MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


Luciano Berio

Luciano Berio's encounter with the Novissimi group of avant- garde writers in the early 1960s was crucial in determining his fu- ture development as a composer. He knew all the members of this group but was drawn primarily to Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino and Edoardo Sanguineti. Eco focused his attention upon linguistics, ini- tiating his studies of signification processes in music, as well as widening his response to language and literature as such. For Berio, this represented not so much an escape from the world of serial- ism, which had engaged his atten- tion throughout the 1950s, but rather suggested an almost paral- lel path within another discipline, offering fresh perspectives upon his current musical thinking.

Eco assisted him later in provid- ing the text for his stage work, Opera (1969/70). Meanwhile, Calvino hecame Berio's alter ego in the theatre, helping him to elaborate greatly a Brechtian approach to stage presentation, wherein a number of discrete elements could be marshalled for didactic or polemical purposes. Calvino and Berio joined forces for the ballet-mime Allez-Hop (1952-53/59), and the operas La Vera Storia (1977-79/82) and (to a lesser extent) Un Re in Ascolto (1981-1983/84). But it was under Sanguineti's influence that Berio's music acquired the depth and breadth that have taken it outside any specifically Italian context into the foreground of contemporary musical developments, thus requiring constant reappraisal and revaluation. The latest mini-festival of his work, at the Barbican, provides a good opportunity for this.

Berio's recent description of Sanguineti's poetry might well be applied to his own music, for it too is 'replete with images of today, of stereotyped sentiments, with harsh and bitter shapes, ironic invention, parody and quotations that... reverberate in a sort of echo chamber, where the every- day and the universal, the banal and the speculative, the private and the political fuse together into a rigorous and sometimes implacable construction.' Berio wrote thus of the Sanguineti poem, 'Novissimum Testamentum'(published in 1986), upon which, two years later, he based a short 'ballata' for unaccompanied choir, Canticum novissimi testamenti (the first word of the title acting as refrain).

His subsequent revision of the piece in 1989 to incorporate com- mentary by two instrumental quartets - four saxophones and four clarinets - is not so much a gesture of creative independence as a recognition of all the forces at play within the text and the expressive relationships they imply. These relationships grow from treatment of the phonetic components of the text into a wide spectrum of transformation processes. For both poet and composer, such processes betoken a 'demotic' rather than 'hieratic' conception of language (to use the terms favoured by Northrop Frye in The Well Tempered Critic): literature and music impregnated with the rhythms and inflexions of speech in general and dialects in particular.

Berio's music is an expression of the whole man, corporeal as well as intellectual. His tape-piece Visage (1961), for instance, mani- pulates the voice of Cathy Berberian to reactivate basic semiotic processes, from incoherent baby-babble to the cries of sexual ec- stasy; although its intrinsic dramatic content is only vaguely defined, it was once found 'too pornographic' for broadcast on Milan Radio. A-Ronne (1974-75), for five (later eight) voices, is an 'elementary vocalisation' of a text by Sanguineti, that enabled Berio to traverse the whole cycle of human experience: for throughout it interweaves images of beginnings, middles and ends (birth, copulation and death), and its musical techniques embrace everyday speech and parodies of popular song, opera buffa, madrigals, and so on.

Berio's prolific (and ever prolife-rating) musical output, and his ability to communicate with the listener at many different levels, stemmed from Sanguineti as a 'polyphonic' conception of language and a multi-layered, open conception of form. The term 'composition' itself generated in his mind a superabundance of meanings, from the transcription and orchestration of other composers' music (two examples in this festival are his 4 versioni originali della 'Ritirata notturna di Madrid' di Boccherini and his scoring of two sets of early songs by Mahler), through pieces that transform folk music or incorporate elements from different folk styles (Ritorno degli snovidenia; Corale; Coro), and works that apply the same techniques to musical invention entirely his own (Piano Concerto and Formazioni); through concert pieces that have a theatrical component (Sinfonia, Ofanim) and stage works as such (here Passaggio, one of three pieces receiving its UK premiere).

