I've just come back from South Korea, where The Swingles have been performing Berio’s Sinfonia with the KBS Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Yoel Levi. Saturday's concert was my 20th performance of this extraordinary piece, whose premiere was 50 years ago this year. In honour of its anniversary and my mini-milestone, here are 20 reasons I love performing it. To experience it first-hand, come and see us do it at La Scala, Milan (24 September), and Royal Festival Hall, London (8 December).
1. Its opening sounds like the dawn of time. The piece starts on this mysterious chord (right). I guess you can think of it as a couple of diminished chords stacked over a bass D – In The Swingles we just call it “Chord 1”. It opens out from a hum (marked pppp) to a series of vowels. For the first three bars of the piece we sing in homophony, on the same vowels and rhythms, before the voices start to pull apart and we hear the first intelligible words: “il y avait une fois…” (Once upon a time…). The movement uses text from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s book on mythology, Le cru et le cuit, and I like to imagine the opening as Berio’s own musical creation myth, with consciousness and language emerging from the primordial swamp.
2. It’s dramatic as hell. A couple of years ago we performed Sinfonia in San Francisco with a conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, who asked us to memorise large chunks of the piece and treat it as a piece of theatre. Berio himself favoured a more deadpan delivery, but either way, it’s both a singing and an acting gig, with whispering, sobbing, shouting, arguing and purring. Add in the full dynamic range of an orchestra, and you have an exhilarating performance experience. A couple of moments in particular that I never tire of:
3. I get do a Brian Blessed impression here:
4. I get to be a sexy French magician here:
5. It shares my taste in books. Joyce, Eliot and Beckett were three of the writers who got me fired up about modern literature at school and university. As well as using fragments of Beckett’s The Unnameable, Sinfonia’s famous third movement has a kinship with The Waste Land or Finnegan’s Wake in its patchwork of quotations and allusions. You can feel Berio delighting in the text he uses, not just the sense but the sound of the English, French and German words.
6. It’s a white-water boat ride. As the River Thames runs through Eliot’s text and the Liffey through Joyce’s, Berio uses Mahler’s 2nd symphony in movement 3 like “a river flowing through a constantly changing landscape”. It’s by turns a pleasure cruise and a white-water adventure, surreal and unpredictable.
7. It has jokes in it. The best advice I can give to a new listener intimidated by Sinfonia’s “difficulty” is: you’re allowed to find it silly. Some bits of it are silly. (I agree with David Bruce, who in this video compares it to a Looney Tunes cartoon.) It's full of humour, whether it’s the sheer ridiculousness of some of the vocal gibberish, or the witty musical in-jokes.
8. It’s a lesson in orchestration. Berio, one of the first to use amplified voices as a symphonic texture, gets incredible results from his orchestration choices. Two of my favourites: (a) that first chord, with the breathy, dissonant vocals blending with the ceremonial sound of the tamtam, and (b) the goosebump-inducing crescendo near the end of movement 2, a high G that starts with one soprano, grows to include all 4 female voices, then imperceptibly hands off to the trumpet section.
9. It allows me to sit within the world’s best orchestras. When I decided to give up the clarinet after Grade 4 and switched to voice and guitar, my chances of playing with world-class orchestras should have evaporated. But thanks to this piece I get to experience the workings of incredible symphonic forces, led by brilliant conductors, from the inside. It doesn’t get old.
10. It’s really difficult. I’m not saying you should care about this as an audience member, but it would be remiss not to mention that the piece is really, really hard. The sheer concentration required and the adrenaline rush when it goes well are hard to beat.
11. I mean, look at this page.
12. It’s made me a better musician. Learning this piece destroyed and then rebuilt me. It taught me difficulty is not about impressing the audience, but challenging yourself. Some of the hardest passages are virtually inaudible in the texture. Such as…
13. This rhythm.
14. I don’t have to play the piano part. As difficult as the vocal parts are, nothing makes the blood run cold quite like the piano solo near the end of movement 1. Many a fine pianist has come unstuck with it, only to be quietly replaced after the first rehearsal.
15. It’s full of buried treasure. The piece is so intricate that I know I will hear something new each time we do it.
16. It’s a gateway into the classical canon. I came to the piece as someone who wasn’t all that familiar with the Western symphonic repertoire, so movement 3’s quotations were mostly lost on me. Rather than recognising a fragment of Bartok, Berg or Berlioz in the piece, I’m now more likely to hear something on Radio 3 and think: “oh, that’s in the Berio”. It’s probably the opposite of what was intended, but the piece has become part of my framework for understanding the whole of classical music, and my response to (say) Debussy’s La Mer can’t now be disentangled from my love of Sinfonia.
17. It connects me to a legacy of performance. To be honest, this is partly vanity, the smug feeling of being part of a select club of people (mostly Swingles past and present) who have conquered the summit of this piece. But more importantly, Sinfonia itself is it’s about the musical tradition and the act of performance. It's highly self-conscious, with the narrator in movement 3 mentioning the singers and conductor by name.
18. It jolts you into the present moment. One of the piece’s most effective tricks is setting up hypnotic textures and then jolting you out of them. Especially after having sung it multiple times, I always appreciate these in-built reminders that we’re engaged in a new and volatile creative act. Pay attention, Berio seems to say – it’ll never sound quite like this again.
19. It still has the power to shock. Sinfonia brought the political unrest and energy of the 1960s into the concert hall, and fifty years on, it’s still a strong flavour. Some people love it, some take against it, and some walk out before the end. We’re a group that sometimes gets filed under Easy Listening – and believe me, we want our music to be enjoyed by the widest possible audience – but it’s thrilling to be part of something so visceral and provocative too.
20. It does stillness and beauty too. The piece is not all chaos and cacophony. Movement 2 in particular is a haunting, crystalline memorial to Martin Luther King, with occasional gunshot-like accents piercing the hushed, magical texture. Maestro Levi, who pulls off the extraordinary feat of conducting the whole piece from memory, says this is where he struggles not to fall under the spell of the music. Here's a recording from one of the earliest performances, conducted by Boulez. Enjoy.