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Trinity College of Music Festivals May 2006

Coming Together - Music of Frederic Rzewski (Composer in Residence) with Ian Pace (Artist in Residence)
May 8 to 17

- - the freshest experiences, and indeed the centre of London's musical life - -

The Road (complete, world premiere)
May 8, 10.30 am to 11.20 pm.

Turns (The Road, Part 1), 1995; Tracks (The Road, Part 2), 1996; Tramps (The Road, Part 3), 1997; Stops (The Road, Part 4), 1998; A Few Knocks (The Road, Part 5), 1999; Travelling with Children (The Road, Part 6), 1999; Final Preparations (The Road, Part 7), 1999-2002; The Big Day Arrives (The Road, Part 8), 2002-03


A day at Trinity College

On the same day that Trinity College of Music launched its Brass Festival with out-door performances by the College's natural trumpet consort, Coming Together did so with one of the most grandiose projects imaginable for a music college to undertake. It was conceived by Douglas Finch, Trinity's Director of Keyboards, in close collaboration with Ian Pace, who had been involved intricately throughout - in particular, coaching all of the students over a period of several months.

Ian Pace is famously Britain's contemporary music marathon champion - sandwiching his participation at Trinity College's Rzewski Festival between performances of Michael Finnissy's History of photography in sound in Southampton and the Verdi Transcriptions in Berlin, all in a week; surely qualifying him for a place in the Guiness Book of Records? At one point this began to seemlike a marathon too far!

Drawing on the strength of its Keyboard Faculty and students, the College achieved the first ever complete performance - and that all in one day - of The Road (1995-2003), Frederic Rzewski's magnum opus for piano solo. At one point this began to seem like a marathon too far!

As many of Trinity's teaching staff as could be persuaded to take part shared Rzewski's 64 Miles with their students, and most of the others were performed with brilliance and precision by Ian Pace and the composer. Pace himself took on the huge Part 8 and gave world first performances of three of the Miles. To achieve completeness and continuity, Rzewski, deputising at a moment's notice for one pianist who didn't show up, confessed that he had not played the piece for a couple of years and, to our ears, did so superbly! Ian Pace learned another Mile in an hour and performed it impeccably...

It all went, more or less, like clockwork - but a clock which ran progressively slower than planned, with slippages in the schedule throughout the day. Breaks had to be shortened to the minimum but, even so, the performance over-ran its projected 9 30 finish by nearly two hours, the journey completed just before 11.30 pm, permitted thanks to special dispensation by Trinity College's security staff...

The Road was generally well attended during most of the day, with listeners allowed to come and go quietly as they needed to for other commitments - my impression was that although only a dozen remained at the very end, most people were intrigued and engaged by this music, and the project was rated a success by all I spoke with.

The Road is notable for the extensive use of the piano's case and the pianists' bodies as percussion instruments. The skills of a tabla player were demanded, and supplied by many of the participants, who also had to vocalise and whistle during some of the Miles, and manipulate pieces of apparatus to sometimes bizarre effect. Sometimes the keyboard lid remained closed throughout an entire piece, and some of those felt overlong in context. The 'extra' sounds were modestly enhanced by well managed equipment, and the whole work was recorded by the College. BBC Radio 3 was in attendance.

Rzewski's musical idiom is direct and accessible. He is a true original and my impression is that his keyboard writing is sympathetically pianistic, though needing virtuosity as well as control of dynamics which are notated in detail. I hope a full musicological analysis of the long and now completed Road may be forthcoming?

Some of the pieces punch hard emotionally, whether Stop the war (2003) about USA, and Marriage, a shocking Tolstoyan diatribe composed for Tomoko Mukaiyama.
Many thoughts of different composers' music flitted across my thoughts as I listened, puzzled to know more about Rzewski's distinctive harmonic idiom.

Bach figured, certainly, Rzewski breaking off to finish his journey non rit, evoking a nod to the unfinished last fugue of his Art of... Havergal Brian's harmony and quirky unpredictability too... Percy Grainger for Rzewski's verbal syntax in the (English) vernacular. At 10.30, exactly twelve hours since Frederic Rzewski took the first step, Ian Pace opined 'Where am I? What am I doing here? - - '. The last Mile, its sections headed leaks and plugs, was preceded by Beckettian spoken words 'Even though: the toilet still leaks my back hurts my friends have died I failed to make the revolution et cetera and still I'm not finished'... What'll be next?

