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Contemporary Music Review, 9 Luciano Berio and David Osmond-Smith

1989, Vol. 5, pp. 1-8

Photocopying permitted by license only

Eco in ascolto 1

L u c i a n o Berio
Interviewed by Umberto Eco

UMBERTO ECO: You've experimented with a great variety of materials in the

course of your musical career, but it seems to me that the human voice occupies a
special place among them: your compositions for and with Cathy Berberian bear
witness to that. Yet at various points you've also investigated opera, which isn't
just a question of the voice. It's also a question of narrative. It's there to tell a story.
Now it may well be that a story in song doesn't mean much to today's musicians.
In which case they'll write something like a sound documentary, to use your
definition for A-ronne. But you're still writing operas. I know it's not easy to define
what an opera is. So if you'll allow me I'll stick to the "commercial" notion of the
genre, in other words an action that is narrated with words and music, takes place
on stage, has singers in costume, an orchestra, scenery, and is advertised by a
poster with a title or art-work that in some way alludes to the operatic tradition.
I'm not greatly surprised that Louis Armstrong never found his way to La Scala.
But I'd like to know why you do. Is it really possible to formulate a poetics of the
"musical action "2 when you re working inside a theatre dedicated to that action
for music we call opera? It seems to me that even in opera it's the voice that
interests you, and not the story. Maybe you'll say that you're doing for opera what
others, from Joyce to Robbe-Grillet, have done for the novel.
But that raises another problem, and no mean one either. I started my question
presupposing that you experimented with the voice. Now, if I'm right, it seems as
if you're doing the same thing with the genre. The voice, like every other material,
carries with it the history of the uses that have been made of it. A genre is a social
convention, and like all social conventions it generates "horizons of expectation"
in the person for whom it's intended, the "theatrical consumer".

LUCIANO BERIO: Since your question paints a portrait of me that I don't entirely
agree with, I shall have to start quite a long way back and touch things up as I go.
Certainly all through my life I've accumulated a lot of different experiences, and
I've always wanted to get a working knowledge of all the materials of music, past
and present. Maybe this desire to try and possess everything is a little Faustian,
and I don't yet know if and how I shall have to pay for it, or who else is already
paying for me. But anyway it's got something to do with being aware that creativ-
ity is always contradictory, and needs to exercise itself on diverse materials, forms
and contents. So it has to be able to manifest itself through a collection of cohe-
rently diversified experiences: I think that's the only way that creativity can
become significant discourse in the world in which I live. I say all this somewhat
2 LucianoBerio

unwillingly because, unlike you philosophers, I feel no desperate need to stretch

the sense of one experience so that it impinges upon another, nor to transfer the
totality of the experiences and their sense into a system. I live out the crises of
sense as a musician, part savant, part bricoleur: trying again and again, as I think
L6vi-Strauss said, to formulate projects and create objects that are at once concrete
and ideal instruments of knowledge.
But naturally since ! want to know "everything", every so often I feel the need
to place the musical sense of my own particular experiences in a wider and in any
case a different dimension. It's then that I feel the need to realize concrete com-
mentaries and syntheses: in other words forms of musical theatre or, as you insist
on calling them, operas. This is one of the internal forces at work in Passaggio,
Opera, La Vera Storia and Un re in ascolto. But there's nothing new in all this. I'm
simply concentrating on to a personal level what has always happened on a col-
lective level. The opera of the past was always a meeting-point for different, and
often heterogeneous experiences. In most instances the participants shared the
same "horizon of expectations". When that sense of the accumulating and con-
verging of diverse energies (musical, dramaturgical, moral and social: thus both
of form and content) disappeared from operas, their very reason for existing dis-
appeared as well. They became primarily vehicles for melodic and vocal
exhibitionism, as often happens in Bellini's operas.
I don't believe you can produce operas nowadays - stories to be told through
singing. I've never written any, and I can't think of any instance during the last
thirty years where anything worthwhile has been conceived of within the
framework of that definition (anyway, it's only one way of putting things). But
this isn't just a problem of definitions. There are Substantial differences between
a "musical action" and an opera. Opera is sustained by an "Aristotelian" type of
narrative, which tends to take priority over musical development. But in a
"musical action" it's the musical process that steers the "story". Let me remind
you that the first "musical action" was Tristan und Isolde: now that had
incalculable consequences for the development of musical thought, but not for
the theatre.
At times, the "musical action" tends to bring into sharper relief, and give a
structural sense to a function that has always played its part in the relationship
between music and words: that of making music an instrument for analysing the
text. When Schumann set Heine to music he Created different hierarchies of
listening and of understanding of the text: some words were able to acquire a
dominant role while others were consigned to the background (Dichterliebe is rich
in examples). So that Schumann's music filtered Heine's poetry, modifying the
original relationship between different semantic "frequency bands". Nowadays
music can filter texts in a much more radical way. It can decide what in a text can
be "thrown away", and what should instead take on a dominant role: for example,
what can be reduced to acoustic material and what can instead be highlighted
with its network of significances intact. And music can establish the same
relationship with the action: there are various ways in which it can identify itself
with what you see on stage, but it can equally remain indifferent to it. The story
may even become a non-story, or at any rate a something else which, provided
that it's sufficiently complex and wide-ranging, may even allow itself to take on
board operatic ways of singing, among other things. Naturally, the spectator will
grasp these familiar aspects more readily, if only because they are occurring in an
Eco in ascolto 3

