Hyperion Records

North American Ballads

'Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!' (CDA67077)
Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
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No 3: Down by the riverside
No 4: Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues

North American Ballads
The late Paul Jacobs was an outstanding and often outspoken champion for the music of his day. From 1975 until his untimely death from AIDS in 1983 he made a series of highly regarded solo recordings, including an album of works recognizably American by their forms and themes. Jacobs commissioned Rzewski’s four North American Ballads (1979) for this project. ‘In writing these pieces’, wrote Rzewski in his programme notes, ‘I took as a model the chorale preludes of Bach, who in his contrapuntal writing consistently derives motivic configurations from the basic tune. 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.’

Down by the Riverside is a case in point. Based on the spiritual of the same name, which was frequently sung in the heyday of the peace movement during the height of the Vietnam war, the theme is treated in a disarming (all puns intended) manner before reappearing in more elaborate guises. According to Rzewski, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues dates from the 1930s, but is of unknown origin. Its text reflects the exploitive working conditions in the textile mills of North Carolina. The rapid bass register clusters which open the work mirror the relentless hammering noise made by rivets in a textile machine to frightening effect. Soft, but no less intense blues-tinged episodes provide the only respite in this chillingly effective sound portrait. More than anything, Frederic Rzewski’s piano music from the seventies cogently demonstrates that one could be a radical in the grand manner, that innovation and accessibility were plausible bedfellows.

from notes by Jed Distler © 1999

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