Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together”

Almost two years ago I started working on my senior thesis, “Sociopolitical Communication in the 20th Century Western Art Music Tradition.” One of the many parts of the final product was an analysis of Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together”, a 20-minute structured improvisation about the death of Sam Melville in the Attica Prison Riots. As difficult as it was to perform, perhaps more difficult was discovering the mathematical formulas and processes that Rzewski utilized to compose the bass, the only composed line which dictates the improvisations of all other performers. It was a huge a-ha moment for me, and to this day I have yet to see anyone post it online. I don’t really foresee it going through the peer-review process any time soon, so I thought I would share it here for any aspiring theoreticians trying to crack Fred’s code, or performers looking for another way of approaching the piece (it helps a ton!) Enjoy:

P.S. Would have nitpicked the formatting, but you’ll live! I’ll fix it another time.

 

Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together is a setting of an excerpt from the personal

correspondence of Sam Melville, an inmate at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica,

New York. Melville was one of the leaders of the infamous Attica Prison riot which

occurred earlier in 1971.43 Rzewski’s composition attempts to portray the graduak

unification of the inmates around a common goal within the confines of the prison. In

order to convey the stasis of the penitentiary environment, Rzewski restricts himself to a

mere seven notes (G1, Bb1, C2, D2, F2, G2, and Bb2), arranged in a continuous stream of

16th notes in common time. This gamut is then subjected to a series of algorithmic

processes which create a heavily syncopated melody in the bass register, echoing the

ordered chaos of prison life. This melody represents the common goal of the performers

acting as the inmates, who must then follow a series of instructions which actualize a

coming together around the bass melody. The instructions are generally improvisatory in

nature, directing performers to select notes from the bass melody to be played at the same

Nied 43

43 Leslie James Pickering, Mad Bomber Melville: Part One, Artvoice, 6 June 2007, <http://artvoice.com/

issues/v6n23/mad_bomber_melville_part_one>, accessed March 2012.

time as they occur in the instrument realizing said melody. These selections increase in

frequency and intensity, culminating with all performers playing every note of the original

melody in unison. The overall aural effect of the performance is one of a melody

composed of constantly shifting timbres, initially individualized but increasingly blended.

Rzewski’s additive processes are most easily comprehended if ordinal positions are

assigned to the notes of the gamut, from low to high: G1 = [1], Bb1 = [2], C2 = [3], D2 =

[4], F2 = [5], G2 = [6], and Bb2 = [7] (ordinal positions are placed within brackets to

avoid confusion). Each section has a target melody consisting of a series of rising or falling

lines which move sequentially through the gamut; the direction and sequential size of

these lines vary from section to section, although every melody is 28 notes total. Rzewski

then creates phrases which grow consecutively longer by adding notes toward the target

melody of the given section. For example, section A’s target melody is the sequence [1|12|

123|1234|12345|123456|1234567], where bars indicate rising or falling lines (fragments)

and brackets indicate phrases. Rzewski then creates phrases of increasing length by adding

notes from the sequence one by one: [1] [1|1] [1|12] [1|12|1] [1|12|12] [1|12|123] etc.

Section B’s target melody is [1234567|123456|12345|1234|123|12|1], and is constructed

in the same manner – [1] [12] [123] [1234] [12345] [123456] [1234567] [1234567|1] etc.

One could explain sections C-H in a similar manner by finding their target melodies and

the sequencing thereof, but there is an additional layer of complex rationality to Rzewski’s

composition:

C is a retrograde of B,

D is an inversion of B,

E is an inversion of C and the retrograde inversion of B,

Nied 44

F is a retrograde inversion of A,

G is an inversion of A,

H is a retrograde of A.

Thus sections C-H are a mirror image of process, which helps the piece feel organic

and creates development. Starting with A and B as the original themes, they are both

treated to increasing levels of variation before gradually returning. The piece ends exactly

how it started, but in reverse – perhaps a very potent metaphor for the life of Sam Melville

and the other participants in the Attica riots.

Since the algorithmic procedure of each section takes place at the same point of

melodic construction or destruction – the last note for the additive processes, the first note

for the subtractive – there are many ways to interpret the sections’ relationship to one

another. For instance, one interpretation might relate every section to A. If the order of

melodic fragments is considered, section B is a fragment retrograde of section A. In this

context,

C is a retrograde of the retrograde of the fragment order of A,

D is an inversion of the fragment order of A,

E is an inversion of C and the retrograde inversion of the fragment order of A,

F is a retrograde inversion of A,

G is an inversion of A,

H is a retrograde of A.

Each section consists, at its most basic level, of all consecutive constructions of a sevennote

gamut at a constant rhythmic value. All ordinal intervals (meaning the distance from

one note to the next within a fragment as a measurement of position in the scale rather

Nied 45

than intervallic relationships) are static at 1 within fragments, and each pair of fragments

will have equivalent ordinal intervals in every other section (leaps of every real number

0-7). Because of these mathematical consistencies between sections, how one decides to

analyze Coming Together is relative. At the most abstract, sections do not need to be

considered relative to each other, since each operates as one permutation of the system

described above. This in itself might be Rzewski’s ultimate message: each section, each

note, and each performer is ultimately one permutation of a collective process, either

musically or in a broadly human sense. The intertwining of its individual parts affects a

greater whole operating in harmony, each member of which plays an equally important

part. No one note or performer has more importance than another in the composition and

performance of the work.

An aside: because the additive and subtractive process are themselves essentially

mirror images, with the additive affecting the last note of the phrase and the subtractive the

first, any inversion or retrograde of any section can be considered as an independent

function and written out like section A is above. From experience performing the piece,

this is actually recommended so that the performer can pick up the pattern instead of

trying to remember the retrograde inversion of a previous section. Being able to see the

pattern unfolding is invaluable in the improvisational sections and is immeasurably useful

when approaching a page turn or finding one’s place. Contextualizing C-H against

sections A and B allows for a discussion that is at once detailed and succinct without overcomplicating

or over-simplifying Rzewski’s constructions.

