Frederic Rzewski in full flow

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 23.05.2014

With a selection of three rarely recorded piano pieces, the great neglected American composer Frederic Rzewski surges back into view this spring on a new CD from the Naxos “American Classics” series.  Where has he been these past few years?

Rzewski is actually alive and well and living in Brussels, occasionally getting around Europe for recitals but generally keeping to himself. He is currently experimenting with spontaneous composition. Whatever emerges in this late phase of his remarkable career (he is 76), it is bound to be interesting. 

The new CD (Naxos  8.559760) features American pianist Robert Satterlee navigating  the Rzewski moods – from dark to dissonant to whimsical and optimistic – interpreting the shifts with unbound panache. Rzewski’s range defies categorization but I believe he would accept that John Cage, David Tudor, Christian Wolff and David Behrman left their imprint. He can also claim blue-ribbon training with three giants – Piston, Sessions and Babbitt.

This CD features some of his work from the 1990s and one piece from 2005. His opening selection, “Fantasia”, was commissioned by Aki Takahashi, the Japanese-born devotee of Cage and Morton Feldman. Rzewski explains in his program notes that he rewrote the piece ten years after initial publication “to obscure the tune, putting in lots of wrong notes and kind of stomping on and smudging everything”. The result is a refreshing if somewhat jolting journey from syncopation to lyricism to chord progressions reminiscent of Charles Ives.

Most intriguing on the disc is a set of six studies for the left hand, cleverly titled “Second hand, or Alone at Last”. As with much left-hand writing, the casual listener would never guess that only one hand is at work. To be sure, Rzewski exploits the lower register here but he keeps the pianist hopping northward throughout. Rzewski explains that he discovered the potential of the left hand when writing these short pieces. “When given the possibility of occupying the whole playing field …. (the left hand is) able to execute the most spectacular acrobatics.” 

Then without warning the CD does a jarring segue into “De Profundis”, complete with half-sobs, grunts, gasps and groans from Satterlee. (All the extramusical touches are minutely specified in the score.) This is a 1992 performance piece that combines keyboard virtuosity with spoken excerpts from an Oscar Wilde text, his 110-page “Dear Bosie” jailhouse letter to his ex-lover Alfred Lord Douglas. Rzewski, seeking a category for the composition, settled on “melodramatic oratorio”.

A 32-minute performance by Rzewski himself is an experience not to miss, easily available on YouTube:

Clearly enjoying his whimsical side, Rzewski brings Wilde’s drama and his own narration and beautiful music together. Halfway through, a Bach-like fugue emerges from the cacaphony. 

Viewing the autograph score online is also worth the trouble, if only to experience Rzewski’s neat notation and his precise instructions. Leaving nothing to chance, he mandates passages of whistling, humming, body-slapping, drumming on the keyboard lid and a succession of nonsense syllables such as “TIKITIKITIKI” and “HEEHEEHEE” and “KAKAKAKA”. On page 18, he instructs the pianist to “grunt, puff or wheeze”, as classical performers sometimes do “without being aware of it”.

Rzewski told composer Bob Gilmore in an interview last year that  “I’m really writing for other pianists. Then it’s up to them to translate the information into a form which is communicated to the listener …” The full text of the interview provides real insight into Rzewski’s current thinking.

Satterlee writes in his CD notes that De Profundis requires the pianist to “lay bare” his soul. “The sheer physicality of the combination of playing reciting and vocalizing is quite exhilarating for the performer.”

Although the text is a lament on the rigors of imprisonment and his sentence of two years of hard labor, Rzewski ends his excerpts on an upbeat. Wilde wrote:  “I have been placed in direct contact with a new spirit through man and things that has helped me beyond words … And sometimes when I am not torturing myself do really say, ‘What a beginning, what a wonderful beginning!’”

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Frederic Rzewski's  The People United Will Never be Defeated  is one of those pieces that seems to have popped or plopped out whole and near perfect. While now I find it just a bit longwinded, it still works in its proportions and rigorous...

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