Frederic Rzewski Visits America

Other Ensembles and the Orchestra

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve written for other instruments as well so I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about groups you’ve worked closely with and not so closely with who have played your music. You’ve written several pieces for Zeitgeist, a wonderful ensemble based in Minneapolis. And they recorded these pieces. Now, they’re a rare example of a group that will really spend the time to get inside the music.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: It’s true. There aren’t too many groups like that, but there are some. I feel quite optimistic, actually. I think there are more and more groups of young performers. I feel like the avant-garde is now coming back. There was kind of a lull period in the ’90s when not much was happening. And now I have the feeling that the kind of 20 to 30-year-old generation is starting to get interesting again in experimental music. And that’s true all over the world.

FRANK J. OTERI: Getting back to working with Zeitgeist, how did their musical sensibilities inform the music you wrote for them.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: For a number of reasons, I wasn’t able to spend too much time with them so we weren’t in very close contact. But on the other hand, we kept renewing it. So I got to know them pretty well. A lot of it had to do with the nature of the instrumentation. Minneapolis is a place where they build steel drums, so that’s how I got into writing for steel drums because they happen to be particularly good at it. So that’s just a geographical accident I guess. But, certainly that conditions the choice of instruments, for example.

FRANK J. OTERI: What about writing for the orchestra? You’ve written six orchestral works over the years I believe.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: That many?

FRANK J. OTERI: I remember being at a performance almost 20 years ago at the New York Philharmonic. It was part of the Horizons Festival that Jacob Druckman coordinated. I’m still trying to remember the title of your piece, but I never forgot the piece itself, which I thought was really fascinating. But, to my surprise at the time, the audience reaction was so bad.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: I don’t remember that. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: You were a piano soloist in that…

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: The Silence of Infinite Spaces.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, that’s the name. For me it was sort of a horrible and wonderful experience at the same time. When people were booing and loudly walking out, part of me thought, “Yeah! This is great!” As a teenager I felt this was the real punk rock, playing a piece that got all these subscribers mad. But at the same time it was really upsetting to get a taste of this orchestra subscriber culture which is so closed minded, where music has to go a certain way in order to be valid, and if you don’t make music that way you’re not making music in their mind. And as a composer this is upsetting, because it’s appealing to write in a large form for a whole bunch of musicians because it can sound really, really great, but there are all these other issues associated with it.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: What can I say? What kind of issues?

FRANK J. OTERI: You know, the internal structure of how an orchestra works and the whole subscription model for constructing an audience. Who goes to the orchestra?

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: I don’t. I certainly don’t. It doesn’t appeal to me.

FRANK J. OTERI: But there’s a lot of really great music written for this medium.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: But it is an anachronistic form. The social structure of the orchestra is really something inherited from 18th-century feudal society where the musician is not an artist but some kind of servant. Of course, this is something that shouldn’t exist. It shouldn’t be allowed! [laughs] My wife Nicole always thought that orchestras should be abolished. Maybe one should be kept, some kind of museum like they have some kind of gagaku ensemble in Japan just to keep the tradition going. And I sort of agree with that. I don’t see any reason orchestras should continue. They don’t do anything useful.

FRANK J. OTERI: But you’ve written six orchestral pieces!

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Well, usually it wasn’t my idea. It was somebody who asked for it. And with few exceptions, I can’t think of any good performances of them. Mostly my experience with orchestras has been negative. No, I’m no longer really interested in it and I don’t have much to do with this form, it’s true. Some people do this very well, and that’s fine, but it’s not my particular forte and I’m not drawn to it and the orchestras in general are not drawn to me either. So, we have a very good relationship!