Interview with Frederic Rzewski
The People United; Will Never Be Defeated
by Kalvos & Damian
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Shows #307/308, 14 and 21 April 2001. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Brussels at the composer’s home. Listen to the interview (RealAudio) from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:32:27–1:29:51] / Audio Part 2 [0:35:56–1:59:45].
Frederic Rzewski (Westfield MA, 1938) studied music with Walter Piston, Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt at Harvard and Princeton universities. He went to Italy in 1960 to study with Luigi Dallapiccola and there began a career as a performer of new piano music. In Rome in the mid-sixties, together with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, he formed the MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) group, which quickly became known for its pioneering work in live electronics and improvisation, approaching music as a spontaneous collective process. The experience of MEV is felt in Rzewski’s early compositions, and during the seventies he experimented with forms in which style and language are treated as structural elements (notably, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!). Rzewski’s largest work to date is The Road, an eight-hour “novel” for solo piano. Rzewski has taught at a number of institutions, including the Conservatoire Royal de Musique (Liège, Belgium), Yale School of Music, Mills College, the Royal Conservatory of the Hague and the Hochschule der Künste (Berlin). His work can be freely downloaded at http://icking-music-archive.org/ByComposer/Rzewski.php.
Audio Part 1 [0:32:27–1:29:51]
[Kalvos] Kalvos & Damian are on the road. We are now in Brussels, we are in a quiet apartment. This is nice, because after days of cafés, the quiet is appreciated. We are in the home of Frederic… and we ought to leave a blank space because this is one of the issues of questions throughout the musical world, how do you pronounce your last name?
[Frederic Rzewski] Oh, zheff-skee or re-zheff-ski, depending on whether you think it’s Polish or Russian, you can take your pick. It’s actually a typical American name, so you shouldn’t have any trouble with it.
Well, welcome to the show! It’s been a long struggle to finally cross paths with you, and we’re very happy to do it. Tell us a little bit about your history, after I introduce my first meeting with you on a musical level. I was in the cut-out bin of a store in New Jersey…
That sounds like me.
Yes! It was years ago, and I came across a very strange LP on RCA of a group that was just called Il Gruppo and there was this strange sort of psychedelic stuff on the front and a wonderful piece which I have played over and over over the years, one single piece, it was just such a wonderful little gem, called Lip Service.
Gee, I don’t even have that record, do you still have it?
Yes I do.
Those recordings were made, if I remember correctly, in 1964. The group was actually started by Franco Evangelisti, who was inspired by Larry Austin, who came to spend a year in Rome and told everybody about his experiments with improvising. Franco decided to start a similar group with composers who would get together to improvise. It lasted for quite a while. I was only in it for about a year, but it was interesting and in fact that experience also helped me to organize my own group a couple of years later.
Which was a ground-breaking group in the history of New Music, actually.
I don’t know, who knows? Ground-breaking or perhaps the other way around, maybe we were actually filling up the hole.
What, the holes between tonality and atonality? [General laughter] That was Musica Elettronica Viva, right?
Yes. That was an interesting group though, with Franco, because there were interesting people in it. One of them, in fact the person who I suppose was responsible for making that record, was Ennio Morricone.
Oh, yes, also a very fine composer.
Yes, and at the time he was already making a name for himself in the film music realm. He was working regularly at the RCA studios, so I guess it was he who finagled that particular recording, otherwise I don’t know why they would have done it.
I wasn’t going to ask that question but since you brought it up… I had no idea how this sort of stuff, which generally appeared on labels like Nonesuch later on, appeared on RCA; a prestige label has this wonderfully strange music. I was, I think, sixteen when that was released, so it had a great impact on me, certainly.
Ennio played trumpet pretty well, of course he’s an excellent musician — I don’t know if he still plays. It was interesting to work with these people, it was an interesting collection of personalities.
We listen to Romanze from Esercizi for 10 String Soloists by Ennio Morricone [0:37:24–0:40:46]. Performed by I Solisti Italiani. Published on Italian Compositions of the 20th Century, Denon [CD CO-78949].
We listen to Lip Service by Il Gruppo [0:41:20–0:47:04]. Published on The Private Sea of Dreams, RCA Victor [LP LSP-3846]. Audio continues under the interview.
