In a lot of ways, Frederic Rzewski is a man out of time. Almost everything about him is anachronistic or contradictory or both -- he's a straight-up virtuoso composer-pianist in the Lisztian tradition, an old-school rugged bohemian whose chosen instrument remains a powerful symbol of class privilege, a distinctively American composer who has lived abroad for over 30 years, a gifted improviser who has recorded with fellow bohemians Steve Lacy and Irene Aebi, a student of arch elitists like Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions who fell in with the wild boys of the New York School crowd (John Cage, Christian Wolff & co.), went on to write some influential early proto-minimalist works, and who in recent decades has returned to an austere 12-tone pitch vocabulary that would seem at odds with his proletarian politics. Throughout his career, he has freely combined serial, conceptual, minimalist, improvisatory, and collage-based techniques with folk songs and explicit political appeals.
Rzewski's output is so varied and chimerical that some people have accused him of not having a style at all, but I think what unites all his music, from the broadly anthemic to the grimly abstract, is his respect for the listener and his authentic desire to communicate. Babbitt, famously, doesn't care if you listen -- Rzewski, even when he's every bit as serially thorny and complex as Babbitt, wants you to keep up, and is willing to meet you halfway: "it seemed to me there was no reason why the most difficult and complex formal structures could not be expressed in a form which could not be understood by a wide variety of listeners." This sounds like the most obvious thing in the world -- "of course music can and should be expressed in a form that people can actually understand, otherwise what's the fucking point?" -- but for some reason, this is still a controversial idea in some circles.
Rzewski's 70th birthday is coming up soon (April 13), but the occasion is not exactly being marked with the sort of fanfare previously bestowed on Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Corigliano. This is kind of instructive -- Rzewski primarily writes for the piano, and is clearly the most important and influential composer of works for piano of the past 25 years. In the 19th century, if you wrote great piano music you were a titan -- in the 21st century, you're at best a marginal cult figure. So big ups to the Keys to the Future people for giving Fred his due, in a recital featuring Bang on a Can All-Stars vet Lisa Moore.
I recently bitched about how empty and hollow virtuosic displays for their own sake feel to me. Much of Rzewski's music is extraordinarily difficult to play, and the composer himself is capable of some serious pianistic fireworks (which abound on the 7 CD set Rzewksi Plays Rzewski) but even in a technical tour-de-force like the hour-long The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, you never get the sense that the music is about virtuosity. (That is, if the title and form of the work -- a series of variations on a protest song by the Chilean composer Sergio Ortega that became the anthem of the anti-Pinochet resistance -- didn't make the composer's intent clear enough from the outset.) However, the Rzewski works Lisa Moore selected for her Greenwich House gig mostly called for a different kind of virtuosity -- all but the first and last piece on the program relied as much on her ability to sing or deliver spoken text as it did her pianism.
The focus of the recital was De Profundis, a 1992 work for speaking pianist. The title and text are both drawn from Oscar Wilde's famous letter to his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, composed while Wilde was languishing in Reading Jail (Wilde's libel suit against his lover's father having proved somewhat... ill-advised). But the performance text includes not just Wilde's prose but gasps, rasps, whistling, and a few judicious honks on a clown's car horn.
The really striking thing about this piece is how incredibly patient it is, how slowly and spaciously it unfolds -- this lends a line of text near the end particular resonance: "And how slowly time goes with those of us who lie in prison I need not tell again." The spoken sections are all sparsely scored, with plenty of room for the words to have their full effect -- Wilde's unadorned prose is powerful enough, and Rzewski doesn't let the music oversaturate it. The spoken sections are stitched together by purely instrumental passages that serve as a kind of commentary on the text we've just heard.
I actually liked Moore's reading of De Profundis a bit better than the composer's -- heresy, I know, but she was less declamatory and her flow was less halting. Her voice seemed to capture an impish spirit, almost but not quite broken down by circumstances, which is closer to how I hear Wilde's voice in my head than Rzewski's more bitter, spiteful rendition. But of course, this is a work that invites a diversity of interpretations, as Rzewski himself says:
[I]t has been performed by a number of pianists, gay, straight, male and female. All of the different interpretations it has received so far have been original, interesting, and different from each other. The music 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 go near it.
The other played+spoken piece on the program was a movement -- or "mile," in this case, Mile #42, "The Prodigal Parents" -- from The Road, Rzewksi's recently completed 10-hour "novel" for solo piano plus "theatrics" (here including banging on the closed piano lid and an ironic burst of self-applause). The text, Rzewski's own, called "The Prodigal Parents," is a plea for forgiveness addressed to subsequent generations. To His Coy Mistress is not a narration, but an actual song, a setting of Andrew Marvell's famous paean to getting it on. The music sounded inspired by several of Steve Lacy's poem settings, which are in a similar vein. This was the one piece where I was not sold on Moore's interpretation, which didn't really capture the seductive urgency of the poem.
The concert was bookended by two purely instrumental pieces, both from the late 1970's. Moore opened with Piano Piece No. 4 another Chilean-inspired piece, which begins with creeping high repeated notes that gradually coalesce into chords, and then a low rumble. The haunting folksong melody struggles to be heard amongst the dark ostinatos and high stabbing figures.
A similar process fuels Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which has the singular distinction of being a blues-inspired piece of classical piano literature that does not suck. Before playing it, Moore treated us to a hilarious recreation of Rzewski's ultra-stiff manner of singing the workers' song the piece is based on. But a huge reason Winnsboro succeeds where so many others have failed is that there is no artificial, stilted "jazzing up" of the material -- the theme is treated almost entirely mechanistically, grinding against looping left-hand figures and churning clusters. Winnsboro was the most impressively virtuosic piece on the program, but all the flash in the world is nothing without the ability to dig in and maintain a relentlessly steady pulse throughout -- and luckily Moore has rhythmic authority to burn. It made for an explosive conclusion to a great recital.
Moore will be appearing again at Greenwich House as one of the eight pianists featured at this year's Keys to the Future Festival, which is coming up soon (March 25-27). My review of a night from last year's festival is here. Frederic Rzewski will be appearing at Zankel Hall on May 1 alongside Boston pianist Steven Drury (they'll be doing the two-piano version of Winnsboro) and new music ensemble Opus 21.
Tickets to this event were provided by the presenter.