Entries tagged with “Frederic Rzewski”.

Stephen Drury performs Feldman and Rzewski

April 17th 2008 at the Chapel Performance Space
Seattle WA  USA

As I’ve mentioned previously this has really been a good year for 20th Century Composition in the Pacific Northwest. The string of great performances continued on with a rare visit of Stephan Drury to Seattle thanks to the Washington Composers Forums Transport Series. What with the Feldman Marathon and Frederic Rzewski’s recent performance, his selection of works from those composers seemed almost a continuation of those events. The concert had been listed on the Chapel’s blog for a while but with just the Rzewski piece listed. As this is such a great piece I had already planned to attend and when with a late update to the listing the Feldman piece was added it was just gravy.  Alas at the same time they also changed the concert start time to 7:30 which means I’d have to leave work early to make it. Compounding this situation was an incredibly rare mid-April snowstorm. Luckily things are a bit slack for me at work this week and I was able to leave early enough that I made it to the show a few minutes before start time. What with the foul weather they ended up starting around 7:45 so it wasn’t quite as tight as I feared.

I: Palais de Mari (c. Morton Felman)
I’m quite familiar with this piece having heard several recordings of it and having seen Ivan Sokolov perform it earlier this year as part of the Seattle Chamber Player’s Feldman Marathon so this would be an interesting comparison. Drury gave us a brief introduction to the piece mainly mentioning that this was Feldman’s final solo piano piece and that like the bulk of his works was instructed to be played softly. He also mentioned that one of Feldman’s primary concerns in his late works was patterns often constructed from repetitions of short segments inspired somewhat by oriental rugs. This is something that is definitely present in Palais de Mari, which prominently features short little arpeggios and broken chords that seem to slowly iterate though a self similar pattern.  Every so often in the piece there is a discordant chord in the lower register which hangs in the air until it mostly fades away. This always makes me think of how in an oriental rug there is always a ldeliberate flaw so as not to be an affront to Allah.

Drury’s performance was very well paced taking around twenty-five minutes to transverse the piece and his touch was light but sure.  I thought that one of those aforementioned chords was out of place at one point toward the end but it is hard to say, as they are irregularly spaced and I wouldn’t claim to know the piece that well.  As promised the dynamics were uniformly soft, though those discordant moments provided a nice contrast.  The excellent acoustics of the chapel allowed even the faintist of sounds to be heard with a crystalline clarity. Ambient sounds would leak in from time to time, though always at an even softer volume, a dopplering siren at one point being particularly nice.  In comparing the two recent performances I’ve witnessed I would say I found Drury’s superior to Sokolovs. Sokolov I thought rushed through the piece a bit, which isn’t all that surprising as it was the last piece of a nearly four hour concert that prominently featured his playing.  While I think that Drury’s performance is excellent I would say that I still prefer my recording of John Tilbury playing it.

Interval SeriesGhost Light Trio (c. Matt Sargent, film by Mike Gibisser)
Apparently part of each of Washington Composers Forum’s Transport series is a short film made to the music of a local composer. This film is shown at the end of intermission before the second half of the concert.  The film we saw tonight was Ghost Light Trio which overall I wasn’t that impressed by.  There seemed to be odd technical difficulties, which as it was just a DVD playing through a projector seemed a bit odd – it could be they were part of the piece, which if so was wholly uninteresting.  The music was made up of three sounds, each heavily processed at times. These sounds were recordings of water, traffic and bells.  The film was two images with dividing line as if there was two projectors. The film began with the sound of surf and corresponding imagery of blurry ocean. The chimes came in, often overlayed and at times quite dense. The imagery was blurred windows, a mostly empty room and water. The music was uniformly ambient with the bells being the most dramatic aspect. It wasn’t very interesting music and the filmmaker seemed to have responded likewise. There was two overwhelmingly loud blasts of sound that came across as a technical error but again its hard to see how that could happen. Additionally there was a bit where it looked like the video signal went down which is certainly possible but as it was just a DVD again seems unlikely. Especially as one of these times half of the video went to a “no input” screen but considering that there wasn’t two inputs seems like it was staged. If so this was visually and conceptually uninteresting and didn’t redeem the overall tepid affair.

II: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (c. Frederic Rzewski)
Shortly after the film, Drury again took the stage and again began with some explanatory remarks. This piece, which is thirty-six variations on the Chilean song ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún, takes nearly an hour to perform. So Drury explained he wanted to give us a roadmap as it were to the piece.  The organization of the piece is nicely laid out in its Wikipedia page but he explained several features to the structure of the variations that I wasn’t aware of.  The piece is 36 variations which are organized in sets of 6. Each set of 6 is 5 unique variations with the 6th being constructed of the previous 5. This principle continues one level high in that the 6th set of variations is made up of the corresponding sets of the unique variations. That is to say that variation 31 would be made up of variation 1, 7, 13, 20 and 27. Variation 32 would be made up of variation 2, 8, 14, 21 and 28 and so on through variation 35. Variation 36, following the structure, then is made up of the previous 5 which being constructed from the preceding 30 means that it is a microcosm, a reflection of the entire piece.

The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a rousing piece based on a catchy theme that one can completely understand being used as a revolutionary anthem. As I walked out from the show I overheard at least three different individuals independently humming the theme.  The variations, as variations do, present this theme in myriad ways, but in classic 20th Century style it deconstructs it further and further to the point that some variations would only be recognizable as derived from it via analysis of the notes themselves. Yet it always maintains the propulsive energy of the piece even in the softer, slower sections.  Drury performed the piece from memory which I found quite impressive. Variations do make aspects of memorization easier, but at the same time their self-similarity can make it easy to get lost. Especially at that great a number of variations over such a length of time.  Having seen Rzewski perform just a couple of months ago I can say that Drury captured his energy and the strength of his attacks quite well. The piece while having a fairly romantic feel to it, does incorporate a variety of extended techniques, including whistling along with his playing and one point slamming the lid down over the keys.  Another part I liked quite a bit was a sequence of vigorous one finger oscillationg playing way up in the upper register. This was done at great force with his hands as fists with just the pointer finger extended hammering at the keys. This created layers of overtones and reverberations that reminded me of nothing so much as the techniques I’d seen used in the Lachenmann performance a couple of weeks back.  In fact the very concept of using a popular melody and exploring, exploiting and deconstructing it in this way was a connection between these two, one that I have to assume Lachenmann is doing after Rzewski.

It was a bravura performance as powerful and as well executed as the recordings I’ve heard of this piece. After pounding out the thirty-six variations Drury delivered on the optional improvisation with a short bit of reference to the them and them of course the rousing reprise. At the conclusion he lept away from the piano and received a well deserved standing ovation at the conclusion.

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.