Excerpts from Which side are you on? by Christopher Fox (Musical Times, Spring 2003)

- - In an interview with Philip Clark in The Wire,3 RZEWSKI talked about apparent similarities between The road and Michael Finnissy's History of photography in sound. - - In many ways The road lacks the compendious ambitions of Finnissy's History, a work in which Finnissy seems at times to be attempting to gather up as much of the world as a pianist's ten fingers can hold, sweeping dizzyingly across kaleidoscopic musical panoramas. Rzewski's Road is much more homely - the musical journey in a truck with the kitchen sink loaded up behind.

Rzewski's Wire interview revealed another crucial difference between his project and Finnissy's History. 'I think of it as being an epic Russian novel in the tradition of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky', he said and this essentially preModern belief in the validity of sequential narrative is certainly evident at the work's opening. We hear steps approaching, like a pianist's version of `once upon a time' as he walks across the studio to his instrument, and then the music begins with a falling chromatic motive: four equal-length notes, D, B, A#, C#, then a sustained C(natural) - then A, G#, B, A#, and a sustained G - and so on. The invention is elegantly simple - a minor third down, a minor second down, a minor third up, a minor second down, repeated over and over again - but with every fifth note sustained so that the repetition of intervallic cell and rhythmic pattern shift out of phase with one another. When the motive has descended an octave a second voice enters where the first began, and once another octave descent has been completed a third voice begins, until the pianist is grappling with multiple voices spread across the keyboard, his hands frequently having to arpeggiate the accumulations of notes. When it becomes too much the music breaks off into a series of chords and a new episode is started.

In spite of its composer's Dostoevskian aspirations, The road strikes my ears rather more as a series of picaresque musings than as a cumulative narrative. Once again there is a strict form-scheme underpinning the whole enterprise: The road will eventually consist of eight parts, each in turn made up of eight `miles, most of which last around three minutes (although there is a considerably longer 'mile' in each of Parts II, III and IV). Each part has a title - Part I is 'Turns', II is 'Tracks', III 'Tramps', and IV 'Stops' - and each has a distinct identity. As I described earlier, Part I begins with abstract contrapuntal concerns, although `Mile #4' is a transcription of Rzewski's 1995 anti-nuclear chorus Stop the testing!; Part II is a set of sixty-four variations (the whole Road in microcosm?) on a 1930s railroad song `900 Miles'; Part III is a series of marches, says its composer, taking as its starting point a tune sung in his days as a US Army draftee by Rzewski's friend and fellow composer David Behrman; Part IV turns again to more abstract sonic exploration.


The overarching subject of The road, however, is Rzewski himself; the work is a self-portrait drawn at the piano. Nor is The road just a piano piece. In `Mile #5' it turns into a piece made up of sounds that can be made at the piano with a rather martial work-out on the woodwork of the instrument, while the latter part of `Mile #8' turns its attention to what sounds like an attack of string scratching. Later on the range widens further: `Mile #29' introduces sleigh bells accompanying whistled pitches which echo single notes picked out at the keyboard; `Mile #30' adds duck calls and squeakers; finally `Mile #32' adds speech fragments of a Gogol short story delivered in both Russian and English. Rzewski has described his pleasure in `playing the piano at home, and The road, like Bach's Well-tempered clavier or Mendelssohn's Songs without words, is meant as much for home consumption as for the concert hall'. But is this really music for `home consumption', I wonder? In `Musica practica' Roland Barthes distinguishes between two categories of music, `the music that one listens to' and `the music that one plays [...] an activity [...] that is above all manual [... ] with no other audience than its participants (that is, with all risk of theatre, all temptation of hysteria removed)'. In The road Rzewski seems to be proposing a third category of music, private improvisation recorded as public composition, which retains echoes of the 'theatre' and 'hysteria' of music performed for an audience but eschews the rhetoric and display which might draw that audience into the music's narrative. At the end of his recording of Part IV we hear Rzewski's footsteps again, retreating this time. It will be interesting to discover how this wilfully elusive music develops on his return.


See also Rzewski and The Road at ICA and the Warehouse


The score of The Road (in excellently clear manuscript) is available for free downloading ("copyleft") at http://www.icking-music-archive.org/ByComposer/Rzewski.php


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email: (c/o Esther Freifeld): esther.freifeld@systech.be


© Peter Grahame Woolf