Luciano Berio: The Godfather

His best-known music features fragments of Levi-Strauss, Beckett and Brecht. His friends included Calvino and Eco. Young composers worship him... Luciano Berio was a visionary guru, says Martin Butler. But where did his radical ideas come from? And how do the Beatles fit in?
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In the summer of 1989 I created a piece of electronic music called Graffiti at Tempo Reale, the research institute in Florence set up by the composer Luciano Berio. After many weeks of work, tape in sweaty hand, I nervously reported to Berio at his home outside Siena. With patrician pride he showed me the olive groves and radicchio patch. He was my hero and the director of a cutting-edge electronic studio; yet in order to hear my work we had to repair to his beat-up car and use the crackly car stereo. (Inexplicably, Berio did not have a functioning cassette player in the house.) My music had borderline-obscene lyrics. No reaction at first. Then giggles, followed - amid clouds of cigar smoke - by gales of laughter. He was enjoying every snickersome moment.

In the summer of 1989 I created a piece of electronic music called Graffiti at Tempo Reale, the research institute in Florence set up by the composer Luciano Berio. After many weeks of work, tape in sweaty hand, I nervously reported to Berio at his home outside Siena. With patrician pride he showed me the olive groves and radicchio patch. He was my hero and the director of a cutting-edge electronic studio; yet in order to hear my work we had to repair to his beat-up car and use the crackly car stereo. (Inexplicably, Berio did not have a functioning cassette player in the house.) My music had borderline-obscene lyrics. No reaction at first. Then giggles, followed - amid clouds of cigar smoke - by gales of laughter. He was enjoying every snickersome moment.

By common consent, what distinguished Berio - who was born in Italy in 1925 and who died last year - from other composers of the post-war European avant-garde was the humanity of his music, his ability to relate everything he turned to (and that was a lot) to the way we live. His sense of fun was serious and infectious. Like Shakespeare, Mozart or Picasso, he understood that, whatever innovations in the language were necessary or desirable, they had to be made to reflect the full gamut of human experience - including the facetious, the bawdy and the bizarre. Berio "played" with ideas as only a master can play.

When I studied with him, he would constantly talk of taking my ideas "to a higher level". What he meant was, synthesise them, transcend the obvious, make princes out of each pauper-like phrase: have faith, and leap. He had an eagle eye for the dud passage, or for the gem of an idea lurking undeveloped amongst the clutter. It's hard to find any young composer now who denies his influence, or at the very least won't admit warm respect. Berio's impact has been immense and his appeal is surprisingly broad. (Paul McCartney attended one of his talks at the Italian Institute in London the year before Sgt. Pepper was released, perhaps hoping to pick up a few far-out tips. Berio in turn thought enough of the Beatles to arrange a number of their songs for the Armenian-American singer Cathy Berberian, his first wife.)

Not many people can inspire, as he could, the devotion necessary to keep 12 summer school composers - including me - up half the night, working on an arcane orchestration exercise. (It was something about gradually transforming the sound of six double basses into that of an oboe, a trumpet and a muted horn. The carrot was a vague, shifty-eyed promise that we'd hear our efforts the next day, when he'd be rehearsing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. We never did.) Berio was an essential guru, in the way that Bacon was for painters, Truffaut was for filmmakers, or Bellow is for writers.

Part of the reason for this status was his interest in a kaleidoscopic array of ideas and resources, both musical and non-musical. To understand Berio fully, you have to understand the idea of synthesis. All his resources were alchemically mixed in an attempt to reflect and ultimately transcend human experience. He explored electronics, radically new vocal and instrumental techniques - involving the wholesale re-invention of orchestral writing - and vernacular, ethnic, folk and popular musical styles. Furtively, he once told me his favourite song, bar none, was Cole Porter's Love for Sale. But he also immersed himself in linguistics and phonetics, philosophy, anthropology and radical literature. His literary collaborators included Calvino, Eco and Sanguineti - all friends of his. Berio was rarely content to allow his music the luxury of complete abstraction. He assimilated these disciplines and ideas into an expressive musical language. And when he employed texts - even when screeched or fragmented - they always reflected human concerns.

