Thursday, December 02, 2010

Music for Writers: Luciano Berio

Luciano Berio - Sequenza III (for Woman Voice)                                                            

I hope to post, from time to time,  brief introductions to music which might be of particular interest to my writing colleagues, music which engages with text, the voice, and techniques which seem related to the concerns of contemporary writers.

Luciano Berio 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. Many of his works incorporated collage, appropriation, or quotation and as such, he is considered a 'post-modern' composer. There 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, 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. 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 was originally the independent composition O King written for Martin Luther King. The vocal music begins with first 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. The score incorporates a wide range of vocal sounds not usually associated with 'voice,' but rather with the wide range of human vocal behaviours.

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 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.

Berio was a prolific composer. He wrote many kinds of work -- from solo to large orchestral works, vocal works, and some operas. Coro a large work for vocalists and orchestra is a particular favourite of mine.

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