Frederic Rzewski (1938-2021)

Frederic Rzewski and the Contradictoriness of the Symphony Orchestra

"A Long Time Man," Scratch Orchestra, and the Musician as the Worker

Frederic Rzewski and the Contradictoriness of the Symphony Orchestra

"A Long Time Man," Scratch Orchestra, and the Musician as the Worker

Happy new year! Our first piece of 2024 is a research paper exploring the contradictory nature of the symphony orchestra in Frederic Rzewski's 1979 orchestral work "A Long Time Man" in 24 variations.

This paper was written as part of my fall 2023 coursework as a Doctoral composition student at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music. Throughout the semester I received constructive feedback from Jonathan A. Gómez, Assistant Professor in Musicology.


            The current realm of scholarship surrounding the music of avant-garde American ex-patriate composer-pianist Frederic Rzewski (1938-2021) shines a spotlight on the political aspects of his works and their capabilities to liberate musicians and listeners in addition to inspiring them to act. While Rzewski’s output is vast, a few specific works from the 1960s and 1970s have become relatively frequently performed, including Coming Together, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues and Spacecraft. I argue that the focus on the political aspects of these compositions, and the underemphasis on their spiritual and aesthetic implications, has resulted in a limited conception of their potential meanings. A thorough picture of Rzewski’s involvement with Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV) and experimental English composer Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) have not fit neatly into the formed narrative and have been condensed. In this paper I will expand upon this and infer how the downfall of Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra impacted Rzewski’s view of the symphony orchestra. I argue that scholarship and most performing organizations have not fully taken Rzewski’s social circles or the multiplicity of Rzewski’s works into account and have instead slated him into solely political conversations. A Long Time Man, Rzewski’s 1979 orchestral work which exposes a system that is already broken, has been overlooked as it paints a contradictory picture of the symphony orchestra as a medium. With its addition of the “Chain Gang” to the orchestra and piano soloist, the standard narrative of the classical musician as the worker in Rzewski’s music ferments and the relationship between composer, orchestral musician, “Chain Gang” member, soloist, and audience becomes too complicated for comfort.

            My motivations for writing about A Long Time Man stem from observations concerning how Rzewski’s music is discussed without full context, questions as to why certain works are catapulted into the spotlight in today’s broader classical music culture, and how these two occurrences are connected. I had the opportunity to meet Rzewski twice – once in 2016 playing the viola part in Coming Together with Angela Davis as narrator at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and again over a longer period during the 2019 Ostrava Days Festival in the Czech Republic. At Ostrava Days, I performed viola in his Kafka-inspired 2014 chamber orchestra work A Dog’s Life, attended his lectures, and held numerous conversations with him. I attended Ostrava Days again in 2023, after Rzewski passed, and was awe-struck when they performed A Long Time Man. Rzewski was affiliated with Ostrava Days’ artistic director composer Petr Kotik for decades and it seemed to me that this history contained a more complete vision of Rzewski’s work than other presenting organizations. As a composer with a background as a violist, I have a special affinity for the symphony orchestra and this work struck a chord because it didn’t neatly fit into the box that classical music has molded around Rzewski.

            To understand the gap around A Long Time Man, it is first necessary to consider the breadth of scholarship and writings about Rzewski’s other music. Composer-performer Christian Asplund’s commonly cited 1995 article “Frederic Rzewski and Spontaneous Political Music” argues that audiences and performers alike learn about political movements through the performance of Rzewski’s music. Asplund says,

“Rzewski is clear about how music should be used as a revolutionary tool. It must convey information in a gestic manner and must foreground the participants' dissatisfaction with existing power structures, convey the possibility and hope of something better, model this alternative, and suggest a way of attaining it. Obviously this is a lot to do in a single piece of music and often Rzewski does not get to the latter items, but if one analyzes and performs his pieces, one finds a great deal naturally embedded in them.[1]

I agree with Asplund in the case of the works that he cited but diverge from his opinion as this is an incomplete picture of what Rzewski’s music is capable of. I feel that this outlook, which has been broadly accepted when considering Rzewski’s oeuvre, is in direct conflict with the contradictory nature of A Long Time Man.

