Suffocating Berio

At a concert by the Theatre of Voices Friday night, I loved a Berio piece, A-Ronne. Twitters, muttering, all kinds of entertaining vocal sounds, and also some compelling singing, all structured in a way that captivated me. But when I said I liked the piece, at intermission, two composers (one quite well known) objected. To them the piece felt suffocating. I knew why, of course. They’d studied composition in the 1970s, when modernism ruled in academia, and when — as I know from my own composition studies then — you had to like and write atonal music, and in fact acknowledge it as the only serious idiom a composer could write in. You couldn’t like Britten or Shostakovich. Those composers were quietly forbidden: too tonal.

After the concert, someone else asked me how Berio could have been so terrifying — and still could be — since A-Ronne (and many other works by him) are fun, are full of sounds that aren’t atonal, and by now sound (at least to people who didn’t study composition in the ’70s) quite charmingly dated.

The answer is simple. There was an implicit list, all but codified in writing, of acceptable composers. Berio ranked high on it. And so for anyone who found this compositional aesthetic — this enforced ideology — suffocating, Berio loomed (and apparently still looms) as yet another strangler. Forget that he taught Steve Reich, who surely didn’t find him so. This wasn’t about Berio, as he might have been in person. It was about the crowd he ran with, and the uses that his music could be put to.

Somehow that never bothered me. I thought Berio was fun, and also a master of composing; I still do. Maybe I escaped the suffocation because I simply started writing freer music, no doubt to faculty consternation at the music school I went to. Yet still I did it.

But I sympathize with the composers who hated A-Ronne. (A-Ronne — didn’t he play for the Yankees? Sorry, couldn’t help it.) One of these composers stiffened noticeably when I said I liked the piece. His objection was visceral, and genuine.

So in his defense I’ll note that Berio was formidably intellectual, that his form of intellectuality (shared also by Boulez and Babbitt, not to mention others) loomed as yet another strangulation, and that the program note he wrote for A-Ronne — an anti-masterpiece of Mandarin impossibility — was enough to give any composition student from the ’70s a fit of nightmares. If you thought you had to swallow that to love the music (and I’m not sure we weren’t taught we had to), then of course many people couldn’t go there.

And in Berio’s modernism, delightful as it now sounds to me — and not just delightful; irreverent, too — you run into a brick wall of limitation.Berio can twitter and burp all he likes, but the connections that he thinks he’s making to the world outside classical music are all to highbrow theorizing, cultural, linguistic, and literary. You’d never catch him echoing a snatched memory of popular culture (unless you count folk songs, which I don’t, because they’re theorized, in Berio’s world, as authentic, while pop culture, supposedly, is commercial and corrupt).

So that’s the boundary. He can giggle all he wants, and also cough and hum and murmur, putting sounds in free association with each other. But if I’d written a piece like this, and my free association took me to a fragment of Led Zeppelin, eyebrows would have been raised. Likewise, when Elliott Carter says that he’s inspired (as, for instance, in his piano piece Night Fantasies) by the slither of unconscious thoughts in Joyce’s writing, what he’ll never do, as thoughts skitter in his music, is let them skitter toward popular culture (by, for instance, echoing a popular song), as Joyce does on just about every page.

That’s an odd, restrictive limit, typical of modernist music, but not of other modernist art. And it helps explains why modernist music has never had the appeal of modernist literature or painting.

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  1. says

    I’m always amazed to hear those stories, about people being forced to write atonal music, etc., because out in the provinces it wasn’t the cae. In fact, it was quite the opposite. If you wanted to learn how the modernists did it, you were on your own. The libraries may have had scores and recordings, but as often as not you had to find them for yourself.

    The faculty wrote music not so much like Britten and Shostie, but more like Creston, Mennin, and the like.

    But the point is still an important one. Colleges and universities are supposed to be intellectually open and alive, and closed-mindedness is closed-mindedness, which ever side of a divide it’s on.

  2. David Cavlovic says

    Ah! Composers from the 70’s. They need to get a life. And ultimately it was THEIR choice to compose music that no one will ever listen to again. There! I said it! And I’m someone who adores a lot of Stockhausen and Kagel (who can be a lot of fun, too). The problem to me seems to be the academic straight jacket that a lot of these composers were forced into by a number of their second-rate composition teachers (those who can’t do….

