Thursday, July 30, 2009

Kicking It Old School-A Week Of Noise #4



Luciano Berio's Sinfonia
Berio's seminal Sinfonia is an amazing piece of music, a modern masterpiece that stands at the crossroads of avant garde innovation and postmodern pastiche, academic experimentation and popular accessibility. Written at the end of the 1960s, Sinfonia virtually embraces the last few hundred years of Western music from Bach to the Beatles, and incorporates a universe of references from Beckett to the audience itself -- it even looks ahead to the review in the next morning's paper. And yet it's much more than the clever sum of its eclectic parts; it is also masterfully written, astonishingly orchestrated, and brilliantly engaging. And unlike many other equally deserving modern works, it has also made a dent in the repertory; there were several performances of Sinfonia in New York City over the last few years alone.
As Sinfonia is one of my personal favorite compositions, allow me the pleasure of providing a guided tour....
It begins in a hush of mystery, born from a blurry gong. The eight voices emerge harmonizing from the silence, suddenly breaking free in a flurry of muttered syllables and disjointed quotes from the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist. Concerned largely with Brazilian water myths, the quotations are used as "poetic fragments," at first articulated over bursts of percussion and waves of amplified harmonizing. Occasionally disrupted by thick clusters of music from the orchestra, the voices unspool their text in dizzying patterns, at times in unison, at others pursuing individual courses, teasing and deforming the words like verbal taffy. The orchestra is never at rest; connecting its periodic explosions with frantic stretches of piano, spasms of vibraphone, warbling flutes, rippling fanfares....
The next section, "O King," was written in 1967 as a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr., and incorporated into Sinfonia a year later. A workout of Berio's "rotating pitch cycles," the phonemes making up King's name are vocalized in a rotating sequence anchored in F and A, with a different selection of notes sustained each cycle. The effect is the creation of an eerie "harmonic cloud," oscillating between two whole-tone areas, all of which means that it sounds pretty spooky. Initiated with a sharp blare from the horns, the voices build up in soothing but eerie waves of otherworldly reverence, bringing to mind Ligeti's Requiem (familiar to many from Kubrick's film, 2001: A Space Odyssey). The syllables float above a layer of shimmering music, piling up like clouds of incense, with frequent spikes of brass and piano shooting through the haze like needles. By the time Martin Luther King's name is finally spoken in full, a hesitant drumroll underpins the voices, bringing everything just to the edge of an uncomfortable tension -- a bizarre Mass fraught with the potential for violence.
The third section is the most famous movement of the piece, a tour de force of experimental composition, and possibly the most exhilarating twelve minutes that modern music has to offer. A merry, freewheeling circus of music and language, it seems to reel perpetually around the edge of a chaos that threatens to hurl it into pieces; but like a ride on a roller-coaster, all comes out safe and sound in the end. And like any good thrill ride, part of the secret lies in a carefully engineered structure, and here Berio borrows blueprints from two masters -- Mahler for the music, and Beckett for the text.
The swinging scherzo from Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony (its first part subtitled "In ruhig fliessender Bewegung") is used as the basis for the section's musical form. Despite the subtitle lifted from Mahler, this river of music is anything but "calmly flowing;" it rushes on like a torrent, occasionally smashing up against Berio's sudden chord clusters, only to untangle itself and swirl away in a slightly different direction. Berio uses the turbulent flow to spin off countless eddies of musical allusion and quotation, from Bach to Stravinsky to Stockhausen. As with the previous excerpts from Lévi-Strauss, many of these involve water, such as the drowning scene from Berg's Wozzeck, and Mahler's scherzo itself, which is based on the Wunderhorn song "St. Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fishes." True to this movement's obvious postmodern idiom, Berio even quotes from his own work at one point, as well as that of Boulez, who conducts the piece on its most famous recording.
The libretto is just as complex as the music. Using the self-reflexive monologue from Beckett's The Unnamable as a basic pattern, dozens of other textual threads are shuttled through the narrative loom to form a dazzling tapestry of language in all its forms. Fragments of German, Yuletide solfège, snippets of song, radical slogans, clichés from the classical music crowd, gobbles and grunts, and perhaps most striking of all, the insistent command to "Keep going!" -- all rise and fall in a babelogue carried along by the music, punctuated by orchestral gestures that just as often provide ironic counterpoint as they do illustration. The whole movement surges to a sort of humorous self-awareness, the principle speaker frequently addressing the audience in the sardonic lilt of an old tour guide: "Well, well, so there is an audience!... You can't leave, you're afraid to leave, you make the best of it... While every now and then a familiar passacaglia hunkers through the other noises... And now it's done, it's over, we've had our chance, there was even for a second hope of resurrection..." At one point the libretto instructs the speaker to say, "And tomorrow we'll read that X made tulips grow in my garden, and altered the flow of the ocean's currents," where X is the next work on the evening's program. Eventually he introduces the singers by name, and finally thanks the conductor, bringing the movement to a most satisfying conclusion. Like Beckett's Unnamable, the work has a voice conscious of itself, aware that it only exists in the moment of performance. Unlike the Unnamable, however, it seems to revel in an eccentric sense of joy, and the fun is certainly contagious. ("Thank you, Mr. Boulez.")
The brief fourth movement is a return to the relative calm of the second, a welcome break after the giddying scherzo. It begins again with a Mahler quotation -- the lovely, undulating chorus taken from the end of the "Resurrection" symphony. Whispers flutter around individual voices, which detach from the general hum in syllabic fragments, distortions of previous textual material. Unlike the second movement, the orchestra is less aggressive, more content to remain below the drifting chorus.
Sinfonia comes to a conclusion with its fifth movement, which Berio added a year later to balance the other four. Somewhat similar in instrumental texture to the first section, it actually uses the pitch cycle from the second to generate the vocal harmonies. The movement revisits the text from the previous sections, organizing the material in a more orderly fashion to create what Berio calls "narrative substance." Here the voices are more disciplined, more subject to synchronization and perceivable patterns; though the music is as thorny as ever. Building up in tense spasms, sending spirals of sound from instrument to instrument as it gathers itself together, the orchestra seems to be awakening for one last crescendo as the pitch sequence nears completion. As increasingly more brass enters the mix, both orchestra and chorus rise to a protracted, rolling climax, followed immediately by a sense of dissolution and winding down. With same hushed gong that began the work, Sinfonia returns back into the silence from which it came.

Excerpts from the album liner notes (remember liner notes!?) of Luciano Berios Sinfonia

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