            Numerous works by Rzewski contain work songs, and A Long Time Man is a series of twenty-four variations on a work song from Texas prisons ['It Makes a Long Time Man Feel Bad'] with an inserted “cadenza” for orchestra subtitled “Chain Gang”, which can function as an independent piece. The composer’s multidimensional preconceptions of the symphony orchestra are paramount to my argument surrounding A Long Time Man. Therefore, I will begin with an excerpt of Rzewski’s 1987 program notes for the work, found in the online Werner Icking Music Archive.

“Why did I write this piece? I've always had ambivalent feelings toward the symphony orchestra, with its rows of string-infantry, woodwind cavalry, and brass artillery. Beethoven's symphonies seem to me like musical descriptions of Napoleonic campaigns, best understood by reading Clausewitz. I like Chopin and Schumann because they dealt awkwardly with the form. I don't like the orchestra's social organization, the oppressive work conditions, and the subservience of many individual gifted artists to a commanding, often non-musical authority. At the same time the thing is there, it exists, and for the purpose of creating beautiful music, which is something it certainly can do. This piece is an attempt, perhaps only half-successful, to express the life of the orchestra in its contradictoriness."

            In his own words, Rzewski says that he wrote the work to “express the life of the orchestra in its contradictoriness” with full knowledge of the faulted nature of the symphony orchestra as a vehicle to individual freedom and expression. This statement defies Asplund’s claim that Rzewski’s music “must foreground the participants' dissatisfaction with existing power structures” and demonstrate a clear path to attaining better circumstances. Rzewski takes an aesthetic stance by declaring the orchestra as “beautiful”, and it is in the reconciliation or cognitive dissonance of the aesthetic value of the orchestra and its problematic social structure that A Long Time Man attains its complicated nature. 

Cornelius Cardew, The Scratch Orchestra, and Its Impact

            While Rzewski’s ties to composer Cornelius Cardew are briefly mentioned in program notes and in scholarship, they do not directly link Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra to Rzewski. It is in this connection that insight can be made into why Rzewski viewed the symphony orchestra in a certain light.

“Gradually, Cardew not only criticized but also rejected the experimental, avant-garde style as ‘too elitist.’ In the program notes for his Piano Album 1973, Cardew explains his new conversion by writing, ‘I have discontinued composing music in an avant-garde idiom for a number of reasons; the exclusiveness of the avant-garde, its fragmentation, its indifference to the real situation in the world today, its individualistic outlook and not least its class character (the other characteristics are virtually products of this).’ Cardew’s own compositions were now primarily ‘tonal piano pieces based on folk tunes’ as well as ‘revolutionary and worker songs; Gebrauchsmusik.[2]’”

            Pianist and scholar Marcel Rominger points out how Rzewski’s long-time collaborator and experimental composer Cornelius Cardew shifted his style to “Gebrauchsmusik” in reaction to conclusions he came to in the 1970s regarding the purposes of experimental music and its audiences. Prior to this change of mindset, Cardew composed for self-founded and collaborative groups with improvisatory elements, including QUaX Ensemble with Ostrava Days artistic director Petr Kotik and the Scratch Orchestra. While the second ensemble has the term Orchestra in its name, the ensemble was made up of musicians and non-musicians alike. The Scratch Orchestra played text scores and had a non-hierarchal system of operation, one which allowed all members the ability to plan concerts should they opt to do so. They sought to be a “genuinely democratic orchestra[3]”, but Cardew’s musical aesthetics diminished this aim by precluding “simple folk music” because he felt that rock music would resonate better with contemporary audiences[4]. Cardew’s inability to embrace a truly democratic vision devoid of his own musical aesthetics led to the downfall of Scratch Orchestra.

Figure 1: Introductory page to Rzewski's Scratch Symphony in memory of Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981)

            Rzewski was aware of the Scratch Orchestra’s concaving as an ensemble in the early 1970s, of Cardew’s musical turn to setting revolutionary and worker songs, and named a later composition Scratch Symphony (1997) in memory of Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981). I argue that the failure of the Scratch Orchestra lessened whatever minimal hope Rzewski held for the symphony orchestra as a medium capable of a democratic, socialist, or Marxist social order when composing A Long Time Man in 1979. Rather than force the symphony orchestra to be non-hierarchical, which he later attempts in Scratch Symphony by having different forms of leadership throughout the work, Rzewski leaned into the inherently unwavering and unequal aspects of the symphony orchestra in A Long Time Man. Given time and considering the loss of Cardew, Rzewski could have softened his views surrounding the irrevocable social order present in the orchestra upon composing Scratch Symphony in 1997. The existence of Scratch Symphony, which embraces a more open dynamic, provides a sharp contrast to A Long Time Man and highlights Rzewski's proclivity to change. Instead of using the symphony orchestra to create a model for a new society, like Cardew had attempted and Rzewski later paid homage to in Scratch Symphony, Rzewski used the same medium in a more traditional classical music setting to illustrate what is wrong with society and classical music in A Long Time Man.

