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A political bent, a musical hook

November 17, 2002|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Frederic Rzewski

"Rzewski Plays Rzewksi: Piano Works. 1975-1999" (Nonesuch)


Frederic Rzewski is a left-wing Liszt. Given America's political mood these days, and given that the Liszt revival has pretty much petered out, this may not seem like the best moment for Nonesuch Records to release a landmark seven-CD set of Rzewski playing his piano music.

But try listening to a few minutes of Rzewski (pronounced ZHEV-ski) performing his addictive "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" and see if you can stop the CD player any more easily than you can put down that bag of chips. A beguiling Chilean political song immediately insinuates itself into your consciousness, while Rzewski develops a series of variations so astonishingly original in sound and idea, that you can't imagine what he will do next. In the course of an hour, he just keeps topping himself.

A 64-year-old, Harvard-trained American composer and pianist, Rzewski has made his life and career in Europe for most of the last 40 years. He has always been an ardent outsider, associated with radical political and musical movements. He has taken to making pronouncements about how he sees the symphony orchestra as an outdated feudal institution that still treats musicians as servants. But his outsider status only goes so far. He has a respectable academic teaching gig in Belgium. And it would be hard to find a composer today who employs a more extensive working knowledge of Western tradition for his own music, to say nothing of a classical composer who is a more thrilling pianist or improviser.

Rzewski is often called eclectic, and he is to the extent that his music presents a dazzling array of styles and techniques that range from the Middle Ages to the present. But miraculously, Rzewski actually makes the issue of style irrelevant. Everything sounds as though it is a manifestation of the same impulse. "I think it now has to be agreed," composer Christian Wolff writes in his illuminating Nonesuch notes, "that Rzewski's music simply sounds like no other."

It sounds like no other music because it is made like no other music. Rzewski has found a way to be recklessly free and rigorously controlled, to be fervent populist and master of the arcane, at the same time. In "People United," Lisztian bravura collides with easy jazz, with clusters of notes hammered out so hard you practically expect the keys to fly off the piano, with whistling, singing, elegant sustained chords, and so on. But this is also the work of a mathematical obsessive who elaborately structures sets and subsets that build a cascading momentum and create a new kind of musical unity.

This ability to contain opposing forces in a single musical gesture is the hallmark of Rzewski's career. He first came to attention in the early 1960s when he helped form the free improvisation group Musica Elettronica Viva in Rome. He later toured as a pianist with Karlheinz Stockhausen, but was also a close friend of and musical co-conspirator with British radical and Maoist Cornelius Cardew, who once wrote a book titled "Stockhausen Serves Imperialism." "People United," written for Ursula Oppens in 1975 and the earliest work on the Nonesuch set, may take its inspiration from the Latin American Marxism of its time, but the musical message is more abstract and so compellingly makes the case for a kind of stylistic liberty that I have seen it win over political as well as musical conservatives with ease.

Rzewski's expansive protean abilities are demonstrated over and over on the remaining six discs. In "North American Ballads" from 1979, he once more takes insinuating melodies and explodes them into vast, fantastical musical landscapes, one style effortlessly following another, sometimes with sonorities so massive that the piano can barely contain them. An epic Sonata from 1991 knocks together fragments of "Ring Around the Rosy," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," the medieval plainchant "L'Homme Arme," "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye," John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" and "Three Blind Mice" in a kaleidoscopic first movement. The second movement is a long set of variations on "Taps." The final Agitato shoots through 27 variations on the plainchant tune.

A theatrical composer

Rzewski is, in all he writes, a grippingly dramatic composer, and at times an audaciously theatrical one as well. "De Profundis," the composer writes, "demands a combination of virtuoso technique and a total lack of inhibition on stage, thus virtually guaranteeing that no mediocre or conventional performer will dare to go near it."

Composed in 1991, it requires the pianist to simultaneously play and recite a deeply moving Oscar Wilde letter. In addition, the pianist's entire body is brought into percussive play as it evokes Wilde's desperation in Reading Gaol, and his transcendence of pain and humiliation. It's true: No other piano music sounds like this.

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