A New Element in the Interpretation of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I for Solo Flute:
Part 1 - Manipulation of the Melodic Density and its Relationship with Harmonic Content
Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I for solo flute presents performers with unique interpretative difficulties because of its extreme technical complexity and the musical and intellectual depth of its writing. Berio stated that the ideal performer, in the case of all his Sequenzas for solo instruments, should possess a “virtuosity of knowledge.”1 Ideally, most musicians use elements of harmony, rhythm, formal structure, and style to support their musical ideas in works from the baroque period to music from the twentieth century. But when embarking on the study and performance of newer repertoire that departs from traditional elements of composition, musicians need to be especially well equipped with a knowledge of a work’s fundamental concepts. This article discusses essential features of the Sequenza I that can help flutists achieve an interpretation in close accord with Berio’s governing principle2 in writing this work. In particular, the article explores Berio’s manipulation of melodic density through the concept of more or less in conjunction with the harmonic content of the piece. The exploration suggests that the relationship between these two elements consistently emphasizes important musical events in the work. In a piece as complex as the Sequenza I, understanding these elements facilitates the decision-making process regarding musical ideas and formal divisions.
Among the challenges the flutist faces, the first is the complexity of the language. Most of the musical material is based on a twelve-tone row that is presented in altered or incomplete form several times throughout the piece. Although musical material is frequently used to establish formal divisions, the row in the Sequenza I does not do so consistently. Second is the notation. Both the original edition (1958) in proportional or spatial notation3 and the second edition (1992) in traditional notation4 are complicated and unclear in terms of rhythmic groupings. The intricacy of the notation makes it challenging to link or separate motives in order to establish larger musical ideas.
There are many performance guides and analyses of the Sequenza I by remarkable flutists and theorists such as Harvey Sollberger, Cynthia Folio, Irna Priore and Claudia Anderson, among others. These analyses are of great help in developing a comprehensive understanding of the piece, and were indeed used as reference points in this essay. Most of them, however, use harmonic content alone to establish formal relationships in the work. This article, by contrast, explores the concept of more or less, developed by Berio to manipulate the progression of the melodic line during the work. Rarely, if ever, has this concept been incorporated into a study of the Sequenza I.
A consideration of great value in regard to interpreting the Sequenza I is the notion of Open Work5 by the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco, who collaborated extensively with Berio in many literary/musical projects. Eco uses the Sequenza I specifically to explain the open work concept. He defines an open work as a piece—musical, literary, plastic—that presents the possibilities of different organizations in which the interpreter actively participates. Eco insists, however, that these works have defined structural properties6. Even though the Sequenza I is a work that offers multiple interpretations, it has an underlying organization, defined by Berio, which has to be understood if the work is to be performed with integrity.
The composition of the Sequenza I
Sequenza I was written in 1958, when Berio was co-director of the Studio di Fonologia in Milan. By this time he was already well-known in Italy as one of the pioneers of the country’s avant-garde movement. Along with Bruno Maderna, he was also one of the most committed composers to electronic music in Europe. In the Studio di Fonologia he and Maderna worked on electronic compositions in association with other musicians, such as Henri Pousseur and John Cage. This was a period of great productivity for Berio. Besides electronic music, he worked on piano compositions, chamber music, stage music and a vast number of orchestral works. He also began to direct the instrumentation of his compositions towards smaller ensembles, which were likely to be played more often and would allow his compositions to be heard in the rest of Europe and America.
The Sequenza I quickly became one of the most interesting and important works ever written for flute. Pierre Yves Artaud, flute professor at the Paris Conservatoire and former flutist of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, has suggested that the dominant position of Sequenza I over other works in the modern repertoire for flute is due not only to its elements of virtuosity, but also to the amplitude of its sound material. The work develops the concept of a solo monodic instrument trying to produce an effect of polyphony through the use of dynamics and register7. Berio said that by taking this approach, he “wanted to establish a way of listening so strongly conditioned as to constantly suggest a latent implicit counterpoint.”8 Berio also mentioned that although the experiment was “utopian,” its results were very useful, as in his search for polyphony he discovered melody’s heterophonic possibilities9, which helped him develop the concept of the Sequenza I.
