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Steve Reich

Memories of Luciano Berio

I first saw and heard Luciano Berio in 1960 at the New School in New York City conducting his piece Circles. Cathy Berberian was singing. It was a setting of the America poet e.e. cummings. I had heard innumerable sappy sentimental settings of cummings by American composers who shall remain nameless and here was a native Italian speaker who completely understood that cummings was about phonemes. I vividly remember his setting of the word «stinging» where he elongated the length of the «s» enormously, «sssssssssssstinging». While Cathy held the elongated «s» Berio introduced sandpaper blocks imitating the timbre of the consonant. Unpitched percussion doubling unpitched phoneme. Brilliant! I was getting a composition lesson better than some I was getting at Juilliard at the time. It was duly noted.

Jump to 1962 and Mills College in Oakland California where Berio had just begun teaching and I was beginning my studies for my masters degree in composition. Berio had already working on his piece Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) where he had recorded Cathy Berberian reading Ulysses and then proceeded to cut that tape into fragments ¬– some as small as phonemes. It showed that electronic music on tape could have speech as its source and be extremely interesting. Shortly afterwards he played two recordings of music by Stockhausen for us. One was Electronic Studies and the other, Gesang der Jünglinge. My ear went immediately to the Jünglinge. A further demonstration that the human voice was a far more interesting source of electronic music than electronically generated sound waves. Duly noted once again and in the back of my mind, along with many other influences, when I began my experiments with tape loops of human speech in 1963 which led to my It’s Gonna Rain in 1965.

Thirty years later, I remembered Berio’s example of “marrying” instruments to voices and noises when I was working on my piece City Life and married oboe to Porsch horn, crash cymbal to air brakes and snare/kick drum to door slams. It worked!

In 1994 he and Talia graciously showed up at a performance Music for 18 Musicians and then The Cave in Turin. Garry Kvistad, a member of my ensemble photographed us together:

Reich_fotoTorino 1994_Ps.jpg

From 1994 until he passed away Luciano Berio was a good and generous friend.

Steve Reich - 5/13