Frederic Rzewski’s Thirteen Studies February 4, 1980

One is easily carried away by the energy and political messages of Frederic Rzewski’s work, and perhaps that is what is supposed to happen when one listens to ‘Attica’ or ‘Les Moutons de Panurge’ or ‘El Pueblo Unido.’ As a result, however, listeners tend to overlook the rigorous structures that hold the composer’s work together, when it seems to me that Rzewski is actually a formalist above all else. Every piece he writes adheres rigorously to some sort of structural logic. It is never necessary to understand the particular logic in order to appreciate the music, but there is always plenty of intellectual substance to sink your teeth into if you feel like it. I recently found his ‘Thirteen Studies for Instruments’ particularly rewarding on this level.

The ‘Thirteen Studies’ were commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporaine in Paris and were premiered there in 1977, but the work had never been heard in its completed form in New York until the Orchestra of New York presented it on their series of January concerts. When I heard the presentation at Carnegie Recital Hall, I became particularly fascinated with the 36-note theme on which the studies are based, and with the many neat arithmetical games Rzewski plays on it. Even on first hearing I was able to discern quite a bit of what was going on structurally, and not because I have particularly keen listening abilities, but because the games are so clearly laid out.

The first couple of studies stick rather closely to the theme, which is a long pentatonic melody without any special rhythmic character. Later, individual players are allowed to insert trills around the theme, or to improvise solos on a few notes of it. In one particularly effective study, four players take turns playing segments of the melody for a while and then begin overlapping with one another. Other players also enter one by one, until everyone is playing at different times in a highly energetic texture. Another study involves a multi-voiced canon which comes to a vibrant ending when the whole orchestra eventually plays the final note in unison.

Much of Rzewski’s formalistic manipulation has to do with dividing the 36 notes up into groups of four or six or 12. One study breaks the theme up into a rhythmic figure containing seven notes, which might seem to be a problem, since seven does not divide evenly into 36 and there is always a one-note remainder. But of course, this little arithmetical contradiction is easily resolved by simply running through the theme seven times. At this point everything finally comes out just right, and the study, like all the studies, comes to a neat logical ending. But the composer’s real intellectual coup is saved for the end when he finally breaks the theme into four phrases of nine notes each. Stated in this way the music becomes beautifully symmetrical, and it becomes clear that the four quadrants of the theme are perfect mirrors of one another. Somehow Rzewski conceals that for the first 45 minutes or so of the piece.

Of course, the ‘Thirteen Studies’ would be pretty sterile if they were concerned solely with these structural matters, and they’re not. The real subject of the piece is improvisation, and the music explores the entire range from total restriction to total freedom. Some of the studies are completely notated, some involve varying degrees of performer freedom, and at several points within the sequence the musicians insert completely free improvisations with no notation or instructions whatever. So for the musicians the piece becomes a framework within which to explore improvisational possibilities, for the listener it becomes a portrait of human beings working together in a variety of ways, and for everyone it poses basic questions about freedom and restriction, and thus about political matters. Even the stage arrangement is related to humanistic issues. The players are not seated by sections in the normal way, but are distributed individually around the stage so that there are no first-chair players and no last-chair players. Everyone has equal say, the solos are evenly distributed, and this basic anarchistic set-up is maintained in the composed sections as well as the improvised ones. The young musicians, under Paul Dunkel, played their democratic roles quite effectively.