    In my university days in the 80’s, a knew an AWFUL lot of student composers who were either dismissed by their profs as being second-rate BECAUSE they refused to eschew tonality (one such dissmissed is now a prominant Hollywood composer!), or secretly composed music they wanted a public to hear. The commonality was this : they were tired of hearing and composing music that nobody really wanted to hear in the first place, or that required such notational techniques that required the musicians to learn a whole new system of notation that further relagated the music to the “one performance only” category.

    Hell, there were a few of us (music historians included!)who were seen as being traitors for liking Elgar, or Korngold, or Rosza, or Brian Eno.

  3. John Abbott says

    ….yet Berio liked jazz, arranged Beatles songs (supposedly also influencing The Beatles prior to Sgt Pepper), and included all sorts of cultural references in works like Sinfonia. I always associate him with Umberto Eco, who loves mixing “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture.

    I’d love to know more about this. I didn’t know about the Beatles arrangements!

    But — and maybe this is my fault — I don’t remember pop references in “Sinfonia.” That Mahler movement, with the singing and speaking voices, struck me, last time I heard it, as quite notably Mandarin in its culture. I most clearly remember the Samuel Beckett text. I love Beckett — he’s one of my cultural touchstones — but he’s certainly not popular culture.

    And the Beatles — I’ve long thought that the interest in them among classical musicians back in the ’60s has been misunderstood. For one thing, it didn’t last very long. But mainly, people like Bernstein and Ned Rorem liked the Beatles because their songs did the same kind of things (with melodic and harmonic sophistication) that classical music does. So it wasn’t that highbrows started liking rock. It was that rock musicians had started moving into classical territory. If Berio had arranged Rolling Stones songs, I’d have granted him a serious interest in rock & roll. Or if all these classical people had gone crazy for The Band, I’d agree that they had some understanding of rock. The Band’s music is easily as sophisticated as the Beatles’, but the sophistication derives entirely from American roots music, and isn’t like to speak to classical music people who don’t move easily on the rock side of the fence.

  4. says

    I recall one of our fellow students who went to Juilliard telling me about terrorizing Berio in an elevator once, but he also perplexed Penderecki.

    I’m not above declaring that one of my favorite pieces is the Berio Sinfonia. I heard it performed in London with the Swingle Singers and the Philharmonia, conducted by Walter Hendl. It was just fabulous. I have no doubt that it would “smother” other orchestral pieces written around the same time; say, by Wuorinen.

    I also recall coming home one day after reading Adorno in the library and going on about the “ritual destruction of the present” and Jonathan D., one of my roommates saying, “David, if someone wants to write music that sounds a certain way, what right do you have to say that they shouldn’t?”

    I love “Sinfonia,” and I think it might overwhelm a lot of orchestral pieces, new and old. The Mahler movement does sound a little dated to me, but I still love it. I think “Coro” is a masterpiece as well. And I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a Berio piece I didn’t like. Maybe “Stanze,” his final work, didn’t get to me. But I’d imagine I’d like it if I heard it more. (And how likely is that?)

    One of my Juilliard students once asked what I thought about composers who wrote inacessible music. He was a composer himself. My answer was simple. I said that composers absolutely should write whatever music they like. But if they write it in a style that not many people like, they shouldn’t be surprised if — well — most people don’t like it. I think that in the past there was a great sense of entitlement. Someone like Carter had to be widely played, and the audience had to learn to like it. I think it’s a sad and greatly discourteous mistake to force music like that on audiences that hate it. It’s natural that difficult art will have a small audience. Does anyone force Godard’s recent films on mid-America? Does anyone scream that book groups should all be reading “Finnegans Wake”?

  5. Bill Brice says

    There’s always been a certain tension between art for “connoiseurs” and art for “amateurs”. I’d say what’s strange about late 20th-century music is the degree to which serious composers began to signal it was beneath them to write easy-to-like music. I suspect that whole trend is one of the downsides we got when personal patronage was superseded by grants and academic support.

    When you were commissioned by or retained by your duke or your bishop, you had to make sure your output was consonant with his values and self-image. The artist’s challenge there was to push his own intellectual/spiritual envelope without turning off his income.

    As Greg and Dave have commented, any artist can make the choice to go off into realms where few want to follow. He’d just better be well aware of the choice he’s making.

  6. David Cavlovic says

    “So it wasn’t that highbrows started liking rock. It was that rock musicians had started moving into classical territory.”

    Well, then, how do you explain Glenn Gould’s total fascination with Petula Clark?

    Glenn Gould is an exception to any rule anyone wants to make. (In regard to anything.) I’m sure there are other examples of highbrows loving some not-so-highbow ’60s rock or pop. One of my college roommates fell in love with “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses,” an early ’60s girl group hit that, as my roommate quite rightly noted, is so strange it’s just about surrealistic.

