The man who in 2004 posthumously became my father-in-law spent his life working for the British government as a defence scientist: designing, in other words, ways to spy on and kill people. I think none the less of him for this – I’d love to have met him, brilliant and creative as he undoubtedly was. But when people say, or imply, that improvising music, and composing it, are not useful activities I do think of him. Would you prefer me then, I think, to work at designing weapons of mass destruction? – or for the GM crops or pharmaceuticals industries, ensuring the continued penury and poor health of millions in the third world for generations to come? – or for any of the various energy industries, hastening the world to its destruction while redoubling my company’s profits?
In 1992 the American improviser / composer / pianist Frederic Rzewski wrote a short piece of music, For Heinz-Klaus Metzger, reprinted complete on pp 112-3 of this treasure-trove of Rzewski’s occasional writings. It goes
One day in the early sixties I said to him that I was thinking seriously of giving up composition. He looked at me sadly and said: If the problems of the world could be solved by giving up composition then the world would be in a far better state. I kept on composing, now with the idea that this meaningless activity might have some connection with the world.
Rzewski is perhaps not entirely accurate here: I don’t believe he ever thought composition meaningless, he just worried that it might be useless. It is neither, simply because it does indeed have ‘some connection with the world’: more connection, and a more lasting one (I’m sure Rzewski would agree) than most things people spend their lives doing, even ‘remarkable’ and ‘important’ people. Ask yourself: who ruled Venice when Monteverdi was writing his operas? Who Vienna, when Beethoven composed his (overtly political) third symphony? Who Poland, when Chopin was wowing Paris? Who America when Louis Armstrong transformed the whole of music? Who Britain when the Beatles wrote their (often overtly political) songs? (Listen and George Harrison will tell you.) The only things from past times that live for us today are the works of art, and they often illuminate the politics of the time.
In the article from which the above text is taken (“Write the Book”, p 110) Rzewski also says: ‘You who have lived must testify… Tell us what you have lived though. Write the book’.
For him, Nonsequiturs is ‘the book’ – the majority of his writings that could at the time of publication be found, including some he no longer considers representative. It’s published in Germany, with a parallel German translation on the right-hand pages and the original English texts on the left. Not being a German speaker I can’t comment on this aspect, and this is the last time I’ll mention it. Sufficient to say that, for Anglophone readers, these 576 pages can be effectively halved. One or two editorial quirks result: spellings veer uncertainly between British and American English; and two quotations from Proust in the article Provisory Confession (pp 364 and 372)appear on the English side in untranslated French but in German translation opposite. For the record, Moncreiff and his revisers render the passages as follows:
… this first work of his must be considered simply as an unhappy love which fatally presages others of the kind: his life will resemble his work and in future the poet will scarcely need to write, for he will be able to find in what he has already written the anticipatory outline of what will then be happening. [Time Regained, Folio Society, 2000, p 483]
… the internal time-pieces which are allotted to different human beings are by no means synchronised: one strikes the hour of rest while another is striking that of work, one, for the judge, that of punishment when already for the criminal that of repentance and self-perfection has long since struck. [Time Regained p 569]
For the confirmed browse, a collection such as this is meat and drink, and that’s how I will approach it - following threads rather than reading in the printed order. The book will also repay being taken, sip for sip, with the music itself: and where possible I will listen as I read.
I’ll begin my selective research into various strands running through Nonsequiturs by tracking Rzewski’s references to John Cage. For me Cage is a crucial influence (and a prick to kick against) and since I might be seen to occupy a position within music not far removed from that of Rzewski (improvising piano-playing left-wing iconoclast whatever) this seems a good enough place to start.
There are three short articles specifically on Cage in the ‘About Others’ section of the book (pp 420-436). Also represented are Cardew, Scelsi, Messiaen, Pousseur, David Tudor, Christian Wolff and Steve Lacy: all but two being in the nature of obituaries. [Interesting to which of the above people I feel the need to give first names for recognition purposes.]
This is definitely a non-mainstream list, but it points to Rzewski’s tastes. He champions the controversial, the neglected, the out-of-fashion composer, adopting the position (beloved of Marxists stranded in the capitalist world) that ‘we’ outsiders are the guardians of some truth that the cultural establishment will never see. The Cardew article concentrates on Cornelius’s anti-traditionalism, his admiration for Lenin, his ability to destroy arguments, his artistic restlessness. With Scelsi, it’s his broad-mindedness, attending Rzewski’s free impro concerts ‘in dingy lofts’ in Rome in the 60s, despite his great wealth; and the appeal of his music to young audiences despite the scorn of the establishment.
On the occasion of Messiaen’s death there is a short but powerful declamation, stirring and of poetical intensity, contrasting Messiaen’s use of the Californian landscape (to portray its bird population) with the American Government’s (to launch Tomahawk missiles: this was the era of the first Gulf War). For Pousseur there is a declaration of his importance (unnoticed, is the implication) both as a composer and an influence on others (I would agree: Pousseur is a great natural teacher – he does it as naturally as breathing, unconsciously, all the time).
About Tudor, Rzewski is respectful while pointing out what are to him negative traits: ‘there were no nonessential gestures… every moment was somehow functional… there seemed little that was spontaneous’. Tudor’s painstaking preparation of Cage’s indeterminate scores is to Rzewski almost unbelievable (surely he was only pretending and was really improvising?) and, reading between the lines, a waste of time. The Christian Wolff piece begins with a long reflection on uncertainty, moving seamlessly to a discussion of the seeming illogic of Wolff’s music. The brief Steve Lacy paragraphs contain personal reminiscence.
