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The People United: Variation I October 1, 2009

Posted by jeffclef in Uncategorized.
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The People United Will Never Be Defeated: Variation 1.

“Please do not unplug the humidifier…” That’s more or less what the white square on the piano reads. I’m pretty sure I left my music at home, because judging from the tucked shirt, I must have been teaching that day.

Continued from The People United: Theme

So, how do you start a variation cycle about the desire for socialist revolution? “Weaving, delicate but firm,” reads the instructions to the performer. That explains the incessant and caressing crossing of the hands. The theme is still discernible, but it has been atomized so that certain notes appear to jump up or down an orbital; we never hear more than one note at a time (monophony). And yet, despite the sparsity of this movement, the music bounces across all seven registers of the keyboard in under a minute flat.

Variation I (0:06)

Variation I (0:06)

Notes, though, aren’t the only thing that can be woven, and as the composer demonstrates, you can also “braid” different patterns of articulation, i.e. the way one attacks the notes. Four kinds of attack are featured here: legato (smooth), staccato (detached), tenuto (sustained), and accento (accented). Neither species of articulation, of course, is unusual by itself, but together, they conspire to turn this otherwise simple movement into a hand-eye coordination nightmare; the unpredictable accents certainly preserve something of the defiant attitude of the theme.

It’s quite possible that Rzewsky had Webern in mind here, since the latter also wrote a set of piano variations that tends towards the same kind of atomization. Yet in Webern’s variations, the movements come together through serial operations and though the residual echoes of strange and naked intervals. The interest of this variation, however, lies in the means rather than the effects. Pixellating the theme to its barest outlines, this variation uses that economy to dramatize the material extremes of the instrument.

Go to The People United: Variation II

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