Music: Rzewski, Johnson, Whitman

Frederic Rzewski is best known for The People United Will Never Be Defeated, a more-accessible-than-most theme-and-variations piano piece. It takes a Chilean folk protest song and weaves increasingly complex structural and thematic variations on it in various permutations, but because the source material is so anthemic and accessible, it plays nicely as a modern Diabelli Variations, except that the composer has the utmost respect for the original theme rather than condescension towards it.

A friend pointed me to an early score of Rzewski’s, Les Moutons de Panurge, from 1968. (See the score of Moutons, and an interview with Rzewski.) Given any set of instruments, the idea is that increasingly (then decreasingly) large pieces of a single melody line are played by everyone in unison, starting off at a fairly zippy tempo and accelerating. Rzewski’s directions:

Always play loud, never stop or falter, stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost. Do not try to return to the fold. Continue to follow the rules strictly.

The point being that the musicians will inevitably get out of sync and the overlapping out-of-phase lines produce weird effects. I’ve never heard the piece and can’t find a recording–anyone know of one?

There must have been many other pieces written in recent years based on the idea of a score that cannot be accurately followed by humans, where the point of the score is to integrate mistakes, but the only other one that I know of (not being too familiar with this area) is Tom Johnson’s entertaining Failing: A Very Difficult Piece for String Bass. The text of the piece (spoken by the bass player while playing) explains the piece, and since it’s a short, funny piece, the recording of the piece at the above link is well worth hearing. Listen all the way through: Johnson has a good punchline at the end.

Finally, I’m late to the party on this one, but if you haven’t already, check out Brian Whitman’s A Singular Christmas, made with his mysterious Eigenradio software, which does some sort of statistical sampling of large amounts of music (in this case, Christmas music), and outputs some sort of sonic amalgam.

The question with all such conceptual works is: how much do you get out of the experience that you couldn’t get merely by reading the description of the work? In this case, a fair bit. With the exclusive use of Christmas music, the homogeneity of the input produces some eerily familiar, uncanny sounds. Joe Milazzo wrote up his response to A Singular Christmas at Bagatellen. My own reaction is less visceral and more sympathetic; hearing such sounds removed from their irritating contexts rehabilitates them. I wish there were a way to remove this sort of baggage from so many other kinds of sense data.

(Thanks for the pointers, Jason!)

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