So already, before our attention turns to the articles about Cage himself, there he is, a presence in back of most of the other articles, and in front some of the time. Cage also enjoys, by a distance, the largest entry in the index (35 mentions: Beethoven is second). Were you to read Nonsequiturs cover to cover, the longest you would go without reading Cage’s name would be 31 pages: and long gaps such as that don’t happen often. This is, of course, how it should be: to my mind the only late-20th-21st century composers who are not riddled with Cage are the uninteresting ones.
Rzewski became close friends with Christian Wolff, and in the 1950s this provided his entrée into Cage’s circle. Younger than they, on the periphery (too anti-establishment to be a member of any group, even an anti-establishment one? – or just temperamentally out of sympathy with this one?) his perceptions of it are acute. Cage, he points out, remained wedded to ‘systems’ right until the end (‘Inner Voices’, p 84). After a certain point in his life, roughly coinciding with his adoption of chance operations in the 1950s, Cage allowed himself less and less spontaneity in their composition. But – as I can attest – he approved of spontaneity in the interpretation of his works (within the context of obeying his instructions to the letter: but in this he was the same as any composer). In 1988 he encouraged Electric Phoenix (of which I was a member) to give ‘virtuoso’ performances of 4 Solos for Voice .
In respect of strict compositional systems, Rzewski tends in the opposite direction, though he’s a composer to his marrow, and never completely gives up control (even, I suspect, in group improvisation situations such as Musica Elettronica Viva, the ensemble he helped found in 1966 in Rome). Rzewski cites Cage and Tudor as antecedents of MEV (‘A Short History of MEV’, p 268) and states that in its first year it performed works by Cage (‘MEV – Reflections on its Tenth Anniversary’, p 262): how, I wonder? By which I mean, did they do them indeterminately, preparing everything in detail in advance and then performing them strictly in accordance with those preparations, or did they improvise them? One fascinating aspect of his discussions of Cage is that Rzewski seems to see little need to distinguish between indeterminacy and improvisation, something that surprises me, because all my reading of the Cage literature suggests that the distinction is central (regardless of Cage’s own writings). Rzewski knew Cage personally, and members of his circle intimately, over many years (I only met him twice) and this protracted acquaintance obviously provided insights. Rzewski’s attitude to indeterminacy in relation to Cage may point to something I have long suspected: that Cage himself wasn’t that bothered with the distinction – it’s only his ‘mafia’ that hate and fear improvisation. (See my article John Cage, Electric Phoenix, 4 Solos for Voice and the Cage mafia backlash, Dazzle Music 2005-8, on my website).
In an important passage (in ‘Melody as Face’, p 132) Rzewski describes Cage’s Winter Music, commenting on its (lack of) structure, its compositional and performance methods, a performance of it he attended in 1956 with Christian Wolff, and a remark Wolff made to him afterwards: ‘No matter what we do, it always comes out as melody’. To my mind this remark is intended to mean that, even with the most disjunctive and random succession of sounds, the listener’s mind attempts to impose a pattern on them and, succeeding (because that’s what the mind does, imposes patterns) perceives, or manufactures the perception of, melodies. Rzewski says, ‘Most people, of course, would not have reacted in this way. They would have found Wolff’s comment completely nonsensical’. At a first reading I thought this implied that Rzewski too thinks it nonsensical; but re-reading, I see I was wrong. He’s just pointing out how rarefied an atmosphere we contemporary music freaks live in, to consider ‘melodic’ a succession of sounds that most people would dismiss as noise.
In the late 60s, in a letter to Cardew (‘On the Road’, p 348) Rzewski rejects Cage as ‘prestige-merchandise’. Around this time he’s several times lumping together Stockhausen and Cage as a sort of establishment-acceptable imperialist cultural elite. I think he moved back from this position later; and of course even on this occasion, because of the person he’s writing to, he might have felt encouraged to express himself more extremely than he otherwise would have done. By 1992 he’s composing A Life in memory of the newly-deceased Cage (p 522) based on a duration of four minutes and thirty-three seconds and 80 low Gs to represent Cage’s almost 80 years. How Beethovenian it sounds.
And so to the three short articles ‘On John Cage’ (pp 426-30). All were written in reaction to his death, the first of them on the following day, 13th August 1992 (the same day Rzewski composed A Life). It is not a personal reminiscence but (as so often with Rzewski) a mixture of viewpoint and exhortation. Cage was world famous, Rzewski says, but his music is all but unknown. ‘Can we find it in record stores?’ Very soon after this was written the answer would be yes, in bulk! The recording industry went into overdrive throughout the 1990s and today a CD search at Amazon.co.uk comes up with 325 results. Sonatas and Interludes seems to be the ‘greatest hit’ – and indeed it’s a piece that’s as easy to have on in the background at a dinner party as Mozart or Rachmaninov. Despite which one has the feeling that for the general music lover Rzewski is right, no-one actually listens: though the oft-quoted corollary, that Cage’s ideas were more interesting than his music, is nothing more than a get-out card for lazy minds. His music is wonderful.
In this first article Rzewski calls him a ‘fence-sitter’. Politically, is that? Elsewhere in the book (in a broadcast from 1974, ‘Listening to the Sounds of People’, p 234) he says that Cage at least partially came down off the fence in the 1960s, espousing overtly anarchist positions. He continues:
When I asked [him] to indicate which of his many compositions might best represent his political ideas… he… answered in the following way: Either one chooses a text or some other semantic form adequate for the communication of a concrete content; or one looks for a specifically musical form which is capable, for the duration of the performance at least, of creating a new type of social relation among those present: a new relationship of performers and audience, for instance… Therefore, he said, the most thorough and concise statement of his political views could be found in… 4’33”, since in this piece the determination of content is left almost entirely, precisely to the audience.
