I really do try and stay away from politics here because that is emphatically NOT the raison d'être of this blog. I especially avoid any mention of global warming, climate change, El Niño and free-floating apparitions. But I do take it as my duty to comment when other folks smuggle politics into discussions about music.
So this New York Times piece falls well within my purview, I think. Alongside it, I will consult the Wikipedia article on Rzewski where we learn a different pronunciation of his name: "zheff-skee."
Let's start as the NYT does, with a YouTube clip of Rzewski playing a little bit of his variations on "The People United Will Never Be Defeated", the protest song by Sergio Ortega.
For sheer vapid triviality I think that is right up there with the Yellow River Piano Concerto:
The NYT reveals the reason for the article:
So, he's a Trump supporter then? Isn't that the guy fighting for the blue-collar worker? Well, no, it turns out. Rzewski is a socialist, hence the ArtsJournal headline, but not politically active except in the most general terms. His music is a protest against, well, war, the industrial revolution, imprisonment and oppression. Is he a bit like John Lennon, if he were still with us? Perhaps a musical counterpart to Noam Chomsky? Well, no, no more than he is like Bernie Sanders. Rzewski comes out of the high modernism of the 60s when he performed in an improvisational collective. He says, in the NYT piece:Mr. Rzewski, who at 78 is flinty and opinionated yet warm, is one of many great American composers whom a vast majority of America has never heard, or even heard of. But of that group, he may be the one with the most to say to us now. He has, for decades, been making thought-provoking, heart-wrenching music about issues that dominate the headlines today: the perils of incarceration, the tension between the government and the governed, the struggle for gay rights, the decimation of the industrial working class.He may be particularly valuable at a moment when the political discourse produces only an unending, almost unlistenable, screech. Passionate but not strident, unsparing yet subtle, his work offers something increasingly rare: a space to be both angry and reflective.
Yep. But let's listen to more of his music. This is his Piano Concerto which was premiered at the 2013 Proms with the composer as soloist:He now speaks a bit ruefully of those heady days. “Free improvisation was going to change the world,” he said of his generation’s 1960s dreams. “It was going to create an entirely new language, so that people could come together from different parts of the planet and instantly communicate.”He paused. “Well, of course, we were wrong.”
That is actually a pretty good piece. It reminds me a bit of a Prokofiev piano concerto, though not as intense, more lyrical and relaxed with more open space. Perhaps it is inspired by oppression and war, but then, so was a lot of Prokofiev's music. Why are Rzewski's politics important to the NYT? The music, this piece at least, stands up just fine without them.
And, of course, one wonders, if there were a composer who was the Donald Trump of American Classical Music, and I suspect there is not, would the NYT do a piece on him? Or her? And that leads to the further question, why isn't there a composer of that ilk?
Perhaps we should just be grateful.