The Rumpus Interview with Frederic Rzewski


Frederic Rzewski is one of the most original and brilliant American composer-performers on the scene during the last half-century. His The People United Will Never Be Defeated, a set of thirty-six variations on Sergio Ortega’s El pueblo unido jamás será vencido, is an iconic work of the piano repertoire, as are the Four North American Ballads. Frederic is a very prolific composer, having written a great deal for his own instrument, the piano, as well as works for orchestra, for the theater, and for various conventional as well as unique combinations of musicians, such as Les Moutons de Panurge, which is scored for “any number of musicians playing melodic instruments and any number of non-musicians playing anything”.

I spoke with Frederic about his music, his piano playing, and about being a composer. In his earlier years, Frederic lived in New York but for quite some time he’s been living in Brussels. Unlike a great number of composers, Frederic has largely stayed away from academic circles, although he has occasionally worked with students for extended periods of time at institutions such as Yale University and the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. I spoke to him in Pittsburgh. He was there to play The People United Will Never Be Defeated at a rather unusual venue: Wholey’s Fish Market. Here’s a nice piece about the concert in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


The Rumpus: What if you were about to play The People United in an informal setting and someone said ‘I understand that the piece you’re about to play is an hour long and I’ve never listened to a piece of music longer than about four minutes. Do you have any suggestions for how to listen to it?

Frederic Rzewski: I just played The People United in Wholey’s Fish Market here in Pittsburgh.

Rumpus: Exactly. That’s why I’m asking.

Rzewski: Well, nobody said anything of the kind. But Federico Garcia, a young composer who lives in Pittsburgh, was there turning pages for me and I asked him to say what the piece is about; you know, Chile and so forth. I figured a lot of those people probably had never heard of Chile, so I said, “Who knows where Chile is?,” and some guy put up his hand and said, “It’s in the spice department.”

Rumpus: Ha! Well that’s what you get for playing in a fish market.

Rzewski: So I said, “Federico here is from Colombia, from ‘the open veins of Latin America,’ as Eduardo Galeano put it. Does anyone know where Colombia is?” and somebody said, “It’s in South Carolina.” Of course, that guy was joking. We ended up not telling them very much about the piece. Federico talked a little about the dictatorship and the context of the piece and so on, and it turned out that a lot of people in the audience knew perfectly well about this music and were savvy. But there were others who didn’t know anything about the piece—they were just casual visitors. So in that kind of situation I try to keep the words down; forget the palaver. That’s what I find most discouraging about a lot of new music concerts—when somebody gets up to talk. That’s when I feel like leaving. So I don’t say anything; let the music speak for itself. If it’s any good, somebody will get curious and start thinking about it. If the music is no good, why should they? Let the music defend itself; that’s what I say. No talk.

Rumpus: For someone unfamiliar with your music, what would be a good first piece to listen to? What would be a good introduction to your music?

Rzewski: Usually people listen to the pieces that have been recorded many times. And of those, there are about 25 or 30 recordings of The People United. Then there’s Coming Together, which can easily be found on YouTube. There are several different versions of that, some of which are not bad at all. Those two, I guess, are the ones that would be easiest to find. Just go on YouTube; there are lots of things, and of course I’m all for all of them! [Laughs] I prefer if people listen to things they’ve never heard before. There really are some good things on YouTube. Go there and see what comes up first. Of course YouTube is full of crap. If you don’t know anything about what you’re looking for, you don’t know how to make selections.

Rumpus: Yes, YouTube is great and awful at the same time.

Rzewski: Exactly. So you can have somebody who’s practicing in his living room or you can also find a great performance—how do you know? But there’s good in that: a listener has to make up his own mind.

Rumpus: I agree; with all of that out there, a curious listener is forced into critical listening, which is the beginning of real understanding. On a related subject: what about places to go to hear new music? YouTube is great but of course we want people to come and hear our music live. Where did you go to hear the newest music when you were a young composer?

Rzewski: Well, fifty years ago you had Darmstadt and these other festivals where if you were interested you could go there, which I did when I was 18. I heard Stockhausen and Boulez and Luigi Nono. I went to concerts in New York and heard David Tudor play John Cage and Morton Feldman and so many others. And then I started to do that myself. Young composers have to go and hear other composers their own age or a little bit older and see what they are doing.

Rumpus: On another subject, have you had the experience of people in the other arts—painters, sculptors, writers, multi-media artists—not being as familiar with the work of current composers as we composers seem to be aware of what they are doing? I ask that because sometimes when I’ve been a resident at the MacDowell Colony, I notice that those doing work in other fields were genuinely interested in what I and the other composers do but didn’t seem to have much knowledge. It seemed sad that they were so eager to find out at MacDowell, but, outside of that environment, they weren’t going to concerts of our music. What do you think about this?

