I don't follow Greg Sandow's blog, but I understand there are people who do, so I've always assumed there's something he does right and I'm just missing it. Gramophone cast a little doubt on that assumption this month by selecting for its Blogwatch feature an especially ill-informed and poorly thought-out piece on the music and legacy of Luciano Berio. Sandow's conclusion:
And in Berio's modernism, delightful as it now sounds to me -- and not just delightful; irreverent, too -- you run into a brick wall of limitation. Berio can twitter and burp all he likes, but the connections that he thinks he's making to the world outside classical music are all to highbrow theorizing, cultural, linguistic, and literary. You'd never catch him echoing a snatched memory of popular culture (unless you count folk songs, which I don't, because they're theorized, in Berio's world, as authentic, while pop culture, supposedly, is commercial and corrupt). So that's the boundary. He can giggle all he wants, and also cough and hum and murmur, putting sounds in free association with each other. But if I'd written a piece like this, and my free association took me to a fragment of Led Zeppelin, eyebrows would have been raised. Likewise, when Elliott Carter says that he's inspired (as, for instance, in his piano piece Night Fantasies) by the slither of unconscious thoughts in Joyce's writing, what he'll never do, as thoughts skitter in his music, is let them skitter toward popular culture (by, for instance, echoing a popular song), as Joyce does on just about every page. That's an odd, restrictive limit, typical of modernist music, but not of other modernist art. And it helps explains why modernist music has never had the appeal of modernist literature or painting.
Was somebody asleep at the wheel of the Gramophone? Within two days of this posting, Sandow had already received a reply correcting the basic error of fact underpinning this argument. Berio loved popular music, and his love was reflected in his composition. Commenter John Abbott wrote:
....yet Berio liked jazz, arranged Beatles songs (supposedly also influencing The Beatles prior to Sgt Pepper), and included all sorts of cultural references in works like Sinfonia. I always associate him with Umberto Eco, who loves mixing "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture.
And Sandow replies:
I'd love to know more about this. I didn't know about the Beatles arrangements! But -- and maybe this is my fault -- I don't remember pop references in "Sinfonia." That Mahler movement, with the singing and speaking voices, struck me, last time I heard it, as quite notably Mandarin in its culture. I most clearly remember the Samuel Beckett text. I love Beckett -- he's one of my cultural touchstones -- but he's certainly not popular culture.
Err, Berio's Beatles arrangements are not exactly a secret; I'm pretty sure they're mentioned right in his New Grove entry. Here's Cathy Berberian singing "Ticket to Ride," three minutes into this clip.
As for pop references in the Sinfonia, yeah, it's your fault. Maybe listen a little closer to the stylings from Rod Swingle and his Swingle Singers, the gang for whom the piece was composed. Their vocal production is not quite as operatic as one might expect in an hommage à Mahler. Another pop-influenced Berio moment that comes to mind: the drumkits and brass hits of Laborintus 2. Great piece! Give it a listen.
Sandow goes on:
And the Beatles -- I've long thought that the interest in them among classical musicians back in the '60s has been misunderstood. For one thing, it didn't last very long. But mainly, people like Bernstein and Ned Rorem liked the Beatles because their songs did the same kind of things (with melodic and harmonic sophistication) that classical music does. So it wasn't that highbrows started liking rock. It was that rock musicians had started moving into classical territory. If Berio had arranged Rolling Stones songs, I'd have granted him a serious interest in rock & roll. Or if all these classical people had gone crazy for The Band, I'd agree that they had some understanding of rock. The Band's music is easily as sophisticated as the Beatles', but the sophistication derives entirely from American roots music, and isn't like to speak to classical music people who don't move easily on the rock side of the fence.
Why all this speculation about what Berio thought of rock? Let's Google "Luciano Berio" and rock; the first hit is Berio's "Comments on rock," excerpted in the anthology The Lennon Companion. A pity to see how much is omitted in this translation, but we get the idea--what does Berio like about rock? Its eclecticism, the simplicity of its materials, and of course the ease with which those materials can be reconfigured to assimilate Beatles-style avant-gardism. Artists mentioned: yes, Zappa and the Beatles, but also the Four Tops, the Grateful Dead and, guess who, the Rolling Stones.
(Non seq.: Find my new favorite Berio anecdote here.
The conversation was a kind of litany containing the great names of twentieth-century composition: Cage, Messiaen, et al. Then Rihm mentioned Sting. Boulez was shocked. Berio told him to go and listen to Sting's latest album, that he might be surprised.
So after seeing Sandow in the Gramophone, I sent another Greg, one of my Gregs, over to check out the post. His response was immediately to dig up an article in which Luciano Berio actively rails against the kind of "enforced ideology" Sandow claims was propagated by "the crowd [Berio] ran with" (nevermind who Berio actually "ran with"):
In 1968, Berio published an essay in the Christian Science Monitor titled "Meditations on a Twelve-Tone Horse." (available for purchase here.) This essay contains the following notorious passage: "Any attempt to codify musical reality into a kind of imitation grammar (I refer mainly to the efforts associated with the Twelve-Tone System) is a brand of fetishism which shares with Fascism and racism the tendency to reduce live processes to immobile, labeled objects, the tendency to deal with formalities rather than substance. Claude Levi-Strauss describes (though to illustrate a different point) a captain at sea, his ship reduced to a frail raft without sails, who, by enforcing a meticulous protocol on his crew, is able to distract them from nostalgia for a safe harbor and from the desire for a destination."
Serialism is taught in music schools these days -- or rather the history of serialism -- with great respect. Certainly it was when I was in music school. Nobody mentioned the derision of intellectuals like Levi-Strauss, which was as legitimate a part of the history as Boulez's excitement.
So true! Errr, except for the parts you misread, misremembered, or just plain made up.