Saturday, March 1, 2008
Performer’s Perspective: Allen Otte on Frederic Rzewski and The Fall of the Empire / John Lane
Frederic Rzewski’s The Fall of the Empire was written for and premiered by Allen Otte on June 14, 2007, at the Music 07 festival at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. The piece consists of a prologue and seven short acts. Each segment is a percussion solo with text spoken by the performer. Each text is set to a different solo instrument or a small multiple-percussion arrangement; in the later case, the instruments are chosen by the performer. The texts are from various and disparate sources -- some even seemingly unconnected to the topic:
Prologue (text by Thomas Jefferson)
Act 1: Angel Shoot (text by Rzewski)
Act 2: Monsters
(text by Charles Dickens, from “The Chimes”)
Act 3: Three Sons (text from Mother Goose)
Act 4: Global Warming (Rzewski)
Act 5: The Ground (Rzewski)
Act 6: Sacrifice
(Rzewski, with Bill Buchanan / G.W.F. Hegel)
Act 7: Sabbath (text by Mark Twain, from Shem's Diary)
The performer must portray a different character for each movement. The texts in The Fall of the Empire (if they are about anything) are about the fall of a great empire as it disintegrates from within. From Rzewski’s point of view, they clearly allude to the breakdown of the current American democratic, capitalistic, political, and foreign relations systems (e.g., the war in Iraq). I was present at Rzewski’s coaching and the premiere of this piece, and was fascinated by the depth of the composition, in both its socio-political commentary and its musical/textual intricacies. I interviewed Allen Otte in order to investigate more fully the socio-political content in the work and to better understand the ephemeral nature of the performance experience of Rzewski’s music, specifically through The Fall of the Empire.
The most striking insight from the performer's standpoint is the cumulative experience. The work, taken in total, reflects the different symptoms present in empires (not only currently, but throughout history) that crumble and ultimately collapse. When one looks at the totality of the composition — texts, music, character, set-up/staging — it becomes clear, at least to the performer, how the overall design serves the purpose of the work.
Music that addresses socio-political content can be a powerful tool for raising awareness about current, yet long-term and recurring, societal issues. The composer Herbert Brün states, “I see the membership of each human in a society as an existence that manifests itself by being either a product — an output of the society of which it is a member — or an input to the society (where the “or” is not exclusive). There is the nontrivial situation where a person is an output of society but, in being this output, changes it to such an extent in himself that when he now feeds it back, it turns into an input.” Rzewski provides us with just such an input to this system — our society — in creating an opportunity for this dialogue. Given the current socio-political climate in America now, it seems like a good time for that dialogue.
LANE: This new solo piece is dedicated to you -- you've had a personal relationship with Rzewski?
OTTE: I have known Frederic, seen him regularly and often for 30 years, and have played and coached quite a few of his pieces over that period. Two years ago we did the premier of Bring Them Home (two pianos and two percussion) with him. A year ago it was Spoils, "for a mixed band" -- a wonderfully interesting, quirky, multi-movement piece for unspecified instrumentation. I think some movements needed up to 12 or 15 people, others less. It all started with Les Moutons de Panurge back in 1973.
LANE: I know you have a profound respect for his work both as a musician and a composer. During these 30 years, what shaped your opinions/feelings toward this man whom many consider as an enigmatic, if not problematic, figure in new music?
OTTE: I regard him as one of the giant musical talents of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and this is based not only on his composition, but maybe even mostly on having seen him play the piano all these years -- having heard him play Bach and Beethoven, Boulez and Stockhausen, in addition to his own pieces. He is always playing new music by his friends -- Christian Wolff, for instance, or new music by young people, most recently Gao Ping. But especially to hear him play Beethoven, Shostakovich, and do those kinds of things is for me to realize where my depth of respect for this guy as a musician comes from. He is a consummate virtuoso of the traditions I revere.
LANE: Les Moutons de Panurge was a staple in your repertoire with Blackearth and subsequently with Percussion Group Cincinnati. How did you come to know the piece? Certainly you have developed some refined techniques in playing it over these many years. Perhaps you can talk about your experience with the piece on a personal/professional level.