environment made expressly for them, in other words the "Italian-style" opera
house. It's an evironment that you can of course ignore; but you could also try to
transform it from within according to organic and constructive criteria, just as
they transform old buildings, or museums, or workshops. I'm quite convinced
that it will be musical rather than spectacular considerations that will determine
an initial transformation of that "lyric" space. I'm also certain that the first trans-
formations will affect the orchestra pit, which tends to immobilize the acoustic
relations between the musical protagonists in an incongruous and archaic way.
I certainly don't ignore the opera-house: it's the only technologically viable
space - or better, frame - available, even though it conditions what you do in it.
Looking for other spaces is a complex problem (not just for musicians), and the
solutions that have been proposed to date have not really been very responsible.
A while back you referred to the voice as determining what is opera, and what
isn't. It's more or less true that a spectacle put on in a large opera-house demands
large, "operatic" voices, capable of reaching from the proscenium to the gods, and
getting across a symphony orchestra en route9 And it's also true, for example, that
the voice of Cathy Berberian demanded different spaces, more intimate and
homogeneous ones where you could catch the smallest details of her voice and
face - those distinctive, you might say microscopic aspects that subtly allowed
music to penetrate the entirety of the voice's structure. All those aspects, in fact,
which bel canto must perforce ignore9 But I think the problem is a different one;
otherwise all you'd have needed to do was give Cathy a radio-microphone and
9 . . ask Pavarotti to keep his head well down. The fact is that when your "theatri-
cal consumer" hears opera, he feels a Pavlovian need for linear, finalized stories
that will provoke tension in relation to the outcome rather than, as Brecht said, to
the way things are. Finally, I'd say that styles and techniques of singing play a fun-
damental role in shaping the expectations of your "theatrical consumer". What's
important is to use these vocal styles pertinently, and as Brecht would once again
say, with a certain detachment. All this contributes to the deliberately ambiguous
dramatic substance of La Vera Storia and Un re in ascolto.

UE: Well, let me try out another provocation on you. If it's the music that deter-
mines what parts of a text or a story you conserve, and what you throw away, why
have you always made a point of seeking out collaborations with writers who are
not librettists? After all, the nineteenth-century opera composer frequently made
use of "yes-men" who offered him precisely what he demanded of them. You, on
the other hand, work with Italo Calvino or Edoardo Sanguineti - tough col-
laborators, when all's said and done, because you have to measure yourself
against the intrinsic fascination of their work. One could sum up your attitude in
one phrase. You want to wrestle with the angel. A tout seigneur tout honneur. But
just how much do you respect the angel with whom you're wrestling? That you
should use Calvino's collaboration or, as happened in Opera, one or two ideas of
mine as a starting-point is understandable. But as well we know, if it suits you,
you start reworking, remodelling, taking the text to pieces and reordering it.
Calvino's original idea for Un re in ascolto was a king listening to other characters
through an "ear of Dionysius'. 3 But that's not how it ended up. There was
something of Kafka, or Buzzatti, or Borges, or indeed Calvino in the original story
- and you renounced it in order to build another story from it.
4 Luciano Berio

