Protest Music: Rzewski, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues
As I mentioned in last week’s post, I am interested in works that are programmatic, pieces that contain a story, because I believe that the inherent purpose of music is to convey and express certain emotions. To this end, I also have a penchant for protest music—works that comment on social and political issues.
Protest music has a long history of connecting and highlighting important issues with our daily lives. We saw this with the rise of anti-war songs during the Vietnam war. In Western art music, composers like Shostakovich would incorporate elements of protest in his music to comment on the strict and harsh censorship laws during the Stalin dictatorship. All of these efforts were to raise awareness to the large issues that were going on at the time. It always fascinates me that art has the power to elicit such a powerful and emotional response.
A composer that speaks to me on a similar kind of level is the American pianist and composer, Frederic Rzewski. Although he composes in a wide variety of styles ranging from neo-romanticism, jazz, improvisation, and extended piano techniques, he is mostly known for his work in protest songs. I have been performing one of his more popular works quite regularly in concerts: Winnsboro Cotton mill Blues.
In this piece, Rzewski depicts a scene of the 1930s when workers at the textile mill plant in Winnsboro, South Carolina began singing lyrics to reflect the hardship of factory labor and to promote camaraderie among the workers. Prominent Blues artists such as Lead Belly and Pete Seeger have sung this catchy folk song. In Rzewski’s version, he utilizes this tune while employing unconventional piano techniques to imitate the sounds of the mill—this includes having the pianist using his palms and arms to achieve this!
From my own experiences, I have found that this piece is a highly effective work to conclude a program—it will also close out my recital at Hesston College later this week. It is catchy, virtuosic, lots of fun to play, and hopefully, an enjoyable listening experience! Next week, I will recap my performing and judging experiences at the Bach Festival & Competition. It should be a great weekend.
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