Each work in turn confronts the listener with a nexus of creative definitions. The title of Formazioni (completed in 1987 for the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra) implies the military sense of 'formations', resulting in a redistribution of the orchestra into groups that can be set in opposition to each other. Two matching brass ensembles, thus, engage in dialogue dominating the more powerful sections of the work: while the two separate woodwind groups (at the front, to the conductor's left and at the back, slightly to the conductor's right) duet with each other across the quiet chords and trills played by strings, central to the layout. Beyond this primary notion of 'formations' is one of sonic 'layers', which stimulates a more analytic kind of listening or at least one sensitive to echo-effects and fine gradations of foreground and background. The most memorable feature of Formazioni is indeed the 'metamelody' that emerges on the brass at the centre of the work and returns in its closing pages.

In Ofanim (1988/0), the confrontations extend to the texts, drawn (in alternation) from the Book of Ezekiel and the Song of Solomon, the former uttered by a children's choir in a variety of unpitched whispers, shouts and parlando, the latter sung in a lyrical manner. The theatrical aspect of the piece centres upon a mezzo-soprano who dominates the last section with her long solo lines, sung against sustained notes for the wind. Sinfonia (1968-9) and Coro (1975-76), but really a ten-year project) both embodying human vocalisation within the orchestral sound - effect a synthesis of heterogeneous materials, in a manner exemplified by Sanguineti's poetry. But with these works, more than any other, one becomes aware that Berio's goal is a kind of archetypal statement.

The 'meta-language' of Coro is particularly well integrated and projected, benefiting in practical terms from the seating arrangement, which prescribes that the 40 solo singers involved in the work are individually seated alongside particular instrumentalists. This facilitates the articulation of the harmonic 'blocks' whose very gradual transformation are the foundation of the score. These 'blocks' provide windows into the interior of the music, what Joyce would have called 'epiphanies': and their transformation is like a kaleido-scopic fluctuation of vowel sounds - hence its intimate marriage of vocal and instrumental colours.

Unlike Sinfonia, Coro contains no quotations, but it is saturated with references to folk-music styles. The most deliberate is Berio's emulation of the 'hocketing' techniques in music played by the Band Linda tribes of Central Africa (which he had heard in recordings by Simha Arom), which he also made part of his musical structure, applying them, for instance, to Yugoslav folk-music materials. Coro is in essence a large-scale ballad in ctions, in which the text 'n five languages) and assodhted harmonic 'fields' recur several times, always giving a new slant to the score. Its main reference point is a line from Pablo Neruda's Residencia en la tierra ('Come and see the blood in the streets') and it concentrates throughout on love and work in their many aspects.

Preceding the final summatory performance of Coro in this festival is the long overdue UK premiere of Passaggio. Early in the gestation of this, Berio's first venture into the operatic theatre (it was commissioned by La Piccola Scala, Milan), he was steered in Sanguineti's direction by Eco: and the result was a provocative work, described by composer and librettist as a messa in scena (Mass on the stage). In it the audience is pitted against the protagonist, She (a conflation of two feminine images, the Milena of Kafka's letters and Rosa Luxemburg). There is a dialogue between a speaking chorus (five groups strategically placed in the audience) and the stage where the solitary character moves through a series of six 'stations'. The audience is asked to identify with the attitudes expressed by the chorus - attitudes of conformity, selfishness, mental laziness and a defence of taboos. According to Eco, who wrote an extended programme note for the Milan premiere, Passaggio 'does not present a recognisable plot but a sequence of dramatic nuclei representing the outline of the passage of a lonely woman, beaten by those who are sure of their myths and idols, persecuted and reduced to an object.' The situations in the piece are undefined, so that the observer can provide a context.

In Passaggio, Sanguineti's text (which is compounded of verbal fragments in different languages) receives more respectful treatment from Berio than in later' works for which the former acted as wordsmith (e.g. Laborintus II). Its rich ambiguities of meaning are allowed to come across without any breakdown of the component phonemes. Within the score as such there are many thematic interconnections, and other elements contributing to its tautness of structure, though how much of all this can be picked up in live performance remains to be seen: also in question is whether the succes de scandale the work tends to arouse wears thin afteg a while. Suffice to say that here, as in other major works by Berio (and as in Sanguineti's writings), there is always more to be discovered beneath the surface, and the more chances we have to hear them the better.