The RTÉ Living Music Festival
Featuring the music of Lucian Berio, October 25-27 @ The Helix
Decision time. It’s after nine o’clock on a cold, bright, windy, leaf-strewn, post-gale Sunday morning and you have to decide whether to cross half the city of Dublin for an eleven o’clock phone-call from Luciano Berio. To cross the city in order to witness an interview with the man himself – that would be reasonable. But this… No… Still, you have a niggling notion that this peculiar event might turn out to be the secret core of the weekend’s activities. In the end, there’s only one way to find out.
As it happened, quite a number of people made their way to the Helix on Sunday morning. With David Osmond-Smith, the musicologist and friend of Berio, beside him, Raymond Deane sat at a desk and waited for contact to be made. A slight air of unreality, and some nervousness, gave way to relief when the disembodied voice of the interviewee came through. Berio, who is not in good health, seemed genuinely regretful at not having made it to the festival that honoured him.
As we were in Dublin, and had heard Berio’s Joycean settings the day before, the conversation began with the question of writing and music. Joyce (the Sirens chapter of Ulysses as opened up by Umberto Eco), Beckett in relation to Joyce (the memory of experience coming after experience itself), and Brecht were of special importance to Berio.
Deane asked about the poet Paul Celan, for Berio the key poet of the twentieth century. ‘It seems he’s punishing the German language,’ he said, for the crimes committed through it. In a way that clearly resonates with one tendency in modern composition; Berio referred to Celan’s not directly naming the horrors that underlay and shaped his writing.
Asked about his completion of Puccini’s Turandot, Berio spoke at length (at too great length for some of us perhaps, given that we were limited to twenty minutes) about Puccini’s difficulty with the story, and the influence of Wagner and even the early Schoenberg.
It was interesting to learn that Berio thought of his SOLO as his most American work, with an echo of the big bands. Christian Lindberg’s exuberant performance on Sunday evening showed exactly what the composer meant. That illness has not dimmed Berio’s personality was made startlingly clear when the seven-year gestation of his Notturno (Quartetto III) was mentioned. ‘It’s not true!’ he exclaimed. ‘Who told you that?’ Clearly, the dating in the catalogue was not to be believed.
For Berio, the young generation were complete musicians, with a commitment to all aspects of the music. This was a return to the practical, pragmatic relationship with music-making that had been lost in the post-Schumann period. The goal for young composers was to ‘create an inner unity of thought in what they do.’
There was much more to talk about but no more time. It was touching to hear Berio say how happy he would be to be invited again, but sad to think that, having missed this festival, he would probably never now set foot in the city of Joyce.
When successful, as this one undoubtedly was, an event like the first RTÉ Living Music Festival is primarily about the music, but by concentrating people in one place and concentrating a lot of experience in a short time, it can also create a special energy. Along with all the usual and necessary chit-chat and gossip, there is a heightening of normal reactions. When concentration lapses during a piece by composer P, you find yourself increasingly intrigued by that comment of Q’s after last night’s concert; G is eager to know if H’s reaction to J is the same as her own; young composer B feels a creative constraint melt away and senses that his next piece will be different and better.
The discussion and questions that followed touched on issues relevant both to what we had experienced earlier and what was to come. At this point, David Osmond-Smith, whose talks on Friday and Saturday had been greatly admired, became a substitute voice for the now-absent composer. Among the points he made were these: that Berio’s comments on the young generation were more about qualities he valued than an evaluation of particular composers; that Berio came to reject the small, perfect artistic sphere into which his early mentor Dallapiccola had locked himself; that he loathed having the term avant garde applied to his work; that he admired the ability to make a good living from music; that, while he moved in far-left circles, his primary interest was in bearing witness to humane values rather than adopting a fixed ideological position; that the (probably mythical or unattainable) sense of belonging in folk culture always tempted him.
Osmond-Smith’s comment that Berio was ‘fascinated by things trembling between existence and non-existence’ would suggest that, where works like Notturno are concerned, and some of the works of composers like Nono and Lachenmann in the 1980s, we should look more to Beckett than to Joyce. The liner notes for the Alban Berg Quartet’s version of the quartet contain a Berio quote that is almost pure Beckett: ‘Every so often [the work] turns back upon itself, bringing to the surface those silenced words; every so often it comes to a stop, insisting on a single figure, dilating it obsessively….‘ Later on Sunday, curiously, the impression that remained after the performance of Sequenza V was not so much of erotic energy (the push and pull of the trombone, the vigorous presence of the performer, Christian Lindberg) as of Beckettian sadness and a desperate search for breath.
One other comment by Osmond-Smith could be brought to bear on all the works heard during the festival. He spoke of Berio’s sense that an artist had to live with the reservoir of sometimes uncomfortable energy inside the self, and of how Berio almost measured artists by their success in tapping those inner resources. Gerald Barry was suggesting something similar, perhaps, in an interview ten years ago: ‘To continually surprise oneself, to search, I suppose, in the cracks in one’s imagination that are twilit – that whole world which wasn’t part of one’s conditioning in the past.’ Many fine smaller-scale works were heard over the weekend, but a festival like this also needs to be lifted by works that fearlessly stake out their own ground, as Berio’s Laborintus II did on Saturday night or Lutoslawski’s Livre pour Orchestre on Sunday.
Gerald Barry’s importance as a composer lies of course in the works he has created; his importance for the broader creative culture of this country lies in the example he sets of unwavering creative fearlessness. If Robert Canning’s new piece seemed less interesting than the one he produced with Concorde not so long ago, and if Deirdre McKay too seemed a little constrained on this occasion – those pieces of newly cut, shining aluminium seemed to cry out for at least one solid whacking – perhaps they and other young composers will have renewed their creative courage in the course of the fesival.
This paragraph is dedicated to some mysteriously opening doors, to one magnificently timed sneeze, to the gentle creaking of a critic’s leather jacket, to the bad coffee in the downstairs bar, to elusive canapes, to the over-heavy and disguised entrance to the toilets and to the challenge of finding the unsignposted Helix. It is especially dedicated to the gentleman whose main claim to fame is that he is the only person in the world who can, and indeed will, refer to Joyce as ‘nonno’ (grandad), and who – when asked to allow the words of some of Chamber Music to be printed – said no, and no he said no I won’t No.
This paragraph is dedicated to excellent organisation, to both the programming and the programme booklet, to lively conversation, to a wonderful new venue, to the excellent real coffee also available in the bar, to good listening, to fine performances and to future festivals.
Published on 1 November 2002
Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music and was previously co-editor of Graph cultural review