“MUSIC PROBABLY CANNOT CHANGE THE WORLD” writes the composer Frédéric Rzewski. “But it’s a good idea to act like it’s possible.” Born to Polish-born parents in Westfield, Massachusetts, he studied music at a range of elite institutions, from Phillips Academy to Harvard and Princeton. Attending the Darmstadt Summer School in 1956, Rzewski was exposed to serial composition, as well as the more anarchic work of singer-songwriters John Cage, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff. Studying with Luigi Dallapicolla in Italy (1960–61) and Elliott Carter in Berlin (1963–65), he quickly established a reputation as a fearless concert pianist. In 1962, he created the Stockhausen monumental Klavierstück X, its cluster chords and glissandi, designed to be played “as quickly as possible”, requiring the performer to wear mittens in order to protect his hands.
Rebelling against serialism, Rzewski moved to Italy and in 1966 co-founded the egalitarian and conductorless ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva with Allan Bryant, Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum and others. Building their own instruments by placing contact microphones on piles of trash and household items, MEV performed in crypts, prisons and hospitals, seeking, in Rzewski’s words, “to create an entirely new language, so that people can come together from different parts of the planet and communicate instantly. In the summer of 1968, MEV took to the streets, combining electronics with “mobile and non-electronic sound sources”. For Sound Basin, Rzewski invited anyone to bring in and play their own instruments, blurring the lines between performers and audiences. In 1969, he told Monique Verken:
When, as has happened on numerous occasions in the Sound Basin, a hundred and more people groove together, make free music together, in harmony, it is unlike any other sound; you know you are experiencing something new and revolutionary. It’s like New Years Eve or the birth of Gargantua.
Returning to the United States in 1971, Rzewski wrote one of his greatest works following the Attica prison uprising that year. In Come together, a singer recites statements from prisoners in Attica Sam melville and Richard x clark. Rzewski uses the medieval “hocket” technique, sharing a repeated melody between several instruments, which, dramatizing the process of political struggle, never quite reach unison. The piece, which has affinities with minimalism, is still frequently performed. No less than Angela Davis was the speaker of a concert show days before Donald Trump’s election.
By the mid-1970s Rzewski’s friend Cornelius Cardew had given up on avant-garde Maoist-influenced arrangements of folk and political songs. Rzewski, too, began to arrange militant songs for solo piano, calling this style “humanistic realism” in a gentle distinction from Cardew’s adherence to socialist realism, while also sharing Cardew’s left-wing commitments. People United will never be defeated! subjects Sergio Ortega’s eponymous 1975 Allende-era hymn to a series of elaborate polystylistic variations, moving freely between tonality and atonality. Written for Ursula Oppens to play at a bicentennial concert, the premiere brought an emblem of resistance to American intervention in Latin America to the heart of “North American” culture.
Much of Rzewski’s later music also used the form of variation. The fourth North American ballads (1979) adapt folk songs from the Kentucky miners’ strikes, the anti-war movement, and the North Carolina cotton mills. The final ballad, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, was inspired by scenes from contemporary film Norma Rae in which workers struggle to communicate over the noise of machines. A thunderous and rhythmically propulsive “accompaniment” threatens to overwhelm the melody, the conflict between folk material and classical virtuoso technique effectively transforming the 1930s source material into a site of contested historical memory.
Moved to Belgium for a teaching post at the Conservateur Royal, Liège, in 1977, Rzewski spent much of the rest of his life in Europe. He continued to tackle political themes, featuring Mayakovsky, Brecht and Weiss, often combining music and spoken text. Rzewski joked that in musicals people talk and then suddenly start singing, so why not the other way around? Pieces like the enormous musical “novel” The road (1995-2003), lasting a total of ten hours, and De Profundis (1992), based on a letter from prison by Oscar Wilde, are written for a “talking pianist” who hisses, stomps, breathes and uses his own body as a percussion instrument.
Rzewki’s later music was often preoccupied with the sadness of personal loss and political defeat. Scratch Symphony (1997), written in memory of Cardew, filters the anarchic heterophony of MEV through bleak and soft silences. The epigraph to Insurrection songs (2016), a series of variations on groundbreaking songs akin to The united people, comes from Whitman: “Long live those who have failed!” Yet the composer avoided both triumphalism and its flip side, melancholy.
For Rzewski, music was fundamentally social. He was there to be collectivized, not possessed. In 1969 he argued:
Music, like all other arts, is destined to disappear as an art form, becoming another common and natural human activity, like gardening or cooking, freed from intellectual and class associations and useful to the species. human […] The “concert” will come to resemble other liberated forms such as the feast or the day of rest, themselves secular vestiges of earlier ceremonies.
These utopian hopes remain unfulfilled. But Rzewski has always refused to separate music from everyday experience. As he told pianist Igor Levit after a performance of The united people, once the song is finished, “you play the last octave, you close the music, you go, life goes on”.
David Grundy is a London-based poet and scholar.