“All this business about ending a piece in a long silence, what B.S. The piece is not about that. You play the last octave, you close the music, you leave, life goes on.” (Rzewski to Igor Levit, quoted here)
Frederic Rzewski died last week in Italy at 83.
We could, if we were so minded, see Rzewski’s passing as the end of an era—an era of politically-committed art, of revolutionary hopes, epitomised in his work with Musica Elettronica Viva in the summer of 1968 or works of internationalist solidarity from the 1970s such as The People United Will Never be Defeated. But Rzewki’s work was always concerned with the beginning of new intersections, new grounds for resistance and survival. And though his late work frequently addresses the melancholy of defeat, or personal isolation, or historical erasure, it does so with humour, with clear-headed pragmatism, and above all with the utopian hope that never left him. Music, as the texts to some of his piece suggests, provides—or could provide—a model that is antithetical to militarism, to empire, and anti-war sentiments were a key focus for later works such as ‘Stop the War!’ or ‘War Songs’. At the same time, he was realistic about the negligible effect of his own music on actual politics. Conceived as it was within the sphere of the ‘classical’ concert hall, with its class-specific ambiance, such work was faced with a fundamental contradiction: left-wing music produced within often right-wing, bourgeois contexts (donors, funders, concert halls, the mechanisms of that musical world: a dilemma of course not exclusive to classical music by any means). The People United has by now assumed the status of a repertoire ‘classic’, virtuosic, monumental, thrilling, in the grand tradition of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and other classics of the piano. Its series of variations on the Chilean revolutionary song served at the time as index of very recent events, but they can easily stand in for continuing moments of resistance in the present, that continuing legacy of American empire. At the same time, Rzewski was aware of the risks of heroizing the effort of the solo performer, the individual composer, alone on stage translating collective struggle into a model dominated by the ideology of bourgeois individualism. His advice to Levit—just after a performance of The People United—insists that music is part of a broader whole: this is both what makes music—all music, not just overtly ‘committed’ music—political and what necessitates a realist evaluation, that music is context-dependent: that, as he told an interview, to lie down in front of tractors or tanks (as he had) or to go on marches or picket lines (as he had) were different things to writing a piece of left-wing concert music, that its audience and its effects are different. Yet, for Rzewski, music might still serve as an experimental model for types of society, ideal or not; both diagnostic and utopian, an acknowledgment of worse and a hope for better.
I saw Rzewski perform his own work in London three times: the world premiere of his Piano Concerto at the Proms in 2013; his De Profundis, alongside works by Julius Eastman (a collaborator in the early ’70s) at the London Contemporary Music Festival in late 2017; and most recently, back in January 2019, with his son, saxophonist Jan Rzewski, at Café Oto, a set in loving tribute to Rzewski’s late collaborator Steve Lacy resplendent with touches of theatre—Jan Rzewski walking out of the venue doors, still playing, his sound coming faintly through the glass—moments of comic, extra-musical dialogue when Jan’s mother insisted from the audience that he and Rzewski speak in English for the benefit of the audience, rather than the Italian in which the two were conversing. Rzewski’s was a music that could feel monumental, but that sense of intimacy, of music written to be played and heard by its dedicatees and comrades, made in the home or the street as well as on the concert hall stage, was central to his work. I never saw him play The People United himself, though I heard it rendered by a fine team of younger pianists (Mihály Berecz, Julian Chan, Harry Rylance and Jonas Stark) at the Royal Academy of Music on Halloween 2019 alongside the poet Erín Moure, who read later that week and with whose cross-cultural aesthetic, deeply attuned to the relation of culture, language and politics, serious but with a sly humour, has certain kindship with Rzewski’s own. At the start of lockdown last year, Levit performed the piece in his live streaming series, recorded from home: on an uncertain internet connection, with dubious sound quality, the piece nonetheless, at that point in time, had more resonance than as a repertoire warhorse, a fragmented tribute to resilience and survival rather than display of bombast, skill and display. (Levit has been one of the most prominent recent champions of Rzewski’s music, emphasizing its open, utopian qualities.) The People epitomizes a technique I associate perhaps most of all with Rzewski’s music, that of the variation form: not on the basis of a patron’s tune, as per Bach’s Goldberg or Beethoven’s Diabelli, but of militant song, Sergio Ortega to Bandiera Rossa—and Rzewski’s own melodic counter-figure that equally forms a linking device between the movements, a counter-theme, a dialectical interplay. These notes will be variations of their own on Rzewski.
