Sporadic piano delights EMPAC

This weekend, the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center hosted Frederic Rzewski, described as an “instrumental virtuoso and [a] composer of revolutionary ambition.” The house was not full and the crowd was not young, but the pianist played to an appreciative audience.

Rzewski took the stage eight minutes after 8 pm. Before he started, he briefly explained that the music would flow without interruption until he finished. “Sorry,” he said. The audience laughed politely and the man began to play.

I literally had the best seat in the house and could see his hands as he worked. His fingers flew with perfect timing. He struck chords as if they were single notes. It seemed as though he played all 88 keys in every one of his 31 songs.

The dynamics of his music demanded more than his fingers could provide. By the end of the night, Rzewski had pummeled the Steinway he performed on with his hands, wrists, fists, forearms, and palms. He tapped out rhythms with his fingers and hands, stamped his feet, and slapped every surface he could reach. It was piano playing like I had never heard.

Rzewski’s style was so new it was foreign. As much as he impressed me, his playing almost began to anger me. He played ridiculous pieces that were all but unfinished—nanosonatas, he called them.

These nanosonatas would build from single notes to incredible melodies with grace, rhythm, and a rapturous sound—but then he would overbuild them, derail them, and bring them to an abrupt halt.

How dare he play so harshly, I thought, when he was capable of such sophistication! Rzewski offered glimpses of possibility and then went elsewhere on purpose. What a jerk.

To be fair, he said as much in his explanation of style. “A nanosonta is a form in which different elements come together as they do in a sonata, but do not develop. … It seems to be going somewhere, but that’s it, it stops. It did of course go somewhere, but we will never know, we went somewhere else. It is just a record of a fugitive moment.”

I am surprised his music had as much of an effect on me as it did. I would have left the hall in a huff, mentally berating the performer if not for Rzewski’s warming exit.

When the hour of music ended, Rzewski rose for his bows, returning to smile as the audience continued to applaud. It was that smile that saved the evening.

Rzewski’s smile was so honest and good that everything felt alright. The expression on his face when he had finally finished was the picture of joyous contentment. As abusive as he had been to the idea of melodic flow, he played how he did to enjoy himself.

A brief interlude occurred, wherein most of the audience left; following was a discussion with the pianist/composer and a number of other composers and EMPAC officials. Among topics announced for discussion were the question of music and sound as different entities, music as a form of communication, music as an autoerotic activity (that is, self-expression not directed to other individuals), and the nature of change in the musical community. I can only speculate as to the quality of the discussion, for I left with the bulk of the crowd.

The evening was a success, in my mind. Rzewski’s performance showcased experimental media in a performing arts center and thus stayed true to the building’s intent. While I did not “enjoy” the evening in the popular connotation of the word, it brought to my doorstep a musical experience I would have otherwise missed.

My life would have a shade less color had I begged out of Rzewski’s performance. I know that some of his musical style will sneak into my own piano playing and will craft me for the better. I can only hope that EMPAC continues to invite such talented and diverse performers as have already graced the stage, and that students take the time to experience that strange and wonderful space.