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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 10

Luciano Berio (1925-2003)

by Lynne Gagné / July 2, 2003

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On May 27 the music world lost a great composer. Primarily a serial musician in the 1950s, Luciano Berio demonstrated originality in his treatment of electronic music. A few years later this culminated in the composition of electro-acoustic works such as Thema (Omaggio a Joyce;1958), one of his first masterpieces.

Born into a family of musicians (his father and grandfather were both organists and composers), Berio entered the Milan Conservatory at the end of the Second World War in 1945, where he studied piano and composition. During his early years he met avant-gardism head-on, attending performances of Milhaud, Bartók, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Under the guidance of Ghedini, his composition teacher, Berio developed an appreciation for Stravinsky, whose orchestration techniques soon found their way into the young composer's works.

A visit to Tanglewood in 1952 provided an opportunity to attend the first electronic music concert in the United States, and filled with enthusiasm, Berio decided to explore this new genre. Upon his return to Milan he worked for Italian radio and television where he produced his first soundtrack. At the same time he investigated taped music with the composition of Mimusique no 1 (1953). That year the young composer had an encounter that changed his life considerably: he met Bruno Maderna, who represented the neo-avant-garde school, referring to composers who began their careers during the 1950's and promoted a musical aesthetic quite different from their predecessors, though with common elements. These musicians had the same goals and suffered the same rebuffs.

During the 1950s Berio briefly adopted the serial technique, and its influence provided a solid long-term foundation. For him serialism did not represent the hope of a language but rather the broadening of musical means and mastering of a wider sphere of musical influence. His interest was in composition and continuity between not only different but disparate realities. Subsequently, he heard works which prompted him to explore these musical processes. (Gesang des Jünglinge, Stockhausen; Serenata, Maderna; Rimes, Pousseur; Agon, Stravinsky).

Maderna and Berio quickly struck up a friendship and collaborated on the Milan studio. Nones (1954) was Berio's first major orchestral work, and with it he took a step forward and distanced himself from Maderna's style. The focal point of his research concentrated on thinking of music as a process rather than focusing on form ("an active phenomenon which organizes music in time", B. Ramaut Chevassus, Musique et postmodernité, p.77).

In 1955, in Milan, Maderna and Berio founded the Studio di fonologia musicale, aiming to expand the field of sound exploration. They were joined by Luigi Nono thus forming a circle of interest around the studio at the R.A.I. (Radio Audizioni Italiane). At the same time Maderna and Berio organized a series of concerts, Incontri musicali, with the goal of promoting contemporary music, and Berio became the editor of a journal of the same name that published, among other things, important articles by Pousseur, Boulez and Cage.

With his initial electro-acoustic discoveries now on track, Berio integrated these new techniques with his research on voice. His interest was toward relationships between electronic sounds and vocal phenomena. For example, Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) is an electro-acoustic work in which the voice makes up the base material: a text by James Joyce from his novel Ulysses is read, and then manipulated in the studio. The resultant mobility given to the "vocalized particles" resembles a scattering of microelements.

Berio's creative life in the later 1950s was productive. He composed for orchestra as well as smaller ensembles: Tempi Concertati (1958-59), Differences (1958-59), Circles (1960) and Sequenzas (around 1958). These latter works are of major importance. They invented new forms and urged voice and instruments beyond the extreme limits of traditional virtuosity. In Circles, vocal agility is coupled with phonetic articulation. The composer displays relationships between the literary meaning of a text and its musical transposition, which is also the case in Passagio (1962) and Epifanie (1963).

The Sequenza series marked a return to instrumental works, as only Sequenza III is for voice. These pieces, written between 1958 and 1980, are brief but extremely difficult to perform. Each is scored for a specific instrument: I for flute (1958); II for harp (1963); III for voice (1966); IV for piano (1966); V for trombone (1966); VI for viola (1967); VII for oboe (1969); VIII for violin (1976); and IXa for clarinet and digital filter (1980).

This series opened a whole new universe with references to multiple facets of virtuosity. In Sequenza III, Berio arranges aspects of the voice in everyday life (such as a laugh) and transforms them for coloratura. Berio also sought to surpass traditional instrumental limits, and even introduced a new notation to facilitate the reading and understanding of a work's basic concepts.

From the end of the 1960s the composer again integrated traditional elements into his musical language, as in Sinfonia (1968), where he made up a collage of western music. He re-used this technique in Folk Songs (1964), with arrangements from popular music, seeking to create links between light and serious music.

Luciano Berio taught at Julliard (New York) from 1965 to 1971 where he formed the Julliard Ensemble, whose mandate was to broadcast contemporary music. On invitation by Pierre Boulez, the Italian composer agreed to head the electro-acoustic studio of l'IRCAM in Paris, and he maintained this position until 1980. Encouraged by the experience, Berio attempted to recreate a similar studio in Florence, and this came to fruition in 1987 as Tempo Reale.

During the 1970s, Berio decided to work on a larger scale, and he had recourse to the necessary resources such as the opera and an orchestra. He reached a peak with Coro (1975-77), written for forty voices and forty instruments; it is a vast anthology of humanity that combines language, folklore and styles. The composer used techniques from various ethnic sources without necessarily creating a work of ethno-musicological character.

With his formidable creative energy, Luciano Berio was certainly one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century. He touched on several musical styles and techniques, always with the single aim of seeking symbiosis between seemingly opposite elements. "I am interested in music which creates and develops relationships between distant points, through a journey of broad transformations." (L. Berio, Entretiens avec Rossana Dalmonte, p. 27.)

[Translated by Susan Spier]

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