Based on Ortega’s Allende-era song, which Rzewski had heard on the radio in Italy, The People United was written for Ursula Oppens to play at a Bicentennial Concert in order to bring the effects of Latin America to the heart of ‘North American’ culture. In its original context, it was a political intervention; as a repertoire piece—now programmed alongside the pieces by Beethoven and Bach that were its predecessors, and so place firmly within the tradition within which it works and from which it departs—the piece (or what has been done with the piece) encapsulates some of the contradictions of Rzewski’s music. On the one hand, Rzewski was early on immersed in the European avant-garde, studying at the Darmstadt summer school in 1956, where he met Christian Wolff, and coming under the influence of Dallapiccola and Stockahusen, whose work he performed. Then of course there are the other aspects of the American avant-garde, both related—Elliott Carter—and apparently competing—John Cage and David Tudor, the latter a highly significant influence on his own approach to the piano. Though these approaches were both perhaps equally formative, Rzewski would come to rebel against the strictures involved in this music (as, indeed, did a number of its best-known practitioners, not least Stockhausen). Instead, he found his way to the social aspects of music-making that would always preoccupy him through the often improvisatory, egalitarian, leaderless ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva, which he co-founded in Rome with Allan Bryant, Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum and others including Carol Plantamura and Ivan Vando. The group morphed in form over the years—its character in particular changing with the addition of Steve Lacy in the 1980s—but at its inception took its place alongside very different groups from the European avant-garde (AMM, with whom they shared one side each of an LP, and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, also based in Rome) to American free jazz (the Art Ensemble of Chicago) in its exploration of new ways of conceiving the musical ensemble. Performance context and musical form were in constant, sometimes volatile interaction, M.E.V. performing others in crypts, in prisons, in hospitals, on, as the title to Rzewski’s text score ‘Spacecraft’ suggests, to outer space. The group believed, Rzewski later asserted, that free improvisation would change the world, like a kind of literalized Chomskian universal language: M.E.V. “was going to create an entirely new language, so that people could come together from different parts of the planet and instantly communicate.”
As the group's title suggests, live electronics were one part of this. Rzewski had early on made experiments in musique concrete. As he later explained, the obscure 1965 piece Zoologischer Garten, composed while a guest of the Ford Foundation in East Berlin, was a purely “formalist”, serial piece whose title nonetheless contains an implied political statement at the ‘zoo-like conditions’ of the divided city and its border regime, and which samples the voice of the daughter of Jacob Taubes, Rzewski’s professor at Harvard, at one point recalling her mother saying “we’re going to kill De Gaulle”. Musique concrete—or even ‘purely’ electronic sound which sounded like musique concrete—which enabled one to bring the sounds of the outside into the concert space and to experiment with the way sound was perceived in that space, both in the tradition of and going beyond the orchestral tradition. Likewise, Ricahrd Teitelbaum had likewise been intensively working on his own modifications to Moog synthesizers. But the American expatriates found it initially hard to access music studios with the requisite equipment. Instead, composer David Berhman sent circuit diagrams that M.E.V.’s members would use to build their own instruments, attaching contact mics to pieces of available junk, emphasizing electronic’s capacity to alter the sound of everyday objects, an innovation they shared in some respects with AMM or with the ‘little instruments’ multi-instrumentalism of the AEC. This was both a practical and polemical gesture. In M.E.V., Rzewski would sometimes replace the piano with a glass sculpture parodically shaped like a piano, from which other members recall him producing sounds through scraping and striking that sounded like wild animals or a Javanese gong, all overlaid with a heavy distortion that—as with contemporaneous playing in rock music—distortion was central. This conceptual gesture—the liberation of any instrument as a potential sound-making device—soon extended to the constitution of the musical group itself. The group began by playing composed pieces, but soon evolved to text scores and guided improvisations. Rzewki’s ‘Sound Pool’, for instance, sought to replace the closed group as such, inviting any and all audience members to bring sound making equipment of their own. Here, the process of musicmaking is as important as the result. The music is, quite literally, made in collaboration between performers and audience, in the process seeking to erase the distinction between them. The group built their own performance space in Rome’s Trastevere district, performing nightly and inviting anyone to join, ultimately evolving into a pool of around twenty performers including Steve Lacy, Jon Gibson, Anthony Braxton, Maryanne Amarcher, Cornelius Cardew of AMM and others. Though there are a number of recordings, including a multi-decade boxset, this was very much a live group—much is lost in the translation simply to audio. Above all, this was music as social environment, with something of the Thoreauvian anarchy of John Cage’s Musicircus experiments of the 70s but with a greater faith in the role of intention within improvisation, rather than pre-ordained chance encounters set up by an overarching composer figure.
