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Berio: Thema – Omaggio a Joyce (1958)

Listening exercise for Berio's Thema – Omaggio a Joyce (1958)

Listening exercise

Here’s something for fans of Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses! Thema – Omaggio a Joyce is a relatively short listen, at six-and-a-bit minutes.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

The use of the voice in this piece is probably its most striking feature, especially compared to the works we’ve listened to so far. This element is a distinctive part of the music that came out of the Studio di Fonologia. The material itself is drawn from a reading of a section of the Sirens chapter from Joyce’s Ulysses which is heard most clearly in the opening minute of the piece, spoken by Berio’s then wife Cathy Berberian, and which is progressively manipulated as the work continues.

As we listen we can hear the influences of both French and German ideas of electronic music. There are elements of the kinds of sound montage practices that emerged from Schaeffer and Henry in how materials are juxtaposed with one another, while the WDR’s interest in linguistic forms and structures serves to provide a shape to the sonic materials. We can hear how new constructs are formed by breaking apart a vocal recording and processing or recombining the constituent sounds to create an entirely new experience.

Most importantly, this new experience ties in with the text itself, creating expressive textures that fit the environment of the story. For those unfamiliar with Joyce’s text, one key feature of the text is the use of language to try to convey the sounds of the spaces characters find themselves in or listen to, resulting in phrases such as “Imperthnthn thnthnthn.” or “Rrrpr. Kraa. Kraandl.” to give us a sense of the soundworld external to the characters internal monologues. In particular, this chapter has a focus on music as a part of the setting, so there’s a constant interjection of sound and musical onomatopoeia throughout. We can hear a similar interest in Berio’s work, as he takes speech and uses electronic processes to create atmospheric and musical sounds from the text itself.

Over to you

How does the use of the voice in this piece differ from the treatment of other sound sources in other works we’ve listened to? How does this piece’s combination of voice and electronics differ to that of Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge? How is it similar?

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