What happened from there? You worked with that group for a while. I can’t say — from my perspective, because I was not an adult composer yet — what the impact was of its own time. It has since become legendary, but what happened with MEV and where did you go from there?
We did about 200 concerts in Europe in the late 60s. We’re talking about a period in and around 1968, so we got very much involved in the student movement and played in a lot of those venues.
Did you shape it or did it shape you, or was it mutual? You as an ensemble and you particularly as a composer, because that’s where we’ll be spending most of our time today.
Well, there were a lot of people in MEV, MEV was always very chaotic, it was never clear who was in the group and who was simply a fellow traveller. That was never defined, although there was a certain core group of individuals who stuck with it over thirty years or so. I think our last concert was in Rome in 1996, which was just about the 30th anniversary of the first concert. Most of the people who were more or less constant over that period were all composers, all of us were composers. I think we all had a similar approach to this activity. It was like a collective laboratory, really, where people could try out their ideas, bounce them off each other, we stole ideas from each other regularly. And in exchange, I think that the experience of live group improvisation had, on us at least, a very strong influence. It certainly did on me and I’m sure Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, among others, would agree that this activity was absolutely inseparable from composition. I think I’ve learned how to write music by improvising with MEV, really.
The other side of that question, by influencing each other, you were talking about the student movement. How did your work with the group and alone influence the politics of the time, and vice-versa? And where did you take it from there?
I would be the last person to venture to guess what kind of an influence MEV might have had. I know that in a certain number of individual cases we had a certain influence on certain musicians, especially in Europe, in certain German rock bands. You were asking about politics, I don’t think that there was much… I think our presence in the student scene was marginal. We certainly got a lot of flack from revolutionary students. We were accused of being elitist intellectuals and so on and so forth. The leftist scene at that time was not very tolerant.
I found that to be true as well and I found the hero was often Beethoven and not the musicians who were also pushing the edge.
Well, Beethoven came in for it too, I mean Mao Tse Tung decided that Beethoven was totally bourgeois. No, no these people were not very keen on music, I think they were suspicious of music just as Lenin was. But that’s another subject. [Laughter] I think MEV made a certain contribution to the world of experimental pop music at the time. Our first real tour was in 1967, we went to Germany and we met a bunch of young rockers like Irmin Schmidt [who started the rock group Can]. In Munich I think was where we met these people first. For instance the people who went on to found this group Kraftwerk and a little later another group called Tangerine Dream, people in that area. These people had never seen a synthesizer before. I think we were the first people to use a Moog Synthesizer in live performance, in the mid-60s. Besides which, the kind of stuff we were doing was like nothing that they had heard before. It didn’t have much to do really with what was considered pop music then, it was closer to Stockhausen, I would say, or John Cage. But I think it had a certain effect on the evolution of acid rock, at least in Europe. We did a tour in the United States a little later on but I don’t think it got very far in the United States, most of our activity was here.
The responsiveness to the avant-garde improv groups of almost any kind was pretty low until much later in the States.
Well you had the Grateful Dead and far-out groups like MC5, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers and so on and so forth. I don’t know, I’m not an expert on the subject myself.
Well let’s talk about you and what you are expert on, which is composition and your opinions and work in political spheres as a composer, which is kind of unusual these days especially. I will ask a question that was forwarded to me by another composer. She said that she had heard that you feel that The People United Will Never Be Defeated! had a strong influence on the politics in Central America.
Oh, no, of course not, that’s ridiculous. Look, the whole question of whether music has any influence at all has never been resolved. There is very little hard evidence that you can call upon to prove either position. It’s a very theoretical question. Of course, there have been a lot of words written about it, ever since Plato and St. Augustine and a host of other people. In modern times, probably the person whose ideas on the subject have been most influential is Richard Wagner. He, probably more than any other composer, formulated fairly clear theoretical notions about the influence of music on the external world. For better or for worse, his ideas have undeniably exercised great influence on a lot of people outside the field of music. To take one notable example, I would cite Adolf Hitler. In fact, there is one case which actually illustrates the close relationship in this sense, of music and politics. In the 1930s, the Germans, as you know, intervened in the Civil War in Spain, for a number of reasons. It’s a long story, I’ll try to make it short. The Germans — the military — actually had no intention of getting involved in the Spanish Civil War. There were a bunch of German businessmen who met with Franco in Tangiers, and Franco said if you can get the German government to come in on our side we will offer you certain advantages. So these businessmen went to meet Hitler in Bayreuth. And as it happened, Hitler had just come from a performance of Siegfried.
