Frederic Rzewski at the Chapel.

On Saturday, March 1st I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Frederic Rzewski performing his own compositions at the chapel.  Honestly I’m not all that up on Rzewski’s work, I’ve got a few cds, People United Never Will be Defeated! of course and have heard the odd thing here and there. I’ve also heard most of the MEV stuff that he was on and am fairly up on his place in the radical music of that time especially in his connections to Cornelius Cardew. I’ve not been as into the whole text reading/piano combination that he I’ve kind of associated him with (not sure how fairly, that might be a smaller part of his oeuvre then I’ve imagined). Anyway rare US tour from him though, was not something I was going to miss.

The Chapel was far more packed then I have ever seen it before. They normally setup two columns of half a dozen seats going back for 10-12 rows. This time they had added an additional “wing” to each of these nearly doubling the seating. These were nearly all filled and seemed like some additional seating was set up in the back. All those bodies warmed it up pretty well.  They gave us a nice handout which detailed the pieces that were going to be played in depth, including the old folk songs that a couple of them were based on. A note on that, this is a fairly common component of Rzewski’s compositions, where he’ll take a folk song and riff on it, most famously in People United Will Never be Defeated! with its 36 variations. Not too much passed the published start time the lights dimmed and Frederic ambled up to the stage and without preamble began to play.

Johnny has Gone for a Soldier (2003)
Rzewski, as he sat down, immediately attack the piano with the opening chords of this piece.  Lots of big chords, dramatic runs, propulsive density.  Rather romantic I felt, with powerful emotions directly channeled into the music and a deliberate attempt to communicate this to the audience. There’d be these more plaintive, brooding sections as the lull between attacks and then back to the dramatic attacks on the piano. His precision and power in these dramatic sections was impressive, especially as he looks like this slight grandfatherly figure. The whole thing slowed down and by the end was softer, more contemplative. Pauses began to appear, tentative feeling like there was some criteria he had to meet before he’d start playing again. Three of four of these variable length pauses and then it ended with a few quiet chords.

Afterwards he stood up to the applause and when it died down said a few words. He pointed out that all of these pieces tonight were about war. I knew this and this was pretty obvious in the program notes but I have to say that I could really feel it in the pieces. I didn’t do a very close reading of the program notes until after the show and about the above piece he said this: “I simply allowed my thoughts on war, and the current one in particular, to spin themselves out, always following the structure of the song”.  This is definitely how it felt to me, the bits of the theme poking up here and there. He describes that tentative ending thusly: “The ending seems inconclusive, just like the ongoing war now.”

War Songs (2008, premier)
Continuing with his comments at the conclusion of the previous piece,  he informed us that the next pieces were a work in progress and that this in fact was the first time he’ll perform them.  “I don’t know how to play these yet” he concluded as he sat down.  These feeling definitely went through the performance of these, as it felt hesitant, rawer a bit careful. At times he’d lean forward and his big bushy eyebrows would raise almost in surprise, a “what was I thinking” kind of look. And yet I felt this all really added to the piece. The war we are in now is such a mess and the reactions are so odd. People are mostly opposed and yet they aren’t really invested and don’t do anything. To someone from the ’60 where popular uprisings and protest was the norm and the conversation was always dominated by the war it must just seem confusing.  Confusion is what cam through to me in this piece, interspersed with some anger and genuine pain.

Fragments of popular war melodies would seem to arise here and again, spaced out, sometimes almost played a note at a time with one finger and then collapsing into the miasma of the piece.  Some of this almost had a serial feel to me and the program notes do reveal that they were highly structured. “Writing these things was a little like doing crossword puzzles.” Again I think the unpracticed nature of this performance helped out with this deeper structure, it might feel a lot less emotional if played with perfect precision. Afterwards he genuinely asked for comments on the piece.

Mayn Yingele (1988)
The finale piece from the first set was also the oldest composition. It felt a lot closer to the first piece, with loud romantic sections and sparser more intricate bits.  It felt more structured almost a combination of Liszt and Webern in its mix of romance and structure. Or perhaps a throwback to that period in the early twentieth century where certain modern composers were using the techniques of the day adapting the folk songs of their youth. This piece is a set of twenty four variations on a Yiddish tune to which a poem by Morris Rosenfield had been set. The theme concerns a father who works so much in a sweatshop that he never sees his son.  Rzewski wrote this piece on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and of it his says: “My piece is a reflection on that vanished part of Jewish tradition which so strongly colors, by its absence, the culture of our time”.  The most powerful part of this piece was it’s conclusion where after a more contemplative section he switches to these repeated pounded chords with the sustain pedal down. These built up in power and volume and reverberated in the space and clashed with his other in a violent cry.

Frederic Rzewski at the piano

Four Pieces (1977)
There was a short intermission during which they (blessedly) opened the windows of the chapel and let in some air and ambient sounds. Not a very long break, fifteen minutes or so and then the lights dimmed and Frederic came back onto the stage. The final piece was the oldest of all the pieces he played and the longest.  The notes inform us that it was written as a “kind of sequel” to The People United.  Structurally it is pretty different from that piece and not being a set of variations doesn’t quite have that feel. But you can tell that stylistically it is of that period. The notes describe the structure thusly: “It is a kind of sonata in four movements, with a single theme that keeps returning in different forms and moods, vaguely reminiscent of traditional music of the Andes, but without actually quoting anything.”  The theme threading through it does tie it all together and the four parts are pretty recognizable distinct. It has the elements of the earlier piece; romantic runs, big chords and softer more introspective sections. It’s connection to the war theme wasn’t as apparent to me, but the notes inform me that it is a “meditation on Chile four years after the coup d’etat”.

Musically my favorite part was the fourth and final piece was began with a repeated figures in both hand in the very upper register. Almost minimalist in nature these slowly worked their way down to the low end of the piano and then began working their way up again. A pause in the mid range with almost variations on the repetitions and then it was back up again. Once reaching the upper register he almost immediately headed lower again this time a pretty rapid transgression down and back up. These repeated again and once in the low end began a slower, but inevitable migration back upwards. The piece concluded with single notes, spaced out on the very highest keys. Really stunning and a nice way to conclude the evening. Frederic concluded his stay in Seattle with a well deserved standing ovation.

I really enjoyed this performance and the music. I hope I have the stamina and strength of Frederic when I’m 70!  I really appreciate how he has stayed true to his politics and they way his concerns for the world have not diminished. Politically music is a tricky thing, done wrong it is no more then propaganda or club songs. Too abstract and it is totally opaque. Obviously things like the program notes help bring this clear but I think that at least in a couple of the pieces the message is clear. Like a well chose album title, just telling us that the nights theme was war related was enough. The notes just gave us the specifics.