OTTE: Rzewski brought the piece to Buffalo when he was a Creative Associate. This was a group of highly skilled professional musicians doing the newest music through Rockefeller grant money that paid people a yearly stipend to put on concerts at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Buffalo. They commissioned composers and had resident composers. Rzewski was a resident composer/player in ’71, I think, and that is how Garry Kvistad met him. Rzewski brought Les Moutons, which was then a pretty new piece and had only been done in these Scratch Orchestra things in Europe. Garry brought it to Blackearth the next year. After playing it on nearly every concert for our first season, Frederic asked us to record it in the spring of ’73 for the Opus One LP that also includes Frederic with some New York musicians playing Coming Together and Attica.
LANE: Christian Asplund points out in his article in Perspectives of New Music, "Frederic Rzewski and Spontaneous Political Music," that there are some specific socio-political phenomena that can be analyzed in Rzewski's music: class conflict, struggle and sacrifice, optimism vs. pessimism, change by evolution or revolution, and the power of the collective. Asplund makes compelling observations about these phenomena. Do you feel like this is true or that this experience exists in his music?
OTTE: I think there is a category of his work where the doers of the piece are intended to experience the social constructs. He might make something for the Scratch Orchestra of London, Les Moutons for instance, but by the time it gets to me for the Blackearth group some things have changed. In that piece I certainly experience what we're talking about in the sense of "Don't follow leaders, assert your own independence," and all of that. We've never played the piece without me telling the Rabelais story and how the analogy works, which then audiences enjoy tremendously; it is a long piece and if they don't know the story, even if they are amused, they’ll get a little impatient... this takes 16–17 minutes. I could have written a serious article that would have been a performer’s analysis of Les Moutons and all of the rehearsal techniques we worked out in order to be able to play that piece. For instance, what's the worst possible scenario? OK, let's create that and practice it over and over in case it comes up! [laughter...] All the different ways to bar it -- different places so that you can feel the beat in different ways; everybody is going to fall into [sings part of the last few notes] so you have to be able to feel it [sings again]. In order to do it as conservatory trained, serious musicians, there is real conflict. What we're doing is making a highly professional chamber music polished version of the piece; we’re not actually anymore in the space of his original conception. Now, this is more so in recent decades. Blackearth did some of this, but did not achieve the kind of clarity we achieved in more recent years. These days Rzewski comes back with recordings of garage bands in Turin or Moscow and is very excited about these things, the spirit and all that stuff. I'm not capable of doing it on that level. I can only do it as a high art, conservatory trained, chamber music player. This actually ends up applying to so much of this music.
So, that spills over immediately to, "Who's the audience?" Who are we doing this for? Certainly his experiences were different, when and where he was playing these kinds of pieces in Europe, in different kinds of venues. These days, we're playing in universities, in concert halls. The only kind of non-university place is going to be a contemporary art gallery with rich patrons, etc.... So, we know that's our audience and our audience is not the proletariat. It’s a significant aspect of the history of Rzewski’s music: think of the people who are totally and frighteningly disenfranchised in current American society -- for instance, the absolutely scary aspects of African American culture, what it has mostly devolved to for all the complex reasons it has arrived there. However, at the time of Frederic's Coming Together, you could take a text by a black prison inmate and set it in that kind of propelled way, but still an erudite way, and be able to play it to people who were listening to Archie Shepp and Coltrane. There would be a cross-over community. Malcom X, everybody was reading these things. It is preposterous that there'd be any kind of cross in these cultures now. So, if I know that I'm playing these pieces to university audiences what does that change? I give myself the excuse, sort of, that these are people who never experienced these things originally, who are more likely to vote, if you're still in that mode... Frederic is not. John Cage was not [laughter].
LANE: "If you stop voting, the politicians will leave." (laughter)
OTTE: You vote for them, it only encourages them!
LANE: I’m very interested to hear then how all of this connects to your experience with the new piece he wrote for you, The Fall of the Empire.
OTTE: The first piece to arrive from Frederic was the bass drum movement. That was the first one.
LANE: For solo bass drum, chime, off-stage radio, with a mysterious text by Dickens.
OTTE: Yes. Dickens!
LANE: When I first came to see you working on the piece you were using this charming, yet rather thin, old Italian bass drum. However, in the subsequent coaching and performance, you went with a very large concert-sized bass drum.
OTTE: I had a different idea of what a bass drum for a solo performer in this context would be than he did. When he arrived, he said he only thinks of a bass drum as something as large and deep as possible. His use of it here is wonderfully atmospheric with lots of stuff at the threshold of audibility. Of course it was immediately clear to me then as a better fit for what he was writing in this movement. And about the radio, he said he was a guest in someone’s house where he heard, ever so faintly, a radio coming from another room while he was lying in bed musing about this quite special Dickens text.
