Frederic Rzewski Visits America

Hierarchy, Power, and Pedigree

FRANK J. OTERI: You studied composition with a very diverse group of people whose music is very different from your own: Babbitt and Sessions, Randall Thompson, Piston, Elliott Carter

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: I never studied with Carter…

FRANK J. OTERI: The Grove Dictionary says you did…

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: No!

FRANK J. OTERI: But you did study with Babbitt and Sessions?

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Technically, yes

FRANK J. OTERI: The first pieces of yours to gain wide exposure are so different from their music, but to this day, the notion of twelve-tone composition plays a role in your work and is part of your vocabulary.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Hard to say. I was at Harvard in the ’50s and I had some teachers who were very important for me. Randall Thompson was one of the best teachers I ever had. I was in his counterpoint class at Harvard. I think in those days the school was most importantly a place where I came together with people like myself and I think that’s probably the most useful function of schools in general. It’s not so much a matter of studying in the sense that information is transmitted from one generation to another, but it’s where under the guidance of perhaps older people it’s possible to link up with people who are doing things similar to what you’re doing.

FRANK J. OTERI: Even younger people sometimes… Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel who was younger than him and that experience was very important in his development as a composer…

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: It’s complicated because of course the teaching of composition is still done according to certain time-worn procedures which really don’t make that much sense anymore. For instance, private lessons are something I find unproductive. So I try not to have private lessons. I try to have people in groups, for a number of reasons—one of them being the reason you had private lessons in the first place is that was the way that trade secrets could be passed from master to disciple. Mozart had secrets, and probably Beethoven had secrets, too. But there are no more secrets. So that particular forum doesn’t make sense…

FRANK J. OTERI: In a way, the whole process of academic training is about validation. Those are the composers with pedigree; the others are the great unwashed. Your career has been a challenge to that. You’ve always been about challenging authority and challenging hierarchy. So it’s interesting that you come from this illustrious academic background, studying with Babbitt who has certainly had so much influence on composition and composition training in America.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Well, that’s something of an exaggeration. I don’t think any composer has ruled over anything in this part of the world. There’s not much power involved in musical composition. Aaron Copland, maybe, had a lot of influence, which he used in a good way. I don’t think composers have very much to say. It’s different than in Europe. In Europe, there’s a situation in which people in intellectual areas and cultural positions actually wield some kind of power and influence.

FRANK J. OTERI: Definitely, to this day, Boulez hovers over music life in France…

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: For example…But you don’t have that in the United States for all kinds of historical reasons. There are very few cases if any in American history where you can point to an intellectual or cultural figure who had some kind of influence in the same way that Tolstoy or Jean-Paul Sartre could be said to have held some kind of position of importance. Maybe Mark Twain is as close as you could get.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s funny. It’s hard for me to see Mark Twain, who was such a cultural critic, as an authority figure in any way.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: In the sense of an American intellectual universally respected whose voice carried some kind of weight. But not really. You can’t really compare him with someone like Tolstoy who, when he spoke, masses of people listened. We really don’t have that here in the United States. So, I think if there is some sort of parallel, like what you’re describing, it doesn’t boil down to real power or influence. Take someone like Susan Sontag. Nobody in the United States really cares what she says or what she writes about. Occasionally she might offend some people. I don’t think any American president has ever felt offended by what some intellectual might say.

FRANK J. OTERI: Except for maybe Harry Truman who was really offended when Paul Hume wrote a bad review of his daughter…

[Rzewski laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: You left America many, many years ago becoming an “expatriate composer,” whatever that means. You describe a cultural life here in America where nobody wields cultural power, where it’s less hierarchical. And you’ve based yourself in Europe, which is so much more hierarchical. Yet, musically, maybe I’m wrong in thinking this, your life’s work seems to be about breaking down those hierarchies.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: I’m the last person to have an opinion on that [laughs]. I don’t know…I can’t think of any examples where I’ve broken down any hierarchies.

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