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Frederic Rzewski De profundis; North American Ballades

Milton Schlosser (piano and narrator)


Arktos 20043

Most politically engaged high culture would be well understood by Formalists – that is, to use the Formalist motto, they ‘make the familiar strange.'

Thus, De profundis by Frederic Rzewski involves a selection of animal and inarticulate noises by the performer, not to mention a reading of extracts from Oscar Wilde's work of that name, as well as pianism, while North American Ballades is a typically ‘engaged' mixture of popular and classical music.

When Schlosser speaks enthusiastically of how Rzewski's music helps him experience the “personal is political” one must retort, that for Schlosser, the political is personal.

Rzewski himself represents a certain intellectual current in his adopted Europe. It is that of Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse, though also of Dallapicolla, Nono or Maurizio Pollini – that is, a traditional intellectual's engagement with the twentieth century's new mass culture.

But although we should recognise Schlosser's own community work and political interventions as laudable and sincere, there is absolutely no doubt that both performing these works, and making the political statements he does within the liner notes, are political only within the protected sphere of North American academia. It is a political engagement that is philosophically satisfying for Schlosser and clearly, is personally fulfilling.

But it is at the same level of disjunction as that of Pollini performing Schoenberg in factories (the workers asked if ‘he would stop soon'.) So this is music to which the liberal intellectual will respond; it is simply too esoteric to appeal to those not already converted to contemporary classical music. The quirky combination of classical and popular keeps us in touch with the mass without removing the familiar landmarks of classical modernity. The animal sounds, gruntings and ‘woofs' remind us this is music being performed by a human, remind us of the physicality of all art.

But it is not, in a 21 st century sense, political; rather, it assuages the political and social conscience of the listener. Again, this can be seen in a historical context, this time older. When we associate Beethoven, Egmont and freedom, or Smetana, Tchaikovsky and nationalism, we are precisely discussing the political expression of 19 th century bourgeois elites, the ancestors of the Rzewskis and Schlossers of today.

An arty cover to this CD, an image of a long rusty chain, reminds us of Rousseau and of oppression; less obvious is why Schlosser's name appears in large letters, and Rzewski's can barely be read?

© Ying Chang