LANE: And I noticed you typed out all of the texts here as well.
OTTE: Yes. Partly, I did that because I was bothered by the accumulation, one after another, of these bizarre texts. You have to remember, each movement arrived separately over a period of months, and not in the order of final presentation. Every one was stranger than the next and I was worried: does he know what he's doing? Maybe someone should make him look at and read through all these things together. In one sense I was claiming that I had just typed these out for myself to familiarize myself with them. But, once I had learned them, why no send it to him? I guess I wanted him to look at them and say, "This is pretty odd, isn't it?" And all he wrote back was, "Yeah I don't know if they're any good, and if they're not, don't play them with text, or play the pieces you like without text, or don't play the ones you don't like or..." You know, wonderfully, frustratingly, typical Frederic.
LANE: Well, in his lecture, Nonsequiturs, which we saw at MUSIC 07 here in Cincinnati, he said afterwards, "It doesn't really matter what the texts mean. People infer meaning from them." And so he strings together all of these nonsensical things, these nonsequiturs, and plays music in between that has nothing to do with the texts, but inevitably people infer meaning and make connections between the music and text. And I think maybe the same is true of this piece. You can go through the text and it makes no sense on the whole, but when you are on stage performing, scratching around on the instruments up there, and saying the texts, it seems to make perfect sense. Somehow it makes sense!
OTTE: I suppose I'm the first one to end up experiencing that—to experience the totality of it. Then, feeling that my opinion of, my suspicion that just because he is an older guy and I have this lifelong awe and respect for all aspects of his career, and he wrote these iconic pieces—does it mean everything he puts on paper is right and great? He is a very prolific composer and writing all the time. He wrote 16 hours of music, or something like that, for The Road. I mean, come on, is that all great piano music? I think not every one of those 16 hours are as good as some of his other music.
LANE: Yes, but isn't The Road specifically meant to be an extended “novel” for piano. Clearly this alludes to his great interest in music of the 19th century designed for home use. Collections that one could turn to any point, play the piece, then walk away from it. Maybe it is not intended to be a total immersion kind of experience? Perhaps it is like an episodic Dickens novel in that you can read an episode and walk away.
OTTE: Good point, but really is it possible for a composer, a musician of his stature, to honestly offer something like that? Will anybody in our society use it like that? Or are its only manifestations now bound to be CD's, with him playing some of them, other people playing others, doctoral dissertations analyzing parts of it, marathon concerts like great event birthday celebrations where they do the whole thing. I have seen him give concerts here and in New York playing whole sections of it, even over a number of days. Would anybody -- I think of some of the pianists I know who are interested in Rzewski -- just entertain themselves at home with it? I think anybody who gets that music is going to want to sell themselves and get concerts with the latest Rzewski piece as part of their repertoire. Well, that doesn't change the fact, for me, he has credibility as a musician at all levels, and “street credibility” as someone who really was in Paris during the ‘68 riots and played hundreds of improv concerts in all sorts of places throughout Europe; has, in fact, been invited and played music at specific workers' conferences and social events, and never betrayed his part in that history. Anyway, I was confused if not actually doubting.
LANE: You were actually unsure about this piece in the early stages?
OTTE: Of course, some things were immediately attractive and exciting, and I was just delighted to get them. But he is a very prolific composer and just because he wrote The People United, well, maybe this new work is not the next great piece. He’ll write a great piece again, but I was getting a little skeptical as the movements were coming in one at a time. Then finally to be able to look at the totality of it once it was all there, I was able to string them together, and I realized it was brilliant in a certain way -- for the topic it claims to be: the fall of an empire. Well, how does an empire fall? It rots from all different little points. Different points rot away further than others and finally the thing crumbles. It starts to teeter in different places at different times. A lot of that is purely where any given individual is at any given moment --the consciousness and conscientiousness and the internal machinations of a member of any certain strata of that society. This plays into the final picture. What is the society but its little individual pictures of what's going on? So, how would you make a piece about the fall of an empire? Well, one way to do it would be to have this patchwork quilt of all these crazy episodes/stories from quite different perspectives --every one of them would be a little bit odd. Some looking out and others looking in; some would look only one way or another, each one even unaware of any other’s existence. Then, furthering these disparities, each is for a different “instrument.” OK, percussionists could accept it as a typical contemporary percussion piece where we expect to go around and do all these different things. Yet, you know, it's funny, the first thing he said to me when he came in is, "Oh, you're going to be moving around?" Is that how he said it? Something like that. Kind of asking, but a kind of typical tone of voice from him—almost as if he was expecting something else.
