Trinity College of Music Festivals May 2006
Coming Together - Music of Frederic Rzewski (Composer in Residence) with Ian Pace (Artist in Residence)
Turns (The Road, Part 1), 1995; Tracks (The Road, Part 2), 1996; Tramps (The Road, Part 3), 1997; Stops (The Road, Part 4), 1998; A Few Knocks (The Road, Part 5), 1999; Travelling with Children (The Road, Part 6), 1999; Final Preparations (The Road, Part 7), 1999-2002; The Big Day Arrives (The Road, Part 8), 2002-03
Brass Festival May 8 to 20
A day at Trinity College of Music
Whilst Trinity College of Music launched its Brass Festival with out-door performances by the College's natural trumpet consort, Coming Together did so with one of the most grandiose projects imaginable ever to be mounted in a music college.
Ian Pace is famously Britain's contemporary music marathon champion - sandwiching his participation at Trinity College's Rzewski Festival between performances of Michael Finnissy's History of photography in sound in Southampton and the Verdi Transcriptions in Berlin, all in a week; surely qualifying him for a place in the Guiness Book of Records?Drawing on the strength of its Keyboard Faculty and students, the College achieved the first ever complete performance - and that all in one day - of Frederic Rzewski's gigantic magnum opus for piano solo The Road A novel for solo piano (1995-2003). At one point this began to seem like a marathon too far!
As many as possible of Trinity's teaching staff (many of them renowned pianists) shared Rzewski's 64 Miles with their students, and most of the other Miles were performed with brilliance and precision by Ian Pace and the composer himself. Pace himself took on the huge Part 8 and gave world first performances of three of the Miles. To achieve completeness and continuity, Rzewski, deputising at a moment's notice for one pianist who didn't show up, confessed that he had not played the piece for a couple of years and, to our ears, did so superbly! Ian Pace learned another Mile in an hour and performed it impeccably...
It all went, more or less, like clockwork - but a clock which ran progressively slower than planned, with slippages in the schedule throughout the day. Breaks had to be shortened to the minimum but, even so, the performance over-ran its projected 9 30 finish by nearly two hours, the journey completed just before 11.30 pm, permitted thanks to special dispensation by Trinity College's security staff...
The Road was generally well attended during most of the day, with listeners allowed to come and go quietly as they needed to for other commitments - my impression was that although only a dozen remained at the very end, most people were intrigued and engaged by this music, and the project was rated a success by all I spoke with.
The Road is notable for the extensive use of the piano's case and the pianists' bodies as percussion instruments. The skills of a tabla player were demanded, and supplied by many of the participants, who also had to vocalise and whistle during some of the Miles, and manipulate pieces of apparatus to sometimes bizarre effect. Sometimes the keyboard lid remained closed throughout an entire piece, and some of those felt overlong in context. The 'extra' sounds were modestly enhanced by well managed equipment, and the whole work was recorded by the College. BBC Radio 3 was in attendance.
Rzewski's musical idiom is direct and accessible. He is a true original and my impression is that his keyboard writing is sympathetically pianistic, though needing virtuosity as well as control of dynamics which are notated in detail. I hope a full musicological analysis of the long and now completed Road may be forthcoming?
Bach figured, certainly, Rzewski breaking off to finish his journey non rit, evoking a nod to the unfinished last fugue of his Art of... Havergal Brian's harmony and quirky unpredictability too... Percy Grainger for Rzewski's verbal syntax in the (English) vernacular. At 10.30, exactly twelve hours since Frederic Rzewski took the first step, Ian Pace opined 'Where am I? What am I doing here? - - '. The last Mile, its sections headed leaks and plugs, was preceded by Beckettian spoken words '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'...
What'll be next?
Peter Grahame Woolf
* [July 2007 - An in-house college recording of this world premiere performance of The Road has been produced on 2 audio-DVDs. Enquiries to Trinity College of Music - Keyboards Department]
** A recording by the Lycidas Trio of Rzewski's Piano Trio, made during the Festival, has been posted at
website & contact:
RZEWSKI email: (c/o Esther Freifeld): firstname.lastname@example.org
Brief notes on remaining events in Rzewski Festival:
Wednesday, 10 May 2006 7.15pm, New Quays at Blackheath Concert Halls Hosted by Elena Riu and featuring Ian Pace and Students from Trinity College Of Music
Well prepared student performances of very varied music by McCabe, Sculthorpe, Kapustin, and two pianists who invited mobile phone participation from the audience in Network Busy led into a discussiion slot, which could have benefited from more positive and provocative chairing. An enjoyable and thought-provoking evening.