Cage has not descended very far from the fence here, has he? – he has one cheek firmly on either side and a splinter up his bum if you ask me. It’s not surprising that by 1992 Rzewski had reverted to his old view that Cage sat on the fence. His other descriptions of Cage’s character in this article – sunny, unflustered, seductive, winning over any group of people he found himself among, strong-minded – these coincide with my own impressions. I’d go so far as to call Cage saintly: but then again I didn’t know him well enough or long enough to feel let down.
The second article continues the discussion of Cage’s politics. Rzewski calls him ‘in many ways… a conservative’, which is intended to strike us as a paradox. But all the purveyors of great new ideas I’ve ever met have been tiger-ish in the advocacy and defence of those ideas, and such a position soon comes to look to others, perhaps younger, like an orthodoxy. In becoming accepted the revolutionary becomes the orthodox, as Rzewski himself states in ‘Melody as Face’, p 130. In other words, the iconoclast, no longer needing to -clast, becomes the icon. Old ex-revolutionaries – Boulez, Berio – can come over as reactionaries. Those who don’t do so are perhaps the ones who never stood on the very top of the pile – Pousseur? (This doesn’t apply to the likes of Cardew, or Miles Davis, pile-toppers both, who never became reactionary because they always kept moving ahead…) Rzewski tells us that Cage said to him ‘You have an abrasive personality… You should find some organization whose function is to fight the things you don’t like in the world, and direct your energy positively toward that organization’. As Rzewski points out, this is not exactly an anarchist position. And in the end (more of an anarchist himself than Cage was) he could not follow the advice. ‘What I didn’t like about the world was precisely… its organizations.’
The third article is lyrical and literary (a beautiful strand running through the book: in addition to everything else Rzewski is a wonderful writer ). We his friends, he says, must put Cage’s affairs in order and defend his memory against misinterpretation: ‘The words of others pour into the empty spaces left behind’. This interests me: the article of mine about Cage referred to above has been attacked as an attempt to pervert the true performance tradition, so might I be one of those destroyers? (Or might my attackers be?) Who are the true curators of this tradition? – and in any case, why does Cage need protection from ‘perverted’ performances? Either his music is strong enough to survive ‘inauthentic’ interpretations or it isn’t any good. Nobody does Shakespeare ‘authentically’ today – they present him anew over and over again for the contemporary world. And Mozart – people are just beginning to improvise in the concertos, but are they doing right-hand rubato against a strict-tempo left hand? – are they hell.
During a paragraph on Cage the iconoclast, Rzewski parenthetically asks some rhetorical questions:
(Did Cage really expect language to devolve into the kind of gibberish which he apparently proposed as a model for human communication? Did he really expect that the art of music could be reduced to the simplicity of a game of dice? That politics could be conducted without rules? Or that it could simply disappear?) P 428
Yes, he did, because he didn’t care what was possible, only what was imaginable (just like Lennon, and we revere the two of them for this very reason). Rzewski’s politics will be looked into below: I’ve only skimmed the ‘Music and Politics’ section so far, but I would have expected him to be an idealist too. We shall see.
The final paragraph of the third article remembers Cage as ‘an angelic consciousness’: perhaps a better encapsulation than my ‘saintly’ because angels are more passionate than saints, and less perfect. And in valediction Rzewski says that Cage could no more ‘lift the curse that hangs over modern music’ than could his teacher, Schoenberg, and wonders whether modern music itself will soon disappear. Hmm. At the first approximation (at the first approximation all creatures fly, because 95% of all creatures are insects ) – at the first approximation, Fred, modern music has already disappeared.
While reading through the articles in Nonsequiturs which deal with improvisation, making notes toward a subsequent section of this review, I put on a recording of Part VIII of The Road, from a day-long event at Trinity College of Music in London in 2006 where the entire Road (approximately 8 hours of music) was done by a relay of pianists including Rzewski himself. Parts VII and VIII were world premieres. I wrote the following as I listened:
The Road Your first reaction is, what rubbish – meandering, full of nonsequiturs, garrulous, formless although repetitious, at times bombastic, and not very contemporary-sounding either: the musical language is a sort of mixture of Schoenberg and Beethoven in an American accent. And mad. We don’t get the exhilarating stylistic volte-face effects of The People United, just on and on and on and. But as you leave it playing (and you’re very disposed to turn it off) it starts to insinuate. It becomes interesting. How does this happen? Something that’s boring starts, by its very insistence, to become interesting. ([Cannonball Adderley] ‘is an ancient mariner on fast alto’: Charles Edward Smith’s sleeve note to the Milestones LP.) There are forms in there, developments: but in a way they’re incidental – they’re not the point. The meandering, the nonsequitur-ing – these are actually the point. This is a musical portrait of a very long road – real? metaphorical? – done as accurately as possible and as though walking along it in real time. Rzewski writes (in the article ‘Inner Voices’ on p 76 of Nonsequiturs )
I choose patterns, ranging from totally predictable to apparently random sequences. The transitions may be logical or illogical. I let them happen as they happen… Instead of deducing the content rationally from the formal concept, I proceed inductively, allowing my thoughts to pour into the structure as into an empty container… I expand my unformed thoughts to large molecular units… In this way I hope to paint a truthful, if disorderly picture of what my mind actually perceives.
You hear this as the music unfolds. As the vocal interpolations become more important, a narrative superimposes itself on the music, and for a while the words dominate, as they must when words are present. Now the cotton mill, now A Life are echoed. Do the repetitions constitute thematic and harmonic developments, or are they just Rzewski’s ‘molecular units’ making everything sound familiar? Who cares. It’s repetitious, yes. And meandering. The long story the pianist recites about killing his wife (adapted from Tolstoy) passes – and its aftermath. We find our minds turning back to the pianism and it too is now telling an almost verbal story.
