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Luciano Berio, Crate Digger

By Marc Weidenbaum

Luciano Berio, like many classical composers, regularly absorbed pre-existing compositions into his own compositions, blurring the line between tribute and authorship. One of the most expansive of his interpolative works is Sinfonia, which dates from the late 1960s, and which I wrote a brief essay about for publication earlier today at newmusicbox.org: “Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, Generational Perspectives, and the Fluid Nature of Copyright in a Classical Context.”

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Sinfonia recently, because, as I explain in the essay, the piece had come to triangulate two different personal interests that I’d previously thought of more in parallel. The work is both a successful foray by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic into experimental contemporary music during the 1960s, and a precursor to the sample-based music that is so commonplace in our current time. Sinfonia draws into its whole various material borrowed from, among others, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg, Maurice Ravel, Samuel Beckett, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The newmusicbox.org essay isn’t about Berio so much as it’s about our understanding of Berio thanks to the work of the late academic David Osmond-Smith, who made Berio a key focus of his life’s output. The essay came out of a reading of Osmond-Smith’s 1991 career-survey book, Berio, and in advance of a reading of his 1985 book, Playing on Words, which is wholly dedicated to Sinfonia. What’s fascinating about the 1991 book is how it is, I argue, impossible to imagine being written today, because it not for a moment takes into consideration the broader cultural ramifications of Berio’s acts of appropriation, nor does it even touch on the process by which permission for those works was gained.

Now I’m slowly making my way through Playing on Words, the name of which sells short both the book and Sinfonia, because the Berio work doesn’t just play on words, but on melodies and other compositional aspects of the source material. Still, the title does do the job of making clear that both types of material are, in effect, “texts.”

One note from Playing on Words — a footnote, in fact. On page 39, Osmond-Smith states of Sinfonia‘s second movement that “Berio wrote the movement while on holiday in Sicily, and therefore relied upon the few scores that he had with him, those that happened to be available from Catania public library, and his own memory in order to establish a suitable range.” This notion of what’s readily available as a creative constraint is fascinating, in part because it is in contrast with what Osmond-Smith doesn’t appear to probe, which is the creative constraint posed by works Berio desired to adopt but couldn’t obtain permissions for — but also because the image of Berio making of what he could find in the Catania library brings to mind the image of the hip-hop crate digger, making use of what vinyl happens to be available.

I’ll likely summarize some thoughts on Playing on Words when I’ve fully consumed it. In the meanwhile, the Berio/Osmond-Smith essay is here: “Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, Generational Perspectives, and the Fluid Nature of Copyright in a Classical Context.”

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