North American Ballads [Dreadful Memories Which Side Are You On? Down by the Riverside Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues]
The Housewifes Lament
The Road [Part I Turns; Part II Tracks; Part III Tramps; Part IV Stops]
36 Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”
Frederic Rzewski (piano)
Recorded between March 1998 and March 2001 at Odéon 120/The Right Place, Brussels
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: November 2003
CD No: NONESUCH
7559 79623-2 (7 CDs)
Duration: 6 hours 34 minutes
With this substantial set, Nonesuch salutes American-born Frederic Rzewski in a considerable manner; these piano works were composed between 1975 and 1999. Following comparatively conventional study (including periods with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt) in his native land, Rzewski (born 1938) went to Italy in 1960 for studies with Dallapiccola and began a career as a performer of new piano music. His acquaintance with John Cage was a strong influence on his development as both composer and performer, and his founding of the group Musica Elettronica Viva saw him undertaking pioneering work in the field of live electronics and improvisation. Further musical cross-fertilisation included jazz and improvisation. Such poly-stylistic influences are to be found throughout this compendium of piano music, which constantly defies expectations.
A consistency of musical style is not to be found here, but rather a reflection of the many musical influences Rzewski has absorbed. Yet if there is single name which springs to mind it is that of his compatriot Charles Ives, most evident in the music on the first disc – the North American Ballads (1978-9). In this set of four pieces, Rzewski takes, as his starting point, traditional tunes and protest songs and subjects them to varied treatments. Indeed, variation of one sort or another is the mainstay of much of the music in this collection.
In the Ballads, Rzewski often begins with a fairly plain and straightforward statement of the theme – or fragments thereof – but they do not remain in their original condition for very long. Soon, the tunes begin to transform or, in some instances, literally disintegrate. The first Ballad, Dreadful Memories, starts with an almost Copland-like homespun quality which soon gives way to a dispersal of the theme with Ivesian distortions and quotations from elsewhere. Which Side Are You On? has constant references to a phrase which sounds uncannily like Gershwin’s “I got rhythm” which keeps recurring, quite poignantly so after the music has become atonal and devoid of recognisable melodic material. A jaunty rhythm launches Down by the Riverside in almost nonchalant fashion, leading gradually to more thorny and troubled textures. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues begins menacingly with a bass ostinato building in intensity and with an impressive sense of impending danger.
As a pendant to the Ballads, The Housewife’s Lament (1980) is a set of variations on a 19th-century song. Originally written for harpsichord, its, at times, rather spiky character and tremolo effects are well suited to that instrument. Rzewski plays it on the piano – its final section, with note-clusters and manic-sounding leaps, would certainly sound peculiar on the harpsichord.
Improvisation plays an important role in Rzewski’s music and, without reference to a score, it is often impossible to say where notation and improvisation begin and end. Christian Wolff, in his booklet commentary points out that the improvisations Rzewski creates for the recordings “are of course new here as they would be in any performance” and that “the recording of them is like a snapshot of an action otherwise not repeatable”. We must, therefore, conclude that the pieces performed here which contain improvisation are, necessarily and inevitably, literally unrepeatable. It is consequently invaluable and instructive to have the composer’s rendition as a matter of record.
Another important influence, cited by Rzewski (who also includes written explanations), is that of Bach’s treatment of chorales where a melody is ever-present but often in disguise, as it were, so that at times it becomes almost unrecognisable. This is the scheme Rzewski employs for the majority of pieces in this collection. To that extent, his procedure could be said to be somewhat predictable, but so varied is his vocabulary, that one soon becomes fascinated by the diverse methods he uses to metamorphose his chosen material.
Mayn Yingele (1988-9) is a set of twenty-four variations on a traditional Yiddish tune, whilst 36 Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” (1975), a revolutionary song by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún, is the piece by which Rzewski is most widely known. Both works are on the scale of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Rzewski’s development of his base themes is pretty startling. The return of the revolutionary song, in full romantic guise, at the end of the set is actually quite moving, and there is a strange sense of a journey having been undertaken.
A journey of an even lengthier kind is documented in The Road (1995-7), of which the first four parts are recorded here. This is a projected eight-part work, which the composer likens to a novel, citing the writing techniques of 19th-century Russian writers such as Tolstoy and Chekhov as being influential on the music. Moreover, his intention is that the piece should be played before an intimate audience, in the way that a book might be read to a small gathering. Certainly the sense of travel is felt, with frequent tramping figures suggesting an arduous undertaking. In The Road, Rzewski widens his musical language to encompass other sounds that can be made on the piano, such as tapping the piano frame or playing ’inside’ on the strings, and also with the occasional vocal contribution from the performer.
Such devices remind one of Stockhausen’s methods in his later Klavierstücke, and also the example of John Cage, who is explicitly commemorated in A Life (1992). This piece is filled with Cage-like reminiscences, replete with protracted periods of silence, and its duration was calculated to match that of Cage’s ’silent piece’, 4’33”.
Fougues (1994) is a set of 25 short pieces that explore contrapuntal devices, and ideas from one piece are often recalled in another. These pithy pieces average in length about a minute each and yet make for a curiously satisfying whole. In Fantasia, improvised and composed music, and simple diatonic tunes and thorny atonality, alternate – and collide – with one another.
Needless to say, Rzewski’s Sonata (1991) is no straightforward traversal of the form, although thematic material is more recognisable and developed than in some of his other pieces. The third movement is, once again, a set of variations, this time on the ancient “L’Homme Armé” melody.
De Profundis (1992) is a setting of selected passages from Oscar Wilde’s letter from Reading Gaol to Lord Alfred Douglas. Initially, I found Rzewski’s recitation of the text to be rather off-putting in its laconic delivery, but it would seem that an ironic detachment is what is wanted, and this piece perhaps contains some of the most emotional music to be found in this collection.
I am, though, wondering whether Nonesuch has done itself – and Rzewski – many favours by releasing this seven-disc set in one go. It is probably not going to be an impulse buy and some pieces are undoubtedly more appealing initially than others.
Equally, I have found being immersed in this music to have been immensely stimulating and provocative to the extent that I feel compelled to investigate more of Rzewski’s music, much of which has yet to appear on CD. It would be good to think that this release might signal further interest and that his music for larger forces, including his largest-scale work to date – the oratorio The Triumph of Death – might appear before too long.
In the meantime, there is much to savour and think about in this extremely well recorded and documented set of Frederic Rzewski’s piano music.