Thursday, September 01, 2011

Frederic Rzewski Interview

I have been spending some quality time during the past few days looking at and listening to the music of Frederic Rzewski, while helping the good people at the IMSLP's Petrucci Library and the Werner Icking Music Archive with their colossal merging project.

(You can help too.)

Rzewski is a composer who never "crossed over" into using computer notation software. He never embraces fads or writes in a formulaic way, and, as far as I can tell, he never stops writing deeply expressive music. He's a fantastic pianist with a wonderfully sensitive touch, and his view of the place of the 20th century in the grand scheme of all things musical is illuminating. The passage below comes from an interview he did with Daniel Varela in 2003 for the online music magazine Perfect Sound Forever.
. . . I believe very strongly that live music, as opposed to recorded music, will continue to survive and recorded music will collapse. I think perhaps the 20th century will be regarded by future generations like the "recording century," which leads to confusion between a work of art and its industrial reproduction. In a way similar to the notion of the ancient Egyptians about life after death (a very strange idea), in the 20th Century there was the strange idea that it was possible to freeze the music into a piece of plastic which you could then buy it in a store. I think that we have had some kind of return to a more traditional view, namely that music is something that one does, not something that comes to you. It's some form of activity so I think that we'll find new forms of folk music, something that appears spontaneously.

One of the things that I'm personally interested in is writing- writing as opposed to recording, a form of projecting ideas potentially far into the future which is something that recordings cannot do. It's been said that recordings are forever and do not change, but maybe in the future, we will discover new means of recording. Today, we have CD ROMs and things like that but it seems that even they are very primitive means. They're primitive if we compare them to a simple page of music. One of the interesting things about writing is that it's possible to define structure very, very precisely and at the same time, by doing it in a such way, it is still capable of a multiplicity of interpretations all of which can be equally interesting. This is the reason to see Beethoven as a master. Beethoven could be interpreted in different many ways and we know that future generations will discuss how to play the "Hammerklavier" sonata.
You can visit the Rzewski IMSLP page (still in progress and growing every day) to have a look at PDFs of his music. You can also watch and listen to him play some of his piano music here, listen here, and visit his page in the Werner Icking Music Archive to hear more performances and see more scores.

Here's a piece for four violists to play while reciting Shakespeare called Fortune (the versatile violists are Leanne King, Dominic De Stefano, Michael Davis, and Sara Rogers). Here's the score.


The Wistful Pelleastrian said...

I believe very strongly that live music, as opposed to recorded music, will continue to survive and recorded music will collapse



Dream on, Mr. Rzewski.

That will never happen. Recordings will always have a place and continue to be made and cherished by all music lovers. In my case, without recordings I could never have become an opera nut.

Besides, at its best, classical music is a solitary and personal experience. It's between just you and the sound coming from the orchestra / quartet / instrument / vocalist... The fact that there are few hundreds of people sitting in the same room with you doesn't add anything to the experience.

Elaine Fine said...

All of Mr. Rzewski's recordings in the WIMA are concert recordings. Yes, they are are recordings, and if the concerts weren't recorded, most of us would never get a chance to hear this music.

Much of what we hear on new commercial recordings, classical or otherwise, is the result of a lot of time and a lot of work on the part of producers and recording engineers. Much of what we hear in pop music is impossible to replicate in performance because of the multi-tracking of voices and instruments, and the presence of electronically-generated instruments. When a solo singer is also singing all the back-up tracks, there is a certain character to that sound that some people find very attractive. The voice is a unique thing, and imitation doesn't cut it when you're used to duplication.

With classical recordings (and that includes opera recordings) there are always issues of manipulated balance, as well as issues of splicing cuts from various playthroughs together, and correcting faulty intonation with the computer manipulation of a sound wave.

The quality of the recording equipment is ultimately more important than the quality of the instrument that a person is playing. A great (and expensive) microphone can pick up qualities of a great instrument that a less expensive microphone cannot. Microphone placement has everything to do with the experience and musical sensibilities of the record producer.

I'm sure that you enjoy the experience of hearing recorded music because it is what you are used to. Sometimes I prefer to listen to operas rather than see them, because my ideas of stage direction and costuming are preferable (to me) than the state director or the costume designer, but the experience of hearing a great unamplified voice in a hall is not comparable to even hearing a recording of a great singer.

What Mr. Rzewski is talking about is the eventual demise of the recording as a superior musical "object," because it is actually static. It is like a photograph of a musical experience. There are so many factors that need to be in place in order make a reinterpretation of a performance of a piece that is not notated that was captured and rendered onto a recording.

Perhaps if all the components of the recorded performance were notated in score form on paper, the recorded object could be "repeated" and reinterpreted by other people. But then we're talking about notated music, and that proves Rzewski's point.

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

Thanks very much for that quote and your elaboration in the comments. I really hope he's right about live music. I sometimes think recorded music, for good or ill, has/will affect society on a quasi-evolutionary level after millennia of people having to make music if they or someone else wanted to hear some.