LANE: Well, a couple of these movements were already performed, correct?
OTTE: Yes. He had a concert in San Francisco the week prior to coming to Cincinnati in which he tried out Prologue and the glock movement.
LANE: What I remember him saying when you did the pod rattle movement, when you were sitting on the stool, he said, "You're sitting down? You know, the other guy was moving around.” Like it hadn't occurred to him that someone would just sit and play the pod rattle, that you should be moving around and "using the space.”
OTTE: Yes, but it’s the pod rattle, not the person, that needs to travel through the air. But even before that he was talking about the set-up, like he hadn't really pictured how much space this thing was going to need, even though he had clearly imagined his way through each movement sitting at his kitchen table in Brussels. Almost as though he had some huge Zyklus kind of big multiple percussion situation in mind -- that you would be in one place and just turn and do all these things. I don't know that for a fact, but I got that impression that he was surprised that I was going to be walking to all these different stations spread out over the entire stage.
LANE: Considering what you have to do for each movement, you'd almost have to move around to different stations.
OTTE: Yes, I think so. But still, I was saying as a modern percussion piece it is not odd that one person would go and do all these different things. Yet, for anyone outside of the world of percussion to play a thirty-five minute solo means that, for instance, Frederic just sitting at the piano and playing or a violinist standing in one pose; one enters a world and pretty much stays in that world for the duration of the piece. With The Fall of the Empire you really go to very different places, crashing chimes, a little junk ballet, car parts... When I could start doing it as a complete set of pieces it really emphasized his good idea, the brilliance of how to convey this huge subject matter, "the fall of the empire." It had to be done through individual stories and characters, individual little touch-points, very disparate themes and places. Only then would you have accumulated all of this. And a distant observer would have to put all this together, what the various levels of decay in that empire are from those perspectives.
LANE: Much of the work is very dark, some would probably say pessimistic. This is one of the traits that Asplund pointed out in his article, yet with a twist. Rzewski’s pessimism is somehow optimistic towards change, if that makes sense?
OTTE: Some people did say exactly that, and felt it quite strongly. On the other hand, I was also actually surprised; I didn't think it was going to include anything funny. I was at first most disappointed by Global Warming. In an email from Frederic, he said, "I'm working on this piece called Global Warming." My wife Cynthia had just bought for me the Al Gore DVD [An Inconvenient Truth], and she said, "Oh, that's great. You're going to have a piece about global warming! Maybe you could show the DVD while you play the piece. You could get a concert at local high schools and talk about this important topic." I could hardly even tell her, well, the piece has arrived and Frederic’s first sentence is, "I don't give a shit about global warming." [laughter...]
LANE: This Global Warming movement does not specify the sounds, right?
OTTE: Yes, I think he says for four sounds, nor are there any dynamics. Now, is any percussionist going to actually play this on two tom-toms and two temple blocks?
LANE: The answer is yes, someone probably will! Or worse… (laughter...)
OTTE: So, is that OK? I think the piece would not be funny or powerful. Cage does this too, like in the Composed Improvisation for single-headed frame drums. He talks about it in some other context. The premiere of that piece had a wonderful player doing one after another elegant ethnic grooves, which of course had nothing to do with John Cage. But Cage is not going to put in the instructions, "Don't play typical middle eastern grooves," or "Please see my other music for..." any more than Frederic Rzewski, I think, is going to put, "Please use junked car parts..." In both cases there is a certain assumption on the part of the composer that they want this to be in the hands of cognizant and sympathetic people.
LANE: It is interesting to find humor in a work that is based on such a tremendously serious premise.
OTTE: I didn't consider the fact that there was humor in Global Warming. It only came later, when I was already doing it as part of the whole piece. Here’s a topic with a great amount of weight and importance, and the first sentence is this guy who doesn't care about it. You find out over the course of these few minutes that Rzewski paints a picture of a real character, self-absorbed, who is just mumbling and drifting off on tangents, from one tangent to another.
LANE: This character is the type who can't make up their mind about something. They just eat what they're fed, you know? It's curious. It is a duality—to take the perspective of someone who doesn't care about global warming. I guess he is saying that global warming is an important issue, but maybe he's not? Maybe it's a distraction from the larger problems of poverty and exploitation that he talks about in the other texts?
