Frederic Rzewski (1938–2021)

Frederic Rzewski. Photo: Michael Wilson.

“MUSIC PROBABLY CANNOT CHANGE THE WORLD,” wrote composer Frederic Rzewski. “But it is a good idea to act as if it could.” Born to parents of Polish descent in Westfield, Massachusetts, he studied music in a series of elite institutions, from the 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 composer-performers John Cage, David Tudor, and Christian Wolff. Studying with Luigi Dallapicolla in Italy (1960–61) and Elliott Carter in Berlin (1963–65), he established an early reputation as a fearless concert pianist. In 1962, he premiered Stockhausen’s monumental Klavierstück X, its cluster chords and glissandi, designed to be played “as fast as possible,” requiring the performer to wear fingerless gloves in order to protect their hands.

Rebelling against serialism, Rzewski moved to Italy and, in 1966, cofounded the egalitarian, leaderless ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva with Allan Bryant, Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, and others. Building their own instruments by putting contact mics on piles of junk and household objects, M.E.V. performed in crypts, prisons, and hospitals, seeking, in Rzewski’s words, “to create an entirely new language, so that people could come together from different parts of the planet and instantly communicate.” In summer 1968, M.E.V took to the streets, combining electronics with “mobile, non-electronic sound-sources.” For Sound Pool, Rzewski invited anyone to bring and play their own instruments, erasing distinctions between performers and audience. In 1969, he told Monique Verken:

When, as has happened on numerous occasions in the Sound Pool, one hundred and more people are grooving together, making free music together, in harmony, it is like no other sound; you know that you are experiencing something new and revolutionary. It is like New Year’s Eve or the Birth of Gargantua.

Returning to the States in 1971, Rzewski wrote one of his greatest works following that year’s Attica prison uprising. In Coming Together, a vocalist recites statements by Attica prisoners Sam Melville and Richard X Clark. Rzewski uses the medieval “hocket” technique, sharing a repeated melody between multiple 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 in a concert performance days before Donald Trump’s election.

By the mid-’70s, Rzewski’s friend Cornelius Cardew had renounced the avant-garde for Maoist-influenced arrangements of folk and political songs. Rzewski, too, began to arrange militant songs for solo piano, calling this style “humanist realism” in a gentle distinction from Cardew’s own embrace of socialist realism, while sharing Cardew’s left-wing commitments. The People United Will Never Be Defeated! subjects Sergio Ortega’s eponymous 1975 Allende-era anthem to a series of elaborate, poly-stylistic 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 US intervention in Latin America to the heart of “North American” culture.

Much of Rzewski’s subsequent music also used the variation form. The four North American Ballads (1979) adapt folk songs from Kentucky miners’ strikes, the antiwar movement, and North Carolina cotton mills. The final ballad, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, was inspired by scenes from the contemporaneous film Norma Rae in which workers struggle to communicate over the noise of machinery. A thundering, rhythmically propulsive “accompaniment” threatens to overwhelm the melody, the conflict between folk material and virtuosic classical technique effectively transforming the 1930s source material into a site of contested history memory.

Relocating to Belgium for a teaching position at the Conservative Royal, Liège, in 1977, Rzewski spent much of the rest of his life in Europe. He continued to address political themes, setting Mayakovsky, Brecht, and Weiss, often combining music with spoken text. Rzewski quipped that in musicals people speak and then suddenly break into song—so why not the other way around? Pieces such as the enormous musical “novel” The Road (1995–2003), lasting a total of ten hours, and De Profundis (1992), based on a prison letter by Oscar Wilde, are written for a “speaking pianist” who also whistles, stomps, breathes, and uses their 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 M.E.V. through mournful and gentle silences. The epigraph to Songs of Insurrection (2016), a series of variations on revolutionary songs akin to The People United, comes from Whitman: “vivas to those who have fail’d!” Yet the composer eschewed both triumphalism and its flipside, melancholia.

For Rzewski, music was fundamentally social. It was there to be collectivized, not owned. In 1969 he argued:

Music, like all the other arts, is destined to disappear as an art form, becoming another common and natural human activity, like gardening or cooking, freed of intellectual and class associations and useful to the human species [...] The “concert” will come to resemble other liberated forms such as the party or the day off, themselves secular remnants of earlier ceremonies.

Such utopian hopes remain unfulfilled. But Rzewski continually refused to separate music from everyday experience. As he told pianist Igor Levit after a performance of The People United, once the piece is finished, “you play the last octave, you close the music, you leave, life goes on.”

David Grundy is a poet and scholar based in London.