The famous composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski, who died last year, was praised for the committed nature of his left-wing politics and music.
On the political front, he tended to take the reins—whether writing a series of variations based on a Chilean workers’ song (in “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”), or the high notes of today’s classic culture undermined by playing at a fish market. He also distributed his scores online, free for any player to read.
He could also be harsh and demanding in his artistic judgments. But one thing Rzewski wasn’t known for was romantic gestures with a capital R. So when pianist Lisa Moore introduced one of Rzewski’s last pieces at a Bang on the Can festival at Mass MoCA last year, there was a surprised mutter. in the crowd when she mentioned the work was a 60th birthday present — one commissioned by Rzewski by Moore’s husband, the composer and educator Martin Bresnick. (Bresnick has also mentored multiple artists in the Bang on a Can universe.)
to ask this one artist to write something for your wife’s birthday? Risky (if inspired). But when Moore started playing the 15-minute “Amoramaro,” it all started to make sense. There were spiky, modernist shards from other Rzewski pieces, as well as arrows of disarming warmth. Watching that premiere, I wrote that the composition deserved an official recording from Moore.
“It’s like an old man looking back at his musical life,” Moore said of “Amoramaro,” in a phone interview from her home in New Haven, Conn. That musical frame of reference also includes a look back at motifs from past efforts, as well as what Moore calls “sort of Beethovian quotes.” Also present, to my ear, in the aesthetic mixing bowl: Rzewski’s youthful experience as an early interpreter of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s experimental piano music.
However, the lushness of some of his chords is what strikes me most on repeated listens. And that’s partly due to Moore’s general approach to Rzewski, which often allows for a wider range of emotions than other interpreters allow, including the composer.
However, Moore said that Rzewski’s instructions at the top of his handwritten score were candid about the degree of freedom others could bring to music: “Love has no laws; therefore dynamics, rhythms, everything can be changed at will!
“He had a very free attitude that way,” Moore said in the interview. (She knows from experience, having played Rzewski’s music for him as a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars in the early 1990s.)
In an interview, Bresnick described an extensive and enjoyable back-and-forth with Rzewski during the design process, including about what kind of ending the piece should have. “I’m also a composer — and I was surprised he wanted something like that,” Bresnick said. “I wanted to say something, but I didn’t want to overdo it, so I finally said to him, there are endings in Chekhov and other great writers where it’s the end of the story, but we know the story continues.”
For Bresnick, the composer’s solution is particularly pleasing. “It’s an end, but it’s not ‘the end’.”
While playing her 60th birthday present, Moore found herself lavish in Rzewski’s invitation to change dynamics and rhythms “at will.” “If you let things dissolve, if you really let the harmonies sit, the next harmony that comes in so often is something that changes like a kaleidoscope,” she said. “It’s just shifting and changing the mode. It’s really very smart.”
There’s something equally clever about the balance of Moore’s new album. The title track, “No Place to Go but Around,” is an extended, early Rzewski effort from 1974 (right before “The People United”). The only other official recording is Rzewski’s – available on an obscure vinyl release from the late ’70s.
On that LP, Rzewski’s composition shared space with his interpretations of piano works by Hanns Eisler and Anthony Braxton. While the composer’s version of “No Place to Go” offered some stark interpolations of the Italian labor movement song “Bandiera Rossa”—another political reference—Moore’s rendition really lets that borrowed tune ring through, toward the end of the 12th minute.
Moore said her recording was a deliberate attempt to underline the beauty of the composition, adding, “I also want people to be invited and not pushed away.”
That inviting quality of Moore’s album extends to her latest performance of “Coming Together,” one of Rzewski’s most well-known contributions to the modern repertoire. The text comes from a letter from Sam Melville, the leader of the prison revolt in Attica. But unlike some incessantly galvanic renditions of this minimalistic-tinged composition, Moore’s solo voice-and-piano approach takes dramatic attention to references to the “emotions of lovers in times of crisis” present in the literary source material. (Moore is a skilled hand in Rzewski’s work for singing – or speaking – pianists, having recorded his setting of Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis”.)
Equally striking is her take on the rarely heard “To His Coy Mistress,” a setting of Andrew Marvell’s 17th-century poem. Moore’s playing is meticulous when it comes to the compact three-act structure of the music (and the lyrics); she hits the throttle with controlled force just before she reads the line “But in my back I always hear the winged chariot of Time approaching”. Later, the word “embrace” activates a new reflective mode.
So is this a hidden “Rzewski for Lovers” album? In an email, Moore wrote, “I have indeed consciously thought about bringing out the more romantic side of Rzewski’s music, sort of a softer approach – because it’s there, in the material and often just below the surface. (Just like him–he was human–behind all his roars.)”
And while the composer was famous for his political views, Moore’s interpretations help to emphasize the elusiveness of these works. “In his music, he often disguises and disguises politics in a way that I quite admire,” she said. “It doesn’t overlook the obvious. It is intertwined with a song or a letter and it is up to you to understand what the meaning is.”