Alvin Curran later recalled: “It mattered little who played what when or how, but the fragile bond of human trust that linked us all in every moment remained unbroken.” Rzewski’s score for ‘Spacecraft’ allegorises the process that must be actualised in the making, each player imagining themselves in a labyrinth, being dictated to by a master voice, synecdoche for the force of ossified tradition. As the work unfolds, each player must attempt to ‘fly’ out of that labyrinth with falling into stereotype or floating alone. The piece is about individual voices finding both themselves and each other beyond existing strictures, its utopian aspirations indicated by the title with its echoes of Sun Ra, of the MC5’s ‘Starship’, as a kind of anti-space programme. Such pieces challenged the concept of the musical ‘work’ as fixed entity. In Rzewski’s words:
If the rules and the scaffolding of serialism, of composition and written music in general, in all the six or seven centuries of its history, were what made the simulated flight of the artist possible, then he must abandon them all in order to make the passage to true flight; he must jump into space.
As Amy C. Beal notes, another of Rzewki’s statements—that the group sought to “make music with whatever means are available”—“strips away the layers of training, technique, and talent traditionally demanded by Western art music, taking universality as a springboard”. This is certainly utopian, and in some ways naively cross-cultural, seeking to do away with difference, inequality and privilege by force of desire. Yet, as there always would be in Rzewki’s work, there was a strong practical dimension at play here too. Rzewski’s ‘Plan for Spacecraft’ further has it that “the difference between magic and work is one of duration.” At certain points, a coherent group identity may be formed as if by magic, almost instantaneously—call it swarm intelligence, the unifying rush to a shared goal, an anarchic, revolutionary act which moves beyond, or in advance of organisation (electoral politics, the concert hall, etc)—improvisation as Walter Benjamin’s “left-handed blow”. But the statement doesn’t imply that magic is infinitely sustainable or preferable to work—they interact dialectically. This is of course music that emerges from the atmosphere of May ’68. Luigi Nono sampled sounds from the streets in ‘Non Consumiamo Marx’, as he had sampled the factory in ‘La Fabricca Illuminata’; M.E.V went to the streets themselves. Rzewski gives a good account of the utopian hopes of this period in a 1969 interview by Monique Verken published in The Drama Review, describing the
experiments in street music carried out during the summer and fall of 1968, in the course of which fixed-electronic sounds were combined with mobile-nonelectronic sound- sources. [...] ‘Form’ and ‘content’ are variable, changing from one performance to the next, depending upon the particular characteristics of the performance space, the objects used (usually about half of the sound-sources employed consist of objects found on the spot, amplified or not), and the individuals present.
Rzewski tells Verken that he sees M.E.V.’s music as moving away both from serialism’s strictures and from Cageian indeterminacy, “the controlled use of chance operations”. Instead, improvisation can operate freely, “based on ‘friendship and trust”. This process is allegorised in pieces which direct players to move in the direction of the softest sound they can hear, though the opposite impulse is equally present. For Rzewski, the experiments—as with related endeavours in the UK such as Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra and the Portsmouth Symphonia—enacted the true potential that Cageian indeterminacy and rock music promised but never delivered. For Rzewski, rock concerts disavowed audience participation: dominating and martial, the band, high up on stage, deified, exhorted the audience but never granted them autonomy or freedom. By contrast:
when, as has happened on numerous occasions in the Sound Pool, one hundred and more people are grooving together, making free music together, in harmony, it is like no other sound; you know that you are experiencing something new and revolutionary. It is like New Year’s Eve or the Birth of Gargantua.
Making a quasi-Situationist argument, Rzewski argued that music-making was destined to disappear as separate artform and to become simple one other activity like gardening or cooking. If Rzewski’s prophecy might seem to be fulfilled in the constant availability of music in the age of mechanical and digital reproduction, this happens on the sphere of consumption, rather than production, which is vaster, more profitable, and more exploitative than ever. And M.E.V.’s utopian model ultimately couldn’t be sustained at the same pitch—materially or otherwise. I’m reminded of a comment made by free jazz pianist Burton Greene, who predeceased Rzewski by just a few days: “We played atomic energy music twenty-four hours a day man, and we exploded like the Fourth of July”. In the 70s, Rzewski returned to the States, unable to support a family on the money he made from making experimental music.
