About this Piece
Rzewski’s early mentors and colleagues present a highly distinguished cross-section of 20th-century music. A Massachusetts native himself, he studied at Harvard with Randall Thompson and Walter Piston, followed by graduate work at Princeton with Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt. He also studied with Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy and Elliott Carter in Berlin, and became friends with Christian Wolff, John Cage, and David Tudor. He taught composition himself, on the faculty of the conservatory in Liège, Belgium; he has also taught at other institutions in Europe and the U.S., including CalArts and UCSD.
Although he did not consider music seriously as a career until college, Rzewski did study piano from early youth and is a brilliant performer. (“…a granitically overpowering piano technician, capable of depositing huge boulders of sonoristic material across the keyboard without wrecking the instrument,” in Nicolas Slonimsky’s characteristically evocative description.) In Italy in the 1960s, he formed Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, and the group became well-known for pioneering work in live electronics and improvisation. He continues to perform and was the soloist in the world premiere of his Piano Concerto at the BBC Proms in 2013, with Ilan Volkov conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Experimental art music in Italy in the ‘60s was among the most socially and politically conscious music anywhere, and in 1971 Rzewski brought that orientation back to New York. That was an eventful year in a tumultuous era, and Rzewski was quickly engaged by the riot/uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, writing Coming Together and Attica, inspired by the letters of Samuel Melville, one of the leaders of the prison rebellion. (The Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group performed those pieces two years ago, here and on tour in the U.K.) He followed that soon after with The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a massive set of solo piano variations on the anthem of the Chilean Unidad Popular, which became a rallying cry for the resistance after the 1973 coupe against the Allende government.
In 1979, the pianist Paul Jacobs asked Rzewski for music he could include on an album of American piano music. Rzewski responded with Four North American Ballads. (Paul Jacobs Plays Blues, Ballads, & Rags was released on Nonesuch in 1980, and includes Copland’s Four Piano Blues and three Ghost Rags by William Bolcom.) “In writing these pieces, I took as a model the chorale preludes of Bach, who in his contrapuntal writing consistently derives motivic configurations from the basic tune,” Rzewski said in his program note. “In each piece, I built up contrapuntal textures in a similar way, using classical techniques like augmentation, diminution, transposition, and compression, always keeping the profile of the tune on some level.”
Which Side Are You On? is the second piece in the set. The original protest song was written in the 1930s by Florence Reese, the wife of a union organizer in the Kentucky coal mines, to the tune of a Baptist hymn (Lay the Lily Low). The full tune is quoted only at the end, the composer beginning instead with fragments that suggest questions more than answers. There are meter and key changes throughout, across an extreme dynamic range, and Minimalist passages as well as an opportunity for improvisation.
“The structure of the melody illustrates the words, Which Side Are You On?,” Rzewski said in a dissertation interview with pianist Sujin Kim. “So, are you on this side? Or are you on that side? Are you supporting the miners? Or are you supporting the bosses? It’s a question. So the idea is that you have to be on one side or the other. The music is intended to illustrate that simple idea. So, it’s divided into two parts. The first section is complex, the second section is simple.”