“If the audience can be considered a coauthor for a set work such as a film, then having the audience physically participate and contribute to the work as an equal collaborator within experimental and improvisational musical works strikes one as being even more politically efficacious…Political action is now achieved through the inclusion of the audience within the performance…This performance or ensemble, where both trained and untrained musicians are considered equally active and productive during the performance, resembles an ideal socialist society where all members are equal regardless of background. And with the ensembles of both Cardew and Rzewski, alternate styles of notation became a catalyst for improvisation, thus creating an opportunity for musical creativity and political communication.[5]

            While both Cardew and Rzewski begin incorporating work songs in the 1970s, their selected instrumentation and choice of settings alter the messaging and function of the music. I argue that in A Long Time Man, the working man is on display in front of the audience in stark contrast to the orchestra with the purpose of conjuring cognitive dissonance. Rather than create music inspired by working songs with the intention of it appealing to a broader demographic, as was Cardew’s goal, Rzewski isolates the class dichotomy of worker and those who watch the worker and sets it in the concert hall. In between this juxtaposition are the musicians themselves. Contrary to Rominger, I see Rzewski’s use of alternate styles of notation in A Long Time Man not as a “catalyst for improvisation” and “creativity”, but rather, as a scaffolding to musically confine in the sternest sense.

The Musician As The Worker, or, The Observed Worker

            The idea of the musician as the worker comes up frequently in writings surrounding Rzewski’s music. In her chapter on Rzewski’s ten-minute work Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (1979), pianist and writer Susan Tomes likens the machinery of the piano to that of a spinning jenny positing “the repetitive and tedious process of piano practice have something in common with the repetitive actions of machine work, even at the highest levels. Is it ridiculous to compare a professional pianist to a worker, or does it reveal something useful about the musician’s life which is usually hidden from us by the label of ‘art’?[6]” Written in 1979, the same year as A Long Time Man, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues for two pianos melodically sets text referring to working cotton mills and as of October 2023 the work is Rzewski’s top track on Spotify. There are numerous qualities that make this work more digestible than A Long Time Man. Towards the end of Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues there is a grand reveal of the melody, a moment which does not occur in the same fashion in A Long Time Man. In addition to certain musical characteristics, I argue that the possibility of the pianists as workers is less confrontational than the setup of A Long Time Man, which clearly differentiates between the orchestral musicians and the percussionists with hammers and anvils, who mimic the physical motions of laborers. 

Figure 2: “Chain Gang” Insert from A Long Time Man

            The orchestral score and solo piano part for A Long Time Man is notated traditionally, until the interruption of the “Chain Gang” material as depicted in figure 2. A Long Time Man is comprised of a theme, 24 variations, various codas, and the “Chain Gang” material. The excerpt above arrives after variation 15, with a formal transition and orchestral cadenza leading into this material (figure 3). By dedicating said material as an “insert,” as seen in the sheet music, Rzewski acknowledges that this musical section is separate from the rest of the score. It can also be performed as an independent piece. Socially, the players are isolated from the orchestra, off to the side, and have waited in silence for 15 of the total 24 variations. The way that the musical material itself is treated is telling. The working songs are clouded, obscured, and set in an overly formalist structure. As noted above, Cardew rejected the “fragmentary” nature of avant-garde music — a quality A Long Time Man embraces in its form of a theme, 24 variations, and a coda.

