As a percussionist deeply involved with new music, Allen Otte is exceptionally comfortable working with composers. Especially when commissioning a new work for one of the two ensembles he’s formed — Blackearth Percussion Group and Percussion Group of Cincinnati — Otte and his colleagues have taken it almost for granted that they have valuable input to offer for the shaping of the piece. “We know what we’re doing, and we know the instruments,” he said during a recent phone conversation.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and for Otte the exception was the American composer Frederic Rzewski, whose category-defying musical language and ardent left-wing political stance have recently made him the composer of the moment. Otte, who has known Rzewski since the mid-’70s, commissioned a solo percussion piece from the composer for a new-music festival in 2007 at the University of Cincinnati, where Otte is a longtime faculty member.
“I’ve known Frederic all these years, and as most people know, he’s a difficult personality,” Otte said, chuckling. “People love him in spite of his difficulties.” And despite their long friendship, “I didn’t say anything about what the piece should be. I didn’t know what he was going to write. I just kept my mouth shut.”
One by one, Otte began receiving envelopes from Brussels, where Rzewski is based. Each one contained Xeroxes of a few pages of manuscript paper containing both music and speaking parts. The music tested the technique of even an expert percussionist, containing difficult-to-negotiate vibraphone runs, a lengthy solo for chimes, and stretches whose instrumentation was left to the performer’s imagination.
The texts, to be spoken by the percussionist, came from a bewildering array of sources: obscure passages from Twain and Dickens, a Mother Goose rhyme. Plus Rzewski’s own texts, including one in which a character declaims, “I don’t give a [expletive] about global warming.” The whole thing opens with Thomas Jefferson’s famously ominous warning: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.”
Otte was puzzled by the movements he received, and it took him a while, even after the premiere, to fully assimilate what Rzewski had created. He is now convinced that the piece that would be titled “The Fall of the Empire” — which Otte will perform on June 18 at the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP) — is a work of brilliance, standing in a line of politically oriented works by Rzewski that includes “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” and “Coming Together.”
It was crucial, Otte eventually realized, that the piece be structured as it was, with its sequence of dissimilar voices speaking of dark and destructive forces, underlain and accompanied by a fantastic battery of percussion sounds. Only in that way could Rzewski create his multifaceted portrait of decaying empires. “Empires are not conquered from without — they are long since crumbling from within,” is how Otte described the piece’s message. “It had to be each of these different characters — only their accumulation shows you what the title says.”
And yet, he added, “the thing I like about it is that overt as his politics are, the piece itself is good music, good percussion music, they’re all provocative texts, and none of them needs to be specifically preaching any particular political line. I’m not selling anything here; I’m just showing, this picture and then that picture. And by the end you get it.”
If “The Fall of the Empire” felt urgent and timely when it was written in 2007, I asked Otte, how does it feel to play in 2018?
“You know, it feels sad and scary,” he answered. “In 2007, there was a kind of normalcy where one could be an artist staking out an absolutely critical position, and feeling like it meant something. Now the sadness is that there’s almost a certain naivete in thinking that, in the face of all that Trump represents. . . . My goodness, they don’t care about our edgy little critical commentary on society.”
Still, he added, “one doesn’t just want to despair. I will keep playing the piece, even though for the most part I guess I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. But I think it’s still crucial to stay engaged with pieces of social commentary, and not just pretend that we should just go back to doing art for art’s sake in the midst of all this.”
That’s a sentiment that Stephen Drury, the founder and artistic director of SICPP, shares. “As I’ve been saying at most of my concerts over the past 18 months, we can’t afford these days to pretend creative art lives in a vacuum,” Drury wrote via e-mail about programming the piece at this year’s Institute. “The likelihood of a catastrophic collapse of the American democratic experiment increases daily, and the willingness of too much of our population and our political leaders to sit by and watch that happen needs to be condemned at every possibly forum.”
That ethos is something Otte traces to his mentor, the German composer Herbert Brün, one that he think Rzewski shares as well.
“Brün once said that you should raise your voice in the name of something besides yourself,” Otte said. “And in our world of classical music, it only gets harder with the difficulties of making a career. Well, here’s an example of someone who is raising his voice in the name of something other than himself.”
‘The thing I like about it is that overt as his politics are, the piece itself is . . . good percussion music, they’re all provocative texts, and none of them needs to be specifically preaching any . . . political line.’
Presented by Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice. At Jordan Hall, June 18, 8 p.m. Free. www.sicpp.orgDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.