notation in the works of luciano berio

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  • Notation in the Works of Luciano Berioby William Andrew Burnson

    The rendering of any piece of music in notation by a composer, like a fingerprint, allows

    us to infer many things about the composer through the manner of its distinctions. A composition

    can not exist without a notation to communicate the composition. Arguably, all composition is


    We often isolate the content of the music from the notation containing it, yet as a

    sculpture presents its form both through what it is and what it is not, not simply an object

    occupying space, but a form contrasting the emptiness around it, notation defines a composition

    through the subtraction of an otherwise limitless musical space, giving with each symbol a more

    finite existence to the music. All musical compositions are obviously subsets of the language

    they employ. For example, no piece uses every feature of all forms of musical language

    expression (yet!). Taken in the other direction, all musical compositions are also supersets of any

    notation in that the manner in which the notation is used is specific to the piece. The

    combinations, the patterns, the congruity of composition is just as much an expression of musical

    unity as it is notational unity.

    That seemingly tautological argument is not necessarily so. The purpose of any study in

    notation should not be to find the most superficially interesting, visually-striking elements but to

    identify the parameters that allow the notation to contain music. Most of these we take for

    granted. The idea of a sixteenth note actually has no single notational equivalent. We could argue

    for the sake of practicality that the graphical symbol x is a sixteenth note, much the way we

    could argue that T is a letter of the alphabet. Yet, only in the context of pitch, dynamics,

  • articulation, tempo, staff lines, instruments, systems, pages, and all the surrounding musical

    material does a sixteenth note express anything at all. If we then place another sixteenth note

    next to the first x x and observe the two otherwise identical graphical objects, we see that they

    each take on different roles in the composition: perhaps an antecedant-consequent relationship,

    or the establishment of a pulse, or perhaps the creation of an iamb or a trochee. Similarly, as a

    painter who places a single red dot on an otherwise empty canvas instantly changes the

    relationship of an otherwise abstract dot to an otherwise abstract canvas, a second dot, instantly

    defines a relationship between the dot and dot, and the two dots to the canvas.

    Another useful analogy to bring to the relationship between notation and composition:

    consider again the letter T. We think we see just two features: a long stroke up forming a stem,

    and a horizontal plank crossing the top of the stem. Now consider the significance of the

    following graphic: T (and imagine having drawn it with black not white ink). Without an extra

    thought, we again see the same letter, albeit through the guise of an inverted scheme of

    foreground and background colors. Could it be that our understanding of the construction of this

    shape (composition) is inextricably tied to the space (notation) containing the letter's form


    The subject of Luciano Berio and his use of notation, a vastly underexplored aspect of his

    music, provides tantalizing insights into the construction and composition of his works. Several

    of these works as published today remain in the hand of the composer, allowing us to catch

    glimpse of the skillful negotiation between the composer's musical intentions and their

    corresponding execution on the page. Berio's innovations in notation run the full gamut of

    musical expression, from tinkering with and embellishing features of the Western music lexicon

    to manipulating performance structure and the very foundation of the music. Through the lens of

  • such precisely notated music, as document of the ephemeral moments in between the pen and the

    paper, the commitment of the grand scheme to individual notes and other symbols, a careful

    examination of the composer's choices in notation may bring telling clues regarding the

    processes of composition.

    Many composers will say that notation is secondary to their composition. Berio said in

    interview: Usually, I'm not concerned with notation itself. When I'm concerned, that means

    there's a problem. The issue of notation comes out, at least in my own musical perspective, when

    there is a dilemma, when there is a problem to be solved. And that pushes me to find solutions

    that maybe I was never pushed to find before.1 Clearly, Berio uses notation regardless of

    whether or not he is concerned with it. Let us instead test this hypothesis: if composition is

    simply the execution of notation, then can we also say that Berio's innovative compositional

    techniques are reflected by equally innovative notation?

    A simpler question might prove more profound: what things comprise musical notation?

    A musical score, cover to cover may contain a title page, a list of instruments, remarks by the

    composer, a stage setup, a set of performance directions, and other informationall of which are

    not usually considered to be examples of musical notation. Consider a literary example: the

    preface. Many manuscripts include one for the purposes of introducing a subject to a reader,

    sometimes to introduce terms, prerequisites, corrections, or even justifications for the text that

    follows. In theory, the manuscript stands on its own without an introduction. Yet, in light of the

    preface, is it the same work? In many pieces of modern music, some prefatory remarks are

    essential to the proper performance and comprehension of the work. Especially when in the

    music of Berio, commentary is itself a vehicle for musical expression, we should not accept a

    1 Benedict Weisser, Notational Practice in Contemporary Music: A Critique of Three Compositional Models(Luciano Berio, John Cage, and Brian Ferneyhough). Ph.D., Composition, City University of New York, 1998.Appendix A, p. 1.

  • narrow definition of notation.

    As a preliminary example, Recital I (for Cathy) contains at the score's beginning three

    large pages of detailed staging directions by Berio indicating humorous stunts: the soprano

    initially walks on stage and, having no accompanist, flies into a rage going backstage to nag; or:

    the soprano is instructed to sing standing in the nook of the piano (though without a piano player

    actually present) as in traditional performance practice, thereby interrupting her otherwise

    operatic role, hence juxtposing two essentially incompatible modes of concert. These directions

    are clearly notational.

    Another thought experiment: could something outside the bound music score, such as a

    program note written by the composer, or a composer interview regarding a particular piece also

    notate the music? (Perhaps annotate would be a telling substitution here.) Many composers

    reluctantly discuss their music, neither for lack of certainty or shyness, but to avoid cheapening

    it. If notation is likened to the subtraction of musical possibilities, then we might also say that

    discussing one's music is a subtractive (and thus notational or annotational) process, by which a

    piece of music is made more definite and therefore more narrow, something that for some

    composers might be akin to revising the work simply through its discussion or annotation.

    Continuing our gedanken with an altogether different composer, Terry Riley, we might

    ask if the notational simplicity of In C yields a music that is more all-encompassing (and perhaps

    that it is why some minimalists might prefer the term totalist) than, say, a sonata of the same

    length since In C subtracts much less from the realm of all musical possibilities. Stravinsky in his

    Poetics of Music2 lectures at Harvard, spoke of the importance of limits in music. So let us put

    forth the following relationship: notation, as the ultimate arbiter of limits, can encompass

    2 Igor Stravinsky. The Poetics of Music. Revised edition. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1993. Chapter Four:The Composition of Music, p. 45.

  • anything that defines a piece of music more narrowly.

    With a working definition of notation in reach, we proceed to attempt the previous

    inquiry regarding the dual nature of compositional and notational innovation. Considering the

    above example, In C, a single page of music representing up to an hour of performed music is in

    indeed a feat of both composition and notation. In fact, that composition requires the notation it

    was given. Riley's magnum opus is an equal innovation in both composition and notation.

    Or, consider serial music. If we insist on a narrow view of notation, then it would appear

    that the process of the music is independent of the graphical notes that express it. Yet such an

    argument fails to explain the sets, rows, hexachordal combinatoriality, etc., all of which owe

    most of their popularity to the easy of which they are notated. (Think: [0 1 4] is itself merely a

    notation, and say, F-sharp, G, and A-sharp is one possibility for notating this set in music.) The

    mapping of any external concept into music, is inescapably an issue of notation, even when no

    new graphical symbols must be invented to represent the new mapping. The notation of serial

    music could therefore be considered just as innovative a


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