In his subsequent career, it might appear that Rzewski abandoned the utopian hopes of the M.E.V. era, which he would put down as naïve. For sure, in reacting against the strictures of serialism, of the deification of the composer and the concert hall within Western bourgeois art music contexts, Rzewski and his comrades perhaps overlooked the role of that music had and has played outside the Western concert hall or largescale Western pop music in other parts of the world. As what Teitelbaum called Ivy League ‘drop-outs’ (in fact, most of M.E.V.’s American founders had qualified with degrees in hand), M.E.V. had strayed from the fold but found themselves back within it. Rzewski later stressed the nature of Western classical music as based on the artistic valorisation of conflict—with the principal of counterpoint in itself a kind of military principle—while equally, and in contradictory fashion, fetishizing certain notions of harmony and conformity. This might apply as much outside the music, to its social contexts of production, as to the music itself. Rzewski’s later work consciously worked within this dialectic. He didn’t abandon utopianism or the challenge to existing conceptions of audience, performance and hierarchy--for instance, he made his scores available for free online, encouraging the online sharing of his music, refusing to work with what he saw as exploitative publishing companies. (A virtually complete set of digital scores and recordings of his compositions is readily available here). And he memorably played the entirety of The People United at the fish restaurant where one of his sons worked as cashier.
Rzewki’s own early compositions outside M.E.V. worked these concerns from slightly different angles. His questioning of the notion of counterpoint saw him reach back to earlier forms of Western music, to practices such as the medieval and Renaissance cantus firmus and to the interest in other forms of repetition then taking the name ‘minimalism’. Jefferson, written for soprano Carol Plantamura just after the Kent State shootings, sets a Founding Father’s calls for revolution against the America they are taken to enshrine, sung (almost declaimed) in non-accentuated, vernacular-inflected form over a cantus firmus figure. It was, however, Coming Together, written the following year following the Attica uprising, that would represent Rzewski’s most enduring political statement besides The People United. Once again, the vocalist declaims—either speaking or singing—over repetitive melodic-rhythmic material (either for keyboard player or an ensemble of 8-10 instruments). The piece is in two movements, the first setting words from a letter written by political prisoner Sam Melville, shortly before he was killed during the Attica uprising.
I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. It’s six months now, and I can tell you truthfully, few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead, but I feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis so am I dealing with my environment. In the indifferent brutality, the incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, I can act with clarity and meaning. I am deliberate, sometimes even calculating, seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.
A combination of multiple registers—the discourse of lovers, “the experimental chemistry of food”, the languages of health, of brutality, of clarity—the piece is a kind of survival guide. Rzewski claimed that extending and separating out the words aimed at an insight into the psychology behind revolutionary dedication instead of, or in addition to, the more general political statement of Jefferson.
In his infamous diatribe Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, Cornelius Cardew asserted that this focus on psychology served to mystify the piece’s politics, an assertion that denies a reality central to the carceral experience and to the real, affective, experienced effects of the State beyond the Stalinist party line characterisation of the way that individuals and forces operate. The piece is not, though, a conventional piece of psychological realism or music theatre. It focuses profoundly on the details of body, rendered in words, in a manner that is both individual and generalisable. Just as the optimism in Melville’s letter is overshadowed by our knowledge of his subsequent fate, so the final movement sets the ambivalent words of another prisoner later released from Attica. When asked by a radio interview how he felt now that his imprisonment was over, now that Attica was behind him, Richard X Clark replied, “Attica is in front of me”. This is still the truth we must confront head-on—the carceral future against which abolition’s horizon sets an alternative course. Just as Sam Melville was both isolated and, as the piece’s title has it, in the process of ‘coming together’ in various ways to resist his isolation; just as Clark had both escaped and not escaped: so the piece moves to and away from coherence—in its insistently repeated bass figure, which the other musicians of the ensembles play within and around, subtracting and adding figures to it in various ways; in the way the speaker splits up the syllables of the text; in the way its repetitions never quite build to the resolution they promise. The work exemplifies the virtues of Rzewski’s oeuvre: that of continuing political relevance and of simple, but enormously effective use of innovative formal means as aesthetic form and frame. Nothing feels forced. The music is a breath of fresh air, like breathing, within and against confinement, in a spirit of solidarity and transformation.
Coming Together of course has status as one of Rzewski’s most frequently performed pieces, in large part due to its combination of an accessible musical language, in common with the Glass-Reich variety of minimalism, and the drama, pathos and politics of its spoken word part. Initially recorded by Living Theatre member Steve Ben Israel, the piece has been performed many times since. Julius Eastman’s is sadly unrecorded. No less than Angela Davis—herself a political prisoner when the piece was written—performs as speaker in a 2016 version recorded two days before Donald Trump’s election. (She was subsequently dedicatee of Rzewski’s piece ‘Demons’). Moor Mother is the latest in a series of artists to take on this role, in an upcoming video performance recorded within the Eastern State Penitentiary historical site.