And Bayreuth is the place in which Wagner had his famous concert setting created and the works are done there with great regularity.
Exactly. And so they said this that and so forth and Hitler said great, we’ll do it. We’ll try out our new incendiary bombs on the city of Guernica and we will burn the place to the ground. We will call this Operation Feuerzauber, which of course refers to the magic fire scene in Wagner’s opera. Now you may or may not consider that there some kind of relation between music and politics in here, but in a way it is a kind of illustration of the possible connections that can exist. I think it is impossible to say anything concrete on this subject. I think it’s one of those cases where, does music or art or ideas in general have an influence on human behaviour? I think the answer to that question is possibly “Yes, if you believe it,” and if you don’t believe it, then the answer is “No”.
“…if you think that music is dangerous, you’re probably right; if you think it’s inconsequential and trivial, you’re also right.”
So, for instance, in large parts of Europe, people do believe that ideas have power, that there is power in ideas. Whereas in the Anglo-American cultural world, as a rule this idea is not generally accepted. For Americans, power comes out of the barrel of a gun or a bank account, it doesn’t come from philosophers.
So the Europeans have intellectuals and these intellectuals have some kind of mystical political power, and we don’t have them in the United States, as a rule. There are no intellectuals who can compare with Jean-Paul Sartre or with Tolstoy. Maybe Mark Twain is a distant relative of these people, but there is no real equivalent in the United States. So basically, Americans reject this idea, they consider it nonsense. Both sides are right, in a way, it depends on how you see it. It’s a placebo effect: if you think that music is dangerous, you’re probably right; if you think it’s inconsequential and trivial, you’re also right.
So when Stalin was afraid of story singing, historians, or when Salvador Allende was overthrown and musicians were victims quickly, is that an example of those who believe that there is power that needs to be cut off? Or were they trying to cut off a story more than a sound or music?
It’s very complex. In the case of Stalin, it isn’t a question, I think, of just the paranoia of one individual tyrant. It’s much more a phenomenon which dominated the entire culture of the time in that period of history. People really believed that poetry and words and music and ideas could change people’s thinking and behaviour. Furthermore, people really believed that acquired characteristics could be transmitted genetically to future generations. This is the story of Lysenko, the biologist. This idea was accepted because it somehow seemed to conform to a kind of Marxist, dynamic view of history which creates itself. There was a link where these scientific and pseudo-scientific ideas became confused with one another. Somehow art and poetry and music got dragged into it. Now I don’t think that people like Mayakovsky and Shostakovich were very concerned with these theoretical notions. However, there was a very powerful class of intellectuals at the top of the hierarchy. This is not just true of Stalinist Soviet Union, I think it’s a general phenomenon which exists even today in large parts of the world. There is this idea, well of course it’s not really accepted that much anymore, but at the time it was very powerful. People really thought that ideas were dangerous, and furthermore that they could contaminate the biological process of evolution. These people had a project to create a new type of human being: a socialist man who would be motivated by impulses of generosity and selflessness and social consciousness. Therefore it was important what kind of books they read. The wrong kind of writing or the wrong kind of painting could be destructive to the revolution. They really believed that, it wasn’t just an irrational paranoia that was responsible for the camps. No, there was a rational, or quasi-rational if you like, basis for these things. It’s important to understand that, otherwise you look at history and it seems to make no sense whatsoever.
Let’s take it to you and the piece that I already mentioned, The People United Will Never Be Defeated! How did you come about to create it? There is the question of why, although ultimately, I suppose that becomes irrelevant to people who hear the notes in a concert context, but there are still elements of that which are at least important to me to hear what you have to say about them.
How did you come to write the piece? What pushed you in the direction of writing it, using the material, other than a kind of programme notes-y way of explaining it? There’s always some sort of passion behind the creation of a piece of music even if it is objectivist experimentalism, there still is a drive to do that. What was yours?