Friday, 12 May 2006 7.15pm, Blackheath Concert Halls
Chris Brannick offered us near-nude delivery of a letter from an American soldier killed in the Vietnam War. That was one of Rzewski's political tracts, the text emphasised by long (unnecessarily long?) pauses, punctuated by percussive attackes on Brannick's own body. That was upstaged by his versatility in piano duet with Philip Headlam and on a huge collection of percussion in Stephen Montague's very successful Black 'n Blues; no substitute to play on a musician's body, the piano case and stool, for a real virtusosity percussionist. Brannick discovered and enthralled us with an infinity of timbres.
The Pocket Symphony is an elusive, seemingly inconsequential sequence of movements featuring in turn six instrumentalists of the Continuum Ensemble; a portable symphony in which Rzewski hoped could travel and have 'some chance of actually getting performed'. Hear is recorded by the American group Eighth Blackbird, together with a version of Rzewski's text-music piece Coming Together about the Attica prison riot (Cedille Records CDR 90000 084).
Monnday, 15 May 12.00 - 3.00pm, Butler's Bar
A bizarre event, with Gregory Rose and Linda Hirst gravely delivering Cage's Songbooks simultaneously in the prescribed flexible manner whilst we took lunch, and four solemn laptop performers entertaining us (very loudly) with his Variation 1 (theatre using electronics). Better entertainment was student cellist Maral Mohammadi's Requiem for a cello.
4.00 - 6.00pm, Peacock Room, TCM Discussion between Ian Pace and Frederic Rzewski
A far ranging rememinscence of earlier years in Rzewski's life, covering the deterioration of the contemporary music scene in USA, a lot of politics and music politics (with an impassioned protest by Rivka Golani about the current control by the media), and informal playing of some of Finnissy's Gershwin pieces by both pianists.
7.15pm, Piano Recital by Frederic Rzewski Including his De Profundis & 4 Pieces
* Frederick Rzewski told me that he has recently made available on the Web many of his scores, for downloading and sharing free of charge
It linked with a serendipitous discovery last week: the Grove Dictionaries of Music & Musicians and their other, Grove Art Online, have only last month been made available, free charge to Londoners with public library cards (previously prohibitive even for purchase by public libraries) - helpful for cash-strapped web editors...
Tuesday, 16 May 2006 7.15pm, Peacock Room, TCM
Fortune for speaker (Linda Hirst) and four violas, led by the redoubtable Rivka Golani, was a unique pleasure, though it would have helped if the text (chopped up into short phrases with long gaps - as in Lost and Found) had been printed in the programme book for those of us who don't know Shakespeare's sonnets as well as we should.
The real gem of the evening, which even the composer had never heard, was the Piano Trio (1998), a mozaic ("crazy quilt") of ten two-minute movements constructed with a Latin Square to bind its 'irrationality' together. Nothing polemical here; pithy, witty ideas persuasively presented by the excellent ex-Trinity Lycidas Trio; for me it is this which will be remembered from the week alongside The Road. Piano trios should be queuing up to perform it and it should fit well in the context of an ordinary chamber recital; for nervous promoters maybe saved for the encore?
- - In an interview with Philip Clark in The Wire,3 RZEWSKI talked about apparent similarities between The road and Michael Finnissy's History of photography in sound. - - In many ways The road lacks the compendious ambitions of Finnissy's History, a work in which Finnissy seems at times to be attempting to gather up as much of the world as a pianist's ten fingers can hold, sweeping dizzyingly across kaleidoscopic musical panoramas. Rzewski's Road is much more homely - the musical journey in a truck with the kitchen sink loaded up behind.
Rzewski's Wire interview revealed another crucial difference between his project and Finnissy's History. 'I think of it as being an epic Russian novel in the tradition of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky', he said and this essentially preModern belief in the validity of sequential narrative is certainly evident at the work's opening. We hear steps approaching, like a pianist's version of `once upon a time' as he walks across the studio to his instrument, and then the music begins with a falling chromatic motive: four equal-length notes, D, B, A#, C#, then a sustained C(natural) - then A, G#, B, A#, and a sustained G - and so on. The invention is elegantly simple - a minor third down, a minor second down, a minor third up, a minor second down, repeated over and over again - but with every fifth note sustained so that the repetition of intervallic cell and rhythmic pattern shift out of phase with one another. When the motive has descended an octave a second voice enters where the first began, and once another octave descent has been completed a third voice begins, until the pianist is grappling with multiple voices spread across the keyboard, his hands frequently having to arpeggiate the accumulations of notes. When it becomes too much the music breaks off into a series of chords and a new episode is started.
