Meeting Rzewski

March 10, 2010

I remember when Frederic Rzewski came to visit us at Harvard in the composition seminar. I remember when Musica Electronica Viva came and performed at UW Madison. “The People United…” is emblazoned into my brain. I have the LP and he played it for us in the seminar. He reminded me that one shouldn’t ask questions about anything over 10 years ago as he doesn’t remember — which turned out NOT to be true, as he remembered plenty of amusing stories from his past.

Today he came to UCLA for a visit with our student composers. I was delighted to see a good turnout. FR was in great form. Cantankerous, funny, and blatantly honest about the various questions. Gloria Cheng served as the interviewer and did an excellent job. He doesn’t believe in styles (“some have them, some don’t”), there are no commonly accepted master composers in America, most young people are mostly concerned with money (“we thought our music could save the world, we were wrong, but at least we believed in something”), and (and I agree), the 20th century was filled with technique-isms — methods not unlike machines for cranking out music. “Life is not symmetrical, logical, or necessarily always pretty. Music should imitate this.” Someone asked whether he knew a technique (sic) for freeing the mind of such machines: “Shut the door? Turn off the phone? Light some cannabis? Everyone has their own method.”

The most shocking story of the day was the history of his famous “The People United will Never Be Defeated.” Before he wrote the piece, he asked the composer of the tune itself, Sergio Ortega, whether he could use the tune in his piece, to which Ortega responded “of course.” The problem was: it wasn’t in writing. Ortega died of cancer in 2003. Ortega’s publisher refused to give Rzewski permission, so they now own Rzewski’s piece. Curious, maddening, but unfortunately, true. [Moral of story: don’t use or quote music under copyright without permission.]

[Photo of Rzewski (L) and Bourland (R). Bourland doing HIS best to also look cantankerous.]

Previous post:

Next post: