Prison is never a good place to be whatever the reason is for being there.
American pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski is a pioneer of music for speaking pianist where the performer plays and recites at the same time. Two of his greatest pieces for speaking pianist are based on poignant letters written by prison inmates.
In “Coming Together” (1971), Rzewski uses Sam Melville‘s letter written while he was imprisoned in Attica (New York). Steve Ben Israel premiered the piece with an instrumental group formed by the composer, Alvin Curran and Garrett List among others. His breathtaking performance interlaces the text with a music metaphorically evocative of life in prison by its repetitive yet forever changing (growing and shrinking) pattern. “Coming Together” is followed by its sister piece, “Attica”.
In “De Profundis” (1992), the composer uses part of Oscar Wilde’s break-up letter written while imprisoned in Reading (UK). The letter is a long reflexion on life in prison, isolation, being an artist, love and spiritual change. This half an hour piece requires the pianist not only to say the text, but also to perform various actions like whistling, playing body percussion, barking, etc. In his own performance, the composer exhibits incredible vocals underlining the anxiety of imprisonment.
I am going to Hades. I walk into the darkness like a god who wrote his own destiny. My protagonist and I disappear into the darkness together.
People are being imprisoned today for many reasons, criminal and political. Prison is never a good place to be whatever the reason is for being there. Turkish journalist and writer Ahmet Atlan was sentenced to life imprisonment a few days ago for political reasons by a ruthless dictatorship. He wrote a letter which was published in the New York Times.
Upcoming Speaking Rzewski Performances by Stephane Ginsburgh
I will perform “Coming Together” and “De Profundis” at several occasions in the coming months, together with “Dear Diary” (2014), a cycle written for me by Frederic Rzewski based on his notebooks. The piece was commissioned by Ars Musica festival and premiered in Brussels.
17.3.2018 – Festival Variations – Le Lieu Unique, Nantes (France)
17.4.2018 – Café OTO, London (UK)
10.5.2018 – Nuits du Beau Tas/Sonar, Cellule 133a, Bruxelles (Belgium)
5.11.2018 – Rzewski at 80 Festival, Spectrum (NY)
Photo by Michael Wilson