An Interview with Frederic Rzewski

By · Photography © Camille Blake · Date 4/11/2019

On a recent evening in Berlin, the pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski performed his virtuosic variations on a Chilean protest song, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” Physical and mental exhaustion are composed into the piece, and watching Rzewski play, I was struck by the similarities between the musical obstacles in his work and the political and social obstacles that always accompany change. An interview with a famous socialist who just wants to be writing music.

VAN: You wrote “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” in 1975. Has the meaning of the piece changed because it now sounds in such different political times?

Frederic Rzewski: That’s a philosophical question. Sometimes pieces of music take on their own existence, and why and how is difficult to say. When Pierre Degeyter wrote the “Internationale,” he could not know which role this song would play in the world. And why should he? I just wrote the music and it is not necessarily what the composer intends to do, what a piece of music is. It may have a life of its own, independent of the writer. Just like anything written down is subject to interpretation. More important than the text of the Bible is the commentary that came up centuries later in the Talmud.

That reminds me of a Jewish joke. You want to hear it?

Sure.

A Russian Jew goes to a rabbi in the middle of the 19th century, saying, “I really have to know the answer to this question: Stalin or Trotzki? Is it possible to build up socialism in a country or not?” And the rabbi says, “This is a really difficult question. You have to give me time to study it and come back in three days.” So the rabbi comes back in three days and says, “I’ve been studying this, and you’ll be glad to know I found the answer. There is a book that contains all of the answers, if you just know where to look. I found the Midrasz commentary, by a Spanish Jew from the 12th century, who writes: ‘It is possible to build socialism in one country. But while it is done, it is better to live in another country.’” [Laughs]

You lived in Berlin in the ‘60s and worked regularly in the East.

Yeah, and it wasn’t so bad, either. It’s important to study that period of history, because it is gradually being forgotten. I personally think that Rosa Luxemburg was the most important personality of the 20th century. People my age know who she was, but people who are in their twenties today have probably never heard of her. People don’t know enough about things. They only know what they are told. And concerning the GDR they have been told the Western view, which is not the whole story of course.

This thinking in left and right is not very helpful. It was only useful in the context of the French Revolution, when people literally said, I am on the left or the right side. I think it is possible to argue that history is moving neither forward nor backward. We still live at a time where we relate to the age of Aristotle: we think in terms of reasons and causes, for which there is no evidence in the universe. French philosophy of the 18th century invented the absurd notion of progress, which of course does exist but [is discussed to] the exclusion of the opposite.

These days you live in Brussels. Once again, right-wing populism is very much alive in Europe.

I am a musician, I only have opinions. I believe that Europe has not significantly progressed. Now we have a new Il Duce in Italy, and I think we should not be surprised. In the Baltic countries something similar is happening. I also wonder about the influence of the United States, especially in Germany, for example on Venezuela. I think it would be good to throw out all the American military bases from Germany. And to get rid of NATO. But as I said: I am a musician, I only have opinions. I basically try to write good music. But when things are happening in the world, that’s where your ideas come from.

Reporters like to refer to your politics in headlines—a bit like Igor Levit, who was dubbed “the pianist of the resistance.” Does that ever bother you?

I think this is just propaganda. Pianist are often sold as thinking men. It’s a way of selling something. I know Igor well and he is very smart. But does this make him a better pianist? I doubt it. Neither does it make me a better pianist, or a politician.

Do you try to push back against that image?

Yes, but it’s not easy. That goes way back to the ‘70s. One time I played a concert in Carnegie Hall, and it got a very good review from The New York Times. The Daily News, a right wing rag that paid almost no attention to new music, sent a so-called critic who wrote a so-called review, in which he said: “This person is a well known Communist who is an agent acting under directions from Moscow” [laughs]. Well, you can imagine how happy I was about that. I could laugh about it at the time, it seemed so absurd. On the other hand I never got rid of it. Mainly it is just stupid, because it is also not true: I have never been in the Communist party. I just write some music.

The band Quilapayú was one of the most important members of the Nueva Canción Chilena movement, along with Inti-Illimani and Víctor Jara. They composed the lyrics to “The People United,” and sang the song at a mass demonstration in favor of the Allende government in 1973. When Pinochet’s forces overthrew the government on September 11, Quilapayún was on tour in France. They ended up staying there, in exile, until 1988. 

“The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” is an extraordinarily difficult work. You are turning 81 on April 13. Do you still practice the piano every day?

Now I have to practice the piano every day, something I really hate. When you’re lucky enough to learn something at an early age as I did, at age four—like the independence of the two hands—then you don’t have to practice.

I think the best thing would be to get rid of all conservatories. And to get rid of all piano competitions, which are meaningless. Concentrate instead on earlier education for children. This is where we need more investment.

You’ve been a teacher, for example at Yale or in Liège, Belgium. Is there a specific lesson that was important for you to give to your students?

I am a lazy person and I am not really a teacher. I am a musician. I always had difficulties with the universities. For political reasons I guess. But who knows.

The technique that I learned is, Let the students do the work. I decided I never want to do private teaching with one person, but always groups of people. That used to work very well. I just started discussions. Provoking and waiting. But now students are afraid to talk. They have become different from what they were. Students at that time were coming to me saying that they learned a lot, and so did I. Nowadays they say, “I payed money to go to the school. I want to get something worth it, and not listen to political propaganda.” So teaching and I do not really work out. If I were—ahem—a vulgar marxist, I would say it’s capitalism.  

In one interview, you said, “It’s bad enough, that the avant-garde has crumbled so simply and without sound. But the fact that capitalism still hasn’t been defeated either, that can get you down.”

