Frederic Rzewski (pronounced ZHEF-ski) is a contemporary American composer born on April 13, 1938 in Westfield, Massachusetts. His music was altogether unknown to me before I watched the video that follows, but having seen it just once, I couldn’t wait to share it with readers of this blog.
The following biographical sketch of Rzewski was written by Michael Blostein, and is taken from the online All Music Guide.
“Avant-garde composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski studied with many of the best-known names in 20th century music: Randall Thompson, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, Luigi Dallapiccola, and Elliott Carter…
“A virtuoso pianist, much of Rzewski’s music is written for piano, including what is arguably his best-known work, the politically driven “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, which pushes the extreme of both instrument and pianist.
“Rzewski has written works that explore timbres in not only the piano, but also in electronics and incorporating spoken word. An example of this type of experimental voicing is “Coming Together,” written for speaking voice and instrumental octet, commemorating the uprising at New York’s Attica State Prison…
“Rzewski’s exploration of a multitude of techniques, sounds, and styles is impressive, but doesn’t allow for very much work in any one area. However, his music will continue to serve as an example of exploration in these different styles.”
The pianist in this video is Michael Messer, who was born in Renton, Washington on December 16, 1991, and began his piano studies at the age of eight. His early teachers were Barbara Houchins and Dianne Nichols. I first heard Michael in the spring of 2010 in a spirited performance of Haydn’s D major piano concerto with the Seattle Festival Orchestra. He is currently a junior at Wheaton College, where he studies with Karin Redekopp Edwards.
In the video that follows, Michael performs the third and fourth movements, “Down by the Riverside” and “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” respectively, of Rzewski’s Four North American Ballads. Hearing them for the first time, I was struck by the excitement and power of these pieces, but with repeated listenings, I have become more aware of subtleties both of composition and execution. As both the piece and the composer were new to me, I was happy to be able to pose a few questions to the pianist, whom I have known for some time. Here they are, together with Michael’s illuminating responses:
Derrick: Does an avant-garde piece like this make any special or unusual demands upon the pianist?
Michael: In playing these two movements, probably the most difficult aspect for me was mastering the composer’s wide range of styles, and playing each section in a distinctive way. For example, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues is really made up of five contrasting sections, including two sections with tone clusters, some very technically difficult melodic stretti, a sentimental contrapuntal blues, and another section featuring a boogie-woogie ostinato bass. Transitioning smoothly from each of these sections is almost as difficult as playing them!
Learning how to shape the tone-clusters is definitely an unusual demand of this piece. Throughout both movements, I often play clusters using the palms of my hands, or even my entire forearms in the Cotton Mill Blues. On top of this, the melody above the clusters must be dynamically shaped in a way that listeners can hear the theme arising from the ruckus of the machinery. Being able to shape a melody with the forearm is quite difficult.
Derrick: Was memorization any more difficult than it would be with, for example, a Beethoven sonata?
Michael: The first 5-6 minutes of the Cotton Mill Blues are extremely repetitive, and this causes some difficultly regarding memorization. Thankfully, Rzewski put the repeating notes in groups of six or twelve. In figuring out how to memorize these sections, I essentially ended up counting measures while keeping track of how many groups I had already played.
The other difficult sections to memorize are the intense contrapuntal parts. Here, it was necessary to locate the reiterations of the theme within the thick texture, and practice each melodic line individually before putting them all together.
Derrick: Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues sounds very industrial. Was it intended to suggest the workings of a cotton mill?
Michael: I believe the repetitive, tone-cluster sections in the last movement are supposed to imitate the industrial noise created by a cotton mill. While listening to this piece, I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to work in one of these factories – listening to that hellish noise all day long.
Derrick: Parts of this music are very repetitive, but as we listen, we become aware of small changes in the patterns. Is this related to the “phasing” that we hear in the music of Steve Reich, for example?
Michael: Rzewski uses many compositional techniques in these two movements of his North American Ballads. One technique is similar to “phasing”, which is heavily used by minimalist composers like Steve Reich or Terry Riley. In the opening of the Cotton Mill Blues, the small changes in pattern slowly establish larger concepts, and eventually become a clear statement of the theme. Because Rzewski wrote this piece in the late 1970’s, he more than likely was affected by the minimalist movement, and I believe this comes through in his writing.
Michael also provided this link to a doctoral thesis by Sujin Kim about the Four North American Ballads which includes a fascinating interview with Frederic Rzewski.
This video is taken from a recital that Michael gave at Wheaton in February, 2013. Bravo to Frederic Rzewski for writing such an exciting, powerful piece, and to Michael also for venturing off the well-worn paths of more traditional classical music to give us this thrilling interpretation of Rzewski’s extraordinary work.