OTTE: I don't think we can know from this text or this piece what his personal feeling is about that.
LANE: What did you think about the content of the texts? Did you ever feel that it was too over the top, politically speaking, or that it was “preaching to the choir”?
OTTE: I was worried about these texts once I had them all written out, and especially confused about the concluding Mark Twain piece. I was thinking my colleague Jim Culley would know where these Twain things came from and might have a dispassionate view of the whole thing. So, I sent them to him and his reaction to just reading the texts was extremely negative. His concern was the preaching to the choir issue. I felt guilty for having sent him just the texts because that was not the piece; the piece is how Frederic uses these texts. Any auditor would certainly have a different feeling of it once the texts are in context. I would also be very curious—because Frederic said a number of times, "I knew who I was writing this for, this piece was written for you..."—to know what he was thinking about. Maybe he just had an image. We exchanged a lot of emails over those months, and he always said he considered the weeks of the Music X festival here as a workshop situation, and he was open to whatever might develop once we were together with the actual instruments. Indeed, that some of the pieces might be rejected altogether. He knew and had commented that, as opposed to some other very good percussionists he knows, I was not a bull in a china shop, that I was the opposite. For example, the piece Ground for five objects -- which I purposely stretched out as far as possible in a straight line -- just says to arrange them from left to right. That seemed to imply something about the act of touching them -- reaching for them -- more than anything about their actual sound. As with Global Warming, there are no dynamics, though he does say "fingers" at a couple of points, and also that an object could be a collection of objects. This is where the little pile of recyclables entered for me, and then the stack of cookbooks -- a kind of indoor complement to the outdoor car parts. I felt it was crucial here that I not include things already in the lexicon of percussive found objects, you know, flower pots and the like. Ground is also the only piece that has a significant improvisation in it; and also, by the way, the piece that he thought beforehand might be the weakest and least likely to make the final cut, turned out to be a big success.
LANE: OK, but why would you perform a piece like this if you know that you are performing for a mostly sympathetic audience? What purpose does it serve -- why do that?
OTTE: Well, partly I do it because I have a responsibility to generations of students, of next generations of people, who are for the most part not thinking about these things, or not experiencing them. I came to these things because I lived through the late 60's and early 70's when all of this music and social activity was a vital part of my college environment and all around me. It is not anymore, for decades of students that came after. At least I feel I can explain through exemplification. I can be involved in a kind of consciousness that makes it clear that choosing this career in an ivory tower of rarified high-level music needn’t necessarily divorce me from issues, concerns, and responsibilities, to awareness of other issues. All right, I play concerts in this setting, but I can play music that keeps these issues alive rather than choosing to play music that further isolates us from these issues. In that sense, it doesn't feel like preaching to the choir. After all, the choir is very small in these concerts anyway. I don't mean to make the comparison or sound pretentious; I don't feel that exactly. But I'm inspired by and awestruck with his artistry on all levels, including predominately that he knows his instrument, he knows his literature, he has the credibility for me. To do that doesn't mean you give up your status as a thinking, caring member of society, knowing that most people are so much less privileged. So, in my own small way I’ve wanted to take his example and do the same thing.
LANE: I noticed that in this movement -- maybe more than in any of the other ones -- the music is informed by the rhythm of the words. Did you find that to be true? I mean, it seems obvious, at least at the beginning ("and not nothing") where the written rhythms match the vocal rhythms. Maybe this is the first time where the rhythms relate to a rhythm you're playing. We talked some time ago about his 1984 piece To the Earth and of having a delivery that's too square or spaced.
OTTE: Would this then make someone give a performance where the rhythmic delivery is very obviously related to the text [Sings and taps out the rhythms at the beginning of the last movement].
LANE: You could say it just like that. I think that is a problem with performances that I’ve heard of To the Earth. The player is so confined by trying -- because of the notation -- to speak the words where they are indicated above the written rhythms.
OTTE: And of course I didn't speak rhythmically at all in that movement.
LANE: You seem to have a more freely flowing delivery and not much concern for the exact notated rhythms (when there are notated rhythms). I didn't even make the connection until now that we’re really scrutinizing the score. Now I see the syllables in the music and how they correspond to the written rhythms before and after the speaking measures. It makes me think of the Dan Senn piece, Peeping Tom, where the rhythmic activity of the text permeates the snare drum rhythms completely. That piece totally incorporates the text into the rhythmic activity and that is very obviously the idea. I can really hear the drum talking and saying those words in that piece. When I looked at this movement, I thought, here's the same sort of thing. But then that's the only time in the whole 30 minutes of the piece that the text and music sort of come together.
