Luciano Berio: Naturale

Program Note

Berio’s Naturale pairs its live players with a series of tracks on tape. The tape consists of raw field recordings of Peppino Celano, indigenous to Palermo in Sicily, singing the complex abbagnate [street vendor cries] of the region. Berio derived most of the material for viola and percussion (marimba, rototoms, and tam-tam) as a reduction of another transcriptive work he had completed in the previous year, Voci (Folk Songs II) for viola and orchestra. Since Naturale was originally intended and performed as a dance piece, the composer added some introductory material and a few transitions for kinesthetic purposes. Otherwise, the viola part was left more or less alone, lifting entire songs from Voci and rearranging only their order.

The liberties Berio took in his transcription of the folk songs found in Naturale hint at larger elements of his philosophy of sound. He describes this process in his note for Voci:

“The act of transcription – like, sometimes, that of translation - may imply three different conditions: The transcriber can identify emotionally with the text, the original text can become a pretext for experimentation; or, finally, it can be overwhelmed and philologically ‘abused’. I think you reach a solution when these three conditions co-exist. It is only then, I believe, that an ideal situation occurs; when the three conditions come to blend and coexist freely and with full awareness. Only then does transcription become a truly creative, constructive act.”

In an interview with musicologist David Osmond-Smith, Berio discussed his thoughts on juxtaposing two media of folk origins: 

“I’m not an ethnomusicologist, just a pragmatic egoist. I tend to be interested only in those folk techniques and means of expression that I can in one way or other assimilate without a stylistic break, and that allow me to make a few steps forward in the search for a unity underlying musical worlds that are apparently alien to one another.”

Naturale was originally written for Italian violist Aldo Bennici. Yellow Barn guest faculty Kim Kashkashian recorded the piece for the ECM New Series in 2002, in close collaboration with the composer.

Luciano Berio was born into a family with significant musical roots in the Liguria region of Italy. Both his father and grandfather played organ for a local church and taught him piano from a young age. An injury to his right hand on the first day of his army training forced him to give up the instrument, so he pursued composition instead at the Milan Conservatory. In 1952, he studied with prominent serialist Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood and attended the Darmstadt School for the first time soon afterwards.

Berio met soprano Cathy Berberian while they were both students in Milan. They married in 1950 and continued to collaborate even after their divorce in 1964. Their partnership resulted in many important compositions for voice, including Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958), Circles (1960), (Visage (1961), Sequenza III (1965), and Recital I (for Cathy) (1972). Mills College, where Berio taught at the time, commissioned Folk Songs in 1964 for soprano and orchestra. The song cycle was based on several Italian folk transcriptions he had completed decades earlier, as well as American songs he worked on while a professor. These were supplemented by tunes chosen by Berberian, including traditional Armenian tunes and an Azerbaijani song from the Soviet era which compared love to a stove. Several years later, but before the 1984 premiere of Voci (Folk Songs II), Berio also wrote Coro (1977) for orchestra, choir, and soloists, which synthesizes folk material from Chile, North America, and Africa.

—Josh Davidoff