Saturday, October 8, 2011, 12:30 pm
ABOUT THE MUSIC
Music by Frederic Rzewski (1971)
Text by Sam Melville (1971)
On September 9, 1971 about 1,000 prisoners inside the Attica Correctional Facility in New York seized control of the prison, taking 33 staff hostage. The State began negotiating with the prisoners.
During the following four days, authorities agreed to 28 of the prisoners’ demands, but would not agree to demands for amnesty from criminal prosecution for the prison takeover or for the removal of Attica’s superintendent. On the order of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, State Police dropped tear gas into the yard and fired blindly into the smoke for two minutes. By the time the firing ceased, at least 39 people were dead, including 10 correctional officers and civilian employees.
Media reports at the time claimed inmate hostage-takers had slit the throats of many of their hostages. These reports were later found to be entirely and deliberately fictitious. All the dead, including the hostages, had been shot by the State. With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault that ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.
The libretto for Coming Together comes from a letter written by one of the deceased and sent only days before the riots began.
i think the combination of age and the greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. its 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 lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am i dealing with my environment. in the indifferent brutality, incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, i can act with clarity and meaning. i am deliberate — sometimes even calculating — seldom employ histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. i read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.
The writer of the letter, Sam Melville, had been arrested in 1969 for a series of bombings in Manhattan, each preceded by calls to ensure injuries were avoided and accompanied by detailed writings explaining how he thought the businesses within the structures spread death and poverty.
Born and raised in Buffalo, Melville was eighteen when he moved to New York City in the mid-fifties. In 1969, he was involved in political demonstrations against Columbia University. Then, as the Vietnam war droned on, he launched an offensive against what he saw as society’s war machine.
After his arrest, Melville was sent to the Federal House of Detention in Manhattan. At the time of his conviction the judge chastised him for the damage he had caused. Melville’s reply: “That’s about two Viet Cong.” He was sent to Attica for an 18 year sentence.
Only one year into his sentence, however, Melville was killed during the Attica prison riot in 1971. He is believed to have been murdered by a National Guard sharpshooter well after the riot ended.
In Coming Together Frederic Rzewski presents a single line of music and a page of musical rules which guides the ensemble in transforming Rzewski’s original seed into a full blown performance. The piece can be played by any number of players on any group of instruments. And within this environment, the players must make individual choices to create a sense of community out of what might otherwise degenerate into chaos. The music therefore never results in any two performances that are the same.
To this artistic milieu, Rzewski adds Melville’s personal reflections on his own life in a chaotic prison system of rules and individual choices.
A work like this raises inherent questions for us in American society today: How do we want to live? Can we still exercise our own free will with clarity and meaning, even if we are oppressed or controlled outwardly by others? Is anyone truly free in our society? And should we just accept it if our leaders lie to us, or should we instead demand more honesty, more authenticity, from both others and ourselves?
Works like Coming Together challenge us to remember our own history, and to determine to create a better society together for our children and posterity, one that respects the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all humankind.