Despite its fame, however, Coming Together is perhaps not the most representative of Rzewski’s pieces. To be sure, it picks up key focal points—politics, the use of spoken or sung text, a combination of composition and improvised elements. But its simpler version of minimalism, likewise heard in Jefferson or Les Moutons de Panurge, was a stage Rzewski passed through, rather than the (often dreary) endpoint it would become in the less creative, mainstreamed examples of minimalism (Rzewski’s minimalism was far closer in spirit to that of Eastman, with which it combined an interest in improvisation, theatricality, and fresh, morphing ensemble texture). In the years to come, Rzewski’s focus would increasingly be on something perhaps unimaginable at the height of the M.E.V. days, circa 1968 street music: the concert hall tradition of the piano recital.
Le Monde’s obituary has it that:
la musique de Rzewski fut un peu à la seconde moitié du XXe siècle ce que celle de Chopin fut à la première moitié du XIXe : l’art de tout dire avec un piano.
Likewise, the notice in Het Parool calls him “a monster of a pianist”. This status was, though, a double-edged. For Nicholas Slonimsky, Rzewski was “a granitically overpowering piano technician, capable of depositing huge boulders of sonoristic material across the keyboard without actually wrecking the instrument”. Was Rzewski a wrecker of the piano or the fulfilment of the virtuoso composer-pianist, capable of playing across any idiom? Having parodied the piano’s status with his glass sculpture in the M.E.V. days, Rzewski decided not to destroy it or distort the piano, as had George Brecht and La Monte Young and Nam June Paik with Fluxus and Cage and Tudor with the prepared piano, as had Nancarrow with his player piano; neither did he make extensive use of electronics. Instead, he worked within the instrument’s history—heavy doses of Romanticism (though often as filtered through jazz, a side of his playing that can be heard best in his relatively obscure work on discs of Steve Lacy compositions)—formal elements from earlier forms of classical music, melodic material from blues, folk, protest music, and so on. For Rzewski, this music may take place in the concert hall--and The People United was written to make its bourgeois audience, giddy with the nationalism of America’s bicentennial celebrations, in some way cognisant of what was going on in Latin America, of other traditions of being and resistance—but it was also written with other spaces in mind, notably that of the home, the domestic space, of of playing with and to and for friends, ‘Nanosonatas’, songs with or without words that you could work and play through at home. Etudes, essays, trying things out. (In this regard, one of his last completed pieces, composed during the pandemic and premiered by Ursula Oppens, was called ‘Friendship’). And perhaps that’s not so different from the ongoing, large scale improvised negotiations of his other pieces. As he put it:
Reality is both rational and irrational. The universe has a structure with elements that can be predicted, but there are things that have no structure and that cannot be predicted.
Kyle Gann suggests that Rzewski’s turn to the piano and to use of ‘folk material’—notably of political songs—followed the recent work of Cardew in the same vein, noting that Rzewski’s The People United followed a year on from Cardew’s much less well-known Thälmann Variations, which Rzewski himself would later record. Cardew would move from seeing the radical potential of music as based in the forms surrounding it—the social experimentation of the Scratch Orchestra—to emphasizing political message over the notion of form-as-politics. The music’s purpose was to clearly communicate a political line. While Cardew’s Maoist work has been almost universally dismissed for prioritising politics over aesthetics, to the detriment of the latter, Rzewski later argued:
He was one of the first people to realise that one of the core problems of new music was the problem of language. His decision first to study and then to apply the principles of Socialist Realism were, I think, motivated by a perception that the idea of Socialist Realism was not necessarily based on any kind of Marxist aesthetic. [It] was primarily a question of language, of presenting ideas in a form which could be understood by large numbers of people.
I think that his work in this area was genuinely experimental [...] I think that the Thälmann Variations, We Sing for the Future and the Irish folk songs are genuinely experimental. They are based on attempts to create a kind of fusion between the great models of the past, notably Beethoven — much of this music is in the language of late Beethoven — combined with different folk-based traditions and later on with some of the early English keyboard music.
Rzewki’s later performances of these pieces (one of which is embedded above) are perhaps definitive. And he would—to an extent—join Cardew in this endeavour, both musicians turning to the piano and to stylistic idioms drawn from Beethoven or from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (that’s to say, ambivalent encounters with national traditions). Of course, Rzewski takes the variation form further than Cardew would, refusing to abandon atonality, the avant-garde, and so on for predominantly tonal material, and instead freely mixing them. This further reflects his thinking on the changing of tradition which earlier had taken more overtly radical form. This was always the question: how to build from the ruins of tradition without falling into nostalgia or irrelevance. In part, Rzewski did this by drawing on a wider range of traditions than did Cardew. Cardew drew on English, Irish and Chinese folk songs—Rzewski, though maintaining an international cast, did some of his most effective work with North American idioms, exemplified in the four North American Ballads (1979), commissioned by the great queer pianist Paul Jacobs, who’d die of AIDS four years later. But again, just as The People United was Rzewski’s great response to the jingoism of the Bicentennial celebrations, so too, these Ballads were written around the time that Rzewski relocated to Belgium for a teaching position. We might well recall that Rzewski has always been a European musician as much as an American one, and that his music is firmly internationalist at all points.
