The first question is easy: How do you pronounce Rzewski? (Answer: "zheff-skee.") Then we get the tough one: What makes him tick?
Composer-pianist Frederic Rzewski can't be pigeonholed. As a composer, he doesn't play the puppeteer, pulling the strings of performers from the creator's omniscient perspective. He's hands-off, allowing ample room for improvisation, showing a keen interest in the needs of the people who perform his music. "Fred very much wants to know about the musicians he's writing for," says Dan Gustin, director of the S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. "He's not just writing for a vibraphonist, a saxophonist, a violinist."
In classic Rzewski style, the composer spent some serious time working with the group Opus 21 on a new piece, Natural Things. While collaborating with the performers, Rzewski learned the best way to fit such eccentricities as a singing saw, narrations, chant‹and even a megaphone‹into the piece. Out of this collaboration, Rzewski crafted 49 "little moments that are all strung together," says Opus 21 musical director Richard Adams. The piece conjures up the infamous 1886 Haymarket Massacre‹a labor rally in Chicago that turned tragic‹commemorated yearly on May 1. Appropriately, Natural Things receives its New York premiere on Rzewski's Making Music recital this May 1.
On the other hand, Rzewski is also, quite literally, a hands-on composer, with piano chops to match any virtuoso's. "He's a major pianist," Gustin says. "He's a monster." And in his recital, Rzewski takes to the keyboard to perform Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, in which he also serves as narrator. The piece begins with eerie rumblings in the low piano register, dappled with erratic, higher pitches; the effect is like rain falling on an old, lumbering train. At times, the performer's hands resemble a furiously laboring worker's rather than those of a refined pianist; forearms and elbows crash down on the keys. Sometimes Rzewski uses the piano like a machine‹a series of bolts, knobs, and levers to be clunked, grinded, and prodded.
A self-avowed staunch left-winger, Rzewski wrote Stop the War! immediately after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and much of his music is charged with political themes. Attica, on his May 1 recital, is a response to the riots in the infamous New York prison. In it, the composer intones the words "Attica is in front of me," originally spoken by a released Attica inmate. The spoken word, in fact, often creeps into Rzewski's music, and in his Making Music concert, Rzewski will introduce even more spoken commentary into his performances than usual as he shares his thoughts on his compositions.
"The final mystery is oneself," Oscar Wilde once wrote, in lines admired by Rzewski. On May Day, the composer, who turns 70 this month, gives us a glimpse into the mysteries of his own rich life‹into what makes him tick.