Coming Together: Program Notes Apr 6, 2017
A sneak peek at the program notes for this weekend's performance, Andriessen | Tenney | Rzewski: Coming Together, at 8 pm on Saturday, April 8th. Tickets available here!
When a group of people sit down to play music together, they can’t know what will happen next. It doesn’t matter how thoroughly they’ve prepared beforehand; the second a new performance commences, players swim directly into the undertow of the present, with all of its destabilizing uncertainty and rapidly forking paths. As the path behind recedes, entropy looms, and the only real question becomes “OK, what next?"
Some composers fight chaos tooth and nail, penning scores so thick with details and instruction they resemble battle plans. Others simply acknowledge entropy and embrace it. The pieces tonight all fall into the latter category. None of them presumes to tell the players exactly which instruments to play, or how long to play a given section. They are more a loose group of suggestions, a staging ground for a series of coordinated accidents. The shared goal is clear, even if the path to it isn’t.
It’s a neat metaphor for collective political action, and not coincidentally, several of the works tonight have a bristling political edge. Fredric Rzewski’s Coming Together pits seven notes, played in repetitive and slightly varying patterns, against a letter by Sam Melville, an inmate at Attica prison who died in the infamous 1971 riot there. In his letter, which Rzewski chops up into urgent clumps and stuttering shreds, you hear an eloquent mind preserving an island of private meaning amidst chaos: “In the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, i can act with clarity and meaning,” he wrote.
Rzewski’s other piece tonight, “Attica,” is a companion piece of sorts, taken from another prisoner’s letter. Clark helped lead the Attica rebellion, and his text is simpler and more profound: “Attica is in front of me now.” The riot became a flashpoint for the conditions—and basic humanity—of inmates, decades before Barack Obama became the first president to visit a federal prison.
The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, meanwhile, once responded to a critic calling him “radical anarchist” with the tart reply “I’ll take that as a compliment.” In the score for his agitated, pistoning piece Workers Union, he includes this note: “Only in the case of every player playing with such intention that their part is an essential one, the work will succeed; just as in the political work.”
Rzewski and Andriessen’s pieces hum with the energy of furiously colliding atoms; James Tenney’s Swell Piece #2 surges like the waves on a beach. It is written for “any five or more different sustaining instruments,” and its embrace of randomness feels more peaceful, more Zen. The detachment here, from the world of politics and the world of human intentions, is total. In activism, as in all endeavors, progress is fragile, alliances are uneasy, and the tide of confusion continually washes away the bedrock of mutual understanding. Tenney’s piece gives way to that final truth with a sigh.
Jayson Greene is the author of Once More We Saw Stars (Knopf, 2018/2019). @jayson_greene