THE LEGACY OF POLITICAL MUSIC
The composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski died on June 26th, 2021. His music and his life are symptomatic of the situation of New Music in the context of the revolt around 1968. His work challenged the question of political music and the relationship between music and politics but also problems immanent to contemporary music that have been reproduced since the emergence of New Music in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as the dialectic of complexity and simplicity, progress and regression, and the relationship between the avant-garde and popular culture. His most performed work, for example, The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1975), is a virtuoso cycle of variations on the revolutionary song of the Chilean left, using improvisation and new music techniques. Works such as Les Moutons de Panurge (1969) and Coming Together (1971) challenge the potentials and contradictions of political music and musical minimalism by merging processes of collectivity and minimalism themselves into the dynamics of musical form and — if we follow Rzewski's own assessment from today's perspective — fail. Unlike many other composers of the time, Rzewski, towards the end of his life, was able to conceive of himself as a symptom and to reflect on the legacy of political music around 1968, its potentials, limitations, and ultimately, its failure. As a representative of a generation of political musicians, he gave an account of the legacy of this generation, and thus the legacy of his own life and his own œuvre. In the following interview, first published in the Platypus Review and after Rzewski's death again in Caesura, he points to the still gaping void in the relationship between music and politics, to the absence of a revolutionary party that could mediate the relationship between art and revolution. Today's attempts at political music, which mostly consist of a mere external “politicisation” of music, cannot avoid this question. Perhaps Rzewski's legacy consists less in his political music than in his critique of the political music of 1968. Frederic Rzewski formulated this self-critique on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of 1968 in a conversation with Jim Igor Kallenberg. The conversation is preceded by Rzewski's first reaction to the request for the interview.
What follows is a letter from Frederic Rzewski, published with permission, as an introduction to the edited transcript of an interview conducted by Jim Igor Kallenberg on August 22, 2018. This originally appeared in Platypus Review 108 in October, 2018.
“1968” seems to be the fashion this year, particularly in cultural institutions like museums and festivals. Why 50 years should have any significance I do not understand. But so be it.
Please allow me to express some skepticism regarding this wave of fashion.
I really do not see anything to celebrate. The year in question was a year of war and repression on a planetary scale. Wars, particularly that in Vietnam, assumed a truly horrifying scale. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Nixon came to power. There was a feeble revolutionary movement, which was however weakened by the absence of rational organization, an infantile anarchist tendency that appealed mainly to the children of bourgeois families (“figli di papà”), subversion by genuinely fascist provocateurs, and general stupidity.
Culturally, it seems to me that these movements produced little or nothing. There were some experimental theatre groups, like the Living Theatre, Bread and Puppet, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe and some really good pop music groups like the Grateful Dead. (“Serious” music paid little or no attention to the so-called revolution in progress. Stockhausen knew nothing of the outside world; John Cage and Merce Cunningham were afraid of anything political.) The main source of energy for these groups was the mass resistance among the youth against the war; their effectiveness, although certainly significant, was nonetheless limited: several long years of horror and destruction were necessary before the war finally ground to a stop. (It never really ended.)
Far from “love and peace,” violence was the rule. The Rolling Stones hired the Hells Angels to provide security at their concert in LA. Some people tried to climb onto the stage and were killed. Terrorists appeared in Germany and Italy. The Bologna railroad station was bombed. The Black Panthers (a truly revolutionary organization) were simply murdered. A period of reaction began which continues today. We owe the present revival of fascism to the failed “revolution” of 1968.
I do not know what music your festival is presenting from that time, except for my own little piece, but there really was not that much.1 As far as I can see, the only reason it has now become somehow acceptable is because it is now old. I have nothing against old music; it is generally better than the new variety. But there are a few signs of vitality in today's music, which unfortunately is no more performed today than it was fifty years ago, and probably less so. But then, “modern” today means “old.”
Frederic Rzewski: The problem with today’s treatment of 1968 is that it is not about facts, but it is a myth. And this particular myth is precisely about obscuring the facts that might have made 1968 significant: workers are not mentioned. The anti-colonial fights are not mentioned. It is all about culture. And really there was not very much happening in culture those days besides Rock music.
Jim Igor Kallenberg: So what did really happen politically? Have you been active or affiliated to any political party or organization?
No, never. You know, I’m a Groucho-Marxist, as the comedian said: “I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” I mean, of course, I was in Rome and I was close to the Italian Communist Party (PCI), but listen, I can only tell you about me, what I did and what I did not do: I drank a lot of wine. I also smoked a lot of hashish. But I did not go to jail and most notably I did nothing important. I did not do politics, I am a composer, I make music, but especially at that time, I did not even do that. You know, we were privileged Americans, I had the Fulbright Fellowship, so I could go to restaurants twice a day. And that is precisely what we did. People had fun and called it “revolution”.
But you wrote pieces, political pieces. No matter in which mediated ways, your pieces seem to relate a lot to politics.