After an hour or two boredom begins to set in again. What does it all mean? All the repetitious, rhetorical nonsequiturs, the mumbling pianist, the tinkling, the knocking, the extended piano techniques, the groaning. Wouldn’t I rather be listening to Keith Tippett, who with his wife Julie Tippetts employs similar ingredients to enormous structural, emotional effect? – and that’s impro, which this is not (except for a few ‘cadenzas’). You accept this sort of extended semi-form if you know it’s improvised.
Well, in the end what it means is – simply what it is. No more, no less. It just is. If you can apply the word ‘just’ to 8 hours of all this. The Christina Rossetti setting, or parallel musing or whatever (‘Does the road wind uphill all the way?’ – the four quatrains are spaced out to last half an hour) reminds us that Rzewski has a complicated attitude to christianity – he mentions it an awful lot while talking more like an atheist, or at least the kind of agnostic who doesn’t care whether there’s a god or not (Nonsequiturs, ‘Little Bangs’, p 50).
Not far from the end of The Road (less than 30 minutes, I guess) we get (in words) what might be a statement of Rzewski's current position on life:
Nowhere, that’s where I am. Why be anywhere? Here is where I am. In the middle of nowhere I sit and look around me. A grey mist and sometimes, a burst of sunshine. Even though: the toilet still leaks, my back hurts, my friends have died, I failed to make the revolution, et cetera, and still I’m not finished.
He certainly isn’t. I’m turning it off now.
To anyone interested in the history of improvisation within contemporary music Rzewski is a central figure. (Earle Brown comes chronologically before him, John Zorn after – also Americans. In Europe Barry Guy and Heiner Goebbels help to carry the flame, as do I.) We and others have attempted to integrate improvisation into composed structures. Often this has been in the teeth of (fear disguised as) contempt from the contemporary music establishment. In the mid 70s I sat in the double bass section of the London Sinfonietta when Earle Brown came to Glasgow to conduct his double-orchestra piece Available Forms II. Not only the players but the second conductor, John Carewe, were openly and jocularly scornful.
The motivation of those of who follow the path of structured improvisation seems to have this in common: at some point we have all thought music to be in crisis, and that the cause of this is the control-freakery of post-1945 composers, which removes a sine-qua-non link from the chain of music-making: interpretation. By reducing the performer to a mechanical executant, eliminating interpretation as far as possible from performance, the chain was broken before the audience could get involved at all. Improvisation re-instates interpretation and re-includes the audience, as composers as great as Handel or Mozart or Rossini knew: and as the rock groups know.
Rzewski has also been deeply involved in free impro, which is a rather different animal from structured or composed impro, taking place as it does with ‘no composer present’ (see my article The Improvisation Continuum, Dazzle Music 2004, on my website). Of course a composer can be present, as Rzewski is when he takes part in free impro, but in theory he leaves his composer’s mentality at the door and indulges in pure improvisation with no imposed structure or content. Even here, though, there is doubt: any composer doing free impro will find their mind, reflex-like, anticipating what a structured pattern might be, and the temptation to incorporate it is irresistible. Rzewski documents this. The ensemble Musica Elettronica Viva was founded in 1966 in Rome by the 26-year-old Rzewski and a group of colleagues. At first the instrumentation was exclusively electronic (shortly afterwards acoustic instruments were introduced) and cheap electronics at that (it was all they could afford). One is reminded of current groups such as Halal Kebab Hut in the UK, who do improvised music theatre using nothing but children’s toys: but the Hut’s aim is to make music by way of comedy – our impression of MEV is that nothing less than aiding the revolution was its aim – this was the era of ‘1968 And All That’. The enterprise was motivated almost as much politically as musically ( ‘Experiences and Retrospects’, p 254ff). Rzewski’s articles written near the beginning of MEV bear witness to absolutely pure free improvisation with no structured content whatsoever (‘The Secret of the Labyrinth’, p 272). But by 1967-8 structured forms were creeping in:
The collective music of MEV in the late sixties took various forms. It might be primarily a collage of compositional structures contributed by individual members, a continuous group improvisation based on a conceptual framework (as in the 1967 Spacecraft ), or an audience-participation event in which the group used simple techniques for guiding the music towards order or disorder (Sound Pool, 1969). ‘A Short History of MEV’, p 268
It will be noticed in this description that even the ‘continuous group improvisation’ is ‘based on a conceptual framework’. ‘Work Songs’, p 284ff, and several later articles written between 1967-9, seem to be sets of instructions for various pieces played by MEV: in other words, despite their verbal nature, scores. Some are just ground rules for free impro, exhortations that participants respect the music-making of others (a very necessary instruction: at one performance of Cardew’s The Great Learning I took part in, one unsympathetic participant enraged the rest of us by grabbing a kazoo and singing Colonel Bogey through it).
1967 was a tumultuous year for Rzewski, then approaching 30, and his letters (‘On the Road’, p 328ff) and copious other writings from that year burst upon us like a teeming ocean, full of ideas, philosophy, invective, plans, and the sense that something enormous is happening to which he is contributing. We are swept along. But we also know that the revolution did not ultimately take place: that free impro – or even a hybrid structured-free-impro – was not in the end enough for Rzewski. He moved away from it and became a ‘composer’: sometimes, even, a composer of relatively conventional ‘works’. Would the younger Rzewski have seen this as a retreat? The older gives us few enough clues in these texts (there’s ‘I failed to make the revolution…’ in the score of The Road, quoted above). Was he influenced by Cardew into a more accessible style? Did he find, as jazz musicians such as Chick Corea did also in the early 1970s, that his more abstruse offerings were rejected by a baffled public but that a good living could be made with a beat and a smile? In ‘Little Bangs’, p 56, he says
Although many interesting results in this collective experiment were achieved, this movement had neither the time nor the resources to carry this research very far, precisely because its success depended upon changing the world, something that did not happen…
And in the program note to Jefferson, 1970 (the note written in 1990):
Although for some time I had been mainly concerned with the spontaneous and largely improvised music of MEV, I felt the need to return to the discipline of writing as well. I also desperately needed to earn some money. P 444
I look at my own development, 8 years younger than Rzewski but active in improvised music at this same time: I never dived headlong into the further reaches of the far-out, as he did: I was more cautious and anxious to retain a sense of structure and my own control (though not a quarter so anxious as most of my composer-peers). As we have seen, Rzewski soon acted to wrest control back, at least to a certain extent. Through my career I’ve had the feeling of getting more adventurous – while, oddly, my students got less so.