I was living in two places at the time, we’re talking about the early 70s now. We had been living in New York but then my wife got a job in Rome, so I was commuting back and forth between Rome and New York. When these events took place in Chile in the fall of 1973, there were about one million Chileans who fled the country, ten percent of the population. They went to various countries, but many of them went to Italy. There is a historical reason for that. Italy had gone through a similar experience in the summer of 1970. I was in Rome when it happened. There was an attempted coup d’état by a bunch of military people who wanted to stage a Greek-style putsch. This failed but it scared the Italians. The Italians were very scared at the time, there were all kinds of things going on: terrorism, extremist groups who were so far left that they became right and vice versa. It was a very strange time in Italy.
The Italians reacted with a kind of identification with the Chileans’ experience and they opened up their doors to the Chilean refugees. A government-in-exile was set up in Rome, a lot of Chilean people came to Rome especially. There were huge demonstrations. I went to a number of these demonstrations where a hundred thousand people were singing this tune. Then I would go to New York, and in Union Square there would also be a demonstration of about 25 communists walking around with billboards. Aside from that there was nothing in the papers, no information at all. Things that were common knowledge on this side of the Atlantic Ocean were totally unknown to the American public. Like the involvement of the CIA and various American companies. Just by the fact of my movements, going back and forth, I was struck by this dichotomy.
And then at the same time this commission came in through Ursula Oppens. There was a series of piano recitals that was set up in Washington at the Kennedy Center during the first three or four months of 1976 in connection with the bi-centennial celebration. They invited (I think) twelve young pianists to do recitals and each of these pianists could commission a composer to write a new piece. So Ursula was invited to participate and she asked me to write a piece for her. I asked her what else is on the programme and she said she was thinking of the Diabelli Variations of Beethoven. And then, as it happened, around that time we both went to a concert at Hunter College which was I think in the fall of 1974, about a year after the coup in Chile. We went to this concert, it was given by a Chilean group, Inti-Illimani, and the final piece on the programme that they played was El Pueblo Unido. We both went out of the hall whistling this tune and I found an LP with a recording on it. If you know the tune it’s very similar to the famous theme by Paganini on which so many composers have written variations. [Sings opening fragment] It has a similar structure. It seemed like there was nothing to think about, it was such an obvious thing to do. That’s why I wrote it, because it had to do with the American Revolution, I needed a piece that had some relevance to the American Revolution. Well, the whole point of the American Revolution was the right of a small country to defend its independence against an oppressive big country, and at the time the colonies were small and England was big. Two hundred years later, the United States was big and Chile was small and there was a similar relation between the two. So that also gave the idea that the relation between two different countries, two different parts of the world, two different points of history and so forth, the whole idea of unity, which is the subject of the song, about unifying the democratic forces. So that became the idea, finding as many possible ways as I could think of of developing this idea of unity.
We listen to The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (variations 1–14) by Frederic Rzewski [1:13:18–1:29:51]. Performed by Marc-André Hamelin (piano). Published by Hyperion [CD CDA 67077].
Audio Part 2 [0:35:56–1:59:45]
“… the politics inspire the music. It gives me a musical idea, that’s where my ideas come from.”
Were you in kind of a psychological whirlwind about this piece? I rarely ask this kind of question actually, I’m just intrigued. The description you have given me is an objective reciting if the facts, where the piece itself comes across not only as a vast musical territory in its variations, but also as something full of a kind of passion. It’s not fury, it’s just passion. Is that the wrong take on the piece, or are you leaving something out in your description of how you took it on?
No, I think that is correct. Like many people, I was very, very upset, to put it mildly, by what was going on at the time. I think if this music sounds emotional it’s because it came from emotions. My friend, Sergio Ortega who wrote the tune, as he put it once, I remember, when somebody asked him, “Why do you write all these political pieces all the time?”: because the politics inspire the music. It gives me a musical idea, that’s where my ideas come from, it’s as simple as that. But I don’t always do things like that.
It wasn’t a question of always, I was particularly interested in this piece. Let’s move to the North American Ballads and then we’re going to move into what you are doing now. Lots more questions and I’m going to try to compress them. The North American Ballads, they are virtuoustic pieces.