    But most of the highbrow action centered on the Beatles. I don’t see, in any of the writing about them from musical highbrows at that time, any curiosity about any other bands. But maybe I’m missing something.

  7. Daniel Wolf says

    It’s worth noting that these comments, all from the western side of the Atlantic, don’t consider the breadth of Berio’s output (the arrangements, exspecially) and don’t seem to include any experience of the music Berio wrote in his last 30 years, as if his catalogue basically stopped before he turned 45! This then implicitly excludes his opera Un re in ascolto, his “completions” of Zaide and Turandot and a number of other, major works.

    It may well be that the two composers in the lobby are still fighting against their own teachers and the couple of Berio works that might have been on their student listening lists, but they are certainly not engaging with Berio’s complete output in any serious way. To be fair, the lack of exchange (and the time delay when the exchange takes place) between Europe and the US is not unusual, but it is worth noting that the late Berio was widely regarded in Europe to have taken decisive steps away from the avant-garde consensus of the post-war years, and was considered to have been an increasingly traditionalist figure.

    Thanks, Daniel. It’s important to know this.

  8. gkb says

    “I think it’s a sad and greatly discourteous mistake to force music like that on audiences that hate it.”

    Now, hold on a second. Concert attendance is voluntary. CD purchase is voluntary. Radio dial-turning is voluntary. Is anyone, ever, anywhere, really forced to listen to anything? If there’s work on a concert you’ve heard and know you dislike, don’t attend that concert, or come late, or leave at intermission. I think it’s a sad and greatly discourteous mistake to assume you’ll hate a work you’ve never heard. Also, do we really want to be talking about “audiences” liking or disliking pieces, as if every single person in a concert hall were of one mind?#

    Orchestras have subscribers, who of course can choose to subscribe or not, but who once they subscribe have to take what’s offered. Orchestras also consciously balance these things, the most familiar ploy being to do the new work on the first half of a concert, so people will have to hear it if they want to stay for the familiar masterpiece on the second half.

    But I think, overall, you’re a bit ingenuous here. In the first place, you don’t have to hang around an orchestra and its audience very long to know that a large number of people in the audience don’t like modernist new music. I once led an audience discussion, with long-term subscribers to an orchestra that prided itself both on the modernist new music it programmed, and on the supposed tolerance the audience had for it. Imagine the shock, for this orchestra’s management, when the audience members in the discussion expressed real anger at the programming. Nobody had any idea they thought that way. And there are plenty of studies, not to mention anecdotal reports, to back this up. The studies are private, unfortunately. But I don’t think what I’m saying would be any surprise to most orchestra marketing directors.

    And when you say that the audience doesn’t have to go — oh, come on! There’s going to be one big orchestra in a city. The audience there has, basically, just one choice. The concerts are deliberately rigged (if that’s not too strong a word) to mix new and old music, so that the audience won’t be able to avoid the new works. I know one big-orchestra marketing director who, having determined that 6% of his audience actually likes new music, wants to give special concerts tailored to that 6%. But the orchestra hasn’t taken him up on it. For many reasons — one of them, I think, being the difficulty of allocating rehearsal time to a one-off event — new music and old are going to be mixed on programs.

    So, sure, the audience doesn’t have to go. But the price they’ll pay is not being able to hear some of their favorite music. They see the Pathetique Symphony, let’s say, on the schedule, and if they want to go, they have to endure Elliott Carter on the first half of the program. So if they want to hear the Pathetique, what choice do they have?

    One of America’s big orchestras didn’t renew the contract of its world-famous music director because he programmed too much modernist music. When the new, more friendly programs were announced, subscribers wrote and called and e-mailed to offer thanks. There wasn’t any similar upsurge from a minority that might have liked the old programs.

  9. gkb says

    Still, I’m troubled by concert programming based on overly sweeping generalizations, both about what audiences think & want and about what constitutes modernism. I mean, I’ve heard symphony-goers complain about Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije suite. I certainly have no problem with switching The Moldau and the Mendelssohn violin concerto to the first half and the Carter to the second. I’m also fine with hearing Carter et al. on only 6% of the concerts, in deference to the 94%. But never? I have problems with never.

  10. Henry Holland says

    “I mean, I’ve heard symphony-goers complain about Prokofiev’s Lt. Kije suite”

    My favorite: the couple behind me complaining on the way out about that horrible modern music the orchestra just played and why didn’t they play music with hummable tunes etc. etc. The piece?

