Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Bernie Sanders of American Classical Music?

I swear that I am not responsible for coming up with that title--you can tell that by the question mark. No, it was the folks at ArtsJournal News that dreamt it up. It takes us to this story in the New York Times: "The Composer Frederic Rzewski: In His Notes, Protest and Politics." I have to say right off that I learned one useful thing from the article--how to pronounce the name "Rzewski". It's ZHEV-ski. Oh, and my favourite thing about the title is the characteristic NYT Portentous Inversion Grammar. In normal English it would be Protest and Politics in the Music of Frederic Rzewski.

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:
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.
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:
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.”
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:


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.

2 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

Spotify sends out a playlist each Monday morning, presumably based on some calculations derived from my/other 'classical' listeners' choices, and Rzewski's Les moutons de Panurge showed up yesterday. It too was actually interesting enough, from 1968, although it was on only in the background. The People United in Defeat Variations or whatever it's called was pretty much enough to put him into the dark recesses of the back closet where I keep the Iron Butterfly but I suspect that was too hasty a judgment.

The Trumpian composer! what a thought. A composer who appeals to a certain audience but has managed none the less to bankrupt several opera houses? music halls? while attracting unrelenting media attention for his many transgressive behaviors/attitudes. There's bound to be an analogue somewhere; a P.T. Barnum of song. Pft; Rabelais is peculiarly appropriate to our times, I sometimes think: but wasn't familiar enough with the books to have known the moutons story-- which phrase in French (Wiki) has come to refer to people willing blindly to follow a leader, ahem.

Bryan Townsend said...

Perhaps John Cage was the Trump of composers. He was certainly transgressive.