Figure 3: Page 61 from A Long Time Man 

Notation and Choice in A Long Time Man

            The visual implications of the graphic notation used in A Long Time Man when the “Chain Gang” enters are significant in practice and in their aesthetics. In figure 3, the axe entrances are notated by the word “WHUMP” written vertically. There are also numbers above the measure to indicate the beats themselves. I argue that this is more to indicate a specific kind of sound than it is to practically open the orchestral space to non-professional musicians. Aspects of the notation hint at inclusion of non-musicians, such as the writing of the word instead of a notehead and the indication of beats above the bar. However, the entrance is linked to a particular moment of time when the orchestra is chaotic and entering on a downbeat as a section while the orchestra is resting for an eighth note is challenging. This illuminates the Ostrava Days choice of the leaders of the organization taking on the role of this “Chain Gang” during their August 2023 performance of the work. A Long Time Man requires the full orchestra, so the part could not be played by any of the orchestra musicians and requires musical literacy and physical strength. The word “WHUMP” itself provides information regarding this notational choice and how the part should be played. A “WHUMP” is not a “STRIKE” or a “HIT.” If you look at the writing of the word “WHUMP” in the first bar of the orchestral cadenza, the text itself slightly swerves to the right towards the bottom. This downward tilt mimics the sound and the motion of the axe swing.

            Looking closely at figure 2 and figure 3, there are aspects that imply a sense of freedom or accessibility, but I argue that this is an illusion that provides a false sense of independence for the performer or anyone looking at the score. In Figure 2, the notation visually resembles that of a fisted arm at a 90-degree angle held up or downward. This visual resembles the arm of resistance but requires the players to fit within a strict set of musical rules, or a system. There are decisions that must be made, in part C the orchestra either divides itself in half or plays ad lib. There is a choice, but both choices contain pre-determined outcomes. Neither option is improvisatory, they are both composed. In the orchestral cadenza in figure 3, the “ORCHESTRA” can read top to bottom or bottom to top. Another example of non-traditional notation in figure 3 is the previously mentioned written “WHUMP.” I argue that non-traditional notation does not necessarily produce improvisatory music but can be used as a tool to generate composed music that is chaotic within specific parameters.

            To define what is and what is not improvisation — murky territory — I will use Rzewski’s words on the topic. In a 1969 interview with Monique Verken on Musica Elettronica Vivva (MEV), Rzewski says “MEV improvisations are based neither on predetermined structures not on chance…they are based on friendship and trust…it is strongly qualified by the desire to experience and express positive feelings of love and joy–although the process by which this goal is generally reached is by no means always pleasant, sometimes it is painful, and in any case it always involves work.[7]” The instructions present in A Long Time Man are structures, and they are written for the strict organization of the symphony orchestra.

            In a seemingly contrary quote about improvisation, Rzewski says “Improvisation is a trap which we must fall into in order to be free.[8]” The search for freedom and escape comes up frequently in Rzewski’s music, Spacecraft and Coming Together are two frequently cited examples as they posit ways out of the physical realm and literal imprisonment. Rzewski’s usual ways of incorporating improvisation and graphic notation are no longer relevant in A Long Time Man because, to again quote Rzewski, it attempts “to express the life of the orchestra in its contradictoriness.” It tries to paint what is rather than sculpt a way out.


            Returning to Asplund and the preconceived notions around Rzewski’s work, Asplund says,

“Each of the pieces I discussed in the first half of this paper has a problem inherent in its structure that can only be overcome by the performers through struggle, vigilance, and even failure. This is an extremely unique aspect in Rzewski's music. Other composers have explored the idea of making a performer struggle, sometimes for breath, but the focus of this struggle is usually based on a relationship of power in which a performer strives to fulfill instructions that verge on the impossible. The value of these performance situations is the drama that such danger provides. The struggles in Rzewski's works however are not based on individual virtuosity, on the performance of devilish physical feats, but rather on a virtuosity of collective action which serves not an unwholesome power relationship but a goal of collective betterment.[9]

            While I agree with Asplund that failure and struggle are unique and essential components of Rzewski’s music, we diverge in thought regarding how those are potentially executed and the desired outcomes of those methods. The setup of A Long Time Man creates an intrinsically uneven power dynamic through its instrumentation and staging. The piano soloist is in front of the orchestra in the standard fashion and is therefore set apart. Off to the side is the “Chain Gang”, who enters later in the composition. The physicality required to strike the hammer and anvils violently and repetitively is a “devilish physical feat” in and of itself. The physicality and individual strength required of the “Chain Gang” is easier to see than physicality of other parts, but I argue that a comparable level of individual virtuosity is required of the piano soloist, and numerous orchestral players.

