Thursday, January 7, 2016

Musical Explanation 1/7/16: Berio Sinfonia

Berio, conducted by Boulez - irony duly noted.

Against the figure of Pierre Boulez, one should consider the figure of Luciano Berio. Modern classical music, even atonal classical music, can be a wonderful, fascinating thing, and Berio is the proof. There is nothing at all wrong with modernism or even atonality, so long as they are not only present for their own sakes. Music is, must be, about more than its syntax.

Berio was all the correct things to European modernism: Darmstadt-certified, almost fanatically Marxist, in every sense a musical progressive. Where Berio differed from so many modernist colleagues is that would have no truck with self-mutilating cant. He was as absolutely comfortable with tonality as he was with atonality, and managed to combine them in ways that even Boulez admitted were impressive.

In many ways, Berio's Sinfonia is the masterpiece of the 20th century's second half. It is as earth-shaking as The Rite of Spring was to the first half. Within its musical universe (and really, it's a universe), it is as though we're listening to the very stream of consciousness.

I may not care for many of the thoughts Berio espouses in this piece. The first movement is an homage to Claude Levi-Strauss, one of the gods of critical theory and the founder of Structural Anthropology. The idea of an homage to Levi-Strauss holds not much more appeal to me than an homage to Boulez, but the beliefs themselves are not important. What's important is how he manages to create a mental space within the piece, as though he is exploring the ideas of Levi-Strauss in a musical language and precisely what his brain hears when he process Levi-Strauss's thoughts.

The singers sing only six words in the second movement: O King O Martin Luther King. This may be the most abstract musical elegy Martin Luther King ever got, but it's still haunting.

The part everybody knows, the towering masterpiece within the masterpiece, is the third movement, which is a musical collage laid over the third movement of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. It's overlaid, sometimes interrupted, by bits of Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Brahms, Hindemith, Pousseur, Stockhausen, and Berio himself. The singers sing quotes from Beckett, Joyce, and graffiti. It's almost like Berio is recording all his thoughts while listening to Mahler. At the end of the movement, the singers introduce themselves along with the composer, the orchestra, and the conductor, all by name. The first time I heard this movement, I was so bowled over that I had to stop the recording and not listen to anything for the rest of the day. Even if you don't know the source material, this is the kind of music that blows minds and shakes up everything you ever thought you knew about what music was capable of doing.

The fourth movement takes us back to the Martin Luther King incantations, but instead of intoning Martin Luther King's name, it intones six words that are supposed to be reminiscent of the fourth movement of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, when the alto intones the poem Mahler wrote himself for it: "O Red Rose." It's as though Berio was mourning in the second movement about things of the here and now, while in this movement, he's mourning eternal, universal things.

I suppose I've always been a bit puzzled by the fifth movement. It's supposed to be a summation of everything that came before - snippets from each movement, more Levi-Strauss text... Perhaps it provides a further layer of self-awareness, as though Berio is now thinking about his own previous thoughts. I suppose it's best to think of it as a palatte cleanser.

Regardless, this is the music of which musical revolutions are made. More simple, more 'popular' forms of music can express all sorts of wonderful, necessary things. But they cannot hope to approach this depth of thought, and because the thoughts are more complex, so, probably at least, are the feelings. It is as though we're listening to one of those rare musical works that not only translates music into sound, but ideas too. It takes a combination of genius and fearlessness to pull off. Long after future generations tire of both the Stones and Boulez, they'll be pouring over Berio for ever new meanings, insights, and catharsis.

It is not anti-modernism to dislike Boulez, even if such dislike includes the sin of vituperation. To my thinking, it is perhaps anti-modernism to believe too strongly in Boulez's theories. That is their right to do, and I suppose it's better than the mindless conservatism of much of a concert audience, but while most concertgoers are stuck in 1910, many who fancy themselves modernists are stuck in 1955. The miniscule part of the musical world that is modern classical music moved on from Darmstadt more than half a century ago. Since then it's experienced the developments of aleatoricism, minimalism, holy minimalism, post-Soviet maximalism, and internationalization. Composers can and do borrow from each of these and add to them an entire world's worth of musical developments from outside the infinitesimal sphere that is contemporary classical music. It is only a small coterie within this tiny world who truly love his music and to this day guard it from criticism rather viciously because to admit that there's even a 1% chance that Boulez's music might be unlikeable is roughly the same as admitting that the entire ideology surrounding it is gossamer. The majority of them also buy into the self-parodying ideology that musical progress is inhibited by market forces and most of the Frankfurt School bullshit that goes along with it.

Boulez will in some sense be remembered, but I'm far from convinced that it will be for his music. I could be wrong, which is more than Boulez's accolytes could ever admit. The music of Berio, on the other hand, will live forever.

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