LB: The world is still full of "yes-men" and librettists, but I play the impatient
angel and keep my distance. On the other hand, I love and am greatly fascinated
by the world of ideas of Calvino, Sanguineti and yourself: so much so, that I find
a wonderful, though perhaps unconscious complementarity between you,
different as you are. Why have I turned to you three, and still do? Because text and
music must each have their autonomy, and an analogous degree of complexity
and dignity. Why does it sometimes happen that I take you to pieces? Because, I
repeat, music must have the upper hand, and because that elementary causal
relationship between text and music in which you pretend to believe doesn't exist,
and never has. But I can give you a brief chronicle of my destructive tendencies.
The idea for La Vera Storia was mine, but Calvino wrote a text for it that went
through several phases, with different versions of the same idea. When Italo
became involved, the musical framework had already been decided some time
before. But the case of Un re in ascolto was different, and in some respects more
troublesome. The idea (of listening) was Italo's, but the text is only partly his. Let
me tell you why. I couldn't bring myself to start work on a text where there were
still echoes - however ironic - of the traditional libretto, and where things that
were worth exploring on stage were not really being developed. After
innumerable vicissitudes - interesting ones, though - Italo wrote some very
beautiful fragments describing the inner thoughts of a grand old man of the
theatre as he lies dying. I used Shakespeare, Auden and Gotter to place these texts
of Italo's - almost brief monodramas - i n a context whose situations and actions I
had already decided upon. This isn't the place to try and explain the reasons for
so much trouble, and for the proliferations from Italo's text - which later on he
condensed into a story with the same title, Un re in ascolto. But there were musical
criteria that formed the basis for a representational and expressive code, and I had
to stick to that because it was already inscribed like a sinopia beneath the musical
fresco. I was concerned to define and articulate different musical characteristics
that were structurally parallel, but often had no communication between them.
Throughout the whole trajectory towards the void that constitutes Un re three
forms of musical behaviour coexist. The first is circular and almost immobile, and
it defines Prospero who sings the same melodic modules time and again. In the
second there is a genuine musical development within which elements become
transformed and thus generate new ones organically, as happens for instance
during the series of Auditions, the Protagonist's Aria, Air and many of the Con-
certati. And finally a third form is established by apparently fortuitous and
anomalous events. I say apparently, because in reality we are dealing with
episodes - like the Waltz and the Serenade - that have hidden roots all over the
As you can see, it's the musical processes that are primarily responsible for the
narration. My concern was not to create a "system of expectations", but (and
maybe you'll tell me it's the same thing) to control developments and relation-
ships between the various musical characters, their conflicts, and the polyphonic
density of the whole. The spectator, your "theatrical consumer", can select his
"system of expectations" for himself from the expressive range that I offer him. So
I would say that Un re in ascolto elaborates various levels of reading, the simplest
of which is perhaps that of opera. (The same sort of thing happens in a book with
which you're not unfamiliar which, on its most immediate level, can be read here
and there as a detective story.) I would really hardly know what name to give to
Eco in ascolto 5

the more complex modes of reading, nor do I intend to try. I'm all too well aware
that the problems raised by Un re are on such a scale that they won't easily lend
themselves to being pinned down verbally. As well you know, what is linguisti-
cally evident is not necessarily what is made evident by things themselves, es-
pecially when music is involved.

UE: You're right to accuse me of viewing something that isn't opera as if it were,
so that I demand of it things that you don't intend to offer. But remember that I'm
not the only one to fall into the trap. When Massimo Mila4 wrote an introduction
to Un re in ascolto, he laid particular emphasis on the operatic nature (in the best
sense) of your work. Mila contrived to pick out a story on the great themes of exis-
tence, and seemed to enjoy most precisely those moments in which he found
traces of operatic dramaturgy. Now Mila knows all about your work and your
intentions, so how did that come about? And how come that you're scandalized
when I invite you to talk about opera? I think there are two elements in play here.
The first is the system of expectations created by some conventions of the genre.
Proscenium, scenery, costumed characters who sing, all this arouses expectations
of opera. It's a point that the second historical avant-garde, that of the sixties,
dealt with by saying that it was precisely their intention to frustrate the genre-
based expectations of a philistine, bourgeois public. I remember the first night of
Passaggio. It was a memorable experience. The audience at La Scala, who had
booed Wozzeck just a few years before, didn't understand what was happening
and were ready to believe that some sort of revolutionary coup was in hand. As
for us, we were all delighted. But something has happened in the meantime. The
historical avant-garde has exhausted its provocative impetus, not through any
fault of its own, but because the public immunized itself by going to the theatre to
absorb ever larger doses of provocation. So that the only way to provoke it was not
to provoke it any more. The genres were reborn, though now seen through ironic
and critical eyes. The novel began trying to tell stories again . . . . But what about
the musical theatre? How do you stand in relation to a more mature public that
asks the musical theatre for stories, even if they are no longer the consolatory ones
of former years? What does it mean to promise a story on stage, with singers who
play named characters, and then to say that story-telling wasn't your intention?
Visage is crystal clear, so is Epifanie. In the first you reduce music to voice, in the
second you use the voices of poets to make music. But in the operas, Opera, La Vera
Storia, Un re in ascolto, you must at any rate take Brecht as a yardstick. What
happens to a musician nowadays when he wants to create theatre and narrative
as a musician, in music, through music, but in the theatre, and with people who
say "how are you?" and "farewell, dreams of glory"?

