Can music really change the world?

And what does a composer have to do around here to get one of his works banned?

At the Dublin International Piano Festival and Summer Academy, founded in 2013 by Archie Chen and Rhona Gouldson, the pianists who perform are also those who teach, and the event is laced with seminars and presentations.

The festival has shown an unusual knack of finding speakers to tackle interesting topics in interesting ways, from the nuts and bolts of the piano itself and intellectual property issues in the 21st century, to the relevance of sports psychology to the world of the performing artist.

The first of this year's seminars was held on Sunday with a sometimes intrusive input from the traffic outside in the Mart Gallery in Rathmines. American composer Frederic Rzewski was in town and, as a man with a strong political purpose, he proposed the question "Can music change the world?"

The five-person panel was not made up of pianists but composers, with Rzewski operating much as a conductor does with an orchestra. He was not there to speak himself, or to offer an answer to the question. What he wanted to do was make sure that others – not just the members of the panel but the members of the audience, too – helped him with his quest.


A day earlier he had performed at the Hugh Lane Gallery, a programme that included one of the pieces for which he is best known – his 1975 set of variations on Sergio Ortega's 1973 Chilean song, El Pueblo Unido, Jamás Será Vencido (The People United Will Never Be Defeated).

Rzewski introduced the work, explaining that he had been asked to write a piece by Ursula Oppens for a concert she was giving as part of the US's bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Rzewski was aware that most of his fellow countrymen were not exactly well-informed about the political upheavals in Chile, and thought the best way he could address this was by writing a piece that would cause people to think about Chile and US involvement there, in the year of the US's celebration of its own declaration of independence.

The work was also written as a pairing for Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, and Rzewski fearlessly wrote a piece that takes on the large scale of the Beethoven so that Oppens had a programme of two halves that were more or less equal. A long piece, Rzewski said, gave people a long time to think.

Borders on jazz

As a composer, Rzewski freely mixes elements that are often kept apart in modern music. The People United takes its popular material through territory that borders on jazz as well as employing the gamut of modern compositional techniques, and calling on the performer to whistle and make vocalisations. There's even room for an optional cadenza with not a hint of what might be included, just an open invitation to improvise.

At the Hugh Lane, the improvisation, which comes just before the final reprise, was executed seamlessly, without a ripple, as if it were part of the basic fabric of the work. The performance as a whole was full-on, moderate in tempo, as Rzewski took the trouble to explain, to take account of the slightly swimmy acoustic of the gallery. And although the tone was often what you might call aggressive, the voicing was always subtle.

There's a vitality and stylistic voraciousness about The People United that brings to mind Mahler's statement that "the symphony must be like the world: it must embrace everything." Rzewski's mammoth piano piece, stretching close to 80 minutes on Saturday, certainly does that.

The concert included a new work, specially commissioned for the occasion, another political piece given the year that's in it, Rising, again song-based, this time using The Foggy Dew as its material. As in The People United, Rzewski shows a willingness to give himself plenty of compositional latitude while always making sure that his listeners are reminded of the material he's working with. It will be interesting to see if any Irish pianists, young or old, will take on the challenge of his commemoration of the Easter Rising.

At the end of the seminar, Rzewski was asked if, over the four decades since he wrote it, The People United had in fact changed the world. He replied that over the years people have told him that, after hearing the piece, they have gone on to explore the history of Chile, and have changed their minds about US foreign policy as a result. Not quite changing the world, he suggested, but changing something.

This pattern was confirmed by one of the panellists, Ann Cleare, who wasn't alive when the US-supported coup deposed Salvador Allende from power in a move that led to Chile's long rule by a military junta. She went home after the performance and looked up the history of the time on the internet.

Cleare had already recounted her experience of the transformative power of music when studying a Chopin nocturne as a teenager. Gráinne Mulvey, who in an aside voiced her support for British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a "principled" politician, explained how "music has the power to drag you out of the depths of despair".

Martin O’Leary invoked Shostakovich and Stalin to make the point that “what is dangerous about music is that it inspires people”. And Kevin O’Connell suggested that an investigation of what causes music to be banned would be interesting, on the assumption that the people who ban it must believe it to be capable of some kind of change. What is the gold standard for banning, he mused, before declaring, “I’d love to write a piece of music that was banned.”