Frederic Rzewski

Biography by Donato Mancini

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Rzewski is a pianist/composer whose music embraces the polystylistic and polytechnique openness of the late 20th century.
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Artist Biography by Donato Mancini

Frederic Rzewski is among the major figures of the American musical avant-garde to emerge in the 1960s, and he has been highly influential as a composer and performer. He was born in Westfield, Massachusetts, earned his B.A. in music at Harvard, and later received an M.F.A. from Princeton, where he had the privilege of studying with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbit. A Fulbright scholarship allowed him to travel to Florence in 1960 to study for a year with Luigi Dallapiccola. Since then, except for a five-year period in the 1970s, he has mainly lived in Europe. He first came to public attention as a performer of new piano music, having participated in the premieres of such monumental works as Stockhausen's Klavierst├╝ck X (1962). In 1966, he founded, with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, the famous ensemble Musica Electronica Viva (MEV). MEV combined free improvisation with written music and electronics. These experimentations directly led to the creation of Rzewski's first important compositions, pieces such as Les moutons de Panurge, a so-called "process piece," which also combines elements of spontaneous improvisation with notated material and instructions. Rzewski's improv-classical hybrids are some of the most successful of the kind ever produced thanks to the fervent energy at the core of his music. During the 1970s, his music continued to develop along these lines, but as his socialist proclivities began to direct his artistic course, he developed new structures for instrumental music that used text elements and musical style as structuring features. Attica, which includes the recitation of a prison letter, and The People United Will Never Be Defeated, a virtuosic set of piano variations, are his most well-known works of the period. In 1977, he was made professor of composition at the Royal Conservatory of Li├Ęge, Belgium, and has continued to teach there since. During the 1980s, Rzewski produced a number of surprising twelve tone compositions that (happily) provided fresh ideas of what could be done with serial systems. The 1990s saw him revisiting, via scored music, some highly spontaneous approaches to composition that recall his inspired experiments of the late 1960s. Rzewski's music is among that which defines postwar American new music. He has consistently given the exuberant boyish pleasures of a composer like Copland within the rigorously experimental framework of a composer like Cage. Often unapologetically tonal and fun, Rzewski's music cuts right through the frequent churlishness of avant garde music.