For me, the Ballads are up there with Rzewski’s best work, deeply moving and a fitting tribute to the source material on which they spin their variations. That said, there are of course questions of appropriation, of form, of social context, of race and class and gender behind all of this that can’t be easily resolved. My friend Richard Owens, a poet and himself a deep thinker on the ballad tradition, wrote to me a few years ago:
I was a little troubled by at times, by [Rzewki’s] WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON a little somehow wrenched from the thrust of its making -- separated out, formally so, through the music, from the laboring bodies it calls to.
For Owens, there’s a risk that Rzewski “abandon[s] the flesh of the singing body for the piano object [...] so what does this mean -- homage or damage, and always both at once with the best of intentions -- and of course I would say the conversation as such, signals some sense of the advance [Rzewski] make[s]”. At the same time, in spinning variations on songs which were themselves adaptations of, variations on existing, anonymous melodies—as is the case, for instance, with Florence Reese’s ‘Which Side Are You On’, written during the Harlan County Labour struggles on the basis of earlier tunes the basis for the second movement—Rzewski is operating firmly in their spirit, rather than simply placing bourgeois classical techniques (Bachian, Beethovenian, etc) on top of working-class material). As an operative principle not just for this particular piece—though I think it’s one of Rzewski’s most important—but for Rzewski’s later work in general, the endless spinning of variations works here as productive, the process of incremental development which always turns into itself—collective, not only in terms of an ‘audience’ or a current community, but that whole community, stretching back to the dead. There’s a dialectic at work here: the variegated nature of the music is constantly drawn back to its point of departure (the theme) yet constantly draws that point of departure out of itself into more variation. Perhaps all music, in this sense, could be understood as variation. (Rzewski would later write a series of variations “Fourteen Variations Without a Theme by Beethoven”).
Rzewski’s piano music may not have deconstructed the instrument as had Fluxus-Cage tradition, as had. Cecil Taylor’s 88 tuned drums, but it did manifest a sustained thinking through and live engagement with the history and present of the piano as instrument. The piano tradition itself is not single or monovocal, and neither was Rzewski’s adaptation to and of it. in a review of the Nonesuch boxset of Rzewski’s piano works in Tempo, John Barnaby suggests that Rzewski’s pianism draws equally on two apparently competing strains--the focus on miniatures, on formal elegance, on solo music whose setting is the interior (Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier) and the concert hall grandiloquence of the 19th century virtuoso tradition, of Alkan and Listz at their most showmanlike. Drawing in popular material through the variation form is a way of breaking open that tradition but also raises question of how exactly this material stands in relation to its new context. The North American Ballads make a clear argument about the American labour movement, contrasting songs of resistance to the inhuman or inhumane conditions in which they were produced (as in the mimetic echo of factory machinery in ‘Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues’), a method Rzewski called “humanist realism”. By contrast, as Kyle Gann suggests, the multiple pieces that appear in the final movement of the Piano Sonata—from the late-Medieval ‘L’homme Armé’ to ‘Three Blind Mice’, ‘Give Peace a Chance’ to ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’—seems less to make an argument as to work by ear. For Rzewski, there was not one method or approach. For Gann, Rzewski’s ear and compositional sense make it relatively easy to characterise individual pieces, but his refusal to remain tied to any one style or approach make it impossible to generalise about his oeuvre as a whole. Above all, when it comes to Rzewski, the distinctions we’re used to making as regards ‘classical’ or ‘avant-garde’ music—indeterminacy, serialism, tonality, atonality—are shown up as only tools, rather than schools, that can be used as and when they fit, not removed from social consideration, but certainly shorn of much unnecessary ideological baggage. Far better-informed musical minds than mine have analysed the ways in which his pieces freely traverse tonality and atonality within the same piece--not as fore-grounded eclecticism but simply a way of thinking, natural as finger on keys, as breathing.
