Rzewski (pronounced zheff-skee) attended Harvard and Princeton, where his teachers included Randall Thompson, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Milton Babbitt. In 1960, he went to Italy, a trip which was formative in his future musical development: in addition to studying with Luigi Dallapiccola, he commenced a career as a performer of new piano music, often with an improvisatory element. A few years later he became a co-founder of Musica Elettronica Viva with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum. Musica Elettronica Viva conceived music as a collective, collaborative process, with improvisation and live electronic instruments prominently featured. In 1971 he returned to New York. (Sadie 1980)
In 1977 Rzewski became Professor of Composition at the Conservatoire Royal de Musique in Liège, Belgium. Occasionally he teaches for short periods at schools and universities throughout the U.S. and Europe, including Yale University, the University of Cincinnati, The California Institute of the Arts, the University of California, San Diego, and the Royal Conservatory of The Hague. (ibid)
Many of Rzewski’s works are inspired by secular and socio-historical themes, and feature improvisational elements. Some of his better-known music includes The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (36 variations on the Sergio Ortega song El pueblo unido jamás será vencido), a set of bravura piano variations written as a companion piece to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations; Coming Together, which is a setting of letters from an inmate at Attica State Prison, at the time of the famous riots there (1971); North American Ballads; Night Crossing with Fisherman; The Price of Oil, and Le Silence des Espaces Infinis, both of which use graphical notation; Les Moutons de Panurge; and the Antigone-Legend, which features a principled opposition to the policies of the State, and which was premiered, to the composer’s amusement, on the night that the United States bombed Libya in April 1986 (ibid).
Nicolas Slonimsky (1993) says of him in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians: “He is furthermore a granitically overpowering piano technician, capable of depositing huge boulders of sonoristic material across the keyboard without actually wrecking the instrument.”