Luciano Berio was an Italian composer (1925-2003) noted for his contributions to electronic and experimental music. In 1958, he composed what is considered to be the first piece of electro-acoustic music involving the human voice for his wife (for whom he wrote all his vocal music), mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian. In that same year, Berio also began a series of compositions for solo instruments titled Sequenza I-XIV which explore virtuosity and extended techniques in short six to ten minute pieces.
Sequenza III, which I will perform in our May 18-20 “Trapeze” concerts, was written in 1965 for solo female voice and for his wife who was known for her ability to shift moods and expression rapidly and also for her theatrical approach to experimental music. Each Sequenza is meant to push the musician to his/her limits of technique and expression, and Sequenza III is no exception!
Of the piece, Berio wrote:
“The voice carries always an excess of connotations, whatever it is doing. From the grossest of noises to the most delicate of singing, the voice always means something, always refers beyond itself and creates a huge range of associations. In Sequenza III, I tried to assimilate many aspects of everyday vocal life, including trivial ones, without losing intermediate levels or indeed normal singing.” http://www.lucianoberio.org/node/1460?1487325698=1
The piece itself is structured around a modular text by poet Markus Kutter:
Give me a few words for a woman
to sing a truth allowing us
to build a house without worrying before night comes
The "poem" is meant to be read any way - across, diagonal, down – with the meaning changing significantly depending on which way it is read. We can think of this as the original refrigerator magnet poetry!
I.e. 1 Give me a few words for a woman to sing a truth, allowing us to build a house without worrying before night comes.
I.e. 2 Give me a truth before night comes to build a house, truth for a woman to sing, allowing us a few words without worrying.
Instead of setting the text in the way the poem was meant to be approached, however, Berio was curious about how the sounds of the words contribute to the meaning we attach to them. He broke the sounds of each word apart from the word and the meaning and inserted his own emotional directions into to how to sing and interpret each word. The listener will rarely hear distinct recognizable words, but there are enough hints to keep the connection to the poem and the feeling of longing for self-expression that I read in the original.
If you take a look at this crazy score, you can see how Berio uses words (often in parentheses), phonetic sounds (with dashes surrounding them as in /wo/ /man/) and also sounds in IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet that is used by linguists and singers as a systematic way of communicating pronunciation of individual sounds, for examples [i] is pronounced "eeeee" as in the word "see." Language and the feelings that different sounds evoke definitely become the focus of this piece.
From the score, you will also see how there are very few pitches written out on the musical staff. There are sections like this where pitch is specific, but most of the sections are either not specifically notated on any staff, or a limited staff of three lines to indicate low, middle, and high points of the voice. This can be sung by any female voice, low, medium, or high, and is endlessly adaptable.
Lastly, on the score, you can see how I color coded it to make it easier for me to interpret the emotional instructions (red = high intensity emotions like "intense" or "desperate" vs. mellow ones = blue like "dreamy" or "peaceful" or "wistful". Besides the challenges of quick changes in emotional state/vocal color/intention, there is the additional challenge of learning to interpret the symbols Berio uses to indicate: a cough, a click, finger snaps, covering the mouth, tapping the mouth…etc. Much of my practice time in learning this piece has been spent learning these symbols and being able to interpret them fast enough to do them in the context of the music. A fun challenge to say the least!
To be honest, I have been putting off learning this piece for quite a few years now because of its technical and physical demands, the vulnerability of singing a cappella (with no accompanying instruments or voices), and the weight of its importance in the history of vocal music. I began learning it a few years ago, then put it away until last fall when I started learning it in earnest again.
Berio writes that Sequenza III is a "dramatic essay whose story is between the soloist and her own voice." In some ways, that is terrifying because it becomes such a personal piece for each singer (each singers' interpretation of what "tense" or "dreamy" or "nervous" or "bewildered" will be so unique), but in other ways it is incredibly liberating for the same reason. For much of the repertoire I sing, there are expectations about "how" I will be singing it. Not so with this piece. I am able to craft it in a way that is authentic to my own dramatic expression and the strengths and limitations of my voice.
Although scary and challenging, when done well Sequenza III is an extremely funny and fun piece of virtuosic vocal music. Sound is play! This piece is all about playing with what the voice can do and how language is created, and emotion from the language or vice versa. There is no specific narrative except the drama of the singer and her voice at play. What could be more delightful than that?!
Inside the Music with Evan Premo and Mary Bonhag.
A space to share some further thoughts on music. Comments, questions, and discussions are encouraged.