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Rzewski: composer, pianist, iconoclast

Full of eclectic invention, his work doesn't fit into a box

Frederic Rzewski arrives in town this week as composer-in-residence for two days at this year's weeklong Summer Institute for Contemporary Piano Performance at New England Conservatory. The entire event pays tribute to him. Some composers might consider it an honor; some might reflect on what it means for their place in the ''canon" of contemporary music.

Not Rzewski.

''I don't think about it," he says. ''It doesn't mean anything to me."

That is Rzewski in a nutshell. One of the most prominent living American composers and a prodigiously talented pianist, he is also an old-fashioned iconoclast. He's blunt-speaking, cantankerous -- focused on his art and intent on creating it with as much independence as possible from the institutions and bureaucracies that have congealed around it.

Now 67, the Westfield-born Rzewski (pronounced ZHEV-skee) came of age as a composer during the heyday of the avant-garde. But his music has always been too intently eclectic to fit into any single box. In it you can hear atonality, American popular song, hints of jazz, highly structured forms and improvisation. You can also hear his musical imagination tackle subjects from the American labor movement to Beethoven's state of mind.

Pianist Stephen Drury, who organizes SICPP (affectionately known as ''Sick Puppy"), says Rzewski's music stands out because it combines ''the tools of late modernism with an awareness of the audience." It gives listeners ''the musical excitement and energy and feeling that they're accustomed to," but ''using tools that they're not accustomed to."

Rzewski cherishes the immediacy of performance, and he has a corresponding disdain for recordings and the current state of the record industry. ''I think the days of recording are numbered," he says by phone from Cincinnati, where he's participating in a new-music festival. ''When the Beatles were around, there were hundreds of smaller record companies. Now there are about three. So the music industry has transformed itself in 20 or 30 years into an enormous mega-monopoly." He hopes recordings will eventually be rejected as ''a sort of counterfeit money. I think there is an awareness now that something else must happen."

Despite his participation in such events as NEC's, academia is the target of more Rzewski bluntness. He's especially critical of how US music departments adopt bureaucratic jargon in an effort to boost their credibility. Rzewski, who has lived and taught in Belgium since 1977, recalls working with students on a piece during a teaching stint in San Diego. ''I said, 'We'll rehearse this, then we'll do a concert, and then we'll record it in this new recording studio that you have here,' " he relates. ''And the students looked at me gravely and said, 'Well, I don't think you can do that.' I said, 'Why not?' And they told me that, first of all, it wasn't a recording studio. It was an acoustic research facility.' " He laughs at the memory.

Drury and other SICPP soloists will tackle some of Rzewski's better known pieces in a Jordan Hall recital tomorrow, including ''The People United Will Never Be Defeated" and ''Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues," the last of his ''Four North American Ballads." The Callithumpian Consort will also play the semi-improvisatory ''Whangdoodles."

Rzewski has recorded the solo pieces, and many more, in a seven-CD box set released in 2002 by Nonesuch. Asked if he finds it enlightening to hear other pianists play his works, he says yes -- in direct proportion to the pieces' difficulty.

''Some composers, like Chopin, and perhaps Berio, are very aware of the question of performance, and protecting their music against bad performers," he continues. ''There are composers who write music that's so fantastically difficult that nobody plays it, and composers who write easy pieces so that every damn fool can do whatever they want."

Rzewski himself will stick to newer and less familiar works at his own solo recital on Tuesday, including a set of variations on the short middle movement of Beethoven's ''Appassionata" Sonata. The movement is ''an island of tranquillity in a sea of sturm und drang on both sides," he says. Yet to Rzewski it suggests the opposite of inner peace. ''The static harmonic rhythm is a sign of depression. It seemed to me that Beethoven must have been depressed. So I made these 14 variations, and it's a kind of interior monologue."

Also on the bill is ''The Babble," the penultimate entry in his eight-hour ''novel" for piano, a kind of imaginary travelogue called ''The Road." Rzewski wrote it in June 2003. ''I was constantly thinking about the bombs falling on the ziggurats of Babylon," he explains, ''and how civilization seemed to be, in a crazy way, spinning out of control and destroying itself at its very roots."

The political element in Rzewski's works is nothing new. Works like ''The People United," a mammoth set of variations on the Chilean liberation song, and his reworkings of work and protest songs in the ''North American Ballads" have given him the ''political composer" tag. He's repeatedly rejected it, claiming that he has an ordinary person's view of politics.

''He doesn't want to get locked in a box," Drury explains. ''His works are not agitprop, which might be useful socially but tends to be uninteresting artistically. He's first of all a composer with a social conscience, but he's interested in writing good music."

But labels, even if misleading, are sometimes unavoidable. So how should one label the music of this great iconoclast?

''This used to torment me on airplanes," Rzewski says. ''You'd meet a businessman and they'd say, 'Oh, you're a musician, what kind of music do you make?' And I always used to stammer something. But then I found a way that seems to work well. I say 'I do traditional music.' And people seem to accept that. And it's true. I'm just a traditional musician."

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