“Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful!” Joshua J. Marine
This personal mantra led to some crazy projects over the years. To name a few: to have performed the complete chamber works by Brahms, or the performance of Stockhausen's incredible 70 minute masterpiece Mantra with my piano duo.
But the performance of Rzewski's The People United will Never be Defeated! will most likely be one of the most challenging projects! It's a 55 minute tour de force solo piece that combines piano virtuosity, whistling (I really get to whistle!) improvisation and piano playing of many different styles (Beethoven, Jazz, Wagner, Boulez, Reich, Crumb).
So as I practice relentlessly each day, and the days to the first performance shrink to an alarming rate, I am often asked what drew me to this project that I am dedicating so much of my time to.
The work is connected to revolution. Although, I can't claim to be politically active, I have always been drawn to works that are connected to important moments in history (Janacek - Piano Sonata I.X.1905 From the Street, Strauss -Metamorphosen).
The People United It is a set of variations on the powerful Chilean revolution song ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido! This song was well know in South America and Europe as a song of resistance. The song was initially composed as an anthem for the popular unity government, reflecting the spirit behind the mass mobilization of working-class people who in 1970 had elected Salvado Allende for the socialist transformation of Chile. During Allende's campaign, El pueblo unido jamás será vencido was a frequent slogan. Within the piece, there are quotations from other political songs from the 20th century, namely Bandiera Rossa from Italy and Solidaritätslied from Germany.
The compositional technique is miraculous, and pays homage to the great variations of the past of Bach and Beethoven. There are 36 variations in 6 sets, with 6 variations each. The 1st 5 variations have their own unique style, while the 6th is a type of recapitulation of the previous 5 variations. Whilst sets 1-4 hold the structure of 24 bars per variation, the 5th set frees itself of the structure with few time signatures, longer bar structures and a general sense of freedom. Variations 31-35 quote the variations from before but in a different order. For example, variation 31 starts with the 1st variation of the 6 sets (1,7,13,19,25). The final variation manages to quote every single variation from the piece! As in the Goldberg variations, the final variation is a direct restatement of the original theme, intended to be heard with new significance after the long journey through the variations.
The idea of this structural plan originated from an improvisation experiment with his Rzewksi's Musica Elettronica Viva. I have much fondness for this. During my studies in Salzburg, we had a weekly improvisation class. We would meet and improvise on ideas, structures, sounds, characters. We would collaborate with dancers and painters and improvise to Silent films. This class has a special place in my heart. It is also where I met my wife!
Apart from the extraordinary compositional technique, what really interests me about the piece is its relationship with its audience. Rzewski is focused to writing music 'for the people'. For this work, I believe he wanted to break down the barriers that can exist within the classical music medium and at the same time keep the integrity of the art form. He successfully creates a 55 minute piano work that is complex yet popular and holds the attention to the public.
Finally, after the 36 variation marathon, Rzewski gives the performer the freedom to improvise a cadenza! I have performed improvisation in concerts, but never within such a huge work. I find myself excited to see what I will experiment with!
Those who are curious to the fruits of my labour, I shall be performing this great work as part of my residency at the Vale of Glamorgan festival on the 23rd May.