Before we do that I think I want to point out one thing about The People United, that it didn’t just come out of nowhere, there are actually some musical precedents for that. Obviously, there are a lot of them, but one of them I think should point out is a set of variations which was written by Cornelius Cardew in 1974 called the Thälmann Variations, which are variations on the Thälmann song. Thälmann was the founder of the German Communist Party. I think that is one of Cardew’s major compositions, and it had a strong influence on me, I also played that. The idea of doing variations partly came from him.
To go on now to the North American Ballads, are they virtuostic? No they’re not so virtuostic.
They give that impression. Particularly, one of my favourites the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. It has just wild rushes of things happening, particularly as it heads towards the end.
Well, I don’t know. In my opinion, virtuoso music in general is music that sounds difficult but is usually not that difficult to play. Whereas this music is difficult to play and it also sounds difficult but it’s not virtuoso in the sense that it’s… awkward.
Well, my question is a little more serious rather than simply just showiness. I don’t think that there is a single good word for expressing that.
Virtuoso music usually tends to be a showcase for people and it usually has the effect of astounding people because it seems to be impossible. And yet here’s this person doing it. But in reality it’s not really so difficult.
These sound difficult and they certainly do astound.
Well, it depends on how you play it.
Bring us up to date on what you have been doing in the past ten years. I mentioned off-mic that for us in the States it’s very often difficult to get your stuff and you have a set coming out at some point, but first: what have you been doing?
Well, I always do the same thing, I sit here and write and then I go out occasionally and play it.
I see a piano, do you write at the piano? You don’t use electronic scoring or do you work exclusively from playing at the keyboard or from bringing it to the keyboard.
I usually write here, do you want to hear what I just wrote?
I just wrote a variation on Round Midnight by Thelonius Monk for an Italian pianist named Emanuele Arciuli. There’s a programme, there was a project to commission ten composers, each composer has written a variation on this tune. I don’t know what the other people have done, although I can imagine. So I just finished this the day before yesterday and I can’t play it yet, but I can play it for you… slow. It should be faster… Shall I just hit it?
We listen to Variations on Round Midnight by Frederic Rzewski [0:42:30–0:45:55]. Performed live by Frederic Rzewski (piano). Recorded by MaltedMedia.
Well, I can’t really play it, so I was just kind of practicing it. It’s a little bit slower than it should be. You probably don’t hear much of the tune in there but it’s… well presumably, if you were listening to a set of ten variations with the theme stated at the beginning you would hear it. It’s actually quite strict, I decided to write a real variation in the classical, strict sense of the word. I thought that the rest of these composers are probably going to write an original piece whose relation would be more abstract, like Milton Babbitt, you know, I don’t know what he’s doing.
He’s in the collection of composers.
Yes. Augusta Read Thomas and I forget who else now is in there. It’s a collection of composers. It should be interesting to see. It’s going to be done in Cincinnati in June.
Are each of you playing your own variations?
No, it’s this Italian pianist, Emanuele Arciuli, from Bari who’s going to play the whole set.
Ok, I thought it might be an interesting occasion for each of you to play your own as part of that.
No, the composers are not all going to be there. It’s this composers’ conference or festival that they have at the University of Cincinnati at the end of June.
What’s important to you in the musical world these days? There were times of stylistic stress and argument, but we seem to be in some sort of stage of… I’m not sure “stasis” is the right word, but of “settling back” and picking and choosing our interests in composition. What’s your take on any of that?
I think this is a period of both destructive and creative transition. It’s not really clear if there are any really important musical models in our time. I kind of have the impression that we are going through a period of decadence in the sense that nothing very solid is being done. There’s a lot of building up and tearing down, it’s very hard to say where it’s going. One thing I think is very obvious, a lot of the traditional forms of musical communication are, for better or for worse, in the process of disappearing. One of these, for instance, is European Classical music. There are strong reasons for believing that the European classical tradition is finally vanishing, as well as many other forms of traditional music of different cultures, both in the rich world and the poor world.
Can you point to some specific examples or even general examples that lead you to believe that’s happening?