The text itself – eight lines from one of Sam Melville’s letters to his brother written

during the riot – is incarcerated into fragments seven units in length, mirroring the number

Nied 46

of pitches in the gamut.44 The sentences are then subjected to a simplified version of the

additive process selecting the order of pitches: the first sentence is sounded, then the first

and second, followed by the first, second, and third, and so on until all eight sentences

have been heard. Once that goal has been reached, the first sentence is removed so that

the text starts on the second and continues to the eighth fragment. The second sentence is

then removed as the remainder are recited, then the third, and so on. Rzewski also

employs word painting techniques throughout the piece to further the unification process

and musically express the emotionality involved in the procedure. As section B comes to a

close, the text “there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead, but I feel secure and ready” is

recited. As the corresponding measures pass, Rzewski increases the overall dynamic level

by saturating the melody with accent marks. When section C begins, the dynamic

indication drops to subito piano – a subtle musical surprise to echo the textual one. The

first appearance of the fragments “as lovers / will contrast” accompanies this softening of

texture. As section F nears and the performers diminish in volume, the speaker tells the

audience that he is “feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.” The musicians then

offer direction playing subito forte, as if inspired with a new sense of purpose. Then, as F

nears completion, the final reprise of the phrase “there are doubtless subtle surprises

ahead, but I feel secure and ready” is recited. This time, instead of presenting a surprise,

Rzewski’s ensemble realizes security and readiness, crescendoing triple forte into the now

confident “as lovers” fragment. As the piece ends, the speaker once more repeats that s/he

is “feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.” The direction comes in the form of a

musical gunshot. The piece ends abruptly as every member of the ensemble plays five low

Nied 47

44 For full correspondences from Mr. Melville, see: Samuel Melville, Letters From Attica, Morrow, (New York,

1972). See appendix A for the full text, sentence order, and fragmentation.

Gs as loudly as possible before cutting off without any ritardando or diminuendo as a

warning. This can be interpreted as the moment of Melville’s death from the bullet of a

National Guard sniper as Melville was walking through the courtyard of the penitentiary

after the armed forces had seized the building by force.

Part two, “Attica,” follows, floating on a constant Bb major triad, the relative major

of “Coming Together.” The melody is again additive and performers are instructed to either

drone on a Bb major tonality, play the melody, harmonize the melody at the third or sixth,

or improvise freely around the melody. The vocalist repeats the text, “Attica is in front of

me,” a quote spoken by Melville’s fellow inmate Richard X. Clark when asked how it felt

to put Attica behind him.45 This text is also additive, this time being constructed word by

word rather than sentence by sentence. The choice of this quote highlights the peculiar

duality pervasive throughout both parts of Coming Together. The speaker, who only a

moment before was Sam Melville in the moments before his death, is now Clark, leaving

the scene of a terrible ordeal. If “Coming Together” is representative of Melville’s role in

the riot itself, “Attica” may be the musical sonification of the aftermath of his death.

Christian Apslund makes several other insightful observations about the duality of the

work: “Attica, seen in this light has been a laboratory, a monastery and a school; a

preparing ground for a greater struggle in the world outside Attica.”

Coming Together was initially met with a mixed initial critical response. Some

questioned Rzewski’s use of a relatively simplistic G minor pentatonic scale in a time

where experimentalism and serialism had sidelined tonality. Others questioned the

incessant rhythm of the bass line. However, the sociopolitical messaging in Coming

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45 Christian Apslund, “Frederic Rzewski and Spontaneous Political Music,” Perspectives of New Music, 33,

(Winter/Summer, 1995), 418.

Together combined with the test of time has many who initially dismissed the work to

acknowledge its artistry. As critic John Rockwell commented, “everything considered, he

raises so many issues that the fact that his actual music is only intermittently interesting

becomes almost secondary.”46

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5 Responses to Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together”

  1. perkustooth says:

    I read your analysis of Rzewski’s ‘Coming Together’ with great interest. I am a blogger (who now follows you) with an interest in political protest music and this is without a doubt one of my favorite pieces in that genre. If you get a chance please check out my blog at newmusicbuff.wordpress.com. Meanwhile thanks for writing this. I look forward to more.

    Best,
    Allan

  2. Pingback: Classical Protest Music: Frederic Rzewski- The People United Will Never Be Defeated « New Music Buff

  3. David Abel says:

    Thank you for posting this analysis. Though much of the music-theoretical details are somewhat outside my ken, the clear and persuasive connections that you make between those details and their social-political-aesthetic implications corroborate the instinctive sense that I’ve always had about the powerful integration of the piece.

    I was fortunate to have the chance to perform the speaking role six or eight years ago here in Portland, Oregon, with the ensemble Fear No Music, which was the realization of a long-held wish.

    It might be of interest to note a couple of details that are at variance with the most common versions of the historical background of the piece, as you and most commentators have encountered them.

    The first is regarding the text: The Melville letter from which Rzewski took the text (upon seeing it reprinted in Ramparts magazine) was actually written in 1970, while he was incarcerated in the municipal jail on Centre Street in lower Manhattan (known as The Tombs), where he led a prisoner strike, prior to his transfer first to Sing Sing, then eventually to Attica.

    The second is regarding the manner of Melville’s death: a 1991 civil lawsuit by former inmates brought information to light that made it clear that Melville was murdered by a state trooper after the retaking of the prison, and was shot at close range. These details and more can be found at sammelville.org.

    yours truly,

    David Abel

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