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The People United… Review

September 10, 2010

1) New Living Quarters are almost done!
2) Looks like we’ll be on rush hour Wednesdays for the Fall…. 4-6pm.  Will be stretching out the type of musics you normally hear as I double the length of the show.

I wrote this for http://www.classicalreview.co.uk/ and we had agreed on some changes a few months back, and I never got to them.  It also seems like the site’s in a bit of limbo while @WrenAmok on twitter takes care of some other things, so I’m going to post it now as is…

A recurring Theme

Frederic Rzewski (b. April 13, 1938, USA) began his musical career as a concert pianist performing challenging repertoire for both the performing and listener, such as the composers Stockhausen and Boulez.  At the same time, Rzewski was becoming politically radical.  His leftist views in some ways contradicted his musical output; Rzewski was not the first composer to recognize that the public had a lot of difficulty appreciating and understanding contemporary music.  Aaron Copland, among others, dealt with this issue earlier in the 20thCentury.  Rzewski sought to explore the style of music he performed while addressing his populist perspective.  He was able to combine this duality in a number of works, including Coming Together (1971, about the Attica Prison Riots), North American Ballads (1979, uses Labor Songs as its material), and The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975).

Significant Variation

Based on the Chilean Protest Song ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! by the composer Sergio Ortega, Rzewski’s piece is a Theme and Variations.  Make that Thirty Six Variations.  Add in the theme and the reprise of the theme and an optional improvisation, the entire piece clocks in at sixty four minutes and change.  The length isn’t meant to intimidate listeners; it is actually a feature of the work.  Rzewski was attempting to illustrate the determination, size, and strength of the People in the face of oppression.

Even if a listener was unaware of the musical program the work presents, the experience of hearing The People United… is simply breathtaking.  It is clear when listening to the excellent new recording of the work by Kai Schumacher that the demands on the performer are extreme.  Rzewski makes ample use of the extended techniques, or unorthodox ways to play the instrument.  Some of the unconventional sounds you can hear in The People United… are harmonics, or ghostly reverberations from the piano strings, whistling, yelling, and striking the piano’s lid (Track 3, 5:30 and elsewhere).  Despite all this, the music does not take on a stance of being intimidating.  The fury of the subject matter is meant to be felt with the listener, rather than at the listener. Rzewski establishes this connection to the listener by inviting them into his quieter moments.  One of many examples is Variation Twenty Five.  This moment is like a quiet internal monologue (Track 6, 0:30), and it sets the stage for more difficult moments in the work.  The music also covers a lot of ground stylistically, at times exploring jazz, romantic piano music, and modernism.  The shifting styles of the music can even be heard in the first statement of the theme (Track 1, 0:15).

Reprise

In the end, this leaves the listener with a broad experience.  While one may not identify with Rzewski’s politics, The People United… provides a very human explanation of them.  The music also gives a political voice to the pianist.  In this case, Kai Schumacher is able to express his views through art, a more civil and humane way to express them than violence or screaming, and for a musician more direct.  Such a declaration by both a skilled performer and composer cannot be ignored by any listener.

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