Oh, yeah , sure. European folk music. Take a country like Italy or France. In many parts of Europe until quite recently you had a very rich tradition of folklore, not just in music, but also in poetry and dance and all of these traditional forms. In the space of a few generations, these things are disappearing; in my lifetime, these things have largely disappeared. It’s very difficult to know exactly how much has really been lost because in many of these places these cultures were never very well-documented in the first place. This is an irreversible and probably unavoidable process, there is very little that one can do about it.
Is it the cultural homogenization, is it the influence of recording…?
It’s all of those things and as I said, it’s not easy to say whether and to what extent this process of dynamic change that’s going on is a positive or a negative thing. It’s probably both, in many ways, it’s very complex. However, I think that it should give creative artists pause for thought. A lot of the changes that are going on in our time are exciting, but they don’t necessarily mean progress or improvement, at least in the traditional criteria of artistic expression. I don’t know very much about it… I mean I’ve worked in electronics, but the last couple of decades I’ve tended more to stick with acoustic instruments and traditional writing. I don’t know why. Now I’m thinking of going back to electronics again.
“It’s not really clear if there are any really important musical models in our time. I kind of have the impression that we are going through a period of decadence…”
When I was doing electronics in the 60s and 70s it was very much a do-it-yourself, homemade affair, which was extremely time-consuming. Very interesting but time-consuming. I have six children, and I noticed that when my children got to be school age, that was when I tended to give up electronics, because I just couldn’t afford to deal with both things and I opted for children. I gave all my personal equipment to Alvin Curran when I moved to New York in the early 70s. So for the last couple of decades I’ve been mostly working with more traditional forms of writing and acoustic instruments. But now, as I say, I’m thinking of going back to do some work in electronics, because it’s become easier now. Now all you need is a little Powerbook that anybody can carry. We used to carry around huge Revoxes, incredibly heavy tape machines, amplifiers that weigh a ton and loudspeakers. It was unbelievable.
And enormous quantities of hand-built equipment.
Our Volkswagen bus broke down, we had to push it over the Alps in a snowstorm, it was unbelievable. Anyway, I won’t go into that.
So it’s become easier now to do that and my children are growing up, so maybe I can go back to that kind of activity again. I don’t know where I’m going, that’s the answer. And that’s what I’m writing about. I’m writing a cycle of piano pieces which I started about five years ago and probably will take another year before it’s finished. It’s called The Road. One of the things about “the road” is that you don’t necessarily know where it goes. And I wanted to write something that was so long that the conception would change in the course…
In the course, because you would change?
By “so long” you mean how long? Is this an evening of a cycle?
Well, when it’s finished it’s probably about six hours of piano music. But it’s not something that you’re supposed to listen to for six hours, you listen to bits of it. I think of it as a novel, not in the sense that it has characters or a story, but that you can read it on your own time, as you would read War and Peace.
When did you begin this and how far are you into it?
I’m close to the end. There are 64 miles in this road. A mile can be anywhere from three minutes to twenty minutes, depending on how fast or slow you want to go. I began writing it in the summer of ’95, so by the time it is finished it will have taken at least six years, which is more or less what I had imagined.
Is it an exciting thing to do, to write an expansive… not biographical, but a parallel kind of piece to your existence?
Well I’m surprised myself that I’m still interested. One of the things that I wasn’t sure of was whether I would be able to actually get to the end. It’s a simple idea, it’s in eight parts and each part has eight parts. So there are 64 miles, and there is a kind of a formal structure that ties the whole thing together, but that’s not the point. The whole point was that I wanted to see if I could actually get there, and it’s beginning to look like it might actually happen, I might get to the end. So in that sense, yes, it’s exciting, it’s like playing with Life or Death. It’s a gamble. I’m starting to get interested to see if I’m actually going to live to see the end of this. [Laughter]
Do you look back at the beginning of the piece at all, or is that put aside as you work on the later sections?
Oh yes, yes! I keep going back and changing it. I’m rewriting earlier parts.
Rewriting history, huh? [Laughter]
Yes, if you like. That was part of the original idea, to see whether the thing would change. I don’t think one should talk about it at great length without actually hearing it. But a part of it is going to come out on this Nonesuch box. The first four parts.
How about some of the change in the artistic community because of networking, internet connectivity kind of stuff…?