Not tradition, but traditions, plural, as Rzewski liked to put it. And if we’re thinking of the ‘tradition’ associatd with a particular instrument, we might also recall that the term ‘instrument’ has as its other sense the sense of the tool, of instrumentalising something, using something of a conduit for some other action. The piano, as orchestra in miniature, as at once the grand piano concert hall or the domestic small instrument, is poised between social forms. Its meaning and context is inherited but might also be changed, exists, as Rzeswki’s music as a whole, at a point of constant arrival and departure. The other key element here—bringing us back to ‘Coming Together’ and, even more so, to ‘Jefferson’—is the role of speech. The People United and the North American Ballads take sung material and instrumentalise it (in the various senses of that word). But Rzewski continued to make use of speech, notably in a piece like the Brechtian The Price of Oil (1980), which stages a dialogue between an investor and a worker in the context of North Sea oil rigs by a group of speaking percussionists. And in his piano works, Rzewski would often score it so that the pianist not only plays but speaks texts, rhythmically staggered in time with the music, rather than sung. The text comments on the music and the music comments on the text or they operate in parallel or entangled planes—returning music to its basis in a real performing body, opening up a dialogic, social space. Rzewski quipped that in musicals people are speaking and then suddenly break into song—so why not the other way round? The pieces might also play between what can be said and what cannot be said: the testimony of things that cannot be imagined (his setting of Peter Weiss’ work on the Nuremberg trials in The Triumph Of Death); the body that remains social even in isolation in the profoundly moving De Profundis, a setting of excerpts of Oscar Wilde’s famed prison letter. When the elderly Rzewski himself played De Profundis at the performance I saw in 2017— seen from above in a large(ish) post-industrial venue in a bourgeois neighbourhood of London, emblem of gentrification, cousin of the Wildeian prison—the sound of his amplified speech and breath, of his chest or legs or arms struck, tapped, rubbed, gave visceral presence to the body, not simply of a performing, deified machine, but an old man, paying tribute to a victim of the State, in an act of solidarity that felt open and generous, more reflection than call to arms, sad and enraging and beautiful.
In De Profundis, amplification emphasizes the intimacy of body and instrument even within a larger space that otherwise forecloses the intimacy enabled within domestic performance. And in Rzewski’s solo works, the grand style of concert hall flash combines with another tradition that’s easier to overlook: the Nanosonatas, for family and friends, The Road, modelled on Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage, music as diary or serial ‘novel’, in progress and process, at once monumental (The Road in its entirety lasting ten hours) and incremental, even modest in its ambition. So there was always an intimacy to Rzewski’s virtuosity. If the quotation of political songs is a way of bringing the broader social world into the more closed world of high art, it’s not so much appropriation—the replacement of unacknowledged labour for the visible labour of pianist-composer-performer-maestro—as soldiarity and homage, a refusal to forget what lies behind and beneath the edifice of culture. The Housewife’s Lament serves as a late addition to the North American Ballads: a shorter example of the variation form on an 1850 song, begins with material only a trained pianist could perform, taking the tune through multiple keys and techniques. But the piece ends with a cadenza in which the pianist sweeps the piano keys as with a duster.
Imagine the cleaner in the concert hall after the virtuoso has packed up and gone home, after the guests have gone to the millionaires’ cocktail party. This cadenza presents the ideal of freedom—the virtuoso, improvisatory cadenza—is ironised as a form of labour: the cleaning of the instrument, that which touches but never depresses the keys, except by accident, that touches the keys but can never sound them, invisible and unheard, now rendered as noise, as avant-garde clusters, as defiance. Likewise, Rzewski comments of the piece:
Perhaps the ideal instrument would be an old upright piano of the kind that could be found in middle-class homes across America in the early part of the century.
The piece challenges the format of the piano recital in various ways, grounding these in the gendered lament of the original song. As a conceptual act, the ‘cleaning’ cadenza acts, again, as a form of variation: taking what’s there and modifying it, developing it, taking it somewhere else. Theodor Adorno noted that in serialism, everything in the music could be said to be a variation performed in advance (the music as rearrangements of the tone row). If this is variation as total stricture, as the real reflection of unfreedom, Rzewski returns to the dream of subjective, improvisatory freedom while acknowledging its social distortion, refusing heroics and pointing to the edges of a tradition in which he finds other traditions, other possibilities, glimpses of utopia.
In such pieces, the solo piano might both embody and counteract the class stratification built into the concert hall. Certainly, for Rzewski, the piano served as contrast to what he distrusted in the orchestral tradition. In 1979, the same year as the North American Ballads, he was composed to write a piano concerto to be premiered in Texas. Long Time Man was based on work songs from Texas prisons, and at one point, the orchestra echoes a chain gang—where the rhythms of labour prompt a music that is both testament to imprisonment and song of survival, dialectic. Rzewski pondered:
Why did I write this piece? I’ve always had ambivalent feelings toward the symphony orchestra, with its rows of string-infantry, woodwind cavalry, and brass artillery. Beethoven’s symphonies seem to me like musical descriptions of Napoleonic campaigns, best understood by reading Clausewitz. I like Chopin and Schumann because they dealt awkwardly with the form. I don’t like the orchestra’s social organization, the oppressive work conditions, and the subservience of many individual gifted artists to a commanding, often non-musical authority. At the same time the thing is there, it exists, and for the purpose of creating beautiful music, which is something it certainly can do. This piece is an attempt, perhaps only half-successful, to express the life of the orchestra in its contradictoriness.