In spite of its composer's Dostoevskian aspirations, The road strikes my ears rather more as a series of picaresque musings than as a cumulative narrative. Once again there is a strict form-scheme underpinning the whole enterprise: The road will eventually consist of eight parts, each in turn made up of eight `miles, most of which last around three minutes (although there is a considerably longer 'mile' in each of Parts II, III and IV). Each part has a title - Part I is 'Turns', II is 'Tracks', III 'Tramps', and IV 'Stops' - and each has a distinct identity. As I described earlier, Part I begins with abstract contrapuntal concerns, although `Mile #4' is a transcription of Rzewski's 1995 anti-nuclear chorus Stop the testing!; Part II is a set of sixty-four variations (the whole Road in microcosm?) on a 1930s railroad song `900 Miles'; Part III is a series of marches, says its composer, taking as its starting point a tune sung in his days as a US Army draftee by Rzewski's friend and fellow composer David Behrman; Part IV turns again to more abstract sonic exploration.
The overarching subject of The road, however, is Rzewski himself; the work is a self-portrait drawn at the piano. Nor is The road just a piano piece. In `Mile #5' it turns into a piece made up of sounds that can be made at the piano with a rather martial work-out on the woodwork of the instrument, while the latter part of `Mile #8' turns its attention to what sounds like an attack of string scratching. Later on the range widens further: `Mile #29' introduces sleigh bells accompanying whistled pitches which echo single notes picked out at the keyboard; `Mile #30' adds duck calls and squeakers; finally `Mile #32' adds speech fragments of a Gogol short story delivered in both Russian and English. Rzewski has described his pleasure in `playing the piano at home, and The road, like Bach's Well-tempered clavier or Mendelssohn's Songs without words, is meant as much for home consumption as for the concert hall'. But is this really music for `home consumption', I wonder? In `Musica practica' Roland Barthes distinguishes between two categories of music, `the music that one listens to' and `the music that one plays [...] an activity [...] that is above all manual [... ] with no other audience than its participants (that is, with all risk of theatre, all temptation of hysteria removed)'. In The road Rzewski seems to be proposing a third category of music, private improvisation recorded as public composition, which retains echoes of the 'theatre' and 'hysteria' of music performed for an audience but eschews the rhetoric and display which might draw that audience into the music's narrative. At the end of his recording of Part IV we hear Rzewski's footsteps again, retreating this time. It will be interesting to discover how this wilfully elusive music develops on his return.
"I consider myself to be in the mainstream of the classical tradition. The classical tradition is a dynamic one of innovation. I consider the practice of performing music that is 150 to 200 years old to be an aberration of this tradition. The so-called classical music world is overwhelmed by a perverse, aberrant, distorted form of this tradition. I consider people like myself, composer-performers, to be the true inheritors of this tradition."
- - Now in his late sixties, Frederik Rzewski belongs to a lost generation in which composition and performance were indivisibly allied - think Mozart, Beethoven and virtuosi such as Liszt and Rachmaninov. Anyone who has heard Rzewski play - - will not have forgotten his uncompromising but accessible musical style - frequently tough and acerbic but underpinned by a deep sense of pathos - nor his blistering pianism. - - The coup is the opening event: the world premiere of Rzewski's marathon for solo piano, The Road. (The Independent)
Ivan Hewett in The Telegraph 11 May 2006:
- - the radical spirit hasn't gone - - you find it in people who might be old in years, but are marvellously young in spirit. One of them is the American composer Frederic Rzewski, who declines the title of political composer, saying that, unlike Cardew, he is not a provocateur. But he also says he is not into abstractions: "I am interested in life and the relationship of music to life." - - His music keeps the subtlety of art, and all the freedoms gained by Modernism. What it junks is the Modernist obsession with purity.
Rzewski's music is wonderfully impure. His piano pieces ask the player to rap on the wood, blow whistles, stick things in the strings, grunt and hiss rhythmically, even recite poetry. The notes themselves are full of references to folk song, protest song, art music, jazz, you name it. But these things aren't just quoted, they're put in a highly wrought context that gives them an aura of imaginative freedom. This is how he avoids the pitfalls of avant-garde political music. It is simultaneously anchored and free, Utopian and yet with its feet firmly on the ground - -
Brass Festival details
© Peter Grahame Woolf