Luciano Berio was an Italian composer noted for his experimental and pioneering work in electronic music.

Luciano Berio was one of the most important Italian composers of the second half of the twentieth century, a leader of the international avant-garde who wrote music that is informative and appealing to audiences.

Born in Oneglia, Liguria into a family with a long-standing musical tradition, Luciano Berio was initially taught by his father and grandfather who were both composers. He attended the Conservatario Giuseppe Verdi (in Turin) in 1954 and from the early ‘50s made a name for himself in the new musical avant-garde, founding the Studio di Fonologia Musicale – Italy’s first studio of electronic music. Although excited by innovation, he was encouraged by his friendship with the author Umberto Eco to explore cultural resonances with wider public appeal, and therefore in his music he held onto qualities of suavity and lightness not widely found among the avant-garde composers who were his peers.

His most famous work is Sinfonia, composed in 1968–69 for large orchestra and eight amplified voices. It is a fantastic and innovative work, with multiple vocalists commenting about musical (and other) topics as the piece twists and turns through a seemingly neurotic journey of quotations and dissonant passages. The eight voices are not used in a traditional classical way; they frequently do not sing at all, but speak, whisper and shout words by Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose Le cru et le cuit provides much of the text, excerpts from Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable, instructions from the scores of Gustav Mahler and other writings.

From 1974 to 1980 he directed the department of electroacoustics at the IRCAM, Paris, and in 1987 he founded the Centro Tempo Reale in Florence. He was the recipient of numerous international awards.

Berio experimented with the interaction of acoustic instruments and electronically produced sounds, and explored the relationship between sounds and words. One of his first pieces was Homage to Joyce (a homage to the writer James Joyce), in which he takes a recording of somebody reading the opening section of the “Sirens” chapter of James Joyce’s book Ulysses and distorts the words through tape manipulation, so the meaning of the words is lost, leaving only expressive sound. Throughout the ‘60s he investigated complex timbre combinations and the expressive range of the female voice with his then wife and singer Cathy Berberian, in pieces such as Epifanie (1959-60, incorporated into Epiphanies, 1991-92), Circles (1960) and Sequenza III for voice (1965) which portrays 44 emotional states in seven and a half minutes and includes conventional singing, coughs, sighs and sobs.

He saw composition as a work in progress a potentially never-ending process of comment and elaboration, which continues and proliferates from one piece to the next. Berio’s musical research is characterised by a balance of tradition and a propensity to experiment with new forms of musical communication. He has explored the relationship of music to various fields of knowledge: poetry, theatre, linguistics, anthropology and architecture.

Fun Fact

Luciano Berio taught composition to Phil Lesh, who later became a founding member of the rock band The Grateful Dead.

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Minutes created
Collection 2 #49

Minutes by Luciano Berio