[Marxism] steve lacy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jun 7 06:48:15 MDT 2004

michael a. lebowitz wrote:
> Louis, this is really a big tease! What's all this about Frederick 
> Rzewski? (Now, if you said Charlie Haden....)
> snip

The New York Times
October 27, 2002 Sunday
A Political Radical With a Brahmsian Musical Bent


ONE could, perhaps, argue fruitfully about whether the most innovative 
and progressive classical record company in the world is Nonesuch or 
Naxos. Nonesuch works within a giant corporation, AOL Time Warner, and 
turns out consistently superior products. Naxos sets its own rules for 
the regeneration of a largely moribund recording industry. For all its 
first-rate performances and innovative repertory, Naxos wins on 
quantity; Nonesuch on quality.

Nonesuch is particularly notable for the opinion-shaping impact of its 
high-profile releases, like its boxed sets of works of living composers. 
Its latest such release, a seven-CD collection of the solo piano music 
of Frederic Rzewski as performed by the composer ("Rzewski Plays 
Rzewski: Piano Works 1975-1999"), seems especially significant. Mr. 
Rzewksi (pronounced ZHEV-ski) has been lurking in and out of our 
consciousness for more than 35 years. Despite periodic short-term 
teaching stints at major American universities and conservatories, his 
longtime residence in Europe and his refusal to play the classical-music 
game have kept him removed from the awareness of all but his closest 
friends and colleagues, who -- to judge from program notes in this album 
by the composer Christian Wolff and testimonials elsewhere -- admire him 

Mr. Rzewski, 64, was born in Westfield, Mass. He studied music with all 
the proper, high-toned teachers of the time -- Walter Piston, Roger 
Sessions, Milton Babbitt -- at Harvard and Princeton. But it was an 
earlier teacher, the politically left-leaning Charles Mackey, who had 
the biggest influence.

In 1960, Mr. Rzewski moved to Europe, where he studied further and soon 
developed a thriving career as a performer with vanguard composers, 
especially Karlheinz Stockhausen. From the mid-60's to the early 70's, 
he was a founding member of the Rome-based Musica Elletronica Viva. (He 
still is, though the group now reunites and performs rarely.) Its other 
founders were Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum. Musica Elletronica 
Viva was devoted to political activism, improvisation from the classical 
tradition (Mr. Rzewski also played with jazz musicians like Anthony 
Braxton and Steve Lacy) and instrumentation centering on cheap, 
store-bought, cobbled-together electronics. For the last 25 years he has 
lived in Liege, Belgium, where he teaches composition at the 
Conservatoire Royal de Musique.

Over the years, his concert appearances in the United States have been 
limited and his recordings, on several small labels, erratic if fairly 
numerous. His best-known and most-recorded works, both included in the 
new set, are "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" (1975), a set of 
36 variations on a Chilean political anthem, and "Four North American 
Ballads" (1979), a harpsichord setting of ballads with leftist 
associations, long since adapted for piano.

These scores, and others here, offer variations on solid, tonal 
melodies. "The People United," despite its stylistic diversity, embraced 
the canonical styles of Bach and Brahms, and was thus amusingly greeted 
by conservative critics a quarter-century ago as some kind of "return to 
Romanticism," even with its defiant political gestures. Within a 
narrower range, the ballads similarly spin webs of variations on their 
tuneful source material. But throughout his career, Mr. Rzewski has 
shown a firm classical grounding mixed with jazz, 12-tone ideas, all 
manner of tonality, improvisation, Minimalism, Cageian randomness and 
sound effects, graphic scores, world music -- and on it goes.

In his notes, Mr. Wolff suggests that an interest in variation is what 
makes Mr. Rzewski's music sound Rzewskian. Mr. Rzewksi has been accused 
of excessive stylistic diversity, never settling on any of the styles of 
which he could so evidently be a master, never speaking clearly with his 
own voice. In a fascinating interview from the English magazine Wired, 
included in the Nonesuch press kit, he seems to concede the point. 
"Well, I've never had what you would call a 'style,' " he told Philip 
Clark. "I used to feel guilty about this, but then decided that's just 
the way it is."