OTTE: So, it's just a question of...
LANE: So, is it just a question of performance?
OTTE: Yeah, so maybe it's more interesting if this is the only time it happens. Maybe it would be more rhythmic or...
LANE: It is curious that he didn’t indicate it.
OTTE: Right. Seems like something that may have occurred to him, but not something he would explicitly instruct. Actually, the last piece, with the Adam’s Family Chronicle text by Twain, is the most specific in its rhythmic notation of the text, much like he did years ago in To The Earth. I think in both this piece and the earlier composition you have to be very careful about not letting the rhythmic placement of the words turn the delivery into some monotonous chant. The rhythms are an aid for integrating the words to the percussion, but not to take precedence over a natural and expressive delivery. In this Twain setting, the instrument is so much less controllable than the flower pots of To The Earth. We had discussed the homemade ocean drum idea in emails and he had done things for himself at home. I tried and showed him many different things, ending up with a large thick-skinned frame drum with BB’s and a few ceramic pie weights.
LANE: Probably the most disturbing text is Angel Shoot.
LANE: Curiously, when you just read the text it sounds, well, ridiculous. In the context of the piece, though, it becomes scary or powerful somehow. Especially after you've played this very angular metallic vibraphone music. How do you feel about this movement in relation to the piece?
OTTE: This question is related to the issue of players experiencing the society in which they are functioning in many of his ensemble pieces. Throughout the whole of The Fall, I am consumed with and by my task as a professional musician. I put all my energies into finding the right sounds (where they are up to me) and accepting, rejecting and redoing all of that stuff, practicing the right pitches, trying to find the way to effectively integrate the texts and deliver the texts, how to be a better actor/communicator, etc… Those things are almost my only assignment. I mean, there are many assignments there, but as the performer/presenter of all of that stuff it means finding a voice, a character for the different movements. The religious fanatic talking about the ark at the end is clearly a different character than anyone who has come before, so that is definitely part of the professional assignment. But the experience of it is not that much different from any of us who play any piece of new music. When you play a piece by Ferneyhough you are busy. You've spent so much time practicing the intricacies of learning it and you know it so well yourself; you're invested in it. You love it and you know what's going on. Then someone asks you, "Is it a good piece?" Well, as yet I have no idea. As the doer of it your experience is singularly different than everybody else's experience. Other than deciding that I'm supportive of the ideas in the piece, that’s it. Now, if Rush Limbaugh has some composer that he likes as a person and wants to have him write a solo percussion piece with text, I think I'm not going to play that piece. It's not for me. So, I'm not going to get involved. (laughter...) Other than the initial assignment of accepting or rejecting what I read on the page and the responsibility of knowing where the composer's head and heart are, of wanting what he or she wants, I am the technical executer of the assignment. This is interesting because there will be people who come to The Fall and not have much feeling for all this crucial background; background without which you really can’t properly address even the technical requirements. But I would guess that even in Frederic's solo piano music it's the same thing, that as a soloist you're not always going to experience these social/psychological aspects so much as just needing to accomplish the technical tasks at hand.
LANE: Do you feel that you experienced struggle and sacrifice, a common theme in Rzewski’s work? I'd have to argue that you did struggle to choose the right sounds, etc... The vibraphone piece has technical difficulties, so there are various things that you have to go through there. However, these kinds of technical difficulties or struggles can be found in any serious 20th or 21st century percussion composition.
OTTE: To further that line of thinking, though, it is a different kind of challenge than standing and learning a marimba piece or standing and learning a piece like Zyklus, where it's still one big instrument. Here you go through these different incarnations, really switching gears. It is, and has to be, exhausting.
LANE: What about future performances?
OTTE: A number of the pieces, “acts,” as he calls them, are delightful and challenging as quite individual compositions. Yet, having experienced the totality of his concept, I’m sure it would be a little disappointing to have this input reduced to on or two four-minute offerings on a percussion recital. Given what we've said here about the meaning of all of this -- his wonderful and experienced insight that this particular whole would be best shown with a sum of parts so diverse as to be hardy even credible as an integrated set -- that is, the piece really does mean something. Well, I can’t imagine, either musically or socio-politically, excerpting just a couple of the "coolest" parts. But then, no one would be less likely to wish to prevent such a thing than Frederic himself; he will say to do what you want. You’ve experienced it from the outside, what do you think?