More important than this for many of Berio's disciples was his involvement with theatre. For a start, there are six operas; the last two of which have yet to be performed in the UK. None of them is "conventional", or narrative in the traditional sense. They are all operas "about" opera or theatre. (One is even called Opera.) They confront and question the genre itself. There are other vocal works (Laborintus II, A-Ronne, Ofanim) that seem virtual dramas, despite the absence of stagecraft and costume, due to the breathtaking vividness of their approach to words and vocal gesture. And there remains no more radical, provocative or human an electronic work than Visage (1961): Berio's celebration and dissection of the voice and psyche of Cathy Berberian. Visage contains no singing, and virtually no words. The product of days of gruelling recording for Berberian (leaving her physically damaged), it instead consists of her laughter, moans and groans, snorts and wheezes, and gibberish, all brilliantly edited, filtered, distorted and mixed with electronic backing. It is a remarkable demonstration of the power of the wordless voice. The effect is shocking and extreme, but also hilarious and touching - and often all these things simultaneously.

Then there is the astonishing "theatre" of Berio's post-1960 instrumental works. This is most explicit in the series of Sequenzas Berio wrote between 1958 and 2002, for various solo instruments and for female voice (Berberian's, of course). They are virtuosic showpieces, yes - Berio believed in the drama and energy of sheer virtuosity - but each also invents an entirely new set of ways in which the performer relates to the instrument, its repertoire, its history and its physical structure. They conjure up a theatre of dazzling gestural brilliance. They are pieces about the drama of performing. And, like all his music, they are heart-stoppingly beautiful and fizzingly energetic.

Berio's best-known work remains Sinfonia (1969): a brash, polyglot and timely masterpiece synthesising fragments of Levi-Strauss, Brecht and Beckett and a musical language of extraordinary richness and scope. Sinfonia is the work that announced his mission - the title means "synthesis" - and the texts were to be delivered not by po-faced classically trained soloists, but by eight mic-wielding, doo-wopping Swingle Singers, for whom the piece was written. One movement is an arrangement of his chamber piece, O King, a memorial to Martin Luther King, assassinated the previous year. Another movement quotes a complete Mahler symphonic scherzo, overlaying it with more than a hundred fragmentary quotations from musical works spanning about 600 years. It's been called a piece of proto-postmodernism but, typically, Berio thought of it simply as a "commentary": a journey through inherited traditions and an attempt to understand these traditions when others were denouncing them.

And that's where the value of his work truly resides: in his refusal to toe the modernist line beyond what suited his humanist purposes, and in his respect for the past - without any hint of conservatism, irony or dewey-eyed nostalgia. His orchestrations, transcriptions and completions of other composers' works - Schubert, Brahms, Puccini, even Lennon/McCartney - or even of his own, were for him the best way of saying something about them, a creative engagement with them. They were a product of his insatiable curiosity; and curiosity, as he said himself, is the midwife of discovery.

His days of formal teaching were more or less over by the early 1970s; but on tours, at summer schools and at festivals Berio would always be surrounded by a swarm of young composers eager for crumbs of wisdom - eager to learn, as you can from gurus, by osmosis. He was charismatic, mischievous, funny, fierce - sometimes brutish. On the podium, he could reduce a third-desk second violinist to tears with a scowl. He was very... well, Italian. And, other than a spell teaching in the USA in the 1960s and Seventies, he lived in the country of his birth almost all his life, or out of a suitcase on tour. Being around him often brought Godfather moments (although he wasn't exactly Marlon Brando). After the British premiere of the opera Un Re in Ascolto at Covent Garden I went backstage. There he was, looking a little desperate amid the glad-handing fans. Sotto voce, "Martin, you stick with me." We escaped, 50 yards up Bow Street to an apartment building, posh and alien to me, and into a truly sumptuous flat where the smell of garlic was already overpowering. The flat had been borrowed from Placido Domingo. Berio's "cook" produced amazing pasta. There was plentiful fine red wine, and out came the cigars. I kept looking around for the hoods.

And Berio was one of the great provocateurs. At one summer school I attended in the States he spent two seminar hours demonstrating brilliantly why Beethoven's 7th symphony is a work of radical genius; and the next day - with no apparent irony or explanation, and with an admirably straight face - another two hours showing why it is hopelessly flawed, a creative dead-end. What was that about? We loved it, simply loved it. *

'Omaggio: A Celebration of Luciano Berio', a festival of music, film and discussion on the composer's work, is at the South Bank Centre, London SE1 (020 7960 4242), from Thursday to 30 April. Martin Butler is a composer and Professor of Music at the University of Sussex.

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