Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Hall of Heroes: Frederic Rzewski

Labour Day at HurdAudio means a healthy dose of The People United Will Never Be Defeated over morning coffee. With ears thirsty for epic solo piano composition such as this, this work in particular stands out as a towering achievement within this medium over the past century. Even with all the high regard I have for this work it still astounds me with renewed transcendence each time I hear it. The quality of this composition alone is reason enough to induct Frederic Rzewski into the HurdAudio Hall of Heroes. But there is also a substantial body of works and a lifetime of compositions that embody the same aesthetic plane as this outstanding work.

This morning I chose the Stephen Drury interpretation from 1994 (recorded in 1992) on New Albion. The presentation opens nicely with an excerpt of a 1975 live performance of the Chilean anthem for social change played by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayun that forms the melodic basis for the sprawling set of variations that follow. Rzewski has both an ear for melody and an unwavering feel for humanity and social justice. Efforts to label him as a "socialist composer" serve only to belittle the powerful humanity that underscores the subjects and meaning in his creative output.

Over the span of an hour the melodic line of "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" is refracted through 36 variations. It is an infectious, hooky melody that appears from many angles. At times obscured or left spare. It's an intense and loving study of a beautiful subject on a large canvas using only the heart and hands of a single performer.

And this work is only one of an astonishing body of solo piano works well represented by the wonderful box set Rzewski Plays Rzewski - Piano Works 1975 - 1999. In many ways, I find De Profudis to be an achievement that equals or surpasses the aesthetic high water mark of "The People United Will Never Be Defeated." Taken as a body of works for piano (especially "Mayn Yingele" and "North American Ballads 4 Piano") this is a music that appeals directly to the intellect while still maintaining a deeply rooted sense of humanity and emotional warmth.

Even after taking in the solo piano music of Frederic Rzewski there are also the ensemble and electronic works to consider. I am somewhat less familiar with these. But eager to hear more. I've heard Coming Together/Attica performed live many times. I suspect there are many more sonic treasures waiting for these ears.

Frederic Rzewski has come to represent a rare balance of idea and subject. It would be easy for the compositional material to become overwhelmed by the social and political qualities of his subject matter and vice versa. What emerges is a body of work that consistently challenges the listener, and the aspiring composer, to remain true to both craft and conscience.

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