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Listen to Rzewski’s ‘People United’ and hear protest music that stirs the soul

Illustration of composer Frederic Rzewski
(Micah Fluellen / Los Angeles Times)

How to Listen: Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”

The last wonted Walt Disney Concert Hall program this year, barring a miracle COVID-19 cure, was on March 10. The pandemic had just begun to divide people from one another, and attendance was said to be sparse enough for de facto social distancing by the audience. The final piece on the recital program by the feisty young pianist Conrad Tao happened to be “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”

Frederic Rzewski’s hourlong set of 36 variations on a Chilean protest song is widely regarded a modern classic. Written by an expatriate American composer and pianist living in Belgium, it was given its premiered by Ursula Oppens in 1976, boldly during the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Boldly, because “People United” examines in every imaginable manner the virtues of an anthem of the Chilean left coalition, Unidad Popular, headed by the first democratically elected Marxist in Latin America, Salvador Allende.

Three years before the premiere, Allende, who had been a target of the Nixon administration, was overthrown in a coup. Rzewski’s score was, to say the least, politically loaded, this seemingly secreted blueprint for revolution presented two miles from FBI headquarters. An hour spent in such music’s presence, witnessing a pianist’s epic struggle at the jaw-dropping virtuosity of these variations, absorbing the sheer vastness of Rzewski’s imaginative and emotional range, is a soul-stirring event, and hence a danger.

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But the real power of “People United” is not the song, arresting ear-worm that it contains, but its logic. A listener knowing neither the song nor its context is faced with a classic series of variations on a theme, realized through an abstract classical construction. Come across it inadvertently for the first time on the radio, and you will be faced with a work of enormous diversity, with elements from old music and new, popular and experimental, unpredictably put together with compelling internal musical integrity. Analyze it, and you find an amazing jigsaw framework on which it rests. Not only does “People United” share qualities with the other two great sets of piano variations — Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” — it is beginning to take its rightful place next to them, as Igor Levit’s award winning recording of all three released in 2015 amply demonstrates.

This raises the unanswerable question about music and meaning. What, if anything, does expression have to do with system? Tao’s performance had clear intent, being included in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Power to the People! festival. The following week Angela Davis was scheduled in the festival to speak at Disney Hall, the famed philosopher and controversial activist herself having spent her career painstakingly examining systemic causes of social injustice and racism, especially within prisons, and the functioning of capitalist society. Those happen to be issues in some of Rzewski’s best-known pieces, such as “Coming Together” and “Attica,” which were written in response to the 1971 New York prison uprising.

The most impressive and important composer-pianist of our time, Rzewski (pronounced ZHEV-ski) is also the most politically outspoken of major composers. While much of his music is simply music for music’s sake, he has used various Marxist texts in his scores, and he never appears to write without purpose. The purpose matters crucially in “People United,” but that has only as much to do with politics as you care to read into it. It’s up to the listener. Rzewski himself is of little help.

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He is a composer with an impeccable pedigree, having studied with notables such as Walter Piston at Harvard and Roger Sessions at Princeton. He is a formidable pianist who in his early career specialized in the technically near-impossible works of the likes of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others in the avant-garde. Improvisation is central to his thinking, and in the mid-’60s he briefly played in the ultra-experimental Italian improvising collection Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (with Ennio Morricone) before helping to form his own even more radical one, Musica Elettronica Viva, with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum.

Around this time, Rzewski went through a crisis fearing that advanced music had become so complex as to be generally unintelligible and thus had lost its communicability, to say nothing of its ability to relate to the issues of life. He then sought through “humanist realism” to unite the many ways of making modern music as a model for uniting us as people. Hence “People United” served as an example of relating diverse elements through the force of logic, which the composer Christian Wolff says, in his notes to Oppens’ recording of “People United,” reminds us of the “reasonableness of justice.”

This is accomplished through the glory of a variation form that works like this, if you have the gumption to try to follow it. The theme, 36 bars long, is followed by 36 variations, divided into six groups of six. In each of the six groups, the six variations go through six stages. The first five stages are simple events — rhythms, melodies, counterpoints, harmonies. The sixth is a summation of the previous five. In the last group, each variation sums up a variation from the five previous groups. For the final group, everything that had gone before is condensed into a spectacular implosion of coming together.

Trust me, you’ll get lost trying to stick to this road map, and it won’t matter. When the theme returns once more after all that, it’s as if it has the whole world in its hands. It’s the world, not the numbers, not its quanta, we experience. Rzewski’s world can be bluesy, Bachian, Beethovenian, Boulezian, Coltrane-ian, Pete Seeger-ian, Webernian, Cagean, Feldmanian. The list (and Liszt) goes on. The “People United” theme can be hinted at with next to no notes or fistfuls of them.

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To make room for all, Rzewski exaggeratedly violates the idea of his structure without violating its reliability. Indeed, the permanence is what permits the fancy, rather like the way the tensile support of Buckminster Fuller’s architecture allowed him freedom in the design.

In just that way, the tensile strength of Rzewski’s structure makes room for extreme variation, for mistakes, for imperfection. “If you want to make music to be like life, it has to be imperfect,” he said in a BBC radio interview years ago. I want it to be like life.” Rzewski doesn’t hesitate to extend his structure with cadenzas, allude to other political songs or make room for an optional improvisation in the 36th variation.

The brilliance of “People United” is the way listening to it becomes, in the end, apolitical, whichever side you may be on. You cheer on a pianist not being defeated by this torturous score. You take your own pleasure not being defeated by this tsunami of unstoppable invention. The progression of musical insights into a seemingly straightforward theme vindicates the concept of unity made up of diverse elements, not, Wolff concludes, to be confused with conformity.

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Starting points

“The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” has been much recorded.

Ursula Oppens, for whom it was written, is the source, bringing solid conviction and tangible strength in a performance you can find on YouTube.

Marc-André Hamelin offers an unprecedented display of old-school virtuosity in his Hyperion recording.

Igor Levit finds new nuance. It’s also on YouTube.

The composer’s own fascinating three commercial recordings, each different, are not easy to come by. But the excellent socialist that he is, Rzweski has made the bulk of his printed scores and around 100 hours of his performances available for free on the Petrucci Music Library website (although, for copyright reasons, not “People United”).

With live concerts largely on hold, Times critic Mark Swed offers a weekly series suggesting ways of listening to indispensable music. Read about a different piece by a different composer every Wednesday at latimes.com/arts, and support Mark’s work with a digital subscription.


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