Milton Schlosser | Frederic Rzewski's De Profundis and North American Ballads

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Frederic Rzewski's De Profundis and North American Ballads

by Milton Schlosser

Politics, tolerance and daring meet, both in the music of Frederic Rzewski, and in the heart of the performance by Canadian pianist Milton Schlosser. The text for De Profundis is taken from Oscar Wilde's letter from Reading Gaol.
Genre: Classical: Contemporary
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  Song Share Time Download
1. De Profundis: I. Section 1
3:24 $0.99
2. De Profundis: II. Section 2
3:28 $0.99
3. De Profundis: III. Section 3
3:38 $0.99
4. De Profundis: IV. Section 4
4:53 $0.99
5. De Profundis: V. Section 5
3:55 $0.99
6. De Profundis: VI. Section 6
3:46 $0.99
7. De Profundis: VII. Section 7
4:31 $0.99
8. De Profundis: VIII. Section 8
4:54 $0.99
9. North American Ballads: I. Dreadful Memories
4:54 $0.99
10. North American Ballads: II. Which Side Are You On?
13:07 $0.99
11. North American Ballads: III. Down By the Riverside
12:23 $0.99
12. North American Ballads: IV. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues
11:07 $0.99
Downloads are available as MP3-320 files.


Album Notes
Music and Politics: A CD liner notes introduction
Written by Milton Schlosser (January 2000)

For fans of so-called “classical music,” the idea that music and politics are interrelated may at first glance be a troubling one, especially given the skepticism which greets politicians in the twenty-first century in most industrialized nations. Yet, from a broader perspective, “politics” can be understood more inclusively; it embraces not only systems of government, but also other structures of human interaction such as economics, class, the arts, religion, and gender. Prior to the nineteenth century, music and politics in Western Europe were seen as being closely connected; in general, music was composed for special occasions related to the church or aristocracy. That a musical composition’s meaning and existence were dependent on an event signified the social importance of music making throughout society and the personal relationships the creators of these compositions often had with their employers. When in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries musicians become more independent of the church and aristocracy and dependent instead on a “free” market of concerts and printed music, some composers and philosophers began writing about compositions as autonomous, as independent of social influences. It is a way of thinking about music that is still prominent today.

Music and politics. The two works featured on this recording—Frederic Rzewski’s De Profundis and North American Ballads—demonstrate how despite their supposed economic and artistic “independence,” compositions still continue to be inspired and shaped by social events, sometimes in unmistakably direct ways. De Profundis, written by Rzewski in 1992, is a work in which the pianist recites selected passages from Oscar Wilde’s letter from prison to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. North American Ballads, composed in 1979, consists of four movements, each of which is based on a song commonly heard in labour and civic protests in North America. Like so many of Frederic Rzewski’s works, these could be described as socio-political texts; Rzewski’s social conscience interacts and combines with Western European compositional techniques, his interest in “popular” and “folk” idioms, and his keyboard virtuosity to create an eclectic style which has been described as “human realism.” This style challenges views originating in the nineteenth century which see art music aesthetically compromised when linked too closely to social aspects or when given descriptive, literary, or programmatic titles.

