We had a mini-marathon of Berio Sequenzas here last Saturday night, beginning with his groundbreaking first for flute (1958) to his chilling last for cello (2002).
As readers of Sequenza21 know, Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas are pieces that expand the boundaries of solo instruments, stretching their virtuosic capacities and exploring their acoustic properties. For each composition, Berio finds a defining sound world that acts as a home base, a timbral center, if you will. These timbral centers function in a similar way as tonal centers function in traditional music: they serve as starting points and recurring arrival points during the course of colorful journeys.
In the viola Sequenza from 1967, the home sound world is a vicious retort to the viola-joke cliché: most of the piece centers around aggressive, quadruple-stop tremolos played fff (don’t try this at home!) with glissandos from one nasty chord to the next. It’s an assaultive work: it strikes me as an appropriate response to the new din of electronic sound by a person who grew up in an acoustic world.
The bassoon Sequenza, from 1995, delivers a very different ambience. Through circular breathing, carefully modulated bent tones and alternate fingers, the piece serenely and incrementally glisses and glides for most of its duration. It’s the longest of the Sequenzas: an inevitable part of the minimalist drama of the piece is watching the bassoonist slowly cross the stage in order to read the music off of eight stands.
Berio wrote Sequenza VII for oboe in 1969, but preferred the version made in 1993 for soprano saxophone. An offstage B-natural is sustained through the piece. The saxophonist starts from this B, gradually adding more and more tones with kaleidoscopic shifts in dynamic and timbre. Our performance featured three alto saxophonists passing the sustained tone back and forth among them. The subtle contrast between alto and soprano put the solo part in relief without creating a timbral clash.
Sri Lankan rhythms are incorporated into Sequenza XIV (one of Berio’s last works), tapped on the body of the cello by the performer’s right hand, while the fingers of the left hand percussively bat strings down onto the fingerboard. A haunting effect is a slowish gliss up a low string, immediately followed by a fast gliss down a high string – like a sharp richochet. After numerous recurrences, it induces a shocked numbness, if you can imagine such a thing.
Fantastic to hear a single composer’s creative journey over the course of close to a half-century. The intrepid performers were Tadeu Coelho, flute; Sheila Browne, viola; Taimur Sullivan, saxophone; Saxton Rose, bassoon; and Brooks Whitehouse, cello. They gave an enthusiastic audience all it could wish for.