Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, Generational Perspectives, and the Fluid Nature of Copyright in a Classical Context

Luciano Berio in Castiglioncello, 1996.
Photo by Marina Berio

Twenty years ago this year, the late Sussex University professor David Osmond-Smith (1946-2007) published Berio [Oxford], a tidy overview of the work—and to the extent that they relate, the life—of Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003), as part of the series Oxford Studies of Composers.

I read it for the first time recently, for background on Osmond-Smith’s perspective on Berio before a planned dive into Playing on Words, the book on Berio’s Sinfonia (1968-1969) that he had published a half-decade prior.

I’ve been focused on Sinfonia lately because it 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.

The former concern is in contrast with Bernstein’s infamous 1964 fail involving John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis, for which the recently deceased computer-music trailblazer Max Matthews had developed a 50-channel mixer (a little factoid I learned while reviewing Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage [Knopf] by Kenneth Silverman for Nature earlier this year).

The latter concern, however, is my primary interest, because the ongoing discussion about copyright is front and center in musical consciousness today, from both a legal and compositional point of view.

Osmond-Smith’s Berio is relatively breezy, with occasional full-stop breaks for close musicological line readings. (I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t acknowledge that the note-parsing is largely over my head, but even then I still found some threads I could learn from. It didn’t hurt that in the copy of the book I borrowed from the library someone had penciled in numeric values for some of the note sequences. Now that’s what I call crowd-sourcing.) The volume is a brief survey of Berio’s work, from electronic-iconoclast innovation in Milan, to his extensive output for voice and (“conventional”) instrumentation, to his exploration in the realm of theater. It’s an excellent overview, with summaries of major works, and biographical details to explain the context in which the works were composed and initially performed. The purely biographical aspects can be deadpan to a fault—the second and third time Berio is married, there’s little-to-no mention of personal turmoil (well, when he takes his second wife, it’s made clear that his working relationship with his first, the vocalist Cathy Berberian, hasn’t suffered); it’s like he’s simply traded in one car or house for another.

The outlines of a jet-setting composer’s life aside, the two main things I came away with from the book, secondary to simply knowing far more about Berio than I had when I started reading it, are as follows:

First, there isn’t much about “meaning” in the book. There is excellent detail of how the pieces work, about the mechanisms of Berio’s music, how it functions, how Berio accomplishes what he’s after technically. There is, however, little explanation, little interpretation, of what it is he’s after, what he’s expressing, both intentionally and as perceived by the book’s author. There is a brief moment when a psychological reading of a work is considered, and then dispensed with. And in regard to Sinfonia, a parenthetical allows that the way several pre-existing works were handled in tandem suggests that by doing so Berio was commenting on them as a whole—but that interpretive thread is left dangling, tantalizingly to me.

Osmond-Smith was by no means a conservative voice, either in scholarship (he studied in the early 1970s with Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes, both of who had their impact on Berio’s work) or in life (during roughly the same period of time he was reportedly the founder of the Gay Society at Sussex). Which leaves me to wonder the extent to which this lack of exploration of meaning is generational—but that’s a path of consideration that will remain on hold for me until I’ve more thoroughly read up on the copyright matters.

Because the second thing I took away from the book was that it’s hard to imagine it being written this way today. By “this way” I mean that one of the fundamental aspects of Berio’s compositional approach is his use of pre-existing composition, from Mahler to folk song, to his experiments in tape collage and other forms of electronic manipulation—and the copyright aspect of that is never touched on in these pages. We know Berio collaborated with Eco and with Italo Calvino, among others, but the vast majority of his “collaborators” are unwitting ones, the composers (and authors, including Samuel Beckett and Claude Lévi-Strauss) whose work he interpolated into his own. We learn a lot, thanks to Osmond-Smith’s detailed knowledge of the works, about how these pieces of music and writing become Berio’s own, through force of his compositional ingenuity (Osmond-Smith’s explanation of Berio’s adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses is particularly rich, in that he locates parallels between the way the composer and author posited thematic material). What we don’t know is what permissions Berio sought out, or the extent to which doing so was even necessary during his period as a composer. We know from the book more about the development of a real-time sound processor by former CERN physicist Giuseppe Di Giugno (called Peppino here, evidence of Osmond-Smith’s familiarity with the people in Berio’s life) than we do about how Berio gained permission, if he even did, for the prior existing work that he took as his compositional source material. And Di Giugno’s gadget, however forward-thinking, was a much less central aspect of Berio’s career than was the device we call appropriation.

Even though Berio was published more than a decade after the birth of hip-hop, general asides to appropriation beyond classical music, let alone the word “sampling,” remain unexplored here. There are numerous terms that serve as precursors to the word “sampling” (let’s put aside the pejoratives: pilfered, stolen, lifted, and so forth): to pay homage, invoke, quote, cite, reference, allude to, and so forth. Few, if any, play a role in Osmond-Smith’s consideration.

And that’s not to fault the author. Quite the contrary, it’s just to view how the concerns of the period during which he wrote, during which Berio worked, are different from those that rule in conversation today. With orchestras in crisis, with the record industry struggling to develop a business model in the wake of the CD’s certain death, with composers setting up shop on Kickstarter to help fund commissions, discussions about classical music today, as with discussions about any type of music, inevitably come back to financial models.

The complex thing is that the financial models inevitably involve matters of proprietorship of works in a way that an imagination and a career such as Berio’s seem to flout. Importantly, Berio is no peculiar outlier in this regard, except to the extent that more than with many composers his appropriations had a conceptual element whose seams he generally desired to let show. Classical music has a longstanding history of composers drawing on compositional material from both within and without its literature—a history that is humorously at odds with the not incorrect perception of a sustained tension between much of classical music’s audience and sample-based music.

Perhaps all this will be cleared up for me when I next read Osmond-Smith’s quarter-century-old book that is wholly dedicated to Sinfonia, so I write this more than anything as a place-marker in my learning process.


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Marc Weidenbaum

Marc Weidenbaum is an editor and writer based in San Francisco. He was an editor at Pulse! and a co-founding editor at Classical Pulse!, and he consulted on the launch of Among the publications for which he has written are Nature, Boing Boing, e/i, Jazziz,, Big, Make, and The Ukulele Occasional. Comics he edited have appeared in various books, including Justin Green’s Musical Legends (Last Gasp) and Adrian Tomine’s Scrapbook (Drawn & Quarterly). He has self-published, a website about ambient/electronic music, since 1996; it features interviews with, among others, Aphex Twin, Autechre, Gavin Bryars, Zbigniew Karkowski, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, the creators of the Buddha Machine, netlabel proprietors, and sound-app developers.

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