Eighth Blackbird and Will Oldham Turn “Coming Together” into a Modern Classic

Composer Frederic Rzewski’s work, inspired by the 1971 Attica prison rebellion, has seen a resurgence of interest since the artists began presenting it in 2015.

APR 24, 2018 

AC2Classical0425Nathan Keay MCA ChicagEighth Blackbird and Will Oldham performing in ChicagoPHOTO: NATHAN KEAY/MCA CHICAGO

You may not have heard of Frederic Rzewski, the American-born New Music composer and pianist whose work often has a strong political bent. He’s 80 and hardly a household name.

But, if you attend Eighth Blackbird’s and Will Oldham’s MusicNOW performance of Rzewski’s “Coming Together” at 2 p.m. Sunday, you won’t soon forget it. Spare and haunting, it consists of pianist Lisa Kaplan setting an ominous tone, as others provide repetitive and minimalist percussion, strings and woodwinds for the adventurous Americana singer-songwriter Oldham to intone a short passage repeatedly. It goes, in part:

“I think the combination of age and the greater coming together/ is responsible for the speed of the passing time/ it’s six months now and i can tell you truthfully/ few periods in my life have passed so quickly./ i am in excellent physical and emotional health./ there are doubtless subtle surprises ahead/ but i feel secure and ready.”

As the piece continues, with the players in the Chicago-based New Music ensemble building in intensity, Oldham repeats the full passage and seems to be losing control, becoming manic, turning fanatical. The piece leaves you shaken — as if you’ve witnessed a personal tragedy.

And it is, really. The words were in a letter written in May 1971 by Sam Melville, an anti-Vietnam War radical sentenced to prison for his role in bombing government institutions, while he was at New York’s Attica State Prison. In September of that year, he was one of 43 people killed at the infamous Attica riot/rebellion. Rzewski wrote “Coming Together” not long afterward.

While there certainly have been performances of the piece since the composer wrote it, Eighth Blackbird’s ones with Oldham have brought it to a much wider audience. It’s starting to take its place next to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” as a musical work that defines its troubled times.

And there are Cincinnati — and MusicNOW — roots in its improbable rise. When Eighth Blackbird was performing at the 2014 festival, Kaplan saw Oldham, another guest that year, do a memorable singer-songwriter set at Music Hall. (He also goes by the name Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.) “I have known Will’s music for a very long time, but I had never seen him live,” she says. “I was kind of blown away.”

Eighth Blackbird subsequently was invited to play an outdoor Celebrate Brooklyn concert in 2015 and considered doing “Coming Together” — now-departed founding member and violinist Matt Albert had written an arrangement for a 2000 album called fred, featuring the music of Rzewski. Eighth Blackbird had gotten to know Rzewski’s music when they were graduate students at University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music in the late 1990s.

“Then it occurred to me, ‘I’ll bet Will Oldham would be totally into this. I’m going to ask him,’ ” Kaplan says. “He’s exactly the type of person interested in doing those projects.”

Since then, Eighth Blackbird and Oldham have had steady requests to do “Coming Together” live — although their individual schedules are busy. They performed it for the 10th time together last weekend in Los Angeles. “It has just evolved into a very nice venture for him, and it’s musically evolved, too,” Kaplan says. They have also just recorded some of Oldham’s songs for release on Bryce and Aaron Dessner’s new record label, she says.

But there are reasons that go beyond Oldham’s presence for why their performance of “Coming Together” is resonating with audiences. “I’ve always read the text as trying to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense,” she says. “Those lines end up being so ironic.

“The way Rzewski set the text, it’s about somebody who feels very much in control. But by the end, he feels very much out of control — no matter how hard they’ve tried to deal with their existence, they haven’t been able to cope. I guess it’s just like the current political climate, where it’s like, ‘How is it possible this person is really president of the United States?’ So I’ve always read it as something very current. It seems to me to be the struggle of one man and, ultimately, of mankind.”

STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com