LANE: Well, I agree that a number of the movements would be perfectly delightful as individual pieces. It goes back to what you said earlier about choosing to play music that is relevant socially/politically. There aren’t many pieces like this. So if a person (read student) wants to get a taste of this, I do not feel there is a significant artistic compromise in choosing to do only a few of the movements. Also, an audience member who had not seen all the movements would not have the same point of reference. So why would it matter?
OTTE: It would only matter in so far as the missed opportunity to address the real subject matter here, the current event of the fall of an empire. To hear only one or two acts, even if they are cited as extracts from the larger work, must be a little like the old story of a number of different blind men describing an elephant: perfectly accurate for what one is able to report, but ultimately insufficient and thus a failure. Everyone would be left with some “delightful”—as we keep saying—parts, but no commentary on the whole.
LANE: You have often referred to the “good old days of new music.” I read in an interview of Rzewski’s observation about new music concerts – that new music concerts these days are not really presenting “new” music. He said he would go to concerts and hear pieces that were 30 to 50 years old, but the concert was said to be a “new music” concert. We can see clearly from his entire body of work that Rzewski is interested in issues. Do you think that music of this kind becomes irrelevant once the topic has moved out of public consciousness? For instance, what about Attica? Do you think that people would remember that event well enough to make a powerful performance of Attica or Coming Together? Clearly, these are pieces that are still done often on concerts all over the world, but they are now 30 years old. At what point does music become too old, that we shouldn't program it on a new music concert?
OTTE: Well, we get caught up in the history of classical music and one could even be sympathetic to the pianists. There is more and more music being constantly made. Even if you agree that there are great composers writing great and stimulating piano music, there is such a backlog of great, stimulating, challenging music to play that you already know you will not have enough time in your life to play. So, you become selective: maybe there is a cut-off line where you just don't do any of the newer stuff. But it becomes true for us (percussionists) as well, because we, too, have accumulated all this stuff: the things that were brand new in the 50's and 60's, and today retain some of their experimental freshness, their avant-garde-ness. You can still sense the spirit of experimentation in those pieces. That is partly why I make that joke (“good old days”), but I'm not joking. We were making new music that was rich and varied for all of its experimental and accepted experimentalism. When Phil Glass was brand new, that too seemed like another very raw exploratory kind of place to go, partly as a reaction to other camps: Cage, Carter, Crumb, improvisers, electronics... So, this was another way to do it, and Les Moutons was an early and unique example. Retrospectively, this earlier period was a high level of discourse; the highest level of philosophical/artistic discourse in which the art of music was a participant and the people who did it were experimenters and contributive members of a vital scene. Oh, sure, Varèse famously said, "My experiments are in the waste basket. I know what I'm doing when I offer you something..." But to even make that clarification now in the 21st century, it would just be obvious that we're talking about people who knew from whence they came, and what traditions they were either against or adding to. All this made for a highly intellectual and thrilling endeavor. For me, this connects very easily into the whole history of chamber music, if we agree that all along the whole world of orchestral music has been difficult in every way. It still can happen with soloists and chamber music -- current practices that you could connect to the traditions of Beethoven's string quartet playing at its highest level. But I worry that all of that seems very much dissipated and watered down by decades of conservatism and the availability of easy answers: periodic rhythm and tonality recaptured, laptops… Maybe it also has to do with the fact that there are hundreds of thousands more people, including composers and performers, as the population grows. How does one decide what are great pieces, who are the great composers? The “anointed” successors?! Partly what I bridle at with that kind of attitude is that with so many people -- the Internet and the ease of mass communication not withstanding -- it is not possible to know all of the creative work that's going on. In the 1950's I think there were, half a century ago, proportionally fewer people involved in this activity than there would be now with music schools all over the world just pouring out hundreds of composition students. Even if we say that’s good -- lots of creative choices for performers and audiences and the potential for a vital local contributive culture -- we have to admit we're in the midst of the dissolution of the culture from which this sprang. So even a quarter of a century ago one felt deeply connected to traditions that we thought we were trying to add to and/or change. To come back to Frederic's comment, though it's certainly not contemporary music, it’s still for sure new music that needs to be programmed and heard.
Posted by Mark Alburger at 11:00 PM