To some, Frederic Rzewski might seem like a composer full of contradictions. His music, after all, includes minimalist and quasi-serialist works as well as collage-type pieces. For example, we all discovered during the pre-concert chat with series producer Ara Guzelimian that Elliott Carter has been a long time friend and mentor to Rzewski. I was surprised. But Kyle Gann, in his essay to the program “Never Second-Guessing Rzewski,” notes “It is typical of Rzewski that he has refused to be limited by even the humanist realist aesthetic that he created. Like Stravinsky, he has shown contrarian fearlessness about walking away from styles his music has made popular. ”
When asked about music and politics, Rzewski stated “Music really can’t be political … theater, perhaps, can be.” And in works like Attica (1972), Spots (1986), and the newer Natural Things (2007) you can see how he brings music and theater together—beautifully. Attica, the earliest work performed, consists of a repetitive tonal sequence set against the intoned narration “Attica is in front of me” (a quote, according to the liner notes, taken from the statement of Richard X. Clark, one of the prison uprising’s organizers). While an extremely moving and beautiful work, I’m afraid that unlike most of the audience—and Times reporter Allan Kozinn—I was not as impressed by Stephen ben Israel’s narration (he was the work’s original narrator). I would be curious to hear of other reactions to ben Israel’s performance, as it was abundantly clear to me that I was absolutely in the minority on this.
I was only acquainted with Rzewski’s piano works before this concert, and it was wonderful to see he treats other instruments. I absolutely loved how he uses the human body as an instrument. For example, in Natural Things (commissioned by Opus 21), Rzewski has the string players breathe and/or sigh as they play glissandi. He also has the performers clap and stamp, creating a choreography, which then becomes part of the music, and use their voices creatively—talking, whispering, layering dialogue contrapuntally. I found his use of non-musical objects refreshing and fun: cans, a megaphone, and even a basketball in Spots. (Does anyone know if both Spots and Natural Things were both orchestrated by Richard Adams, composer and founder of Opus 21? I know they mentioned he had arranged one of the pieces.)
For my taste, I did not care for the 2008 piano work War Songs. It seemed more like a work-in-progress to me, and one which didn’t yet have an emotional center.
Finally, I was somewhat baffled by the instrument set up for a work I dearly love, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which Rzewski and Stephen Drury performed in a two-piano arrangement from 1980. I asked Jed Distler about this in an e-mail, and he assured me that it was “arbitrary.” If that is the case, and the set-up was meant to cut down on the time moving other instruments out of the way, I think it didn’t serve this arrangement well. Usually with two-piano works, pianos are arranged closer together so that both artists can communicate in some fashion. Clearly, the sonorities called for in Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues would make a very close arrangement of the instruments impractical. However, the pianos were so far apart, it seemed as if both players had to guess at each other’s breathing. I’m also not sure the arrangement gave them the sonic quality they sought. Any thoughts from others who attended the performance would be welcome here.
On a different, but related note: We’ve gotten a lot of wonderful comments about pianist Ralph van Raat’s recent Naxos recording of The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (Naxos 8559360). However, many people have requested the timings for all of the variations. Ralph sent them to me in an e-mail last week, and they are pasted below:
Timelist Rzewski’s People United…
Improvised cadenza (53′06″-59′16″)