Rzewski himself seems to have little experience or interest in jazz, though he often mentions that jazz musicians participated in the free impro movement and that he played with them. He points out in ‘Oral History’ (p 176) that Earle Brown was the one person who truly bridged both cultures. A reference to the index of Nonsequiturs shows Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane with 3 entries each, but when you look closely they are the same three, and all turn out to be passing mentions. Miles Davis gets no mention at all: strange when he of all people embodies one of Rzewski’s main and oft-repeated definitions of improvisation:
The improviser follows an unintended action (a) with a purposeful action (b) whose function is to make (a) appear purposeful also. ‘Interpreting the Moment’, p 100
Improvisation is the commission of ‘an error, a wrong note, a fumble’ (‘Little Bangs’ p 52) which is transformed into a ‘right note’ by what you follow it with. Rzewski repeats this definition so often that you get the impression it’s his central one. But although the elegant incorporation of mistakes certainly takes place in impro, I can’t agree that it’s the only – or even the main – way that content is generated, even in the case of Miles (especially in the case of Miles). The great improvisers intend the vast majority of what they play. How far in advance they intend it is an interesting question. Impro being rather like talking, we experience the process as instantaneous: but there must be a very short moment when the brain decides what comes next. No, that’s too simple. Many times, as when talking (or typing), we’re employing stock patterns which ‘play themselves’. But, as when telling an anecdote or joke, a particularly nice formulation can suggest itself and we can incorporate it. This must take place momentarily in advance. So regretfully I must disagree with Rzewski’s assertion, seductive as it is, that improvisation can make time appear to go backwards (‘Little Bangs’ p 62). The idea that action (b) retrospectively validates action (a) is fine, but I’ve never experienced this as time going into reverse: more like some sort of ‘Aah…’ moment, looking back. (Perhaps I’ve been missing out.)
Other definitions, other poetical descriptions of improvisation in this book are apposite and, taken together, constitute one of the best, most elegant and fullest encapsulations of what impro is I’ve found anywhere. My hair stood on end sometimes at the truths revealed in this wonderful writing:
The improviser abandons self to the moment… Listening is the primary act. Performing is a secondary act… When we act, we momentarily free ourselves from reflection. We simply act.
Stupefaction, spellbound awe, dumbstruck: these are the reactions of an audience to great improvisation… [it] exploits the fantasy of the mere human who, godlike, defies the limits imposed by nature, flying over the heads of the audience… If composition is about different levels of memory, improvisation is about refinements in forgetting… The censoring part of the brain must be distracted long enough so that the passage may take place… Logical connections are abandoned. Or rather, a playful, metaphorical “logic” is introduced.
All of the above quotations are taken from articles referring specifically to structured improvisation, and we must now turn to the consideration of this. Many of Rzewski’s composed-improvised pieces exist in the form of verbal instructions, sometimes with a melody appended. The performers derive their improvisations from the melody, subjecting it to processes outlined in the instructions. One such piece, Imitation Love, is reproduced in full in the article ‘The Mechanics of a Love Relationship’ (pp 116-123).
The instructions are very precise, outlining a circumscribed performance method which requires a large amount of internalization on the part of the performers even before rehearsals begin. You may ask, how can such a complicated process (learning a method, rehearsing) be described as improvisation at all? But of course it can: virtually every improvisation tradition worldwide has over its history generated a framework, both theoretical and practical, in which it must take place. ‘Free impro’ has the least baggage, but even here, as Rzewski says at the opening of ‘Little Bangs’ (p 48) the amount of true ‘freedom’ is debatable. I make the same point in The Improvisation Continuum. My definition of improvisation, set out in detail there, is ‘real-time invention applied to one or more parameters of a musical performance’ (italics not in the original). You don’t have to generate the entire texture for it to qualify. You don’t even have to make a new melody. Minimal ornamentation of a baroque air is improvisation. A rallentando in Chopin, over and above what is marked in the music, is improvisation.
Unlike the series of articles about Musica Elettronica Viva, which are printed in the order they were written, those in ‘Improvisation and Composition’ are printed in reverse chronological order (so are several other sections of the book). It occurs to me that the editors (perhaps at Rzewski’s suggestion) are here mimicking the ‘time-reversal’ idea: action (b) retrospectively validates action (a) (which was a mistake?). And indeed Rzewski does change his take on improvisation over the years. In the opening (therefore latest) article, ‘Little Bangs’ he denies the possibility of free improvisation at all (see above). Free impro might be, he says, ‘no more than a mechanical repetition of maneuvers that have been executed so often, over a long period of time, that the performer can go through an entire concert without thinking’. Agreed: but a far cry from ‘To create means to be here and now: to be respons-able to reality on the high highwire of the present’ (‘Creating out of Nothing’, 1969, p 156). Of course the two statements are not mutually exclusive: but their tones are very different.
