Berio's Sequenza IXa:
Many of my friends and colleagues often ask me, in perplexed or bemused tones, "You really do enjoy playing contemporary music?" The answer is I do. And it has a lot to do with Berio's characterization of the necessity and value of counterpoint in his work: "that exploratory and inventive mode of perception to which the mind resorts when dealing with several processes at once." It is about putting old wine in new skins. His perspective and his pieces have played a pivotal role in how I relate to new music and let's be honest, Berio is no longer AS contemporary as he was. This is natural. But I have also lived with his piece for a while now and I love it just as much as I did. I decided to compare it with another important work for clarinet in a recent paper, "Patterns of Change: Using Associative Formal Analysis and Rough-Contour Recognition to Assess Similarities in Construction of Reich’s New York Counterpoint and Berio’s Sequenza IXa for Solo Clarinet." I found it especially interesting how both composers found unique ways to address the challenge of writing solo works for instruments, especially monodic ones. Here is the abstract from my paper:
Solo instrumental works have enjoyed a special prominence in the repertoire since the christening of J. S. Bach’s violin partitas and cello suites; however, monodic instruments such as the clarinet have faced greater difficulties establishing themselves in this genre. In 1980, Luciano Berio addressed this deficit with his long-standing project, the Sequenzas, solo compositions for flute, clarinet, trumpet, accordion, harp, voice, piano, trombone, viola, oboe, and violin. Berio implied that the “Sequenzas for solo instruments are intended to set out and melodically develop an essentially harmonic discourse and to suggest, particularly in the case of the monodic instruments, a polyphonic mode of listening.”1 It would seem that Steve Reich followed in his teacher’s footsteps with Vermont Counterpoint, Electric Counterpoint, and New York Counterpoint, a work for eleven clarinets and bass clarinet or amplified clarinet and tape. It is possible to find meaningful connections between Berio and Reich’s methods of composition using specific or rough contour analysis and examining all parameters of composition (pitch class sets, patterns, dynamics, and rhythms).
In my paper, I go on to discuss how Berio described his own works as having “various unifying elements, some planned, others not. The most obvious and external one is virtuosity...a virtuoso these days has to be a musician capable of moving within a broad historical perspective and of resolving the tension between the creativity of yesterday and today. My own Sequenzas are always written with this sort of interpreter in mind, whose virtuosity is above all, a virtuosity of knowledge.” Each Sequenza features a contrapuntal relation between one or more harmonic fields, elevating melodies to the level of harmonic discourse. Reich's answer to the creativity of yesterday and today is housed in a more immediate sense as he creates polyphony using phasing and pre-recorded elements. Osmond-Smith suggests that "polyphony should be understood in a metaphorical sense, as the exposition and superposition of differing modes of action and instrumental characteristics" and I argue this applies to both instances. The transformational processes Reich applies to his own music extend beyond the scope of infinite canon or simple phasing.
But how do we explain these processes to the average concert-goer? I stumbled upon a solution inspired by a color-coded wine menu at a restaurant named Abigail Street. As artists, we can help audience members enter "that exploratory and inventive mode of perception" if we give them a point of entry.
Just last week, I put on a workshop with concert:nova discussing "that exploratory and inventive mode of perception" specifically through the lens of synesthesia. People often feel estranged from a work when they cannot forge connections or find firm relatable ground. We challenged new listeners to approach the Sequenzas of Berio and to think of them in terms of color or timbre. We paired each Sequenza with a wine and discussed the role of color on a sommelier's educated palate and how it can relate to tone color or timbre in musical spheres. Berio's Sequenzas are an excellent way for new listeners to experiment with listening as they showcase individual instruments and explore every nook and cranny of their sound using traditional and extended techniques. We also discussed saturation in color and how Berio uses levels of maximum, medium, and minimum tension to propel his work. For example, "the level of maximum tension... within the temporal dimension is produced by moments of maximum speed in articulation and moments of maximum duration of sounds, the medium level is always established by a neutral distribution of fairly long notes and fairly rapid articulations, and the minimum level entails silence, or a tendency to silence." By the end of the evening, twenty eight out of thirty patrons had listened to Luciano Berio's music for the first time and the enthusiasm was contagious. Mission accomplished.
If you are curious, find a full draft of my paper at <https://uc.academia.edu/AndreaVosRochefort>