Rzewski’s early men- tors and colleagues present a highly distinguished cross- section of 20th- century music. A Massachusetts native himself, he studied at Harvard with Randall Thompson and Walter Piston, fol- lowed by graduate work at Princeton with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt. He also studied with Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy and Elliott Carter in Berlin, and became friends with Christian Wolff, John Cage, and David Tudor. He teaches composition himself, on the faculty of the of the conservatory in Liege, Belgium; he has also taught at other institutions in Europe and the U.S., includ- ing CalArts and UCSD.
Although he did not consider music seriously as a career until college, Rzewski did study piano from early youth and is a brilliant performer. In Italy in the 1960s, he formed Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, and the group became well-known for pioneer- ing work in live electronics and improvisa- tion. He continues to perform and was the soloist in the world premiere of his Piano Concerto at the BBC Proms in 2013, with Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
In 1971, Rzewski returned to New York from his period in Italy. That was an eventful year in a tumultuous era, and in September, a riot broke out at the At- tica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, demanding improved health care, sanitation, and food, as well as an end to beatings. Four days of tense negotiations followed, culminating in the storming of the prison by state police as ordered by Gover- nor Nelson Rockefeller. At least 43 people died, including 33 prisoners.
One of those was Samuel Melville (born Grossman; he borrowed Melville from the American novelist), a draftsman who became radicalized by apartheid when his company put him to work on new bank offices in South Africa. He became increas- ingly active in political demonstrations, which escalated into a series of bombings in 1969. Melville pleaded guilty to conspira- cy and bombing the Federal Office Building in Manhattan and was transferred to Attica, where he became one of the leaders of the prison rebellion. He was shot and killed during the retaking of the complex. A book of letters he wrote from prison was posthu- mously published, and Rzewski took his text for Coming Together from Melville’s letter of May 16, 1971 (which was first published separately in a magazine):
I think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. it’s six months now and i can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. i am in excellent physical and emotional health. there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but i feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am i dealing with my environment. in the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chem- istry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, i can act with clarity and meaning. i am deliberate – sometimes even cal- culating – seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of oth- ers. i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.
“As I read it, I was impressed both by the poetic quality of the text and by its cryptic irony,” Rzewski wrote. “I read it over and over again. It seemed that I was trying both to capture a sense of the physical pres- ence of the writer and, at the same time, to unlock a hidden meaning from the simple but ambiguous language. The act of reading and rereading finally led me to the idea of a musical treatment.”
This treatment is the recitation of the text, a few words at a time, over a driving pentatonic bass line of steady 16th notes. The instrumentation is open and the piece can be performed by any number of players, though usually 8-10. Only the bass line is notated; all of the other parts are derived from it in ways specified by the composer. The overall form is also clearly defined, as are dynamics and articulation.
That recalls the medieval idea of a canon (“rule”), instructions – often deliberately cryptic – for deriving polyphonic music from a single line. But within the rigidity of the rule is the flexibility of improvisa- tion, and this juxtaposition of control and unpredictability may suggest some of the contradictions of prison life in musical metaphor. The steady pulse and slow phase cycling reflect the influence of early Mini- malist landmarks such as Terry Riley’s In C (1964), also for an indeterminate ensemble.
The result is a performance master- piece, very much of its time, but with an enduring moral and musical presence. Its seething anger at the injustices of incar- ceration has lost none of its power or relevance with time, and Rzewski’s strong and artistically expressive social and politi- cal reach resonates in the work of younger composers such as Ted Hearne, whose catalog includes large-scale reflections on the war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. — John Henken