LB: Well in fact the second part of Un re in ascolto is full of "how are yous", though
they're empty gestures and get no reply. As for your famous "dreams of glory",
it was precisely in order to avoid such encumbrances that I turned to Calvino and
Sanguineti. You mentioned Mila: well, I can assure you that his reaction to Un re
in ascolto is more complex than might at first appear, even if he too set off down
the operatic path which is, after all, there to make the going easier . . . . Anyhow,
let me take up just one point from what you said: the one about Brecht. I feel no
great affinity for a deterministic view of the relation between avant-garde and
public, and I think I've already replied, albeit indirectly, to the grave accusations
6 LucianoBerio

that you make against me, and that leave me almost indifferent, because they
don't concern the real nature of Un re in ascolto. You say I should take Brecht as a
yardstick, which seems fair enough granted that in a way I grew up theatrically,
intellectually and politically with him, especially through Giorgio Strehler's pro-
ductions of his work. Brecht had great difficulties with opera in general, greater
than yours and mine put together. He viewed it from a distance through an
ideological telescope that gave him only the outlines, rather blurred ones at that,
of the operatic phenomenon and of its relations with an apparatus that he judged
to be exclusively given over to the production of gastronomic fetishes. His
peremptory declarations on opera were like his paradigmatic declarations on
"epic theatre": they had enormous powers of persuasion and were a valuable
catalyst, but they had no true relationship to the historical and technical reality of
musical theatre. As a producer, he never really put into practice the paradigms of
his Kleines Organon. Brecht certainly didn't pose himself the "problem" of the
operas of Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Berg, nor did he really come to grips with
the problem of the musical theatre of the future. After the first production of that
crucial work, Mahoganny, he wrote a very important essay which bears the stamp
of his ambiguities, and of his essential indifference to the phenomenon of opera.
There, for example you'll find what appears to be a very rigorous and clear-cut
declaration: "a man who is about to die is real. If at the same time he sings, we find
ourselves in the realm of the absurd." But if we look more closely not only do we
find that the use of the term real is, to say the least of it, unreal and even a bit
demagogic (in the theatre not even a chair is real), but also we can't help suspect-
ing that Brecht harbours an unconfessed indifference both to those many sung
deaths (from Isolde to M61isande) which are far from grotesque and to the
dimension of moral and spiritual reality that music can confer upon them. You
yourself, writing about Passaggio, developed a very apposite and far-reaching
analysis of the death of Violetta: would you have concerned yourself with it if you
had not encountered Violetta as one of Verdi's musical characters? I think not.
Brecht concludes his declaration on the man who dies singing with a magisterial
twist in the tale. He writes that the situation would not be grotesque "if the
listener who was watching him were singing as well". What does he mean? Brecht
seems to pass from opera to "music theatre", that is, from a theatre of enchant-
ment and blackmail to one that is scientific and self-conscious. But then we have
two possibilities: if we take Brecht's suggestion literally we encounter musical
problems such that the role of the music would inevitably be degraded to a
dilettantish and mindless collective bawling. If instead we accept Brecht's sugges-
tion as a metaphor of the public's identification with the dying man who sings,
then we should note in evidence the fact t h a t - given the right circumstances- the
public always "sings along" with the tenor or soprano dying on stage. In other
words, the spectator genuinely identifies with them: just what, according to
Brecht, shouldn't happen.
It's certainly true that this epigram of Brecht's bristles with problems and con-
traditions, but it's equally true that it can act as a very effective epic-poetic
catalyst. It doesn't necessarily describe an intrinsic fact of death in the opera
house, but rather addresses itself to the spectator who refuses to take on board
any change of perspective. That's w h y this phrase of Brecht's has always attracted
me, but at the same time, implying as it does a fundamental mistrust of music
(proved by Weill to be thoroughly misplaced), has always repelled me.
Eco in ascolto 7

It may well be that my "king", another man who dies singing, carries the blade
of that Brechtian phrase stuck in his side. But what he sings as he dies is already
known to the public from the start, because while he lives, the musical elements
that sustain and direct his discourse reappear continuously. When the "king" dies
the spectator must in some way be able to understand that the music is dying
structurally alongside him. It's like a discourse that has become familiar, and
when it peters out for reasons internal to itself, it helps to transcend an elementary
identification with a character who is perhaps real in appearance, but not in sub-
stance. So there you are, I've explained just one of my intricate relationships with
Brecht, and by reflection, yet again, with opera. An opera in which the parti-
cipants seem to be guided by oneiric associations because they've already lived
out opera, and can't regress and become prisoners of a libretto . . . .

