substantive is the music that Igor Levit’s recording can place it alongside Bach’s Goldman Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with no loss of continuity.

The 36 variations are organized into a unique scheme where every sixth variation (up to No. 30) is a summation of the previous five. Variation 31 in turn summarizes the first variation of every set, while Variation 32 summarizes the second, and so on. It can be tough to follow all this without a score—some variations follow the theme more closely than others, and the theme itself includes two passes through the same melody. Here are a few highlights, with timings referring to the above video:

  • Variations 9 (10:39) and 10 (11:48) present a striking contrast: No. 9 is soft and tonal, suggesting Respighi’s Pines Near a Catacomb, while No. 10 plays homage to Stockhausen’s groundbreaking and unapologetically avant-garde Klavierstück X (which Rzewski once recorded for Wergo).
  • Variation 11 (12:50) continues the “shock value,” with effects such as whistling, crying out, and slamming the keyboard lid shut (with the pedal down) seeming to come out of nowhere. The vocalization effects return in the summarizing Variation 35 (51:50).
  • Variation 13 (15:09) has a gospel/swing feel to it, and ends with a cadenza where the right hand quotes the Italian labor song “Bandiera Rossa.”
  • After a succession of relatively short variations, No. 27 (35:44) begins in a rhetorical style before moving into a funky Herbie Hancock-esque episode that digresses from the theme for two minutes. After a brief return to the opening style the variation ends with a Sibelius-like ostinato that leads directly into the martial Variation 28 (41:12).
  • After the final variation, the pianist is invited to improvise a cadenza (54:50) to transition back to the restatement of the theme (1:00:46).

It’s hard to convey how disorienting this piece was when it was first heard. It’s not a straightforward return to 1930s neoclassicism or 1960s collage/quotation style, but an attempt to construct a new and coherent language from elements previously considered disparate. That it no longer sounds jarring is testament to its success.

Rzewski and his daughter in 1990. Photo by Françoise Walot.

In 1977 Rzewski returned to Europe to take a teaching position at the Royal Conservatory of Liège. Since then he has spent most of his time outside the US, focusing his compositional energy on solo piano music whose reputation owes much to Rzewski’s own skills as a touring performer. Rzewski has been compared to Liszt in this regard, and his career-summarizing The Road (1995–2003), a semi-autobiographical album of 64 pieces lasting nine hours in all, is a postmodern counterpart to Lizst’s Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage). In it, Rzewski covers even more stylistic ground than in The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, channeling the rhetorical philosophizing of Ives, the improvisational flourishes of Cecil Taylor, and various folk tune quotations and twelve-tone techniques.

Second Hand, or, Alone at Last (2005) is at the other extreme, an album of six miniatures for left hand alone. Written in a single week when Rzewski was suffering from stiffness in his right hand, it’s a fine sampler of his late style, an American counterpart to Ligeti’s Piano Etudes.

Somewhere in between are the American Ballads, a group of fantasies on folk and political songs that make an easy introduction to Rzewski’s more accessible side. The fourth Ballad, “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” is especially popular, its lively riffs suggesting the constant movement of the spinning machinery. Following the example of Ives, Rzewski holds back on quoting the full song until the very end. You can hear Pete Seeger singing the original tune here.

De Profundis

The most admired of all Rzewski’s post-People works has to be De Profundis (1992), a 30-minute essay for speaking pianist based (again!) on a prison letter, this time written by Oscar Wilde during his incarceration in Reading Gaol in 1897. The piece alternates between textless musical commentaries and accompanied delivery of excerpts from the letter. Despite the despairing tone of the text, the music is often playful, and includes a quote from “London Bridge is Falling Down,” a Bachian four-voice invention, and a body and piano-slapping passage punctuated by toots from a Harpo Marx horn.

Wilde’s narrative—significantly condensed by Rzewski—describes his humiliation and anguish while in custody, reflects on his earlier life (including his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas), and searches for redemption in his sufferings. Eventually Wilde tries to gird himself for the future…

While for the first year of my imprisonment I did nothing else, and can remember doing nothing else, but wring my hands in despair, and say, “What an ending, what an appalling ending!” now I try to say to myself, and sometimes when I am not torturing myself do really say, “What a beginning, what a wonderful beginning!”

…but the music knows better, and the piece ends in a quiet, resigned mood. In real life, Wilde was broken by his physical and emotional ordeal, and he died three years after his release, aged 46.

Retrospective

With Elliott Carter in Berlin in 1965, via Paris Transatlantic.

Minimalism, free improvisation, verbal scores, electronic music, neoromanticism, serialism, pastiche and quotation, indeterminate notation, composer-performer praxis—almost every major trend in postmodern art music is present somewhere in Rzewski’s output. Rather than “an inevitable direction,” his lifetime of exploration seems to have circled and zigzagged in many unpredictable ones. Even as he reaches 80—his younger revolutionary visage transformed into a more grandfatherly persona—he continues to perform and compose, including a new work for the Del Sol String Quartet being unveiled during his birthday week.

True to his socialist leanings, and carrying an unusually modest personality as creative musicians go, Rzewski avoids many of the trappings of musical careerism. Long skeptical about the commercial exploitation of music (“If you write music for a living, you’re doing the wrong thing—it won’t be very good.”), he makes most of his scores available for free at IMSLP and eschews the regimen of self-promotion embraced by many of his colleagues. What he relinquishes in fame and fortune he retains in a sincere independence of thought and action that has enabled him to help define the landscape of contemporary music for half a century.

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