Mr. Wolff is apparently still feeling guilty, because he labors to 
define an underlying set of interests and structural principles to 
explain why, in his view, Mr. Rzewski's music "simply sounds like no 
other." He suggests that Mr. Rzewski's interest in the variation form 
relates to his longtime practice of improvisation and that his choice of 
simple songs reflects his politics. But he then adduces unifying 
principles that are "sometimes clearly systemic . . . sometimes more 
elusive . . . and sometimes more opaque to analysis." Which throws the 
question of whether Mr. Rzewski's music "sounds like no other" -- and if 
so, how -- up for grabs again. Better to stick with Mr. Rzewski's own 
transcendence of the issue, especially since, in this age of 
eclecticism, he may simply have been prescient.

Two things are clear from these performances (newly recorded in 1999 and 
2000). Mr. Rzewski knows and loves the piano, and is a formidable 
pianist. (Maybe even an awesome one; it would be fascinating to hear him 
in more standard Eurocentric repertory.) And each of his pieces, however 
it relates to the others, sounds pretty convincing on its own.

As a pianist Mr. Rzewski has long brought a passion of utterance and an 
incisiveness of attack to his playing. In that sense his recording of 
"The People United" contrasts piquantly with those of Ursula Oppens (for 
whom the piece was composed) and others who have taken it on -- 
including, earlier, Mr. Rzewski himself. There is a brilliance here, a 
blinding intensity, that is thrilling in itself, however much other 
pianists may have reveled in the Brahmsian lushness of some of the writing.

Yet many of Mr. Rzewski's performances here are slower, more ruminative, 
more reflective, even more nostalgic for his own past than the scores 
might indicate. Like many older artists (Leonard Bernstein and Sergiu 
Celibidache come to mind), Mr. Rzewski wants to stop and smell the roses 
-- his own roses, in this case.

The set covers a wide spectrum of his music, including roughly 75 
percent of the solo piano work, but in no way offers a complete picture 
of that music. In particular, one misses the scores for chamber and 
orchestral forces, although through a combination of a lack of 
commissions and political disdain, Mr. Rzewski has rarely composed for 
orchestra. The instrumental pungency of the works he has recorded with 
the American ensemble Zeitgeist suggests a coloristic range that extends 
beyond the keyboard.

The focus on solo piano means that his two searing pieces about the 1971 
Attica prison uprising, "Coming Together" and "Attica" (1972), are also 
missing. But the use of spoken voice and instrumental sound in those 
scores looks forward to "De Profundis" (1992), a setting of Oscar 
Wilde's letter from Reading Gaol to Alfred Douglas. The piece requires 
the pianist to speak, act and play; as Mr. Rzewski wryly puts it in his 
own notes for the Nonesuch set, "The music demands a combination of 
virtuoso technique and a total lack of inhibition on stage, thus 
virtually guaranteeing that no mediocre or conventional performer will 
dare to go near it."

No such shyness here: the vividness of the music and of Mr. Rzewski's 
dramatic response make one long for him to explore dramatic media more.

Mr. Rzewski has an interest in mosaiclike pieces built of short 
movements strung together, whether or not they are linked by some 
evident variation or other structural idea. The major works of this sort 
here include "Mayn Yingele" ("My Little Son," 1989) -- a set of 
variations on a traditional Yiddish tune with words by Morris Rosenfeld, 
described by the composer as "the poet of the New York sweatshops," 
about a hard-working father who sees his son only asleep -- and 
"Fougues" (1994).

Most ambitious is "The Road." Its first four parts, completed in 1997, 
are included here; the second four he hopes to finish soon. Most of the 
pieces in the first four parts are short, although it takes two CD's to 
encompass all 32. But the individual pieces will start to stretch out, 
Mr. Rzewski says, bringing the eventual performance time of the entire 
work to eight hours.

If it is ever performed in public. Mr. Rzewski, well read and 
multilingual, calls "The Road" a novel, citing Gogol, Dostoyevsky, 
Tolstoy and Chekhov as models. He doesn't mean to imply an evident 
narrative arc but instead sees "The Road" as a piece for home 
consumption, read (in this case, played) by a single person at his or 
her own tempo. The music captures this reflective quality nicely.

Just how Mr. Rzewski's subsequent music and ultimate reputation will 
play out, no one, not even his devoted admirers, can predict. What one 
can say is that the music in this album is very much worth hearing. 
Nonesuch has done a noble service to Mr. Rzewski, to American music and 
to us in making it so handsomely available.


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