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MUSIC / From outside in: They called him Fred the Red, but his god was Beethoven. Annette Morreau meets the composer Frederic Rzewski

I consider myself to be in the mainstream of the classical tradition. The classical tradition is a dynamic one of innovation. I consider the practice of performing music that is 150 to 200 years old to be an aberration of this tradition. The so-called classical music world is overwhelmed by a perverse, aberrant, distorted form of this tradition. I consider people like myself, composer/performers, to be the true inheritors of this tradition. The fact that we are out in the cold and generally ignored and unknown does not change my view of things.'

The words are Frederic Rzewski's. Perhaps the most gifted American composer of his generation, he is featured at this year's Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music, where six of his works will be performed. Rzewski (pronounced ZHEVski) is a complex and contradictory figure. Now in his fifties, he lives in Brussels the life of an outsider, a Groucho Marxist, unwilling to belong to any club that might like him as a member. But his gifts are exceptional; there is no other composer today who combines the ability to create with an ability to perform on a level of such devastating virtuosity. Rzewski is a regeneration of a lost breed personified by Liszt, Busoni, Alkan and Rachmaninov.

Born in Westfield, Massachusetts, in 1938, Rzewski quickly showed a general precociousness. At four he began to compose and play the piano; at seven he determined to be a composer 'like Beethoven'; at 16 he entered Harvard to read music, philosophy and Greek literature, and by 21 his graduate work at Princeton was complete. His teachers were luminaries - Walter Piston, Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt, but Rzewski admits that they offered little for him, although he regrets to this day his arrogance in throwing away the opportunity of serious study with Luigi Dallapiccola.

While he was still an undergraduate at Harvard, a visit to Darmstadt in 1956 where he met the composer and Harvard graduate, Christian Wolff, sealed his determination to settle in Europe. He was impressed that composers like Boulez and Stockhausen were 'actually doing something and getting their names in the papers. In America, if you stayed you became a 'Professor of Music'; it was impossible to be a composer.' Rome in the 1960s was full of artists and optimism, with a cultural life guided by the Communist party. With Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum, and under the influence of John Cage and David Tudor, the group MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva) was formed and quickly became known for its pioneering work in live electronics and improvisation. It established an aesthetic of music as a spontaneous collective process, an aesthetic crucial to a number of experimental groups at the time such as the Scratch Orchestra, AMM, and another Rome-based group, The Living Theatre.

In 1960, Rzewski had met the British composer Cornelius Cardew, who was then an assistant of Stockhausen. In 1964, Cardew and Rzewski gave the first, reputedly sensational, performance of Stockhausen's Plus Minus, where Rzewski (according to Cardew's friend and colleague John Tilbury) is said to have remarked, 'It is incredible how such tripe can be so beautiful.' It is perhaps because of a knowledge both of the activities of MEV and of his friendship with Cornelius Cardew, and a superficial understanding of much of his music, that Rzewski has been tagged a 'political' composer. Rzewski says today: 'Cornelius was a provocateur, I am not. I did not publish a book called Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, and I have never sat down in front of a tank.' He does not consider himself a 'political' composer, but he likes to associate his music with real life, with things that move him emotionally. 'But somehow even my limited involvement in human life in general in my music, or in attempting to associate these things, has brought me the stamp of being 'Fred the Red'. It's not relevant to understanding my music. I happen to be interested in life and the relationships of music to life. I am not inspired by abstractions.'

Of Rzewski's 100 or so compositions, the majority 'engage' with political and social issues. The Price of Oil (1980) relates to the human price in lives, To the Earth is an ecological prayer, The Triumph of Death takes up the holocaust and, most recently, De Profundis (which receives its UK premiere in Huddersfield) is a setting of Oscar Wilde's searing text where Rzewski requires the solo pianist simultaneously to utter Wilde's words, so producing a dramatic 'scena' of devastating effect.

Rzewski's music can seem wildly eclectic; it draws on the widest variety of styles - serial, minimal, freely improvised, and often determinedly tonal. Perhaps his strongest works are structured through variation form; his use of folk songs, work songs, nursery rhymes and pentatonic tunes as their basis relates to his attraction to a distinctly human quality in traditional music, where figures and forms are instantly recognisable however chopped up, transposed and manipulated. Beethoven is a key to much of Rzewski's music; his best- known work, and certainly his masterpiece, The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975), a 55-minute set of variations for solo piano, was written as a companion piece to the Diabelli Variations. In its formal plan and in its discursive treatment of a simple theme, it seems to stand not only as an 'artistic' homage to Beethoven but as a 'recognition' of Beethoven's similar engagement with political issues.

Andante Con Moto (which also receives its UK premiere in Huddersfield with the composer performing) is variations on the theme from the slow movement of Beethoven's Appassionata sonata. Rzewski conjectures that before Beethoven fixed on the final shape of this movement, itself in variation form, he must have improvised on this unusually symmetrical, classical theme; without stating the theme Rzewski, in his work, alludes to the variations Beethoven might have explored. Beethoven is also a clue to one of his own compositional aspirations: 'What I admire is that he expressed his intentions with admirable clarity, but allowed space for individual interpretation which makes it possible for the music to regenerate itself with succeeding generations. It goes on living.'

Rzewski's is a bewildering talent. At a time where 'mainstream' and 'outsider' have ceased to have any meaning, his music will no doubt find its rightful place. As Rzewski says of the role of the artist: 'Even if all else fails, you can provide by your life some kind of living example that it is possible to be an artist in this world. You don't have to give up. You don't have to become resigned to an existence from which art and beauty are banished.'

(Photograph omitted)