The name Sequenza, which means “sequence,” is related to a harmonic context: “fixed pitch resources that are each explored for their melodic and harmonic potential in turn.”10 Berio explains that “the title was meant to underline that the piece was built from a sequence of harmonic fields from which the other, strongly characterized musical functions were derived.”11 In a recently published in-depth analysis of the flute Sequenza, Dr. Irna Priore suggests that the harmonic fields Berio refers to might be represented by the “saturation of certain intervals according to the partition of the initial row and to the use of a fixed pitch sequence…Musical functions may refer to musical gestures employed at certain times.”12 Priore also mentions that the unity of the harmonic material of the work is guaranteed through elements such as “repeated patterns, melodic contour, rhythmic gestures, groupings of notes, etc.”13 The recurrence of these elements and the unity they create are closely related to changes in texture that arise from Berio’s manipulation of the density of the melodic line. This approach to the instrument based on melodic density relies on different levels of intensity, which Berio has defined as follows:
“The level of maximum tension (which is also an exceptional one relative to the norm of conventional playing) within the temporal dimension is produced by moments of maximum speed in articulation and moments of maximum duration of sounds, the medium level is always established by a neutral distribution of fairly long notes and fairly rapid articulation, and the minimum level entails silence or a tendency to silence. The pitch dimension is at its maximum level when notes jump about a wide gamut and establish the tensest intervals, or when they insist on extreme registers: the medium and minimum levels follow logically from this. The maximum level of dynamic dimension is naturally produced by moments of maximum sound energy and maximum dynamic contrast. What I call the morphological dimension is placed, in certain aspects, at the service of the other three and is, as it were, their rhetorical instrument. It seeks to define degrees of acoustic transformations relative to an inherited model with all its historical and acoustic connotations. Thus a level of maximum tension within the morphological dimension is obtained when the image, my image of the flute, is drastically altered with flutter tongues, key clicks, and double stops (two notes at once).”14
Berio states that the melodic writing of the Sequenza I is characterized by an extreme density—easily observed by just looking at the score—which results from at least two of the four dimensions being at the maximum level of tension at any given moment of the piece.
In parts 2 and 3 of this article we will see how melodic density in relation to harmonic content can be used to make formal decisions in the piece.
1. Luciano Berio, Luciano Berio: Two Interviews, interview by Rossana Dalmonte and Bálint András Varga, trans. David Osmond Smith (London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1985), 90-91.
2. “It’s the principle of more or less that governs the Sequenza… It is used not to produce ambiguous, ‘open’ and interchangeable structures, but to control the density of the melody as it proceeds. I mean by that a qualitative control of the density and not merely - or not necessarily - a control of the quantity of events at any given moment.” Ibid, 97.
3. Proportional or spatial notation is based in the distance between notated figures and their relationship inside a fixed space frame. This frame, which in this case acts as a sort of reference beat, is assigned specific time duration.
4. Berio repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction repeatedly about the excessive freedom with which the flutists interpreted the proportional notation of the original version of the Sequenza I. To address this problem, he published a new version in traditional notation in 1992. See Cynthia Folio and Alexander Brinkman, “Rhythm and Timing in the Two Versions of Berio’s Sequenza I for Flute Solo: Psychological and Musical Differences in Performance,” in Berio’s Sequenzas: Essays on Performance, Composition and Analysis, ed. J.K. Halfyard (Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 12-15.
5. Umberto Eco, Obra Abierta, 2d ed., trans. Roser Berdagué (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Ariel, S.A., 1984), 71.
6. Ibid, 34.
7. Pierre Yves Artaud, La Flauta, trans. Carmen Lleixà Arribas (Barcelona, Spain: Editorial Labor, S.A., 1991), 49.
8. Cynthia Folio, “Luciano Berio’s Sequenza for Flute: A Performance Analysis,” The Flutist Quarterly: The Official Magazine of the National Flute Association 15 (Fall 1990), 18.
9. Berio, Luciano Berio: Two Interviews, 97.
10. David Osmond-Smith, “Berio, Luciano,” in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan, 2001), 3: 353.
11. Berio, Luciano Berio: Two Interviews, 97.
12. I. Priore, “Vestiges of Twelve-Tone Practice as Compositional Process in Berio’s Sequenza I for Solo Flute,” in Berio’s Sequenzas: Essays on Performance, Composition and Analysis, ed. J.K. Halfyard (Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 196.
14. Berio, Luciano Berio: Two Interviews, 98.