            The relationship that Asplund presents between individual virtuosity and collective virtuosity oriented through action is similarly problematic to me in its framing and end-goals. There is a presented polarization of individual virtuosity and collective virtuosity that I argue should not be viewed as separate entities. Similarly, Asplund presents the dichotomy of “unwholesome power relationship” and the “goal of collective betterment.” Instead of viewing these goals as antagonistic, I feel that they are two sides of the same coin and are both possible motivations behind A Long Time Man. By exaggerating the already skewed power dynamics, Rzewski allows the audience to see the symphony orchestra for what it is. The sense of imprisonment is made visible through the “Chain Gang” and the skewed power dynamics are an inherent part of the symphony orchestra’s structure. While these attributes can and should be read politically, the setting of the symphony orchestra also presents a spiritual scenario. Rzewski recognizes the limitations of the symphony orchestra, and he does so without trying to change it or seek liberation through improvisation in A Long Time Man. The seemingly free graphic notation is pre-ordained, there isn’t a plethora of options but there is choice. A Long Time Man is not a search for freedom or act of escapism but an exploration of the beautiful within a flawed system.


Asplund, Christian. “Frederic Rzewski and Spontaneous Political Music.” Perspectives of New Music 33, no. 1/2 (1995): 418–441.

Bakla, Petr. “Ostrava Days of New Music 2005.” Czech Music Quarterly. Prague: Czech Music Information, 2005.

Bakla, Petr. “Petr Kotik: As a Composer, I’ve Always Been a Loner.” Czech Music Quarterly. Prague: Czech Music Information, 2011.

Bernstein, David W. “‘Listening to the Sounds of the People’: Frederic Rzewski and Musica Elettronica Viva (1966-1972).” Contemporary Music Review 29, no. 6 (2010): 535–550.

Cahill, Sarah. “Some Piano Music by Frederic Rzewski.” Contemporary Music Review 29, no. 6 (2010): 551–555.

Cardew, Cornelius. “Rzewski, Frederic. A Note On. The Musical Times.” Vol. 117. London: Novello, 1976.

Gendron, Bernard. “Rzewski in New York (1971-1977).” Contemporary music review 29, no. 6 (2010): 557–574.

Lott, Walton Alexander. “Narratives of Political Struggle in Frederic Rzewski’s Four Pieces.” The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 2022.

Metzer, David. “Prisoners’ Voices: Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together and Attica.” The Journal of Musicology (St. Joseph, Mich.) 38, no. 1 (2021): 109–139.

Mikyska, Ian. “The S.E.M. Ensemble at 50: Something Which Seems Unimportant Proves To Be Quite Interesting In Time.” Czech Music Quarterly. Czech Music Information, 2020.

Pollack, Howard. “Harvard Composers: Walter Piston and His Students, from Elliott Carter to Frederic Rzewski.” Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1992.

Rominger, Marcel. “Exploring Political Action and Socialization through Group Improvisation Within the Music of Frederic Rzewski and Cornelius Cardew.” City University of New York, 2019.

Rzewski, Frederic. “On Improvisation.” Contemporary Music Review 25, no. 5-6 (2006): 491–495.

Rzewski, Frederic. “Parma Manifesto.” Leonardo Music Journal 9 (1999): 77–78. 

Rzewski, Frederic, and Monique Verken. “Musica Elettronica Viva.” The Drama Review: TDR 14, no. 1 (1969): 92–97.

Tomes, Susan. “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces, 320–328. Yale University Press, 2021.

Wason, Robert W. “Tonality and Atonality in Frederic Rzewski’s Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated!’” Perspectives of new music 26, no. 1 (1988): 108–143.

[1] Christian Asplund. “Frederic Rzewski and Spontaneous Political Music.” Perspectives of new music 33, no. 1/2 (1995): 418–441.

[2] Marcel Rominger, “Exploring Political Action and Socialization through Group Improvisation Within the Music of Frederic Rzewski and Cornelius Cardew,” City University of New York, 2019: 115-116

[3] Rominger, “Exploring Political Action…,”: 114

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rominger, “Exploring Political Action…,”: 95-96

[6] Susan Tomes, “The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces,” 2021: 322

[7] Frederic Rzewski and Monique Verken, “Musica Elettronica Viva” The Drama Review: TDR 14, no. 1 (1969): 93-94

[8] Frederic Rzewski and Monique Verken, “Musica Elettronica Viva”: 94

[9] Christian Asplund. “Frederic Rzewski and Spontaneous Political Music.”: 418–441.


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