The text of Ofanìm (in Hebrew, ofanim means both “wheels” and “modes”) alternates fragments from the book of Ezekiel with verses from the Song of Songs. The dramatic vision of Ezekiel (chapter 1) - the most personal and apocalyptic of all prophets, clashes with the earthly sensuality of the verses from the Song of Songs (chapters 4 and 5). The phantasmagoric visions of Ezekiel whirl around in perpetual motion against a burning sky. The poetic images from the Song of Songs dwell longingly on the face and body of the beloved. The final fragment (Ezekiel, 19) suddenly gives a different perspective to the work: every motion is arrested, every light is extinguished. The scented orchard gives way to a withered vineyard and the image of the Mother, uprooted from her land and cast down to a “dry and thirsty ground”, evokes the memory of all the mothers of our time, of all the exiles and the havocs that have left deep wounds in our conscience.
The music of Ofanìm develops various modes of rotation and movement in the acoustic space. Written for two children’s choirs, two instrumental groups and a female voice, Ofanìm employs the new technologies developed at the Centro Tempo Reale of Florence. Musical thought today must be able to interact with the new technologies and to adapt itself creatively to every kind of space, exploring and reshaping it acoustically. The image of music as sound architecture is no longer a mere metaphor: it represent a concrete possibility. It is, of course, a mobile and flexible architecture, capable of adaptation to different situations and environments. Therefore the acoustic strategy of Ofanìm (namely the software that determines its acoustic profile) has to be modified with each new performance and consequently several aspects of the work are “recomposed”.
Ofanìm is dedicated to the memory of Rivi Pecker.
Berio regards many of his pieces as works-in-progress, still susceptible to expansion, additional layering, and other forms of reshaping. Such mutability is part of the basic conception of Ofanìm, for the score's extensive episodes involving live electronics - an auxiliary digital system developed at the Centra Tempo Reale in Florence - guarantee very different sounds in concert spaces of differing sizes and sonic characters. Berio writes: “The acoustic strategy of Ofanìm (namely the software that determines its acoustic profile) has to be modified with each new performance, and consequently several aspects of the work are 'recomposed'”. In its original form, Ofanìm was premiered on 26 June 1988, at the Museum of Modem Art in Prato, Italy. Berio produced a revised version in 1992 for performance in Jerusalem, and the most recent incarnation of Ofanìm, completed in August of 1997. “Musical thought today,” notes the composer, “must be able to interact with the new technologies and to adapt itself creatively to every kind of space, exploring and reshaping it acoustically. The image of music as sound-architecture is no longer a mere metaphor: it represents a concrete possibility: it is, of course, a mobile and flexible architecture, capable of adaptation to different situations and environments.”
For the solo and vocal text of Ofanìm, Berio provocatively interspersed excerpts from two of the most widely disparate books in the Old Testament: Ezekiel and the Song of Songs. Switching back and forth between the physically oppressive, sunbaked desert where Ezekiel's visions whirl vertiginously and the luxuriant, perfumed pleasure-palace where pampered lovers revel in erotic endearments. Ofanìm means both “wheels” and “modes” in Hebrew, and the immediate source of Berio's title was presumably Ezekiel's surrealistic vision of wheels in the air: “...and when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up” (I, 19). But Berio's title equally well fits the score's cyclic oscillations between two Biblical modes: apocalyptic fear and carnal joy.
Duality is also strongly suggested by Ofanìm's physical layout. Berio divides his instruments into two virtually identical wind-percussion ensembles (the sole difference is that the second group has an extra timpano), emphasizing the bright harshness of Ezekiel's desert through multiple flutes and the inclusion of a small, high-pitched trumpet (tromba piccola) in each group. Two children's choruses add to the duality. Moreover, the live electronics pick up the vocal-instrumental sounds, submit them to modifications, and feed them back into the texture as Doppelgänger transformations.
“The music of Ofanìm develops various modes of rotation and movement in the acoustic space,” writes Berio. Lasting some forty minutes, Ofanìm is built in 12 parts alternating fragments from Ezekiel and the Song of Songs. Four of the Ezekiel sections (II, V, IX, XI) employ chorus; these tend to be hectic, even apocalyptic, with cluttering wind-repetitions and heavy electronic washes serving as a background, and the two choruses uniting as a single rhythmic mass to project Ezekiel's phantasmagoric visions in shrill cluster-cries. In the Song of Songs movements, by contrast, electronic effects disappear, gentle wind-chording predominates, and the choruses take on separate identities, providing lyric, low-register two-part texture (III), or four-part texture (X), and presenting an unusual mix of sonorities in section VII. There, the two groups simultaneously deliver the same music, but one chorus employs breathy parlando while the other sings normally. An interlude following this episode features an elaborate trombone solo.
Beginning with a furious climax, section XI ends with a whisper, and Ezekiel's harrowing images of devastation in XII are sung by a single female soloist, musing against barely-audible wind notes. This final section, writes Berio, “suddenly gives a different perspective to the work: every motion is arrested, every light is extinguished. The scented orchard gives way to a withered vineyard, and the image of the Mother, uprooted from her land and cast down to a 'dry and thirsty ground', evokes the memory of all the mothers of our time, of all the exiles and the havocs that have left deep wounds in our conscience.” The score is dedicated to the memory of Rivi Pecker.