Rzewski: Well, most of the painters I know are interested in music but that’s why I know them. Probably there are people out there who know nothing about music just as I don’t claim to know very much about what they do. And it’s not just those people. Music itself is also falling behind. There’s been a long descent ever since Brahms, I would say. Stockhausen was a good composer, much better than a lot of people who are around today—but he wasn’t as good as Richard Strauss who, in turn, was not quite as good as Brahms. So this is a long process that’s been going on for over a century. The interesting thing to me is that this is not just happening in the field of what you might call contemporary classical music but also jazz and pop music. I think most people would agree that the pop music of today is not as good as that of forty years ago. But the opposite seems to be happening in the world of performance. I think young performers of today are better than they were thirty or forty years ago. Why all this is happening is difficult to explain but it might have something to do with the Internet. You can push a button and hear Rubinstein or Horowitz and all the other guys; maybe that has something to do with the rise in the level of performance. The young players of today—especially those who play new music but also those who play what we call the classics—can play anything. It’s kind of like the phenomenon that athletes can run faster today. And this seems to be happening around the world.

At the same time, it’s all the more remarkable that the level of composing seems to be going down. Again, it’s difficult to say why, although it is true that a lot of music schools don’t teach counterpoint anymore. And even if they do, it doesn’t seem to be very effective because the people who are teaching counterpoint don’t know much about it themselves. And of course counterpoint is the basis of everything. This descent has been going on for quite a long time. I taught for a semester in Buffalo in 1989 and there were these PhD candidates there. You’d hear a piece by one of them that would start with a kind of theme, and then the theme would appear in another voice—and then it would fizzle out. So they were clearly trying to write counterpoint. So I asked them, “Well, have you studied counterpoint?’”They said, “no.” I went to the chair of the department and I said, “Here are these graduate students who say they’ve never studied counterpoint.” He said, “We don’t teach that anymore.” I said, “Well, what do you teach?” He said, “We teach set theory.” Now it’s twenty-five years later and set theory has come and gone, right? But you know, counterpoint is still there—it just isn’t being taught. That’s a problem. But even this doesn’t explain everything. Of course I don’t know all the young composers today, and it would be nice to be wrong—but you have to show me. As we were saying before, there is also the problem of where young composers go to hear music by colleagues their own age. Or for that matter, where any of us go to hear music by young composers.

Rumpus: Good. Let’s talk about today; let’s talk about New York. It’s still a very vital place for new music, wouldn’t you agree? There’s that great series of composer portraits at the Miller Theater in Columbia University. I think they do around one each month; that makes ten or eleven composers each year who get a really good hearing, and most of them are young or at least young-ish. There are all kinds of non-traditional places for concerts like clubs and bars where new music is being played and heard. There’s Le Poisson Rouge; there’s SubCulture, there seem to be new places in Brooklyn coming up all the time.

Rzewski: I guess that’s all true. I played last year in a place called Roulette, in Brooklyn. That was very nice; it’s a good place to play. There’s a good audience; there’s an excellent piano and the acoustics are fine—and they even pay you! Which is a very rare thing in New York [laughs]. No, it’s true. There are lots of musicians in New York and they’re all running around trying to make money. It’s a difficult life for musicians there, and there’s never enough time. No sooner do they finish a piece, they have to pack their instruments and run off to the next rehearsal.

Rumpus: What about there? You’re in Pittsburgh right now.

Rzewski: There was a group of young composers from here who came over last night. One of them is a labor organizer. He’s thirty-something. He said he studied at Bowling Green and he’s not interested in an academic career. He says there are no jobs anyway. So he’s a labor organizer; he works for the hospital workers’ union and they’re in the middle of a big strike now here in Pittsburgh. But he wants to go to Chicago. He’s not interested in New York. He says Chicago is the place where it’s happening.

Rumpus: He’s right. There are a number of new music groups based in Chicago and a lot of young composers who are doing interesting things there. But maybe there is still more variety in New York.

Rzewski: New York was a very interesting place when I lived there. Maybe it still is.


A great deal of Frederic’s music (recordings as well as scores) can be accessed here. This is essentially an online catalog of Rzewski’s works.

And even if you don’t read music, it’s fascinating to have a look at the score of Les Moutons de Panurge.

Joel Hoffman has been a resident artist at the MacDowell Colony as well as at other artist colonies, including Yaddo, the Aaron Copland House, the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France and the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy. For thirty-six years he was a Professor of Composition at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He is currently a guest professor at the China Conservatory in Beijing, China. He has also served as Composer-in-Residence with the Buffalo Philharmonic and the National Philharmonic in Washington D.C. and has received awards from the American Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts and ASCAP, among others. More from this author →