‘Little Bangs’ reads like a collection of aphorisms. ‘Inner Voices’ (p 68ff) is a more conventional, closely argued text. It’s primary concern is with composition, not impro, but its exhortation (as so often, Rzewski’s purpose is exhortation) is to free up the compositional method and open it to improvisatory practices. Just as the improvisation process can be structured by compositional techniques, so can composition be released from its straightjacket by quasi-improvisatory techniques. The inner voices referred to are ‘those unconscious or semi-conscious impulses which compete with one another in steering the composer’s mind, in both positive and negative directions’. Systems too are necessary: on p 86 we read, ‘Rational and systematic procedures are an essential part of the craft of composition’ – but. But, says Rzewski, in the second half of the 20th century ‘systems’, be they serialism or Cage’s chance operations, have taken over completely, dispensing with the play of fantasy. No composer, describing their own music, ever talks of it in terms of its spiritual content: they obsessively describe its systems. ‘Music tries to be like science, but does not succeed’ (p 88). Of course, Rzewski himself is guilty of these ‘systematic’ descriptions: these are from the ‘Program Notes’ section of the book:
Not only is each individual piece a “square” in that it is based on a symmetrical grid of eight times eight bars, but the set of four pieces also constitutes a “square”, since all four are based on the same structure and have the same duration… Squares, 1978, p 460
It’s a structure using eight different themes spread on a grid of sixty-four eight-second periods. Honk, 2003, p 536
I thought it might be fun to use all of the available combinations of the five instruments… There are five possible solos, ten duets, ten trios, five quartets, and one quintet = thirty-one. Snaps, 2005, p 550
Of course I’m being selective. I could have quoted
Throughout this music the periodic bumps, interruptions of discourse, repeatedly jolt the imagination of the listener, reminding us that we are dealing not with lofty rhetoric but with fleshy reality. Bumps, 1990, p 510
One could imagine, furthermore, that people present, not just musicians, could participate in the joyful noise by singing, shouting, or playing simple percussion instruments… Les Moutons de Panurge, 1968, p 442
But I must say that the harder I look for examples of the second kind, the more of the first I come across. As an antidote, here is an instruction from ‘Interpreting the Moment’, which was originally given as a symposium in 1994 but can be realized as an improvisation piece (p 106):
[Each line = 15”]
Improvisation could be defined as the art of interpreting the moment. Every moment is unique, and can be lived for itself, free of objective or subjective associations.
I wish I’d written that.
Les Moutons de Panurge has a special relevance for me. When I concocted my ‘scafra’ system in about 1989 (yes, yes, more systems) I came up with the idea of the spool out, where a beginning note or event is repeated and a second one is added, then with a new repetition a third, and so on until a complete melody is exposed; and of the spool in, where in a series of repetitions a complete melody has its first note or event subtracted, then its second, and so on until only the final note or event is played. This was no more than many minimalists were doing, of course. But years later I discovered Les Moutons, which is exactly a spool out followed by a spool in. So I was beaten to it. (Mind you, so was Rzewski: the opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s first symphony is a classic spool out.)
The structures of Rzewski’s composed-improvised pieces are usually simple enough for the improvisations to be readily achieved. There is one early piece reprinted on p 370 (Selfportrait, 1964, before the MEV period) which has a complicated notation system not unlike Stockhausen’s Spiral etc, difficult and time-consuming for the performer to absorb. There is ‘Second Structure’ (1972, on pp 144-152) where a boxes-within-boxes performance method seems dizzying and unrealizable (though it would be a fun thing to attempt). Boxes-within-boxes recur again and again in Rzewski’s pieces, both composed-improvised and through-composed. Squares and Honk, referred to above, are pieces of that kind, as is the masterpiece 36 Variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” (actually realized from the plan of ‘Second Structure’. Again we find a parallel with myself: my ‘fractal’ structures are also boxes-within-boxes, though my boxes get smaller the deeper you go in.) In the main, the instructions for impro in the composed-improvised pieces are easily assimilated and not too intrusive. I wonder if a performance tradition of these pieces is beginning to emerge? While I was at Trinity College of Music in London a generation of improvising performers sprang up (Nikos Veliotis, Rhodri Davies, Alessandra Rombolà, Reynaldo Young, Simon Katan) who are now established artists and composers in their own right. One hopes Rzewski is at the centre of a similar school.
In 1984, interviewed by Vivian Perlis (‘Oral History’ p 184) Rzewski appears to deny, or at least seek to minimize, the political motivation of his work. This is strange, since ‘Private or Collective?’ (pp 240-252), written only ten years before, is an openly political tract analysing the state of ‘art music’ in Marxist language and exhorting (again, exhorting) its practitioners to move toward a youth-based, working class, internationalist collective. What happened to Rzewski in those ten years? After 1983 he wrote no more about politics: the entire ‘Music and Politics’ section of Nonsequiturs comes from the 1974-83 decade. Was he so disappointed with the advent of Reagan’s neo-conservatism that the entire left-wing struggle seemed a lost cause? Had what he stood for been defeated? Where does he stand now, living in Belgium far from the centres of satanic destruction? (Of course I’m wrong here: no-one can escape: as we say in London, you’re never more than 15 feet from a rat.)
