Frederic Rzewski Visits America

The Role of the Composer in Society

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s talk a bit about the role of the composer in society. You’re an outspoken person about politics and have pretty firm opinions about music making. What should the role of a composer in our society be?

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: I don’t think there’s any “should.” You could say something about what composers have been objectively in terms of the world around them historically and I think that probably if it’s possible to speak about what the role of the composer is, as you put it, today, it’s probably not that much different from a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. It seems to me that there it’s much clearer. If you look at the second half of the 19th century, you had what were called these national composers: Grieg, Smetana, Dvorak, and of course Wagner is the biggest one. And the role of these composers in my opinion seems to have been to express in lofty terms, with more or less impressive means like symphony orchestras, the national soul as it appears in the mythological history of the nation, the natural beauties of the country, and so forth. And I think that has not changed a great deal. So today, composers no longer write symphonic poems about national heroes but they still somehow express the aspirations of the national culture. Notice that whenever you see the name of a composer in print it’s usually accompanied by an adjective qualifying the nationality of the composer.

FRANK J. OTERI: Which is interesting getting back to you as an expatriate. Do you still consider yourself an American composer?

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Yeah, sure. There’s no way you can avoid it. If you take somebody like John Cage who was certainly one of the most cosmopolitan figures in this field, he was still an American composer and I think there are very few people who can escape from that. This is something that you have around for better or worse.

FRANK J. OTERI: Certainly I hear it in some of your works directly, whether it’s the North American Ballads, or Jefferson, where you’re setting part of the Declaration of Independence. A composer from Finland or Venezuela wouldn’t do that or, if they did, it would be for very different reasons.

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: Yes, I agree. But where does that take us?

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, if you’re still an American composer and you say composers aspire to their national myths, does your music aspire to a national myth about America? Should people be thinking about this when they listen to your music?

FREDERIC RZEWSKI: I don’t know. It’s true that probably a good chunk of what I’ve done has to do with some kind of local…Well, I did grow up in North America and I speak the English language. I’m an American even though I’ve spent more that half my life outside the United States by this time. I’m still very connected with this country’s culture.

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