UE: One last question. What are your relations as a musician with the text? In A-
Ronne you decide that you must set to music Sanguineti's "ah" or "in medio'.
How would your music be changed if Sanguineti had written "in culmine" instead
of "in medio"5?

LB" They are a sort o f . . . intertextuality, in other words they need to be created
each time round. So I don't think I can reduce them to a homogeneous criterion.
I can only tell you that I'm not interested by "personal" solutions, that is ones that
lack a further dimension, a ramified perspective. As to Sanguineti, if he'd written
"in culmine" in A-Ronne rather than "in medio" I'd have been astonished to see
him betraying the coherence of that brief poem, articulated as it is around the
three themes of beginning-middle-end. But it wouldn't have altered my musical
treatment one iota.
The relations between text and music can never be reduced to localized consid-
erations. But they can reflect a hierarchy of relations where lexical or phonetic
details may be musically irrelevant or may, on the contrary, take on a thematic and
generative role. Think of Thema (Omaggio a Joyce). The important thing is not to put
one's trust in elementary parallels between words and music, as in almost all con-
temporary "lyric opera" which, once heard, has nothing more to offer. It's equally
important, I think, not to go searching for formalistic parallels between musical
experience and language: their syntactic differences are irreducible. In music you
can say "the man bites the dog" or "the child frightens the night" and nobody bats
an eyelid . . . .

UE: All the way through this dialogue I've found myself in the awkward position
of having to play devil's advocate. But just think, what would you have said if I'd
asked you "do you believe that in music the child frightens the night"?
And yet I do believe that the night breathes wildly as she listens, dishevelled,
grieving, often moonless, to the whimpers of those setting off down the road
towards death. That's why she sets the cats lamenting on the rooftops. The night
takes fright because between whimpers and mewings she hears something
different from the semantically coherent discourses that obsess the day.
She hears something that has a sense, but not that of words. I believe the same
thing happened to God when he was listening to alleluiatic jubili in which praise
and prayers became unravelled amidst the melismas, and the Word had to come
to terms with a discourse where words had lost their power.
8 Luciano Berio

P e r h a p s this has always been the relationship b e t w e e n w o r d s a n d music, a n d

it was only w h e n opera first came on the scene that, d e t e r m i n e d to get a story in
at all costs, they inserted recitative - w h e r e music, in order to let the w o r d speak,
retired into the b a c k g r o u n d .
You said that the syntactic differences b e t w e e n language a n d music are ir-
reducible. As a semiologist I s h o u l d be fearful of m a k i n g so decisive an assertion.
I s h o u l d w a n t to think a b o u t it for a few decades. But you, as a musician, have said
it, and that is the m o s t powerful statement to have come out of o u r discussion,
a n d one that outlines better than a n y other y o u r poetic standpoint.
Maybe y o u v e n t u r e o n to the stage of La Scala precisely in order to celebrate this
irreducibility. Listening to i n s t r u m e n t s alone, one can always imagine that music
is capable of saying "I am spring" or "I a m a R o m a n fountain". But w h e n music
m e a s u r e s itself against words, it does so to affirm its a u t o n o m y , a n d the diversity
of its meaning.

Translated by David Osmond-Smith; the original version of this text a p p e a r e d in

Komponisten des 20. Jahrhunderts in der Paul Sacher Stiflung, Basel: Paul Sacher
Stiftung, 1986.

Translator's notes
1. Literally"Eco listens", derived from the title of Berio's Un re in ascolto, or A king listens.
2. Beriodefined his Un re in ascolto as an "azione musicale".
3. An S-shaped grotto hewn in the rock of a quarry in Syracuse - supposedly one of several such con-
structed by the tyrant Dionysius as prisons. Their unusual acoustic properties enabled him to
monitor from above everything said, or even whispered below.
4. The doyen of Italian musicologists. His essay on Un re in ascolto appeared in the programme book
for the production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
5. "At the height of" instead of "in the middle of".