    Strauss’ “Don Juan”. I mean, c’mon, “Don Juan”?!?! Or at the opera, someone finding “Turandot” to be too modern etc.

    Let’s face it, if 98% of concertgoers had their way, the music played would end with the death of Brahms. Too bad for them, music continued and *GASP* some of us like it. If I have to sit through rubbish like Brahms’ “Academic Festival Overture” or some tedious Haydn symphony, to get to some music I enjoy, they can suck it up and sit still for 15 minutes of Birtwistle.

    I’m finding this thread quite remarkable. I’ve often noticed a sense of entitlement in the classical music world — “we’re high art, we MUST exist, the schools must educate students in classical music to guarantee us an audience in the future.” Sometimes this gets quite angry.

    And now I think I’m seeing a new wrinkle on that. Or probably not so new, but I haven’t noticed it so vividly before. This would be some kind of new music entitlement — this music MUST be played, so it doesn’t matter if the stupid mass audience doesn’t like it.

    To which I can only answer: these organizations (big orchestras and the like) don’t exist to satisfy your taste. (Or mine.) They can’t. The remarkable thing, really, is that they indulge us at all. And that, as I’ve seen from the inside, causes problems.

    And let me repeat something I’ve said before. In what other area of life — in what other business, or non-profit pursuit — do we see people demand that audiences or customers *must* be sold something they don’t like? Does anyone go storming up and down Times Square in New York, demanding that Broadway theaters present Beckett and Jean Genet? Does anyone yell at movie multiplexes, damning them for not offering Lars von Trier? Does anyone write off the Metropolitan Museum in New York, because they don’t present blockbuster shows of conceptual art?

    Most of the world seems to understand that various kinds of art have separate markets. Why shouldn’t that be true of classical music? (And in fact it really is true, so maybe the more pointed question is why we have such trouble admitting it.)br>

  11. Greg says

    In 1968, Berio published an essay in the Christian Science Monitor titled “Meditations on a Twelve-Tone Horse.” (available for purchase here. ) This essay contains the following notorious passage:

    “Any attempt to codify musical reality into a kind of imitation grammar (I refer mainly to the efforts associated with the Twelve-Tone System) is a brand of fetishism which shares with Fascism and racism the tendency to reduce live processes to immobile, labeled objects, the tendency to deal with formalities rather than substance. Claude Levi-Strauss describes (though to illustrate a different point) a captain at sea, his ship reduced to a frail raft without sails, who, by enforcing a meticulous protocol on his crew, is able to distract them from nostalgia for a safe harbor and from the desire for a destination.”

    Serialism is taught in music schools these days — or rather the history of serialism — with great respect. Certainly it was when I was in music school. Nobody mentioned the derision of intellectuals like Levi-Strauss, which was as legitimate a part of the history as Boulez’s excitement.

  12. Anonymous says

    i would to know if you got a-ronne in pdf. i´m from argentina and here doesn´t exist the score. and i´d like to get a copy if it´s posible

  13. Haavard Enge says

    A strange myth has slipped into this discussion, I think, as well as in several other discussions of Berio. I cannot find any proof that LB wrote any Beatles arrangements. The ones heard on the Internet – for instance the “Baroque” Ticket to ride, is actually by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen – as Cathy tells us in this clip:

    On the Wiki Andriessen page, the work is listed as “Beatles songs” (1966).

    The Beatles record by CB – “Revolution”, later reissued as “Beatles Arias” credits most of the arrangements to Guy Boyer, three to Andriessen, but none to Berio.

    This video may be some part of the confusion, as Berio is the conductor and in the focus of the film, while Cathy B. sings the Andriessen version of “Ticket to ride” without him being credited. However, it is possible that Berio made the string arrangement after Andriessen’s piano version – it would be interesting to know how this myth of Berio’s Beatles songs really came about.

    Berio’s supposed Beatles songs are mentioned in as weighty places as the Independent:

    And in the musicologist David Metzer’s book “Quotation and Cultural Meaning in 20th C. Music”, p. 70, where he is clearly thinking of Andriessen’s arrangements.

  14. Haavard Enge says


    Please put my previous message in the trash. I have since discovered that Berio’s Beatles songs of course exists. However, it seems to be more people than me that confuse them with Andriessen’s, which were also written for Cathy B. I’ve just discovered that Kate Meehan at Wustl University is publishing an article on the topic:

    Best regards,