About the Music
The past as future: Luciano Berio
In the aftermath of the Second World War, many composers of Luciano Berio’s generation felt obliged to wipe the slate clean. To a composer with roots as deep in the achievements of the past four centuries as Berio, this was never an option.
His work constantly re-invented continuities where others saw only the possibilities of rupture. Not that he was ever tempted by the assorted nostalgias that haunted some part of the music of the last century. On the contrary, he maintained an insatiable curiosity about the explorations of his contemporaries – musical or otherwise. But his dialogues with literature, with linguistics, with structural anthropology, with ethnomusicology always proved to be the most inventive of piratical raids – seizing the materials that he needed as a musician, and drawing from them creative consequences often far removed from their original context. They are a fraternal “homage”, not an imitation. Beyond his apprentice years of the late forties and early fifties, much the same might be said of his response to his musical contemporaries. His oblique relationship to the post-Webernian mainstream was the first instance of a trait that has remained central to his work ever since. Seizing with relish upon its demonstrations of inexhaustible metamorphic potential, he expanded this into a basic principle: you may always re-write what is already written. The exuberant melodic confidence of his work from the late fifties and sixties – whether the nervous brilliance of the flute Sequenza I, or the by now classic lyrical intensity of works written for Cathy Berberian, such as Circles or Sequenza III – bears witness to the confident authority with which he grasped these means. Equally, the series of Chemins that revisit solo Sequenzas demonstrate not just a Joycean “work in progress”, but our obligation to treat each completed work as a “listening in progress”. But the sixties also saw the first indices of an unwillingness to side-line issues central to his rigorous sense of musical tradition. Where some contemporaries seemed content to treat harmony as simply a sub-category of “texture”, Berio insistently returned to the harmonic dimension as central to his larger musical aspirations. Training his own and his listeners’ ears to find their way through the harmonic jungle was at first a matter of brilliantly alert intuition – in, for instance, Sequenza IV for piano – but was soon absorbed into a focussed framework, first in O King, but then in many subsequent works of the early seventies, by exploring the consequences of harmonic projections from a line. The fruits of this patient process of exploration came in the major works of the eighties and nineties, where harmony resumed its rights as the organising force behind such major theatre works as La vera storia, Un re in ascolto, and Outis, but could equally determine the masterly concision of Sequenza XIII for accordion. Although Berio drew admiration in the late fifties as an exuberant explorer of electronic resources, his vivid empathy for the risks and rewards of live performance tended to gain the upper hand over any disembodied search for “new sounds”. However fragile and temporary the community created in the concert-hall by a brilliant performance, it is one that Berio served with singular fixity of purpose. Since the sixties a vigorous inhabitant of McLuhan’s “global village” (of which any concert-hall or radio station may propose itself as a temporary microcosm) he asserted music’s obligation not only to its own singular history, but also to the re-statement of human concerns that, without such patient and committed reiteration, could so easily evaporate. His is a music that “refuses to forget”.