Frederic Rzewski at EMPAC, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, Saturday, March 20 at 8 pm

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Frederic Rzewsk
Frederic Rzewski

The pianist-composer performs a program of works for solo piano, including the early work “Dreams” (1961) and a selection from his recent and on-going series of short works “Nanosonatas.”

Frederic Rzewski has been a formidable presence on the new music scene in the U. S. and Europe since the late 1950’s. Now 72, he continues to explore and expand his musical universe, which is unlike that of anyone else active today or in the past. In one way, he is a throwback to the nineteenth century in that he is a pianist with an awe-inspiring technique and a composer whose music reflects his own performing abilities and tastes; it is easy to hear his music as a kind of aural photograph of his improvisations and explorations at the keyboard. This would place him in the tradition of the great 20th century composer-piano virtuosos Bartók and Prokofiev, but the composer who comes even more vividly to mind is Franz Liszt. (A younger pianist-composer highly favored by the public and the press [cf. NYT, March 21, 2010] these days is the Englishman Thomas Adès.) Rzewski’s best-known work is a 50 minute piano “monster-piece” which has been frequently compared with Bach’s Goldberg and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations: it is his “Thirty-six Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated,’” a tune which served as the Chilean national anthem during the left-wing regime of Salvatore Allende, composed in the mid-70’s.

Like Liszt, Rzewski has attempted to weave together the most diverse and contrasting stylistic and technical strands of the late 20th century musical fabric and his music cannot be described in terms of any of the dominant trends such as neo-tonality, neo-classicism, impressionism, atonality, modal tonality, dodecaphony, partial indeterminacy, incorporation of folk materials, Gebrauchsmusik, or social activism since his music reflects, at one time or another, all of them, and in fact can jump from one to another unpredictably. It is the thorough-going incorporation of eclecticism, in fact, that really stamps his music with his personality: as a performer he has played them all. In his recent music, the series of “Nanosonatas” he has worked on since 2007, he is willing to follow his fingers, arms, and even legs (when elaborate pedal techniques or simple foot stomps are required) where they might lead him.

Again like Liszt, he has incorporated folk music and folk styles; there are several other sets of variations based on tunes like “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” or the Yiddish song “Mayn Yingele,” and has a collection of settings called “Four North American Ballads.” These incorporations suggest a concern with social justice and political inequality, a kind of idealism that lives in the hope that music has the capacity to change the world. (In an unusual gesture, Rzewski has posted many of his scores on the web for free download—this speaks to his wish to reach audiences and circulate music widely without any commercial intervention, an idealistic position that echoes one taken earlier by Charles Ives.) The breadth of Rzewski’s concerns can be quickly gleaned from the dual dedication to his Nanosonata no. 28 subtitled “Peace Dance” which he performed on Saturday night: to Elliott Carter, and in a footnote, also to Pete Seeger.

Nanosonata no. 28, “Peace Dance”
Nanosonata no. 28, “Peace Dance”

Also like Liszt, his late style features shorter pieces with enigmatic silences, abrupt disjunctures, clashing musical vocabularies, and a sense of open-ended form. The program included one early piano composition, “Study II (Dreams)” from 1961, and went on to sixteen of the “Nanosonatas” grouped into books of 6 or 7 works. These pieces are about the length of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas, but while Scarlatti chose a particular idea for each sonata and stayed with it to the end, Rzewski allows his musical gestures latitude to wander across the map within each piece, and then to cross-reference gestures from one piece to the next, even from one set of pieces to the next. The result was often disorienting if you tried to keep track of where you were in the program, and I eventually gave up and allowed the experience to wash over me without clear boundary markers.

Frederic Rzewski, “Study II (Dreams)
Frederic Rzewski, “Study II (Dreams)

In a post-concert conversation, the composer Pauline Oliveros described her experience of the concert as being like hearing one long work (lasting an hour and fifteen minutes, including the early “Dreams”) with an inexhaustible variety of gestures, volumes, spaces, continuities, energy levels, accents, and most conspicuously, resonances. (Rzewski rewarded her comment with a kiss.) Another member of the audience called attention to the importance of silences in the music. He described the sounds as disruptions or disturbances, like islands in some vast Pacific Ocean of silence. In some cases, Rzewski allows the performer to decide on the lengths of pauses themselves (a liberty which performers often take in any solo music, regardless of the composer’s instructions). On the title page of “Dreams,” he wrote: “Don’t be afraid of silence. On the contrary, each pause should be a foretaste of the end.” The emphasis on silence reminds one that an early influence on Rzewski was John Cage and members of his circle in the 1950’s. Another influence, electronic music, may have been detected in the inclusion of percussive sounds obtained by striking the piano in a variety of manners and places, producing thumps, knocks, raps, taps, scratches, and resonating thwacks in ways precisely indicated in the score. And just when the listener was looking forward to further sonic surprises, a piece would begin with a common figure, like a slow trill, or simply isolated repeated notes and include harmonies that could have come from Debussy or even Schumann.

Although Oliveros’ description captured one way of listening, there were also detectable local areas of coherence. One could still accurately guess (and post-concert consultation of the scores confirmed this) where pieces began and ended. The composer, whose stage manner was informal and matter-of-fact, did not indicate when pieces were over and the audience saved its applause for the end when he stood up and bowed. But many pieces turned out to have a particular focus: some turned on stacks of perfect fifths, some made use of an interesting form of 12-tone technique (not obviously related to the school of Schoenberg), one followed the protocols of fugue, and several made extensive use of the percussive effects. The results were consistently stimulating and balanced the challenge of trying to determine the “topic” of the music with the reward of dramatically surprising and often very beautiful sounds. The latter were sometimes achieved with a clever use of all three pedals or combinations thereof, giving rise to magical reverberations. The overall impression was a journey through the world of the contemporary piano guided by one who knew all of its voices and took delight in awakening them.

Since World War II, there have been few dominant compositional voices as there had been before, voices such as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Bartók. Instead, there has been a multiplicity of styles, techniques, expressive intentions that can be bewildering to audiences. There have been figures such as Phillip Glass and John Adams who achieved wide popularity with audiences, and others, such as Boulez, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and Carter, who have gained great prestige with elite audiences through complex stylistic explorations. The list of skilled, interesting composers active today is enormous; just looking at composers who are Rzewski’s exact contemporaries such as Joan Tower, John Corigliano, William Bolcom and Charles Wuorinen (all of whom were featured on a concert at Tanglewood two years ago) it would be difficult to describe their styles and accomplishments in any summary fashion. We have a great variety of composers who have fabulous technical skills and distinctively individual voices, but they do not seem to align with each other in any general way. I am inclined to view Rzewski more in the context of the American maverick tradition, where he would occupy a relatively conservative position compared to Harry Partch, Conlan Nancarrow, Morton Feldman or Ben Johnston, in that he maintains a powerful interest in Western musical traditions. The sense I took away from this concert was that at this stage of his life, Rzewski feels free to follow his own spontaneous inclinations, having enormous confidence that all of his accumulated knowledge and skills have equipped him to think out loud in musical terms that are worth overhearing. It was easy to imagine that one was standing at the door of his studio eaves-dropping, and being rewarded with a spontaneously arising series of personal revelations. It was refreshing, stimulating, rewarding, and moving.

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