On Frederic Rzewski's "Coming Together"

i think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. it's six months now and i can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. i am in excellent physical and emotional health. there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but i feel secure and ready.

as lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am i dealing with my environment. in the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, i can act with clarity and meaning. i am deliberate--sometimes even calculating--seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

… thus wrote Sam Melville, inmate at the Attica state prison in upstate New York in the spring of 1971.  Crucial to the audience’s perception of this piece, therefore, must be the otherwise un-noted fact that he died in September of the next year, as a result of a wound sustained during prison riots, in which the inmates successfully, if only briefly, overtook parts of the prison and held guards as hostages.  The letter was subsequently published, first in a magazine, where it was read by Frederic Rzewski.  Wrote the composer:

As I read it I was impressed both by the poetic quality of the text and by its cryptic irony. I read it over and over again. It seemed that I was trying both to capture a sense of the physical presence of the writer, and at the same time to unlock a hidden meaning from the simple but ambiguous language. The act of reading and rereading finally led me to the idea of a musical treatment.

Which is to say: it is not an innocent text, nor is it innocently chosen.  Indeed, the very circumstances of our reading it render it (regardless of its original context or the intentions of the author) dripping with countless unidentifiable opacities and often hard-to-pin-down ironies -- verbal, situational, and, maybe most poignantly,  dramatic, since this narrative subject doesn’t know that he has only a year left to live.  

It is, assuredly, unusual to see such a text used as the basis for a musical composition, so let us briefly consider what is going on in Coming Together, musically speaking.  Everything in the piece works to create in the audience some re-creation or distillation of or metaphor for prison life, while simultaneously allowing questions to arise in a listener’s mind as to what the prison itself is a metaphor for.  Regarding the materials, there are elements of both composition and improvisation.  The never-resting bassline, consisting of an endless, inevitable, inexorable string of 16th notes, is limited to only 5 pitches—an intentionally simple (equally intentionally populist?), pentatonic collection.  These pitches are combined and recombined, subjected to rigorous yet slow-moving processes, such that the bassline remains maddeningly familiar but never predictable.  At the same time, instructions are given to the other instrumentalists that grant them a certain amount of freedom as to what to play, while at the same time drastically circumscribing their choices, and, of course, imposing on them a general form that delineates their actions as part of a musical composition.  While the metaphorical correspondence between musical material and prison, instrumentalist and prisoner, musical work and day-to-day labor, may seem so one-to-one that it is almost unsubtle and heavy-handed, surely the ease of the evocation of this metaphor in a listener’s mind suggests that it is actually much more.  Which is to say: if (this) music can be a metaphor for American prison life in the 1970s, surely it can be a metaphor for many other things as well.  If the particular circumstances of inmates at a particular point in history can be “expressed” in music (of all things!, we might say, indignant on our artform's behalf), surely, then we might find echoes and parallels between that situation of confinement and countless others in our existence.

Melville’s fragment is presented by Rzewski in a way that forces the audience to read it closely.  Revealed one word or one phrase at a time, we are made to confront possible meanings without necessarily relying on the semantic chain of the sentence.  The listeners and the speaker are therefore also cast as if in the role of writer, compelled to experience and consider every lexical item as it happens.  Thus what, if unexamined, might come across as flat, unironic, and straightforward accrues a rich set of meanings over the 20-minute course of the work as we can really do no other than interpret relationships between the words and the musical texture that it is superimposed upon.

Thus, this work is a contradiction, but a rich and fruitful one.  On the one hand, its musical materials are insultingly simple; on the other, the unceasing way in which they are recombined renders them unpredictably complex.  On the one hand, the players are given freedom to choose what they play; on the other, the very conditions of the freedom serves to highlight the ways in which they are constrained.  On the one hand, the audience is invited to be an active participant in the interpretation of the piece; on the other, such an invitation is conditioned by the composer’s control.  Rarely in musical works are the very tensions inherent in this artform itself brought to the surface so urgently, palpably, and—ultimately—forcefully.