To read ‘Private or Collective’ today is a fascinating experience. It’s been so long since we thought in this way, and Marxist critiques are never, ever used now. But they cast a remarkable light. Rzewski’s opening argument, that music has historically reflected the socio-economic groups in which it has existed, and that concert music sprang up as an expression of the mores of the bourgeoisie, can hardly even be formulated in 21st century language. As for the emergence in the late eighteenth century of the ‘genius composer’, I have habitually put this down to the influence of Descartes (‘the mind is superior to the body, and genius is the apotheosis of Mind’). But here we have a picture of the genius as a manifestation of ‘the triumph of the bourgeois’: Beethoven, the titanic embodiment of individualism and self-advancement. But capitalism likes to control its geniuses and use them for profit: by the 20th century ‘modern music’, a minority interest, had no mass market, so the bourgeoisie first ossified it in institutions and then rejected it outright. The solution is plain, says Rzewski: abandon the bourgeoisie and play for the worker, the Third World and, generally, the young. I find this analysis amazing, containing truths I had forgotten how to think. I can’t agree with the proposed solution, however (and neither, these days, does Rzewski, as we shall see). The Third World has come up with its own music, which is infiltrating ours, not the other way around; and the workers and the young have discovered a music fitting their own socio-economic circumstance: pop. (Not that pop is anything but a manifestation of controlling capitalism: but it is a lingua franca that has replaced classical music to such an extent that well-educated music lovers today – lovers of, say, Led Zeppelin or Joni Mitchell – hear Mozart with complete incomprehension.) But Rzewski’s argument that contemporary music is dying because it is not democratic enough seems quaint today.
The ‘Music and Politics’ section is another one printed in reverse chronological order, but I have chosen to read it ‘backwards’ from the earliest article to the latest. In the next article he wrote on the subject, ‘Listening to the Sounds of People’ (1974, pp 232-238) Rzewski addresses contemporary music’s dilemma (the following year in “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” he would put his ideas into compositional practice) and faces full-on the danger of ‘dallying, as we have done for so long, in the servants’ quarters of the ruling class’, pointing out that folk music, jazz and rock (for all their thraldom to the market) are ahead of ‘new music’ in their political stance and their relevance to ordinary people. By 1978 (when he would have been working on the North American Ballads: the articles are ‘“We are the pupils of the working class”’ and ‘A Variety of Dialects’, pp 212-230) he is hoping for a synthesis of popular and art musics. But a quotation from Hanns Eisler, replying to the House Un-American Activities Committee, before which Eisler was dragged in 1947 before being deported (nor was he allowed to read out this statement) is chilling in its mistaken prophecy:
It is horrible to think of what will become of American art if this Committee is to judge what art is American and what is un-American. This is the sort of thing Hitler and Mussolini tried. They were not successful and neither will be the House Committee on Un-American Activities. P 228
We see today that the Committee was successful.
Throughout the preceding articles, little by little, the language has been subtly moderating. In the 1980 ‘Today’s Art and Today’s Society’ we find the first hint of despair:
…art by itself, although it can be a powerful instrument in the hands of the mighty, is a relatively feeble force when directed against them. (Pushkin, Beethoven, Shelley, Goya in the first part of the nineteenth century – Baudelaire, Wagner later. 1848 revolution as turning-point. Art in the eighteen-fifties to sixties reflects the fading hopes of revolution. Today – the decade after 1968 resembles that period in many ways: mysticism, introspection, concern with oneself.) P 210
The title of the next article, ‘“All artists are compromisers”’ (1981, pp 202-206) speaks for itself: its message is that to speak to a wide audience you have to modify your ‘dreams’. Rzewski avers, though, that this compromise contains its own contradiction: ‘the more limited the message and its intended receiver, the less its relevance to humanity in general.’ The Cardew of the late works would not have said that. Rzewski is clinging to elitism, and good for him. His solution is to ‘gain control over the already-existing means of communication’: in other words, to make sure by hook or by crook that your music is out there competing with all the rubbish: you never know, it might gain some recognition.
The final article, ‘Music and Political Ideals’ (1983, the first in printed order, pp 188-200) makes a depressing read: though the sadness is not just Rzewski’s – it is all of ours who’ve lived through these times and seen the hope of our youth turn into the conviction we’re entering a dark age: for me today it’s the same: at best, my work must now try to speak to another, more enlightened time in some distant future, perhaps centuries ahead. Or to a few people who might turn up on a rainy night.
Artists occupy a special place within society’s division of labor. Highly skilled craftsmen as a rule… their significance, as producers of wealth, is trivial… there are, of course, exceptions… who have struck it rich; who have exploited (or, rather, who have allowed themselves to be exploited by) the media. But in these cases, what is usually being produced and paid for is not so much art, as an image… the bearer of a lifestyle which may seem enviable… whereas many of these people are human wrecks, pitiful shadows of what they once were potentially as artists.
A far cry from the vision of ‘a nascent revolutionary culture, both peaceful and beautiful, that would replace the old, patriarchal, acquisitive, and warlike one that had dominated our century’ (program note for Jefferson, 1970, p 444). And we have all travelled this path. Let us lay up provisions for the winter.
MUSIC, WHAT FOR?
The opening section of Nonsequiturs, ‘Music, What For?’ is where we find Rzewski’s most recent thoughts, following on from the point where the editors consider he stopped writing politically. Once again, it’s presented backwards, dates-wise; and once again I read it in chronological order. In ‘The Song of the Sphinx’ (1986, pp 44-46) he’s bewildered at the current fragmentation of music into a hundred strands, but continues defiant: ‘We are not condemned to resignation, reaction, or the abandonment of revolutionary ideals’. But he no longer relies on ‘earlier, overly optimistic ideologies’. In ‘Complexity’ (1992, pp 40-42) he stands above chaos:
The world has become inscrutable. Older theoretical models have collapsed. Earthquake prediction is now the most exact science. No one can explain why masses of people are killing each other in various parts of the world. General violence threatens civilisations. Composers write lofty discourses on “complexity.”
I have reached the conclusion that, beyond the fate of any individual piece of work that I may have done, the mere fact that I have done it is the most important thing.
And in ‘On Ambivalence’ (2000, pp 34-8)
Musicians should ask themselves if, like scientists, their work may have long-reaching and as yet poorly-understood effects on society; and if so, what they can do to make sure their work will not be used for purposes with which they might have some ethical disagreements.
