A talk with Luciano Berio. Italian composer turns musical pastiche into art

THE name Luciano Berio conjures up both admiration and controversy whenever music lovers gather to discuss the state of contemporary music. There are some who consider Berio's ``multiple layers of sound'' to be noise, pure and simple. Yet, to the discerning ear, the multiple layers of words (both spoken and sung), orchestral chords, and electronically synthesized sounds form a composite texture no more complex than the sounds we hear around us every day. Some would call Berio a superb craftsman rather than a wholly original composer, suggesting that he is an artisan who puts together a pastiche of electronic elements, bits of folk songs, a rhythm or two from a popular tune, a hint of serialism, and parts of melodies borrowed from Mahler or Verdi.

But the record of his achievements contradicts all this - if public performance is a valid criterion. His works have been presented by some of the finest conductors of our time, including Mehta, Boulez, and Barenboim, to name a few. His ``musical theater'' pieces (he refuses to call them ``operas,'' preferring the name azione musicale) have been or are scheduled to be performed in some of the world's most prestigious houses - from Teatro alla Scala and Covent Garden to the soon-to-be-completed Bastille Op'era of Paris.

His major orchestral work, ``Sinfonia'' of 1968, has been recorded on three labels in performances with the New York Philharmonic, the Austrian Radio Orchestra, and, most recently, with Boulez and the Orchestre National de France. His ``Tema: Omaggio a Joyce'' (Theme: Homage to James Joyce) is a masterpiece of the electronic genre - a work that has inspired many composers and helped set parameters for electronic music composition.

Berio at home

Recently I had the pleasure of driving through the Tuscan countryside west of Siena to spend an afternoon at Berio's country home, a restored 18th-century farmhouse near the village of Radic'ondoli where he has lived since 1975. When I rang the bell on the pillar at the entrance, huge bronze gates opened automatically, and I approached the house.

The composer was waiting for me on his palm-shaded patio. He had changed little in the 20 years since I last met him: a jovial person of great intellect, a well-read scholar, a deeply philosophical thinker.

He led me to his studio, offered me a chair, and sat down at his ``desk'' - a large drafting table on which there was a huge sheet of orchestra paper, his latest work in progress.

I asked him to give me his definition of music.

``Trying to define music - which in any case is not an object but a process - is rather like trying to define poetry,'' he replied. ``It's an operation made happily impossible by the futility of trying to establish the boundary between what is music and what isn't, or between poetry and nonpoetry. Music is certainly everything that one listens to with the intention of listening to music.''

One of the things that most fascinates the general public, I suggested, is how a composer goes about his craft. People wonder if it's ``like it is in the movies'' - a sudden spark of inspiration, a complete composition bursting forth.

``Quite the contrary,'' he said. ``For me, the first idea is always very broad and general. Then, in the course of defining the details, I may discover new possibilities over which I decide to linger, though that doesn't change the nature or the motive of the project. It may happen that the discovery and proliferation of unforeseen elements becomes so important that it effectively alters the project. When this happens, I follow the opposite path. And, since I have been taught thrift as a true son from the province of Liguria, I never throw anything away. This is what links `Allelujah' to `Allelujah II' and `Sequenza II' to `Chemins I.'

How does Berio respond to someone who says he or she doesn't understand his music?

``I don't believe people when they say `I don't understand this music.' It means they don't understand themselves and the place they occupy in the world, and that it doesn't occur to them that music is also a product of collective life. In my view, everyone understands music in their own fashion. I don't even think that there's a right and wrong way of listening to it, just more simple and more complex ones. When the music is meaningful, it can be approached on many different levels.''

Still an electronic composer

``When I first became a fan of your music,'' I said, ``I knew you chiefly as an electronic composer. Nowadays I hear little about such compositions. Have you abandoned that for more traditional forms of chamber and theater music?''

Berio pushed his thick horn rimmed glasses back to the top of his head and chuckled. He asked me to turn around and look behind me. There, against the far wall of the studio, I saw a huge bank of magnetic and digital recording equipment, keyboard synthesizers, patch cords - all the paraphernalia of an ``electronic'' composer.

He shrugged and muttered, ``Electronic music, chamber music, opera, orchestral music. These are categories - to a certain extent artificial categories - that are good for record stores but not for a musician. I think on a different basis.''

``What about your writing for the lyric theater,'' I quipped.

`They must be mad'

``I don't write anything for the `lyric theater' because I don't believe in such definitions. `Lyric theater.' What does it mean? I don't believe a theater can tell a story with people singing. That's why I believe in a conception of music theater in which music is regarded as the most important element. Actually I think `lyric opera' is an absolutely wrong definition of music theater today. Somebody tells me they are writing a `lyric opera.' I tell them they must be mad.

``The music theater, however, is a very important thing. It's large enough and can include everything from a Broadway musical to Berg's `Wozzeck' to Debussy's `Pell'eas et M'elisande' to a Strauss opera to what's happening in my music today. And certainly inside my work exists the memory of what has happened over the centuries in the Italian music theater.''

And what of the future?

``In music, I find myself forever saying, things don't get better or worse: They evolve and transform themselves.''

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