What Are They To You?by George Grella
“Behold the received models of the parlor / What are they to me?”
For every culture there’s a counter, in every niche there are yet further discrete splinters, internal disputes that boil down to who has the purest values. Then there are the rare instances of individuals who are cultures solely of themselves, who are sympathetic to this group or that, but who ultimately never conform to anything except their own view of things. Whitman was one. He might be the first counter-cultural figure, a culture of one, outside and therefore against all others. “Vivas to those who have fail’d!” he sang. The composer Fred Rzewski used those lines as a dedication in his latest work for the piano, Songs of Insurrection. Rzewski wrote it for Daan Vandewalle, who premiered it in April, and I heard him play two movements from it last month at the biannual Ostrava Days festival of new and experimental music in the Czech Republic.
The encore came after Vandewalle played Rzewski’s most well-known work, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a theme and variations form that begins with the tune of a Chilean protest anthem and proceeds through thirty-six concise, dazzling deconstructions and reconstructions. It is no exaggeration to say that The People United is as great a work of musical art as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations.
And it is no exaggeration to say that Vandewalle’s performance was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He played with a combination of fury and exactitude, with a focus on the immediate path and an awareness of where the destination lay. But unlike typical performances of pre-notated music—even ones of the highest order—just where that destination was, and what it would be like when we got there, were like a mirage, an as-yet-undiscovered country flitting along the horizon. Vandewalle seemed to be carving his way into the unknown, and even with the final notes certain on the page, his playing was spontaneous, like one long improvisation, the pianist acting to make music and reacting to what was coming off the keys.
The penultimate variation is indeed an improvisation, meaning it can be played in any way—I have heard some as short as a single phrase that leads into the final restatement of the tune. Vandewalle created something extraordinary, a cadenza-like variation that began with the simplest statement of a fragment of the material, plus a harmony, then built with a rising surge of pitch, dynamics, and expression to an explosive and satisfying final moment. It was Mozart as played by Cecil Taylor.
Other than the beauty of the performance, how does this matter? How is something that lasts an hour and then disappears into memory counter-cultural, beyond the obvious point that contemporary classical music runs counter to bourgeois expectations of the pleasures of past classics, pre-packaged, commodified, and repeated for uncritical consumption?
A good part of it has to do with the location, Ostrava. A former industrial city in the true sense of the word—shuttered coal mines and slag heaps are right within the city, and a steel mill still functions, less than three miles from the government building—and the subject of a despairing 1992 article in Mother Jones, after half a century of totalitarian oppression Ostrava is slowly transforming itself into a cultural center. Old mine complexes and coal transfer stations are now superb cultural venues, and the city ponies up a substantial amount of money to support the festival.
For an American visitor, the result is spectacular artistic achievement within a quirky cultural environment. There is public space, greenery, good public transportation, cheap rents (two room apartment in the old town center for under $500 anyone?), and fascinations just beneath the surface. It’s the kind of place that glossy magazines and the travel sections of mainstream newspapers would spot as a destination for expatriate hipsters. But there are none to be found, nor the type of ultra-wealthy patrons that arts administrators fawn over. There is little of American consumer culture—neither a Bedford nor a Madison Avenue—and the concomitant money-hustle. There are just normal people, digging deeply experimental and avant-garde art music, and this normative lifestyle, combined with avant-garde aesthetics and critical thinking, is the foundation of counter-culturalism.
The other part of this is Rzewski himself. He’s the foremost American political musician and one of the foremost political artists across all mediums. His great works, like The People United, Coming Together, and Attica are, like Kara Walker’s great works, political without program. Where she is cool, Rzewski is hot—his music is a gut punch of anger, nobility, and loss—but both present the plain and simple fact that, as the man said, shit is fucked up and bullshit. In this they stand apart from the simplistic blandishments of slogans and the certainties that progress is just one more system away. They are counter to the predominant left-liberal political culture, humanist, not technocratic, at their cores.
Rzewski doesn’t buttonhole, but if you approach his work he does not allow you to turn away. What he has to offer are questions, the right questions, the ones you’ll rarely see coming from the news media, the ones that you’re not supposed to ask because it would be “uncivil,” bad form, impolite, bothersome. Where most want to get along and belong, to conform to one group or another, to follow the received models, Rzewski says, “This is all wrong, what is to be done?”
Start with those received models, all of them, and ask, what are they to you?
This is the second of two articles; the first was published in the September 2017 issue of the Rail.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.