A New Element in the Interpretation of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I for Solo Flute:
Manipulation of the Melodic Density and its Relationship with Harmonic Content
Berio mentioned that the “openness” of the Sequenza I lies in the instability created by the extreme density of the melody1. This article recommends interpreting the Sequenza I by emphasizing those musical events in which Berio uses melodic density in combination with harmonic and motivic material. In making this recommendation, the article does not intend to propose yet another performance guide of the Sequenza I, since this piece presents, as has been mentioned before, the characteristics of an “open work” in which the interpreter has an active role in the resulting formal structure of the piece. Rather, the article offers a strategy by means of which interpreters can reach their individual decisions.
An “open” approach differs from the customary approach to traditional forms: for example, the Sonata, which generally has clearly defined characteristics bearing on the use of thematic material and tonal areas in the exposition, a development, and the resolution of tonal conflict in the recapitulation. By contrast, the Sequenza I offers no specific themes or tonal areas to work from. Instead, it is “open” precisely because its interpretation is not limited only to parameters of tempo, phrasing, dynamics, or character.
Because of the complexity of its language and the density of the textures created in certain sections of the work, the performer is compelled to make decisions that directly affect the formal structure of the piece. The manipulation of the melodic density involves work with the four dimensions defined by Berio - temporal, pitch, dynamic and morphological - and in three levels of tension - maximum, medium and minimum. Understanding these dimensions and levels gives the interpreter the ability to create formal structures based on the duration of the notes, the use of certain intervals or certain parts of the register, the speed of executing rhythmic patterns that can highlight recurrent motives, and the volume of “morphological changes” such as flutter tongue, simultaneous melodic lines, key clicks and multiphonics. This is why I consider melodic density to be as important as pitch, and in some instances even more important, in defining structures that give form and unity to the Sequenza I.
The importance of the opening line of Sequenza I has been explored in profound and helpful analyses by Osmond-Smith, Priore and Folio (see selected bibliography). However, it is in combination with the manipulation of the melodic line that the material presented in the opening offers important clues about how identify different sections of the work.
In regard to the harmonic content in the Sequenza I, the opening phrase functions as a unifying element. Osmond-Smith explains that in the Sequenza I Berio draws chromatic pitches drawn from the serial system, but uses them independently of the ordering possibilities that the serial system offers. Irna Priore eliminates the repeated notes and reduces the opening to one octave in order to show the series and to expose the semitone as the most consistent interval (see Examples 1a2 and 1b).
Example 1b: (the numbers represent the quantity of semitones between the notes)
The opening phrase of Sequenza I presents a gesture that can be traced several times during the piece. See in examples 2a, 2b, and 2c three instances where this gesture occurs:
Example 2a: 1/1
Example 2b: 1/4-5 (gesture written in one line)
Example 2c: 2/10
Even though the interval content is not the same in the three gestures, they resemble one another; and if melodic density is taken into account, new relationships come to light. All three gestures have a very similar melodic contour and spacing in the notation, moderate to large interval leaps and no tone variations. So these three examples are related in the temporal, pitch and morphological dimensions. Regarding the dynamic dimension, Berio uses exactly the same pattern in the first two fragments: a tendency towards the maximum level (maximum sound energy). The third fragment tends towards the medium level. Therefore, when melodic density is considered, the first two gestures (examples 2a and 2b) can be used to establish the first formal divisions of the work: one section from 1/1 to 1/4, and another one from 1/4 to 1/7. These two sections of the work present a consistent texture, regarding the temporal, pitch and dynamic dimensions. In this part of the work, 1/1 to 1/7, loud dynamics prevail, with frequent rapid passages and longer uninterrupted groups of notes. The reiteration of the opening gesture at the beginning of 1/4 actually divides the first page symmetrically in terms of score space and, ideally, in playing time, because of the spatial notation.
In the concluding part 3 of this article we will continue to see how melodic density in relation to harmonic content can be used to make formal decisions in the piece.
Click here for part 1
1. “Certainly some sort of flexibility is part of the conception of the work. But the overall speed, the high amount of register shifts, the fact that all parameters are constantly under pressure, will automatically bring a feeling of instability, an openness which is part of the expressive quality of the work — a kind of ‘work in progress’ character if you want. Luciano Berio, “‘Music is not a Solitary Act:’ Conversation with Luciano Berio,” interview by Theo Muller, Tempo, 199 (1997), 19; quoted in C. Folio and A. R. 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), 15.
2.All the excerpts from the score are taken from the original edition of the Sequenza I (Edizioni Suvini Serboni) and are used by permission (© Copyright by Edizioni Suvini Zerboni – Sugarmusic S.p.A., Milano). Since the work does not have numbered measures, all the references to the score are identified by using the page number, followed by the line number in such page; for example a reference that reads 1/1, means page 1, line 1. This method to identify events in the score has been used already in previous analyses.