As far as I can tell, no recording of the piece in its original form exists (though it was later revised as a fifth North American Ballad for solo piano): Rzewski’s “only half-successful judgement” seems to have precluded it assuming much of a place in his oeuvre. Several decades on, a Piano Concerto—relatively unusual in containing no explicit programme and few, if any, musical quotations—premiered at the BBC Proms. For Rzewski, the piano concerto had effectively died after Mozart, with occasional peaks--his own he wryly described as a ‘trough’. As he told the BBC, the piece was written for a classical orchestra; he felt that if the orchestra had any future it would be the classical era orchestra, rather than the large scale of 19th century. In the piece, his orchestration focuses on clarity rather than intricacy and detail, generally maintaining a clear delineation between foreground and background. You can hear how all the parts fit together—there’s no mystification here, no monumentalising. Likewise, Rzewski’s Scratch Symphony (1997), written in memory of Cardew, seems to unite two opposite poles of ensemble approach—the M.E.V.-era refiguration of the ensemble as overlapping and radically heterophonous, melancholically echoed in the first movement, in which each player sounds out 81 notes or rests corresponding to each individual player’s breath, with “no co-ordination with other players”, “very soft throughout”—and the organised unison of the that final movement, in which pianist “leads the orchestra, in the manner of the 17th century”, in melodic lines played in an eerie tutti.
In the Piano Concerto, Rzewski makes a few tactical addition to the small orchestra—“asses’ jaw, singing saw, tuba”. The asses’ jaw surely alludes to Sampson—going into battle with the minimal resources—and as a kind of ironised memento mori. In the slow movement, the skull (very much visible in live performance) registers as a background percussive scuttling, the piano’s melancholic high lines and melodies for horn or oboe accentuated over a kind of scored silence. Perhaps we could read this as a joke about living and dead traditions. But Rzewski’s later music was certainly preoccupied with death, with the sadness and melancholy of personal loss and political defeat: the symphony in tribute to Cardew, brief piano pieces for John Cage (‘A Life’) and for Howard Skempton’s late wife, Sue (‘Flowers’, its text taken from Dickens’ ‘Little Dorritt’). Contemplation amongst the ruins has often been mode of the political avant-garde from the 70s on (think Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, a piece whose concern with ‘silent text’ has some connections to Rzewski’s own work with sounded text). In 2019 I saw Rzewski perform the final piece from the late cycle Dear Diary. Entitled ‘Thanks’, the piece is a moving tribute to isolation and to the process of writing. The piece is about the self-reflexive gesture of writing to the thing one writes in, that which will listen or be present when loved ones will not, even if it will not care; but the very act of composition, of making private fragments public, and, moreover, spoken, privileges the speaking of social, sense-making words, written in a private diary but now enunciated. The score instructs that each word be enunciated as if in the process of being written—a social negotiation even in isolation. Once more we think of De Profundis or of Coming Together’s iconic portrait of survival and resilience in and after Attica.
Rzewki’s music continued to be explicitly political. Stop the War!, one of the pieces from the enormous late cycle, The Road; Bring them Home, for two pianists and percussion. Songs Of Insurrection (2016), borrows its title and epigraph from Whitman—“vivas to those who have fail’d!” Each movement based on a particular moment—Soviet and Italian anti-Fascism, the Easter Rising, the Civil Rights struggle, the Carnation Revolution, the Gabo Peasant Revolt—the piece seeks to channel the memories of revolution, celebrating hopes, rather than only mourning defeat. The spoken words in the penultimate piece of The Road place such concerns in more individual terms:
Nowhere, that’s where I am. Why be anywhere? Here is where I am. In the middle of nowhere I sit and look around me. A grey mist and sometimes, a burst of sunshine. Even though: the toilet still leaks, my back hurts, my friends have died, I failed to make the revolution, et cetera, and still I’m not finished.
The piece indeed lasts another page after the end of the text. And we’re back to that quotation from Igor Levit with which we began. “You play the last octave, you close the music, you leave, life goes on”. You close the music; “and still I’m not finished”—the two seem in apparent contradiction. But Rzewski’s music makes that contradiction immensely productive. His music was about more than individual, egoic display, but it was also about individual and more-than-individual resilience and survival: the survival of all of those abjected and rejected, the wretched of the earth; the survival of all those who continue to resist, who hear in the last octave, in the final variation, the return to the theme, and in the opening theme the scope for its transformation.