I don’t have anything to do with that myself and I doubt very much whether it has a great deal of effect. At least the people I know don’t seem to have much to do with it. Maybe in the United States it’s different. I think there are some important differences. For one thing, the telephone connections are free in the United States, aren’t they?
Some, not in my area.
No? Ah, that’s interesting. Because here you pay through the nose. And that certainly is one reason why I’m not terribly enthusiastic, although there are a lot of people who spend a lot of time staring into a computer screen. But it doesn’t in particular interest me, personally, no. And I don’t know any composers who are interested, particularly.
What question should I ask you?
[Pause…] I’m sorry, no, no, I’m terrible at monologues. I really don’t know.
So, you don’t have a question for yourself, so I’ll just grab on from here…
Don’t you have any commercials or anything? Don’t you have a pause for a commercial break?
Oh sure, we’re a heavily commercial station. [Laughter] No, we have no pauses for commercial breaks.
If you are going to return a little bit to electronics, what do you think the gap in time, since you left off with it and picking it up again is going to either bring to it or leave out for you?
Of course there are huge advances that have been made technically, and to a certain extent also in the diffusion of this music. It’s become a form which reaches large numbers of young people, for instance. But aside from that I don’t think it’s changed a whole lot. If you listen to some of the work that some of the younger people have been doing in the last ten years or so, it’s very similar in many ways to what a lot of people were doing in the 60s, whether it’s John Cage or Stockhausen or MEV or some of these groups, a lot of the experimental work in electronics. It’s almost as though there were some experiments done 30 and 35 years ago that somehow got temporarily frozen and weren’t picked up until the 90s. Then the wheel started to turn again. There was a period of kind of an ice age, it seems to me, in this field, which lasted about twenty years, and which is not easy to explain.
Why it happened or what happened?
Why it happened in music, why the experimental music scene suddenly ground to a halt in the early 70s and didn’t pick up again for another couple of decades. That’s what it feels like to me. And for that matter, I’m not even sure that it did pick up. The situation of experimental music today is still very tenuous and in many ways, I’m not terribly optimistic about the future prospects. But there are signs that there is a new generation of younger musicians, there seems to be in many different places across the planet a kind of music that is being done today in “undergrounds”, squats, out-of-the-way places, hidden from view… It’s like alternative culture is maybe coming back again. Although it’s a little bit early to tell, there are signs that there is kind of a revival of what used to be called “alternative culture”. In music, there seem to be these bands that are popping up and it’s hard to say what kind of thing they do. You call it maybe “post-rock”, I don’t know I guess there are different words for it. There is a lot of improvising involved but at the same time these people also write scores and they listen to Elliot Carter or Stockhausen. They use electronics a lot but they also rely on acoustic instruments, and they also draw heavily on folk traditions. All of these things can get mixed up and it’s very hard to say where this stuff is going. But I think there are signs that something fresh and vital that might show up in the next ten years or so that will finally drag us out of the morass which we seem to be wallowing in. The worst thing is what they call “contemporary music”. I mean this is something that really deserves to die, it should end, it’s terrible.
Are you talking about the post-modernist, fragmented post-twelve tone stuff or the new romantic kind of stuff? What do you mean by that?
I mean this institutionalized, academic festival musique contemporaine, or whatever the hell you want to call it. It’s a dinosaur, it’s something that really should disappear. For one thing, these institutions almost never put on something new; it’s always old, even if it’s written by young people, it’s old music, mostly. It’s very depressing and these groups who play it don’t really believe in it and as my friend Willy Winant [percussionist in San Francisco] says, “They wear terrible clothes.”
Ah. yes. I think many of us suffer from that, I’m one of those. I will promptly burn them when I get home. Fred Rzewski, thanks so much for being on Kalvos & Damian, it’s been a pleasure.
Well, thank you.
We listen to The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (variations 15–36, cadenza and reprise) by Frederic Rzewski [1:08:18–1:48:55]. Performed by Marc-André Hamelin (piano). Published by Hyperion [CD CDA 67077].
We listen to Down by the Riverside by Frederic Rzewski [1:52:45–1:59:45]. Performed by Kathleen Supové (piano). Published on Figure 88, CRI [CD 653].
[Transcription by shirling & neueweise, September 2009.]