Frederic Rzewski Visits America

Electronics and Live Music

FRANK J. OTERI: Recently I went record shopping and picked up a re-issue of an LP you were part of: Musica Elettronica Viva. An LP called The Sound Pool

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Where did you say you found that?

FRANK J. OTERI: A great record store called Downtown Music Gallery. That record is quite a sonic experience…

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: That recording was a total accident. As I remember, this was a concert that we did. Well, you can hardly call it a concert, because it was Paris in 1969 and there were perhaps 300 people performing in this building. They were all over the place. And I think Alvin Curran happened to have his tape recorder going in the men’s room. There must have 50 or 60 people in that men’s room. And I think that’s where most of that recording took place. I don’t remember exactly. So it was a total accident.

FRANK J. OTERI: For me this recording raises the whole issue of the difference between a live performance and a recording. One of the things I kept thinking while I was listening to it is that while it was interesting, there was something I really wasn’t getting from the record. I wish I could have been there because I missed something from the record…

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Well, you know what they say about the ’60s. If you can remember it, you weren’t there! But I can tell you about it…

FRANK J. OTERI: But even the name of the group, Musica Elettronica Viva, implies that it is meant to be a live experience. It was hard for me to hear what the electronics were on this record.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: The electronics were definitely there someplace, but whether they were in the men’s room, I rather doubt it. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: Your music is so associated with the piano because you are a pianist. You have written so much piano music over the years and now Nonesuch has released this seven CD set of you playing your piano music. So I don’t really think of you as someone involved with electronic music but you were part of this extremely influential group with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, both of whom still work extensively with electronics…

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: I did quite a lot of work with electronics until my children started to grow up and then I had to make a choice. I couldn’t afford both. So all of my equipment I turned over to Alvin Curran who stayed in Rome when we moved back to New York in the early ’70s and that was kind of the end of my active involvement in electronics. I’ve been thinking of going back to it again because now of course it’s cheaper and easier.

FRANK J. OTERI: The other people who were part of that group, Curran and Teitelbaum, are still very active. I just recently heard an album on New Albion of new work by Teitelbaum for electronically processed shakuhachi. Fascinating stuff, but a very different road than the one you took.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: That’s his specialty. He also does not have children. Neither does Alvin. I just couldn’t afford all of the expense and feed the children at the same time.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s really food for thought. This taps into this whole idea of a live versus pre-recorded experience. Forgive me if I’m putting a thought in your head, it seems that for you music is first and foremost a live experience. I know we’re here at Nonesuch and one of the reasons we’re talking is because of this amazing, unprecedented seven CD set of you playing your piano music. But I get the sense that it is important for you to perform in front of an audience.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Well, as I say, that’s how I make my living. But, on the other hand, a lot of the stuff I’ve done is meant for piano players. Not so much for an audience as for the performers.

FRANK J. OTERI: Certainly the extremely long piece of yours, The Road, four parts of which are on these CDs, which you describe as a novel, is analogous to something like the Well Tempered Clavier. It’s really a piece that’s meant to be played at home.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: That’s right.

FRANK J. OTERI: Who would sit and listen to this in a concert hall for seven hours?

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Nobody. But that’s not important. Maybe a few people…but that’s not the point. I wanted to write something that was long enough, when it is finished it will be eight hours, so that very few people, if any, would cover the whole territory. The whole point of The Road, which is what it’s called, is that it is there when you turn on to it and it’s still there when you turn off of it. So it doesn’t have a clear beginning or an ending.

FRANK J. OTERI: For years in the Guinness Book of World Records the longest piano piece was Sorabji‘s Opus Clavicembalisticum, and then that was knocked out of the ring by La Monte Young‘s Well Tuned Piano which now lasts about 6 hours when he does it, but you’ve beat them both…

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: But this is nothing new. The Well Tempered Clavier lasts about 4 hours. And the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, but I guess it’s not a single work. The Mendelssohn Songs Without Words lasts a couple of hours. This is part of a long tradition.