Of course, with the ensemble we founded, Musica Elettronica Viva, we went to play in occupied factories, mental hospitals, and prisons. Most of the time we played in student centers and the radical students attacked us, because it was reactionary, bourgeois electronic music, not people’s music. They wanted us to play Rock music, but we couldn’t play Rock music, we were composers. Later, with my piece The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, which for the so-called radicals was too abstract, I was attacked by the classical music audience, for it was tonal and too direct music. So I was attacked from both sides. All of that has nothing to do with music, of course.
And yes, I wrote Les Moutons de Panurge and Coming Together, but I never understood why these pieces became so popular. I still don’t. Maybe, because it is easy. Musically they are not interesting at all, there is no music in it.
What do you consider to be music then? Especially these pieces develop an irresistible musical drift, motivated by a — if you want — non-musical concept.
You know, I worked very closely with Stockhausen, he was not political at all, but intelligent and he knew about composition. He always insisted on composition. Cage to the contrary definitely did things that were important, but he was not an important composer.
Like today, there are interesting young people, but I cannot see any composers. And even though Stockhausen was a good composer, Strauss was still better and, of course, the best composer of the 20th century. Henze and Stockhausen were the last German composers. In the USA there haven’t even been composers. Duke Ellington and George Gershwin were the best composers in the States. Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is in fact to be compared with La Bohème by Puccini. People do not play it as an opera, they treat it as if it is a musical comedy. But it is not. It is an opera. And a great one. It is about black people, so it cannot be an opera. Even today you cannot write an opera on black people, only a musical comedy.
What has changed? What is composition today?
It is not clear what music, what composition is today. We used to study counterpoint, but that is not the basic discipline anymore. You hardly find anyone studying counterpoint today, and if so, they do it badly, because their teachers have no idea of it. Maybe composition in that sense does not exist anymore, maybe it comes to an end and something new will come out of it. The same might apply to politics.
So if there is something new, there might be a new potential.
Well, the big difference is, of course, that there is no communist party today. Without a revolutionary party, you cannot make a revolution, that is simply true. And on the other hand you can never be sure. But I see no consciousness anymore in the art scene. In painting today… Is there any consciousness? It is all about money. In rap music, there is some consciousness, yes, but in painting it seems to me there is nothing — show me a painter.
So, it is never clear where the possibilities are. In the sixties there were a lot of groups that had a fascist character. Not only the FBI that produced and circulated revolutionary pamphlets, also the Brigate Rosse in Italy — they’ve seen themselves to be revolutionaries. They were not. They created confusion and that is what fascists do. Not everybody who shouts the loudest is revolutionary. There is a very important book by Lenin from 1920, “Left Wing” Communism. He wrote on the Russian Anarchists, who thought of themselves as radical leftists, but in fact they were not, Lenin called it an “infantile disorder”.
But you’re asking the wrong person, I understand only part of this. I am a musician. I have to write music, better music, I have no time to engage in politics that much.
Does your music deal with politics?
Of course. I see myself in the tradition of Hanns Eisler and “Das Politische Lied,” as we had it in Eastern Germany — even though I hardly compose songs. I am not a good songwriter. Eisler was a good songwriter, not only the political songs. There are plenty of examples for politics using, instrumentalizing music, but not one example of music using and instrumentalizing politics. I do not know any composer who had a direct influence on politics except Richard Wagner. In 1937 some German businessmen once approached General Franco to make a deal and Franco agreed, but only if they would convince Hitler to intervene in the civil war in Spain, which was of no interest for the Wehrmacht. The businessmen approached Hitler in Bayreuth, during the Festspiele, where they met in a hotel after the performance of Siegfried. Hitler said yes and the operation “Feuerzauber” was launched. Guernica was completely destroyed. That is the political effect. But again, what can we say, who knows what the world would be like. Without Mozart having written Die Zauberflöte, maybe we would be all ruled by evil Sarastros.
Maybe we are.
True. We do not know, we can only do better. Listen, I am over 80 years and I cannot say that I did anything important. I am still trying to learn and do better. Berio used to say, “It can always become better.”
Right, it does not help to say, “It could be worse.” We tend to forget that it could be better, too.
It has nothing to do with right or wrong, it is much simpler: If I do not write music I will have to die. But I do not want to die, I want to stay alive. So, I have to write music. And I cannot make the same music all the time, so I have to get better and better.
 The festival referenced is the Wien Modern, and the piece in question is Les Moutons de Panurge. Jim Igor Kallenberg was the dramaturge of that festival and had been discussing it with Frederic Rzewski when this was written.
Mary Bauermeister represented what is missing in the ever-turning carousel: We need to establish contexts that are independent of both, culture-industry and the state, in which music can be played, performed, developed, discussed and criticized. We mourn Mary Bauermeister, grandmother of Fluxus, melting pot of the arts.
The composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski died on June 26th, 2021. In this conversation, Rzewski, towards the end of his life, was able to conceive of himself as a symptom and to reflect on the legacy of political music around the revolt of 1968, its potentials, limitations, and ultimately, its failure. As a representative of a generation of political musicians, he gave an account of its legacy.