June 26, 2021

Remembering Frederic Rzewski

On June 26, 2021, the composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski passed away. An avidly experimental composer and an outspoken champion of leftist causes, Rzewski's music married strong political statements with fiery, virtuosic writing, often incorporating folk anthems, as in two of his best-known compositions, "Which Side Are You On" and "The People United Will Never Be Defeated!"

The New York Times writes: "“The People United” has captured the imagination of virtuosos including Marc-André Hamelin and, more recently, younger pianists like Igor Levit and Conrad Tao. It is the closest thing to a war horse in the contemporary piano repertory."

A longtime admirer of Rzewski's work, Conrad will perform "The People United Will Never Be Defeated!" at Aspen Music Festival on July 6, preceded by remarks honoring the composer's legacy.

"I met Frederic Rzewski once, when I was 11, at the Miami International Piano Festival. He was performing "People United" there. I recall sitting in a back seat of a car with him and my mother. I remember him as funny, caustic, and curious; he asked my mother some questions about her childhood in China.

I don't think I liked the piece very much at the time. It was a largely confusing experience for me then — visceral but long, my young ears struggling to hear the thread. But one thing stuck out to me — I don’t remember if it was reinforced by a program note or a conversation — Rzewski believed in recording the piece as a single take, because, to paraphrase him, “You’re supposed to hear the pianist getting exhausted.”

Effort as an activated, audible layer. That left a lasting impression on me. So often, notions of virtuosity are related to an illusion of effortlessness. Rzewski offered an additional perspective — that perhaps virtuosity could also be found in respect for the traces one left in the actions of performing, of playing, of living in and through the piece with one’s body. To relentlessly “correct” the performance would be to neuter its story.

Rzewski’s piano music unlocked for me when I started working on “Which Side Are You On,” from the North American Ballads. That piece was the flowing fantasia capable of expressing ever-expanding possibility, capable of meaning different things at different times, always resonating. The Florence Reece theme, blown apart from the start, stacked atop itself, gathering and dissipating in different keys and different timescales, culminating in a unified, gradually building front—is it militaristic? need it be militaristic? When playing Rzewski’s music with explicit political and historical content these are the questions I could ask, of both the pieces and myself.

Indeed, it is that questioning capacity in Rzewski's music that has been on my mind while preparing for tonight's performance. The People United Will Never Be Defeated! has an expansive form—five enormous sprawling blocks of six variations each, then six variations and a final improvisation, to bring the universe back home, to propose a notion of "how it's all connected." These variations all take after ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! — the 1970 Chilean tune by Sergio Ortega that became a fixture of protests during the Pinochet regime. As the variations progress, they start to move into more exotic regions, other tunes coming into the mix, "Solidaritätslied" ("Solidarity Song") and "Bandiera Rossa" ("Red Flag") among them. The music's character is variously lyrical, improvisatory, determined, "struggling," "expansive, with a victorious feeling," and "relentless, uncompromising," to quote from the score. Rarely is it straightforwardly triumphant. The music struggles, aspires, yearns, crucially possessing the ability to ask whether or not the declaration of its title is true.

Rzewski’s piano music also is always about piano music, on some level, cognizant of the figure of the solo performer onstage, embodying the entirety of this musical organism, or structure, or both. Rzewski strikes me as a more quintessential “pianist-composer” than most, writing at the instrument, “whatever tunes go through my head,” writing for himself. There are variations in People United or sections of “Which Side Are You On?” that remind me of the practice room, the “practice room” as a defined space, full of memories. The solo pianist, an iconic virtuoso figure, pushed to great physical effort to embody music that aims to express the challenges and hopes of collective change in the world. The tensions are rich with potential meaning.

Different compositional techniques are juxtaposed against one another, sometimes to stylistically anarchic effect, both tightly controlled and utterly spontaneous.

Though it can be strident and at times fiercely logical, Rzewski’s music is not dogmatic. It is expressive, subconscious, engaged with history, indebted to many who came before but never blindly faithful to any one lineage. Style is the outgrowth, the manifestation of the musical soul and idea, engaged with what is live and spontaneous, never preordained from the outset."