North American Ballads and Squares (Frederic Rzewski)

Frederic Rzewski’s contribution is impossible to sum up gracefully. Indeed, the list of those who truly have the measure of the man and his output must be an unusually short list indeed.

The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is firmly established in the canon, an epic set of variations performed and recorded by elite concert pianists. Modern superstar Igor Levit included The People United next to Bach’s Goldberg variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli variations for a deluxe release on Sony Classical. However, anything apparently straightforward about a typical “great composer” narrative is quickly undone when comparing Levit’s award-winning release with Rzewski’s own performance from the same year, where he played the whole thing on an upright at a Pittsburgh fish market. The flyer for that event is the greatest gig poster of all time.

In the DTM survey Write it All DownThe People United is ranked alongside Ives’s Concord Sonata, the Copland Variations, and the Barber Sonata.

However, in my private pantheon, The People United actually occupies second place. In 1991 Rzewski recorded Squares and North American Ballads for Hat Art. I used to guard my copy jealously, for it was very hard to find (although now it is on all the streaming services). Upon hearing of Rzewski’s death, I went back and listened again with fresh ears and a fresh sense of wonder.

When composers or practitioners oriented towards notation try to move American music forward, rhythm usually takes a distant second place. In the context of a substantial fully-notated score, only a few have understood African-based techniques. The CD North American Ballads & Squares argues for Rzewski’s inclusion in the Scott Joplin, James P. Johnson, and George Gershwin side of the lineage, with powerful pulsation found in the composer’s own performance and groovy written-out syncopations accessible to interpreters who are less rhythmically gifted.

The scores of both Squares and North American Ballads are bundled together as part of the Zen-On Piano Library.

“Squalls.” The composer’s notes declare, “Not only is each individual piece a ‘square’ in that it is based on a symmetrical grid of eight times eight bars, but the set of four pieces also constitutes a ‘square,’ since all four are based on the same structure and have the same duration….Having imposed this formal limitation on myself, I tried to create a situation which each piece would be as different as possible in character from all the others.”

Diverse as they may be, the pieces are unified by a certain spiky harmonic attitude that is definitely “Rzewski.” The opening “Squalls” is almost unpromisingly avant-garde: a bit of storm blowing through the hall before the composer settles into more obviously charismatic ideas in the next three pieces. Rzewski credited David Tudor as an influence on his red-blooded approach to the instrument.

“Hyenas.” Obviously, something of Béla Bartók, but — crucially — also something of Duke Ellington. The dominant seventh chords that show up in the right hand are Ellington chords, especially when used as parallel percussive chimes. The first climax is noted in 3/4 swing rhythm, it really sounds like “jazz.” Eventually the performer is directed to improvised in the style of the piece. Yeah!

“Noctamble.” Starts as a jazz ballad: Thelonious Monk gone further left. Bartók’s “night music” effects are another reference. Those two antipodes, bluesy melodies and chattering insects, fight each other across six virtuosic pages. Periodic thumps (including the last gesture) are written in 12/8 and suggest a classic jazz ride cymbal beat.

“Sideshow.” As far as I know, Rzewski never mentioned the name “Lennie Tristano” to an interviewer or in a program note, but this amusing work seems to be a gloss on Tristano. The opening polytonal gesture is related to Tristano’s “double-diminished” harmony, and then the left hand starts up with a bona fide walking bass line. Whether he was actually thinking about Tristano or not, Rzewski is absolutely writing “jazz” for the concert pianist.

The title is ironic, so is the music. When classical composers make jokes with jazz, it is usually a bad thing. In this case, the pianist’s beautiful performance ensures that all will be forgiven.

“Dreadful Memories.” The best-known Rzewski works after The People United are the North American Ballads. Paul Jacobs commissioned the set for an important LP, Blues, Ballads & Rags, which also included music by Aaron Copland and William Bolcom. Jacobs was a great artist, but his performance sounds like a classical pianist. When I listen to Rzewski play crunchy eighth notes during the opening paragraph of “Dreadful Memories,” names like Ray Charles or Richard Tee come to mind. (He recorded it twice; the later one on Nonesuch is good too, but the pianism on the Hat Art is perhaps more fearless overall; certainly the reproduction is more direct.)

Once the old tune is overtaken by “dreadful” events, atomized and distraught, a comparison to Charles Ives is obvious, for Ives authored that fundamental conceit of American music, a hymn tune marching unheeded through an otherwise dissonant texture.

“Which Side Are You On?” The old tune concerns organized labor and crossing the picket line. When Rzewski wrote these pieces, a battle was raging in so-called “new music” between the old avant-garde (Stockhausen, Boulez, Carter, Babbitt) and the incoming minimalists (Glass, Reich, Riley). Along with Ligeti, Rzewski was a serious diplomat, at least in the sense that he saw value in drawing from both sides. During “Which Side Are You On,” the debate plays out in a laughably literal way: All these years later, the moment when the opening discordant texture is replaced by a pure C minor vamp remains shocking. How dare he?

Rzewski then suggests that the pianist improvise for as long as the preceding written material. In the Hat Art recording the improvisation is tonal, modal, almost Keith Jarrett-ish. After the improvisation, Rzewski writes a series of jazzy “So What” chords (I’m not kidding) before the final dour statement in the manner of a mid-century communist composer such as Shostakovich.

Some of the best Rzewski improvised cadenzas I’ve heard are on his record of his radical friend Cornelius Cardew, We Sing for the Future!

A discussion of politics is inevitable when considering Rzewski. Part of what he espoused was belief in the people and down with the elites. Unlike 99% of those who take part of “classical music,” the maestro walked the walk as well as talked the talk. His fish market performance was hilarious but it was also a socialist coup. Most of his scores were uploaded to IMSLP for free.

However, nothing in Rzewski is obvious, perhaps unlike Cardew, who drastically simplified his music when when seeking “for the people” ideals. Paul Griffiths wrote memorably in Modern Music and After: “…Progress now, for Cardew and composers who thought like him, could only be political progress, and music must relinquish all its hopes and histories in order to serve that cause.” 

The same could never be said of Rzewski. Few composers of his generation interfaced with multiple “hopes and histories” as deftly. It requires true humility for an American “classical” musician to take on black music. An experienced practitioner has to return to a beginner level and study, for a lot of basic skills in black music are much harder to acquire than basic skills in European music. But: the people united will never be defeated.

“Down by the Riverside.” All the elements come together for the ultimate expression of Rzewski’s pianistic art. The stroll through the opening statement swings hard, the deconstruction is pure madness, and the apotheosis is incandescent.

In the final pages, a return of the tune in the tenor surrounded by bass and filigree, the famous “third hand” effect, draws a line back to older pianist-composers like Leopold Godowsky. Still, Rzewski doesn’t sound like a European classical pianist when he’s grooving along: he sounds like American musician in command of the beat. There are little fumbles here and there (the music is very difficult) but the groove never falters: Thus, those fumbles become just another way to play the blues.

“Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” A popular programmatic piece. The machine as music, yet also the machine as threat. Concerning the source tune from the 1930s, Rzewski notes, “The text is about working conditions in the textile mills of North Carolina, probably not too different today than they were then.”

Sujin Kim has written a helpful analysis about North American Ballads. In his interview with Rzewski, an off-topic aside remains at the top of the transcribed discussion:

“You have faith in a machine.” This obviously disbelieving comment sums up something about Frederic Rzewski, who did what he could to promote a humane point of view in the fields of pianism and composition. I look forward to reading a smart commentator’s analysis of Rzewski’s complete work in all its unruly glory.