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The People United: The Pied Pianist September 25, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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Pianos don’t travel well. That’s why we have Mason and Hamlin, but no Pied Pianist. But with Web 2.0, anyone can now be a digital troubadour. Of course, we take our act to the web for different reasons. Some want fame, exposure, a record contract. Others are just looking for a sympathetic niche or coterie audience out there. In my case, I simply miss that feeling of accomplishment after connecting with a work of music so well you can perform it in concert. After sweating in practice, nothing compares to that high I used to experience, when I could run the course from start to finish in competition or in the company of friends and family.

Which brings me to the starting line of Frederick Rzewski’s pianistic marathon, a piece I’ll probably never finish, yet one whose technical demands will keep me occupied, and whose symbolic dimension, I think, will keep me keeping at it. The People United Will Never Be Defeated: 36 Variations on a Chilean Song has a title that makes it impossible to separate aesthetics and politics. The source on which the variations are based is the protest anthem, ¡El Pueblo Jamas Sera Jamas Vencido! by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayun, and through supplementary quotations of other popular political songs, The People throws its support to socialist movements past and present. The outlines of this cultural struggle emerge in the score through playing directions such as “with determination,” “recklessly,” “in a militant manner,” “optimistically.” At certain points, the pianist is called upon to whistle in reflection and in a moment recalling John Cage’s 4’11”, slam the piano lid shut. Yet if this work were intended as propaganda, why make the message so complex?

If there’s any musical work as encyclopedic in style as Ulysses is in literature, this is it. The occasion informing this piece is the coming together of conservatory-trained and folk musicians under the Unidad Popular coalition in the Chilean nation during the seventies just before Pinochet came to power. In tribute to this cultural moment, Rzewski aims at a synthesis of diverse musical practices both “popular” and “avant-garde.”

Admittedly, the classical tradition predominates here. Critics have compared the work to the Goldberg Variations on the basis that the final movement reprises the original theme (even though the same could be said of Beethoven’s Op. 109), and several variations (No. 3, for example) are indeed canonic in form. The architectonic structure to which every movement is subordinated also bears the strong impress of composers like Webern, Boulez, and Stockhausen. The thirty-six variations break down into six major cycles, each with six stages: “1) simple events; 2) rhythms; 3) melodies; 4) counterpoints; 5) harmonies…” The sixth stage of each cycle recapitulates material from the previous five, so that each of the variations in the sixth cycle reprises its five corresponding sister variations.

Yet strong currents of popular musics keep the variations from spiraling out of the orbit of the intelligible. The rhythmic writing lends the variations a catchiness that is absent in the music of Rzewski’s fellow experimentalists. Several of the variations recall the phase music of Terry Riley and Steve Reich; others, early rock; others, still, reflect Rzewsky’s experience as a jazz improviser and the osmosis of Latin American folk music into New York. Only by some strange feat of alchemy are all of these elements successfully negotiated within the texture of the whole.

From start to finish, The People United takes about hour to perform, but a single-sitting performance is not at all my goal. No, I’ll leave that to the Ursula Oppens’ and Frederick Rzewski’s and the Stephen Drury’s of the piano world. I’m content right now to work piecemeal from one variation to the next, even if it takes me several years, posting a renditions and reflections and swapping them for improved versions at each leg of my musical odyssey in which I wear the closest thing I have to particolored shirts (my teaching attire) and see how many different pianos I can get my hands on.

Despite their technical demands, the variations are short, so that unlike with a piece with infrequent divisions, I can feel l am making progress. In the future, I suppose it would be possible to string together a number of such recording sessions to produce a complete, however imperfect, set. So with determination, I give you Rzewski’s theme (“With determination”).

Go to The People United: Variation I

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