There is a new era in capitalism: consumer capitalism. Not just exploitation of the working class, but the double exploitation of the people who pay for it. You can even say that it is turning into a new kind of slavery. Amazon slavery. This is not just capitalism. There isn’t even a word for it.

Your two most famous pieces are probably “Coming Together” and “The People United.” Both deal with the subject of achieving freedom through limitation. In “Coming Together,” you quote an inmate in Attica who writes in a letter that he has never felt as free as he does in jail: “I am deliberate—sometimes even calculating—seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.” The compositions mirror the interplay between freedom and limitation, trading through-composed passages with improvised sections.

Exactly, it is about being as free as possible in an extremely confining situation. We won’t analyze the piece now, there are people who have done that before. But improvisation is natural for me—I improvise on Schumann or Bach. And in my pieces there are often improvisations next to strictly composed parts. I do not care about contemporary music, this word is nonsense. And I also don’t know what we call freedom today. The original meaning of that word is that you are not a slave. But how can you say that you are not a slave? My grandchildren would be ashamed to see me with my old telephone. Without a smartphone, they would not be humans.

For “The People United” you chose variation form, which presents many limitations. Was that intentional?

Yes, but I am not the composer of this piece.

So who is?

Sergio Ortega! I am just the arranger, my piece is an arrangement. It’s true. It’s actually a piece of serial music, composed with a rather elaborate plan.

People call themselves composers. It seems like somebody who claims ownership. And it is basically about money, about the composers’ union. Of course they are basically thieves, just like publishers and record companies. I would be happy to see the entire copyright system disappear.

How do you feel about your own recordings?

I’ve done plenty of them. But I hate recordings. I think they should only be documents of a real musical event. I don’t like when it’s done in the studio. I think it should only be what happened, including noises, wrong notes, children crying. All of this is real. But the recordings that are made in studios where all of the wrong notes are edited to me is completely wrong. It’s not real, it’s fake!

I recorded “The People United” a number of times and then took the best version. In this piece in particular, it’s long and it’s difficult—the pianist gets tired. And I think it’s important to hear that. When it’s recorded in the studio you don’t hear this physical fatigue that is actually part of this music.

What’s your favorite part about getting old?

Being alive is the best thing! Because some people don’t get old, they die. Already being alive is great. There are good and bad things about being old. Of course I suffer, like many old people do, from anxiety, depression, all theses things I know about. I still get depressed or anxious. There are certain ways of dealing with it. One of them is working—the main one. Another is humor. Sigmund Freud has a great book about humor, and he has many examples of jokes: like the man who has been taken out for execution on a Monday morning, saying, “This is a fine way to start the week” [laughs]. One thing about getting old is that you can laugh about it. It really is a way of surviving. If you can laugh about getting old, you have a better chance of getting older.

Do you ever think about your “legacy”?

I have a very good friend in Japan, Yūji Takahashi, a great composer. One time I wrote to him, “What are we going to do with our music?” And he wrote back, “It is very simple, you die, and then they throw you in a hole and forget about you.” I call this wisdom. It’s nothing really new—it’s the obvious. You get old and you learn to accept it. People tend to deny the obvious, to not believe in what they see.

Back to “The People United” for a second. Like the Goldberg Variations, your piece also ends with a reprise of the theme. Were you drawing a connection?

Certainly. The Goldbergs are one of the great masterpieces of all time. I did my final exam at Princeton University about them. The formal similarities are obvious, even if there are 33 instead of 36 variations.

36 is also number you find in Mendelssohn’s “Lieder ohne Worte.” I came across a copy of them and realized that they are one of the old masterpieces, which very few people seem to know about. People consider it to be not serious music. But it is very serious! There are 48 of them, eight books of six songs. But the last two books were selected by the publisher after Mendelssohn’s death. The work that was published during Mendelssohn’s life time contained the first six books, which means 36. 36 is a number which is important in Kabbala, in Jewish mysticism, and also the title, “Songs without words.” Mendelssohn wrote them around 1840, referencing niggunim. Certainly his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn, the great philosopher, introduced him to that. They’re songs without words. I don’t know many people who play these songs, and I don’t know why. They are masterpieces.

Do you have an overarching belief system that helps you make artistic decisions?

The important thing is not to listen to anybody who tells you to do this or that. Artistic work is different from other forms of work. In most forms of work you have to do what you have been told. Like flying an airplane, you have to do it the right way. A soldier has to follow orders. Almost any kind of work has rules to follow. Artistic work is different. There are of course many people telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. But you shouldn’t listen to them! I follow the advice of Frank Sinatra: “Do things in your own way.” I mean you can do what people tell you to do, but you won’t write good music. You’ll end up writing something like Philip Glass. And even worse: You’ll be like Philip Glass, but you will never be Philip Glass.

Would you say you’ve found a unique style as a composer?

I could never find my own style, no. I have never done anything original. Everything I’ve done I’ve stolen from other people. I mean, Mozart also stole right and left, and so did Bach. All good composers were thieves. It’s totally normal. You pick up something, do it your own way and it no longer belongs to anybody. This idea of genius is absolutely irrelevant to art. Genios in the original latin means daemon. It is something that everybody has! So it is the opposite of our concept of it. It is a meaningless word today.

You know, we know who made the famous sculpture of the face of Nofretete from ancient Egypt. We know his name, which is very unusual. He was the royal sculptor and specialized in old women. When you see this face, you see something that you don’t see in any other reproduction: she has bags under her eyes. She is a classic beauty, but there are things wrong. Of course it’s about death. And this is extraordinary. This person was the Michelangelo of his time. He left space for the wrong. ¶