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Berk: Diversed Mind (op. 109) (1968)

Listening exercise – Ernest Berk's Diversed Mind (op. 109) (1968)

Listening exercise

Here’s a longer piece to sink your teeth into.

Ernest Berk is a very different figure to that of Judd. As Ian Helliwell puts it, Berk was ‘one of the most prolific and colourful of all the British pioneers of electronic music’. He composed over 200 works of electronic music in his home studio from 1955, many of them written to accompany his highly modernist dance choreography. Despite recognition from his peers as a highly creative and inventive artist, the German-born Berk never received institutional support for or acknowledgement of his work during his life. Instead, he found himself excluded from the largely conservative cultural institutions of the time and died in poverty in 1993.

Today, Berk’s work is largely unavailable and rarely mentioned in discussions of the electronic music canon. ‘Diversed Mind’ was first exhibited at the Queen Elizabeth Hall concert organised by Tristram Cary in 1968, discussed in the previous lesson.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

The piece runs for ten-and-a-half minutes and consists of an opening followed by five sections which gradually depict the rising tensions of the mind, between depression and nervousness. Much of what we know about Berk’s music is pieced together from limited notes and recordings from his own archive (which is mostly destroyed in an accident in 2008). As such, detailed documentation of his compositional practice is still largely unknown, but it is clear from what we’ve recovered that the piece is highly sectional, with each section comprised of a distinct focus on a particular kind of sound, but with some musical materials recurring across the piece.

The opening section (0’00”-2’10”) seems to largely comprise of long, slow drones generated from a tam tam or cymbal pitch shifted down by an octave or two. Section 1 (2’10”-3’16”) is comprised of highly modulated oscillator tones, resulting in almost melodic gestures, contrasted with processed versions of similar cymbal drones as the opening. Section 2 (3’16”-4’24”) introduces percussions sounds, potentially recordings of temple bowls at different speeds. This section also notably embraces a far sparser texture than the preceding section.

Section 3 (4’24” – 5’52”) consists of rubbing on a serrated hollow bamboo stick, slowed down by two-and-a-half octaves and reverberated. This material is first heard alone and then again with materials from section 1. Section 4 (5’52”-6’36”) consists of rapidly oscillating sound clusters in contrasting intervals, later accompanied by rhythms on tambour. Section 5 (6’36”-10’28”) consists of modulated sounds generated at frequencies above the threshold of human hearing and slowed down to pitch shift these materials by two or three octaves into a range we can make out.

Overall, the piece has a really interesting flow between musical materials. Each section is focused on a particular kind of musical interaction but there is clearly an interest in how these different sections might relate to one another more broadly. Structurally this piece is a little different to those we’ve looked at so far. There are a few reasons Berk might have chosen to use this 6-part structure, but I’ll let you discuss these in the comments!

Over to you

What do you think the function might have been for the sectional structure here? What similarities are there here to the other works we’ve listened to so far? What are some of the differences?

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English Electronic Music: Delve into the Digital Archives

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