So we have come half-circle. In his writings from the 1960s, music can be used to help transform the world. Now, our music might be used by others to harm it. ‘Nowhere, that’s where I am.’ No, Frederic, your music, your playing, your improvising are here to contradict you.
But to end (and begin) on a happier note. Contradiction is the effect of the last piece I will talk about: the title article, the first one in the book, a lecture given in 2006 (pp 16-30), beautifully valedictory, drawing together most of Nonsequiturs’ strands, though ‘Nonsequiturs’ is the wrong title for this article. It is a verbal / musical composition, each short paragraph of printed text being followed (this is Rzewski’s intention) by a paragraph of music taken from his Fougues for piano (1994). To better understand this I decided to put on a private performance of the work for myself: a sort of hybrid duet version of ‘Nonsequiturs’ / Fougues – me reading aloud with the book in one hand and my CD remote in the other, pausing Rzewski’s own performance at what I judged to be the correct places (most times I got them right). It was a marvellous way to spend an hour.
The verbal text represents an overview, in the light of the experience of age (Rzewski was in his 68th year as he wrote it) of the whole of ‘greater music’, what it might be, how it works, how it resembles life, or doesn’t. The writing, magnificent as always, reaches out to embrace the whole of human experience: ‘the whole 42’, as Douglas Adams might have said. The opening questions (‘Is what I call “reality” orderly or disorderly? Or both?’ etc) remind one of Cage’s 1958 Darmstadt lecture (which I have also cannibalized in Moto Interrotto). But, this being Rzewski, we’re soon into aphorisms and arguments:
Writing is always a compromise. From the first moment that you have the impulse to write something down, a deal is struck between different compartments of the mind – one whose business it is to retain information, and another that tries to get rid of it. P 16 [echoes of p 106, quoted above]
And here we have Rzewski’s central dichotomy: composing retains the material we create but alters it – improvising gives us the inspiration raw but throws it away.
But a few pages late Rzewski describes the A-B-A musical form as ‘a syllogism of resignation’. His argument is that the return to the ‘A’ section means that ‘the status quo is finally better than any imaginable alternative (or, as Cage observed, “home is after all the best place”).’ But what he misses (how could he? – how could he?) is that the second ‘A’ section should be altered – you improvise ornamentation the second time around! So you’re not ‘coming home’, you’re moving on and out (Handel-like, Rossini-like). Even the composers who don’t expect impro do the variations themselves – compose them. ‘A’ is not home: or if it is, it burned down while we were away.
The experience of alternating the music of Fougues with the spoken of ‘Nonsequiturs’ text is a schizophrenic one: the sense implied by the music often seems to contradict that of the words. That’s intentional of course – or intentionally unintentional (the verbal text was done 12 years after the music). And oftentimes our cultural baggage is the culprit, not Rzewski. We 21st century inhabitants are so used to the melodrama of film music illustrating what the other half of our brain is seeing that when Rzewski’s ‘brilliant young artists’ whose careers have been cut short are accompanied (or at least followed) by stalking martellato single notes with a softer chordal accompaniment, we have to fight a sense of mild bathos. But Rzewski doesn’t mind that: one senses that he even encourages it. Despite which, by the end we have the feeling we’ve witnessed two events intercut, not a single one. And the verbal text is less optimistic than the musical one:
Music probably cannot change the world. But it is a good idea to act as if it could.
But the music itself belies this. Here is a joyful, grand peroration, grandiloquent in the best sense of the word, glissando-ing up and down the white notes of the piano, ebullient, defiant, Beethovenian to the end: truly, ‘the great C major of this life'.
Editor's Addendum: Any appraisal of this unique book has to be selective. In the section MEV (Musica electronca Viva) pp.254-363 I should like to draw attention to one of Rzewski's letters in On the Road (Letters 1967-68).
His publishing of an eight-page letter to Alvin Curran (July 1 67) is brave and in autobiographical literature rarely so. I haven't chanced to read anything like it, though there may well be other examples to which readers will direct me?
It reads like a psychoanalytic session in full flow, a string of uncensored and uninterrupted free associations without a single para break until the fifth page! Some of it is about practical arrangements, but Rzweski goes off at multiple tangents, seeking to catch thoughts and ideas on the wing.
Rzewski takes you unflinchingly into his mind as it was. Certainly you get a feel for the mind set of the musical explorers of the time, and it gives the flavour of a time On the Road which complements nicely his later work of similar title which has absorbed me for several years.
A similar candour is to be found in Frederic Rzewski's inset note with his marvellous, newly released DVD of The People United Will Never Be Defeated (VAI 4440, taped at a live performance in Fort Lauderdale, March 2007). That having been too late for inclusion in Nonsequiturs, I am pleased to reproduce it here in full since, unlike Lawrence A Johnson's introductory essay, it bears no copyright embargo - Rzewski's belief in "copyleft" is well known. PGW
- - A Note from the Composer/Pianist
The pianist offers his humble apologies to the composer for the various embarrassing bloopers (especially in the first part). But after several viewings he decided that the redeeming features of the performance outweigh its defects; and anyway, it's a part of the esthetic (and the composer concurs in this) that the mistakes are to be left in. Sometimes it's interesting to see how the pianist handles a slipup; and it's also interesting to see how a ritardando or pause is actually due to the trouble the pianist is having turning a page, rather than for a more serious musical reason. But this unpleasant necessity of having to deal with unexpected problems is also part of what music is about. Much of what we admire in great performers - Rubinstein, for instance, or Schnabel - is not their superhuman note-perfect technique (boringly common nowadays), but their human weakness, and their skill in recovering gracefully from a fumble. My partner, watching the DVD with me, said the camera should not be on the hands when there's an obvious mistake. On the contrary, that's exactly what's fascinating (for a piano-player, at least): How is this guy going to get out of this one?