Frederic Rzewski Visits America

On Systems

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in trying to access where your music falls in the historical scheme of things, there was definitely a period at some point when your music was informed by minimalism. I’m thinking of pieces like Coming Together. But it was never really a pure minimalism in terms of what minimalism meant: a process where you don’t do anything else in the piece but follow the process. And certainly, your own unique approach to serialism, which you returned to in the 1980s in pieces like Antigone, doesn’t sound like any other music coming out of that particular systemic approach. I’m curious about how you apply serial techniques…

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: I find it difficult to say. I’ve studied this material and certainly have spent a lot of time with it and probably in many ways am still thinking of serialism.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting because serialism was originally designed to throw out the shackles of the tonal system and liberate us from it but it very quickly became a system unto itself which also had shackles that we needed to be liberated from.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Well, system in a very large sense, maybe, yes. But in the same way throwing dice or consulting the I Ching or applying some kind of minimalistic procedures or using the collage technique, all of these things are systems. So serialism is just one system among many.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, when you write a work employing serial technique, such as Antigone, it’s not purely serial. At least it doesn’t sound like it is. I’m curious about how you constructed that music.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: It actually was written almost in the form of a diary. And of course it’s based on a text and the text has its own structure. It’s not a purely musical structure; it’s partly dramatic. I don’t think there’s time to go into it in detail.

FRANK J. OTERI: Your music has always been heterodox, polystylistic…

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Yeah, I’ve heard that before. It’s probably true.

FRANK J. OTERI: So it interests me, given your stylistic inclinations, that you’ve based yourself in Europe which to our notions is so much more stratified.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: I can’t really say. I’ve thought about why I’ve done certain things in my life and I’ve come to the conclusion that there really is no reason at all. And I think that’s true of many people. One tends to make life-changing decisions…You fall in love. You get married. You make important decisions very often on impulse without thinking about it and for no good reason. And later you invent reasons to explain why you did what you did. I don’t know why I ended up living in Brussels. I just can’t say why something happened the way it did. I wish I could. But I can say how it happened. I went to Italy on a Fulbright in 1960 and I ran into Severino Gazzelloni, who was playing in lots of festivals at the time, and I ended up being his pianist for a while. And that way I got into performing in Europe. One thing led to another. I met my wife. We had children. I came back to the United States a few times. But by the time we moved back to New York in the ’70s, we had three children already. We were living in New York for five years with basically no money and it was not a good situation. So we moved back to Europe and things just developed that way. It’s true that probably it was easier and still is, as far as I can see, to make a living with new music in Europe than in North America.

FRANK J. OTERI: Why do you think that is?

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: I think there are many reasons for that, both having to do with the culture and the structure in which the culture is replenished and supported. The fact that in North America, people tend to live separated geographically and it’s an automobile-based culture so people don’t go to concerts as often as they do in European cities, and all kinds of reasons. I don’t know myself. But I do know that I play a lot in Northern Europe, especially, and have very few concerts in the United States.

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to get back to that meeting with Gazzelloni. Here you were a Harvard grad who studied with all these big names, and you came to Europe on a Fulbright and soon met up with David Tudor, John Cage, Christian Wolff, people who had a view of musical composition that people at the time believed was diametrically opposed to the serialism of Babbitt and his followers.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Well, you might think so. Actually, there’s a lot more that these different currents have in common. I reflected on this subject in the last few years and I realized you have all these different trends in 20th-century composition and they seem to be different. But actually they have one thing in common, all these different schools, and that is that they’re all system based. They’re all based on systems of one kind or another: there’s the twelve-tone technique; there’s chance procedures; there’s minimalism… All of these have to do with some kind of gimmick or machine for producing music. The one thing that they don’t do, the one thing that composers in the 20th century don’t do, is to simply write down the tunes that are going through their heads. I think for quite interesting reasons, composers, unlike painters, poets, and so forth, have never seriously been concerned with exploring the area of the unconscious. There are no surrealist composers. There are people who are kind of cousins of the surrealists like Erik Satie, or you could point to early Schoenberg or Mahler or Morton Feldman. But there are no composers who, unlike jazz musicians or who like jazz musicians rather, simply explore stream of consciousness methods of writing. Composers in the 20th century tend to be more like scientists or mathematicians than poets. I think it has to do with the fact that so-called serious music is still a descendant of sacred music. It’s secular, but there’s division between serious and light, which is very clear in music as opposed to other forms of expression. It’s still related to the division of sacred and secular. So composers are still very much a part of the Christian theological tradition, if you like. And so, the unconscious mind, and everything connected with it, is still, so to speak, anathema. And this is the area that interests me.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, one of things I’ve always found so fascinating about Cage is that although he was promulgating indeterminate music, he hated jazz.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: No, he didn’t hate jazz. In fact, there are some of his pieces that are definitely jazz-related.

FRANK J. OTERI: He made a great deal of comments that were disdainful toward jazz and the whole notion of improvising musicians.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: I know what you’re talking about but it’s not completely true. He and Tudor did a lot of improvising. They didn’t call it that, but that’s what it was.

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