Spectrum festival to shine a spotlight on Fred Rzewski’s music

Thu Nov 01, 2018 at 2:02 pm
Fred Rzewski's music will be celebrated at Rzewski Festival starting Sunday at Spectrum.

Fred Rzewski’s music will be celebrated at Rzewski Festival starting Sunday at Spectrum.

“One reason it’s not a good idea to write easy music,” composer and pianist Fred Rzewski said speaking from Rome, “is that you don’t need to be good to play it.”

Rzewski’s music, especially that for piano (he is a formidable pianist despite downplaying his skills) is for the most part not at all easy. Pieces like The People United Will Never Be Defeated!—one of the great theme and variations works in the entire classical repertoire—and De Profundis, in which the pianist must recite text while playing, are technically difficult and intensely demanding, drawing on internal resources of energy and concentration. Rzewski’s means are the ageless compositional virtues of structure, form, the intellectual process of working through one’s material; his goals are to go straight for the head, heart, and gut with considerable, often thrilling power.

From Sunday through November 8—with an additional concert on November 29—Rzewski’s virtues will be on display at Spectrum in Brooklyn at Rzewski Festival, a concentrated celebration in honor of the composer’s 80th birthday, which fell on April 13. Typical of his independent nature as an artist, the composer knew little about the festival, and his concert schedule will prevent his attending it.

“I got a call from Gabriel Zucker,” (the pianist who organized it and will play 4 American Squares November 6),  “to tell me what he was doing. I know almost nothing about it.” Not only was Rzewski not involved in the programming or the selection of performers, he had little knowledge of what would be played.

Zucker says the idea for the festival came from the performers themselves, “The truth of it is that the idea originally came from a few pianists who approached [Spectrum],” says Zucker, “and then grew out of the fact that there was a strong appetite in the community for this celebration of Rzewski’s music.”

“The goal with this lineup of musicians and repertoire was simply to collect the best advocates of Rzewski’s music that we possibly could. We reached out both to performers whose interpretations of [his] music are rightly very famous—like Ursula Oppens and Lisa Moore—as well as some musicians whose work we were not as familiar with, but whose compelling and dynamic interpretations of [the] music we found online.

Zucker added that Rzewski’s music embodies a lot of the values Spectrum tries to present. “It’s highly complex and virtuosic, intellectually provocative, yet deeply emotional and human at the same time. The composer’s explicit messages about democracy and justice also resonate especially strongly at this politically pivotal moment in our country.”

Opening night will feature Canadian pianist Corey Hamm performing The People United and Anthony de Mare playing I’m Still Here and De Profundis. Rzewski has had a long association with de Mare, and wrote De Profundis for him after what the composer describes as a miserable winter in Buffalo. Hamm has already made an award-winning recording of The People United, that which Rzewski himself has praised.

That same night, pianist Michael Noble will play excerpts from two larger works, including “Bells” from Dreams II. Not being connected to the festival, Rzewski could be irreverent about his own work; “Oh, that’s the easy one,” he joked.

This gets at a paradox in Rzewski’s music and values. He has always been a political artist, one of the most accomplished and powerful ones across all mediums, yet without any clear ideology except a yearning for classical anarchy, a society without rulers. And he has made what he calls “anarchist pieces.” 

Two of those works—Les Moutons de Panurges and Coming Together (one of his best-known works)—are on the festival program. The former is one of his pieces he considers easy and prone to bad performances. Of the latter, in which a performer recites excerpts from a letter that Sam Melville wrote from Attica before the prison rebellion of 1971, Rzewski says “There’s absolutely no music in the piece, it’s just a mathematical formula. It’s often played, but not often well played.  If it’s good, it is entirely up to the performance.”

He turns to John Cage, who for a long time considered himself an anarchist, as an example, “Cage is often very badly played, because people think you can do anything you fucking want. But you can’t. Cage hated this, he was very strict about what he wanted and what you could and could not do.” Rzewski sees the contradiction between anarchist values and the inherently autocratic nature of the composer, “Anarchism is not easy, it’s not for everybody. Composers think of themselves as the ones who make the music, but, maybe not.”

Rzewski’s large catalogue of piano works comprises his most often-heard music, and so the festival’s all-percussion concert on November 7 will offer a rare and invaluable opportunity to hear his non-keyboard works. Two of the pieces, Lost and Found and To The Earth, were written for the great percussionist Jan Williams. Ross Aftel will perform both. The program notes that per Rzewski’s instructions, Lost and Found will contain nudity.  “That’s a body [percussion] piece,” said the composer. “You’re naked or nearly naked and you recite text and slap your thigh.” Williams, who had requested a piece that he could tour and didn’t require a lot of “stuff,” was uncomfortable with those instructions, so Rzewski then developed To The Earth for him.

That work was originally written for the Oakland Symphony as a gigantic work for multiple orchestras, chorus, electronics and an “earthquake machine” ( the composer wanted the auditorium to shake). Rzewski simply retooled it for four flower pots. It is an “easy” piece that has drawn virtuosic percussionists like Evelyn Glennie.

Talking about his percussion music, Rzewski recalls a story about getting a call from a baffled music publisher who specialized in percussion music. “He said ‘[To The Earth is] an iconic piece! You put this on the internet and people can download it for free??!’ He said, ‘Do you hate publishers?’ Well, actually I do!” 

That clearly comes from Rzewski’s anti-establishment politics, but also from his nonchalant lack of interest in the money side of things or the business of music. (Rzewski’s scores are available at https://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Rzewski,_Frederic.)

Instead he performs his music around the world.  (In Rome he was practicing for upcoming concerts in Connecticut and Moscow.) And he continues to write music “all the time.”

“I have to write music in order to survive. I will literally die if I don’t write music. Occasionally they pay me but nobody is paying me right now.”

Rzewski’s still-burning idealism can be heard in every note of his music, despite his ruefulness about politics and history. Political artists strive to effect change, even as they see little to no results. 

“Will music change the world? Probably not. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility.” He tells young composers that they “should write like you think it’s possible. If you write music thinking it might change the world, you write better music.”

Rzewski Festival opens 5:30 p.m. Sunday and runs through November 8, with an additional concert November 29. Tickets available at the door. spectrumnyc.org

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