Wednesday, March 23, 2011

MUSIC FOR WRITERS 2: Luciano Berio and the Labyrinth of Meaning

Score for the electro-acoustic piece Les chants parallèles by Luciano Berio

Luciano Berio (1925-2003) was one of the preeminent Italian composers of the 20th century. His compositions were noted for exploring extended instrumental and especially vocal techniques. They often drew their inspiration--and incorporated text and other elements--from literary works. He collaborated with many writers including Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Eduardo Sanguinetti. Many of his works incorporated collage, appropriation, or quotation and as such, he is considered a 'post-modern' composer. There is a good article about Berio here.

Perhaps Berio's most famous piece is the extraordinary Sinfonia for orchestra and eight amplified voices. The voices sing, speak, whisper, shout, and use other vocal sounds.

The third movement incorporates “found” music from Mahler and Alban Berg, as well as text from Beckett’s novel The Unnameable, text from Claude Lévi-Strauss, and much self-referential text. It is a witty, self-referential, metaphysical romp. In a later post, I’m going to discuss this piece more when I speak about appropriation and recontextualization in music in compositions from the modern and the Medieval periods.

Many of Berio's work incorporated 'collaged' text from multiple sources. For example A-Ronne (which I write about below) features text from the Bible,  T.S. Eliot and Karl Marx.

The second movement of Sinfonia was originally the independent composition O King written for Martin Luther King. The vocal music begins first with the vowels and then the consonants of MLK's name, only in the end, combining them into his name. It is a beautiful, moving deconstruction and reconstruction of this iconic name.

Berio wrote numerous pieces entitled Sequenza, all which featured solo (i.e. unaccompanied) instruments or the voice. These short pieces explore new techniques for their performers. Sequenza III for extended voice is perhaps the most famous. Berio wrote the piece for the remarkable voice and vocal abilities of his then wife, Cathy Berberian. It incorporates a wide range of vocal sounds not usually associated with 'voice,' but rather with the wide range of human vocal behaviours. Here is the score and a recording of this classic.

Luciano Berio - Sequenza III (for Woman Voice)

Finally, there is Berio's chamber vocal tour-de-force, A Ronne,  a larger piece for eight voices—this is brilliant sound poetry and vocal music. The voice is a theatre in the round (or an otolaryngological singspiel) and you don't know what character or sound will show up. By the way, the title refers to the A to Z of the old Italian alphabet, and appropriately, 'ronne' is beyond Z.

Berio was a prolific composer. He wrote many kinds of work -- from solo to large orchestral works, vocal works, and some operas. Two favourite works of mine are Coro a large work for vocalists and orchestra (incorporating texts from around the world and Neruda)  and Laborintus II (here’s an extract.)

In Berio’s opera, Un re is ascolto (staged in a representation of a giant ear) a king whose only contact with his kingdom is by overhearing the voices and conversations of his people begins to conflate the sounds of the auditions and rehearsals of a troupe preparing to stage The Tempest, with events in his kingdom. This is a perfect metaphor for the composer and the writer. For Berio, language, the voice, indeed listening itself, creates a kingdom, a world. In the beginning was the word. It might have been someone else’s word. It might have someone singing. Or quoting. Or laughing. Or all three at once. Listening, like culture, is a labyrinth created by listening and culture.


Gary Barwin is a writer, musician, and performer. His PhD disertation, Martin’s Idea (listen here) was a composition for reciter, interactive computer system, and MIDI keyboard. His recent musical setting of derek beaulieu's novel Local Colour is here. His latest book is The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House, 2010); The Obvious Flap (with Gregory Betts, BookThug) is due in May.

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