Rzewski, Frederic: Whangdoodles

Frederic Rzewski (pronounced zheff-skee) was born in Westfield, Massachusetts. As a student, he worked with many of the major American modernists at Harvard and Princeton – Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Milton Babbitt, for example – and Rzewski went on to perform as a pianist specializing in modern music. His performances often contained strong elements of improvisation, and working further with this improvisatory spirit, he became a composer. He is now on the faculty of the Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Liège, Belgium. Rzewski’s music often has a political cast to it, as in his variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated, and Coming Together, based on letters from an inmate at Attica prison. He also helped form the group Musica Elettronica Viva in Rome, which has been performing improvisatory, collective electronic music since 1966.

Whangdoodles draws its title from the hobo anthem ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountains’. There are many versions of this song, which hit the top of the country charts in 1939 in a rather sanitized form. Relatively few covers of the song have the word ‘whangdoodle’ in them (often their part is played by bluebirds). But in the version recorded by Charles and Ruth Seeger, the whangdoodle does appear, and sing. This version is the source for Rzewski’s piece (he includes it as the appendix to the score), and its text reads as follows:

O the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees, 

the rock rye springs where the whangdoodle sings

in the big rock candy mountains

Plainly, the whangdoodle resists definition, being impossible. But the word isn’t utter nonsense, and it does at least have a history. It’s almost certainly an imaginary creature of American origin, and probably a monster of some sort. The word whangdoodle can also refer to the doubling of stakes in a poker game after a hot hand. Beyond that, it’s hard to say. So this piece is.. perhaps what the whangdoodle was singing out there in hobo utopia, or maybe a whangdoodle is one of the many episodes inside the piece, or maybe it’s a sort of a scribbling, or maybe it’s not. Julie Andrews wrote a book about whangdoodles, too. That should count for something.

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