Frederic Rzewski’s life, much like his compositions, reveals both the interaction between art and politics and how specific social contexts undergird artistic development. When I visited him in Brussels in 1999, Rzewski told me the fascinating story of what piano lessons with Charles Mackey in Springfield, Massachusetts were like. Growing up in the United States during the Cold War, Rzewski learned about important musical concepts through the Marxist Mackey’s political analogies, including how phrase shapings and dynamics needed to be as precise in their effects as “strategic bombing” during the Korean War. His later studies with the likes of Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, and Milton Babbitt while pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard and Princeton and his associations with classical and jazz experimentalists such as in the group Musica Elettronica Viva confirm his interest in a wide range of musical styles—an interest which is derived from his concern for those silenced, oppressed, or undervalued by society. This diverse musical background is widened in The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975), Rzewski’s first important work for piano. A compendium of twentieth century compositional techniques, it enlists within its hour-long frame such different styles as minimalism, neoclassicism, serialism, jazz, rock and folk music along with the tradition of improvising which has long been neglected in “classical” music. Together, these styles help to create an epic musical journey based on a song sung by Chileans to protest the CIA-sponsored military coup that toppled Salvador Allende’s government in the 1970s. This dynamic interaction between musical styles and social history tends to help thwart attempts to stereotype Rzewski; in his compositions he uses whatever means he deems necessary to convey the musical and social aspects of a work.
In De Profundis, Rzewski selects a creative array of effects and strategies to highlight passages from Oscar Wilde’s letter from prison of the same title. Wilde was at the height of his literary and social fame when charges of sodomy were laid against him by his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. The excerpts that Rzewski chose reveal the specific conditions of Wilde’s sentence to two years’ hard labour in solitary confinement, the writer’s thoughts on the role of the artist, and the importance of his same-sex relationship with Lord Alfred Douglass. From these excerpts, Rzewski constructs a complex, multidimensional work, requiring the flexibility on the part of the pianist to play and sing at the same time, a rare expectation within “classical” music. Further, Rzewski has the pianist produce other sounds, including breathing, grunting, singing, whistling, playing the piano and the pianist’s body as percussion instruments, honking a “Harpo” horn, and vocally imitating animals and musical instruments. Likened by the composer himself to an oratorio in eight sections, each preceded by an instrumental prelude, De Profundis was composed during the summer of 1991 for pianist Anthony de Mare, as a memorial to actor Luke Theodore. Because of Wilde’s various writings on art and politics, it may come as no surprise that Rzewski looks to Wilde for inspiration. On a personal note, given government, religious, and public views toward homosexuals in the province of Canada in which I reside, I have looked to the convictions found in this Rzewski-Wilde collaboration for inspiration and courage to be, of all things, a speaking pianist in a hostile environment.

Each of the four movements of North American Ballads further reveals the extent to which Rzewski summons whatever is necessary to invoke what he sees as the meaning of a musical composition, including its political or social dimensions. Commissioned by pianist Paul Jacobs, the Ballads contain the same creative, eclectic mix of styles commonly found in Rzewski’s piano compositions. Drawing upon techniques used by J.S. Bach in chorale preludes, Rzewski uses each of the melodies as the basis of his musical decisions. The histories of these melodies encapsulate some of the most poignant moments in twentieth century American history. “Dreadful Memories,” originally a religious hymn, was later sung by Aunt Molly Jackson in a version detailing the 1932 Kentucky coal mine strikes. “Which Side Are You On” originates at about the same time and place and was made famous by Florence Reese, who, at 90, eventually sang the song in the film Harlan County, USA. The spiritual “Down by the Riverside” was sung along with “We Shall Overcome” at protests against the Vietnam War. “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” is based on a song dating from the 1930s which tells of the working conditions of employees in North Carolina textile mills.

Within the second and third movements of North American Ballads, Rzewski suggests places where the pianist can improvise if he or she desires. In this recording, I attempt to use these opportunities to heighten the social protest histories of the melodies. In “Which Side Are You On,” I first improvise on this melody using a few styles drawn from The People United. This is followed by a setting of country megastar Garth Brooks’s “We Shall Be Free” in minimalist style. Musically, the beginning of this song’s refrain uses the same pitch structure as “Which Side Are You On” (although stated backwards). Politically, Brooks’s song ties into Rzewski’s concern with socio-political themes; in the early 1990s, a number of radio stations in the United States refused to play “We Shall Be Free” because of Brooks’s rumoured support of same-sex relationships (verse 3 begins “When we’re free to love anyone we choose”). In “Down By the Riverside,” I again improvise, this time on the spiritual “We Shall Overcome.” I conclude the improvised section by singing the first verse, literally following Rzewski’s suggestion for me to put “more of my own voice” in interpreting his works. For me, singing is one of those moments in this recording which makes me feel vulnerable and political; Classical pianists are trained not to sing audibly along with their playing, let alone speak, whisper, yell, whistle, and hit themselves in public. Like so many other effects required by Rzewski on the part of the pianist, my singing and improvising help to provide an encounter with my self—my interests and curiosities, my dreams, desires, sorrows, and fears. The encounter seems, on a broad social scale, to articulate one of the profound insights of the feminist movement: that, in life as in art, the personal is political. This, for me, is one of the beauties of the relationship between music and politics.



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