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Posted October 1, 2010
I have to confess that I approached this disc with a certain amount of trepidation when a friend insisted I give it a spin in my CD player. It consists of two pieces by the composer Frederic Rzewski, one of which, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” consists of 36 variations on the famous protest song of that name. I feared that three-dozen variations of any kind of song, based on a simple melodic line, lasting 62 minutes, and played solely on the piano to boot, would tend to induce nothing beyond extreme tedium. But as I listened to the unfolding variations, my fears were quickly swept away and my senses became fully engaged. Hats off to Rzewski, who pulls off this feat by subjecting the melody to a variety of styles, among them blues, jazz, folk, martial and modernism as well incorporating a staggering range of moods, tempos, keys and tonalities. The result is a unified soundscape of astonishing subtlety and power. After a few minutes, I forgot I was listening to music built around a single theme, so rich are varied are the changes Rzewski rings out of it. The variations are evidently intended to evoke various aspects of the universal working class struggle for change, but one need not be tuned into the music’s political subtext to fall under its spell. Kudos also go to pianist Ralph van Raat, a musician of rare sensitivity, who wrings every nuance out of the work while lending it his own stamp of individuality. Van Raat summons up additional interpretive magic in the disc’s companion piece, “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” This is based on another socially conscious song that cotton-mill workers used to sing in the 1930s. Rzewski’s music is meant to evoke the sound of such a mill—harsh and mechanistic. The piece is duly driven by a repetitive and ominous percussive line, to which is gradually introduced a counterpoint passage that seems to represent a human voice struggling to assert primacy over the machinelike rhythm. The “human” piano part eventually wins out and transforms into gentle ragtime figures. Both of these pieces are testament to what truly creative musicians can conjure out of the most basic material. Simple, yet anything but simplistic, they make for a truly enjoyable and inspirational listening experience.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.