John Cage and the Twenty-six Pianos of Mills College. Forces in American Music from 1940 to 1990. Nathan Rubin. 1994. Copyright 1994 by Sarah's Books, 101 Devin Drive, Moraga, California 94556. 1485w

Lucian Berio

Berio rehearses Laborintus II for its concert-hall premiere at Mills in March 1967. After the performance the Chronicle called it "one of the greatest 20th century pieces we have." During his stay, Berio attended a rock and roll conference hosted by the College and did musical experiments with his ex-students in the Grateful Dead.

To fill Leon Kirchner's large-sized shoes, the College hired Luciano Berio, an Italian born in 1925, who took up the task in the spring of 1962. As a start, he bought a gleaming, white, almost-new Buick convertible which he drove gleefully through red lights in downtown San Francisco in pursuit of a motorcycle cop who, turning up his siren, led him to an adjudicator's chair at the newly established San Francisco Film Festival.

Late that night, he walked back to the car, waved at prostitutes who greeted him Juliet-like from second-story balconies and savored the night air. On ensuing days, he searched for Italian-made cigarettes, found a Webern score in which he traced the progress of a tone-row for a page and a half and, at a College social event, snubbed Alfred Frankenstein, one of the country's most powerful critics.

He had made three earlier trips to the United States, honeymooning with his American wife, singer Cathy Berberian, for two weeks in 1950, studying at Tanglewood during one summer (1952), and teaching there during another (1960). The Mills appointment thus marked the beginning of his American residency and--apart from two performances at Tanglewood--his introduction to American concert audiences.

... an awareness of Berio began to spread only after his appointment at Mills. In May, a faculty ensemble performed Momenti, Omaggio, Diff‚rences (which the same players then repeated at the Ojai Festival in Southern California), and Circles. Frankenstein--despite the snub--called the concert the major modern music event of the year and advised attendees (who had heard "the one and only Berberian" performing the one and only Berio) to "consider themselves immensely privileged."7

Delayed by geography and fascism, he encountered serialism only after he had mastered a whole realm of traditional, audience-responsive techniques. Deprived of their use by Boulez' musical politics, he invented his own. (During the time in which he might have listened to recordings, he punctured the tires of fascista automobiles instead, which was even more educational: a large part of his future impact would come from the exquisite timing with which he pierced expectations and assaulted nervous systems. At the 1967 Mills performance of Laborintus II, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle noted that "Berio never telegraphs his punches." Not even at the apotheosis, when he "reaches out and grabs you by the emotional throat.")3

During the 1963-64 academic year, Berio, commissioned by Mills, composed and premiered Folk Songs, a collection of melodies from Italy, Armenia, Azerbaijania, and America accompanied by chamber ensemble. ("Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair" was one and "I Wonder as I Wander" another. Berio himself composed two of the "Italian" tunes.) Intended presumably as a vehicle for Cathy Berberian's multiple talents, it started a catalog of pieces based on vernacular sources. (Sixteen years later he told Dalmonte that he had wanted to create a connection between ancient, popular music-making and the music of the present.) The project was continued by Cries of London (1973), Coro (1976), a piece in which he borrowed folk song processes rather than tunes, and Voci: Folk Songs II (1984), a collection of Sicilian street cries, songs and lullabies scored for viola and orchestra.

Folk Songs may also have instigated an interest in the use of vernacular texts--The political graffiti, student slogans, and lecture notes out of which he created the spectacular verbal haze enveloping the third movement of Sinfonia, his 1968 masterpiece. In Laborintus II (1965), a work he started at the same time as Folk Songs, he began a second related project--the composition of pieces based on existent art music sources...

Folk Songs may also have prompted Berio to borrow from himself--to create new pieces by writing accompaniments for existent ones, as he had done in "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair." He began the process by adding an orchestra to Sequenza II for harp solo (1963) in order to make Chemins I (1964). In 1969 he added nine instruments to Sequenza VI for viola (1968), creating Chemins II (1969). A year later he added orchestra, calling the "new" piece Chemins III. And so on. He likened the process to the layers of skin produced by an onion. Discussing it in the Musical Times in October, l975, David Osmond-Smith called it "the art of commentary."

Berio also spent the 1963-64 year writing a large dramatic work entitled Traces, which used a text by Mills psychology student Susan Oyama (whom he married in 1965). Thereafter--having filled Kirchner's shoes all too well--he received simultaneous offers from Harvard and Juilliard. He accepted both but resigned from Harvard a year later.

Despite the brevity of his tenure, Berio brought Mills several long-standing benefits: for one thing, he and Subotnick instigated the formation of a performing group designed to promote new music; for another, his new stature as one of Europe's several greatest composers--tacked onto the prestige of Darius Milhaud, another great Europe composer--enlarged the College's reputation as a center of international importance.

To fulfill that role, the Department secured a grant from the San Francisco Foundation for the three-year period from 1963 to 1966 which it used to extend the Performing Group's activity. In 1966 it used the second of two awards made by the Rockefeller Foundation to rehouse the San Francisco Tape Center in a wing of the Music Building. Thereafter, it instituted a program inviting distinguished composers to the campus: in 1967--the same year in which his portrait appeared on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album--Stockhausen presented his year-old tape work Telemusik and, as a twenty-five minute encore, Mikrophonie No. 1, which he played in total darkness.

Others who came to present pieces and talk to students included John Cage, Earl Brown, Henri Pousseur, Christian Wolff, Yoshi Takahashi, Iannis Xenakis, Niccolo Castiglioni, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Jan Spek, and Henri Pousseur--a virtual roll call of the world's leading composers of avant-garde music.

The procession even included Berio himself, who returned to the campus in March 1967 to prepare the first concert-hall performance of Laborintus II, a piece commissioned jointly by the Italian and French Radios to celebrate Dante's 700th birthday and begun by him while he was still at Mills. It was performed by seventeen instrumentalists, three female singers, a narrator and a speaking chorus led by two conductors--Berio himself and Dennis Russell Davies, then a Juilliard student. The text by Edoardo Sanguinetti used additional materials from Dante, the Bible, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, protested usury and employed the concept of the "catalog" as its "principal formal reference."

The audience--so large it spilled out onto the aisles and steps--heard little or nothing to which it was accustomed. Its most knowledgeable members may have noted echoes of VarŠse's sound masses and Webern's pointallism. Others heard sustained sounds of varying lengths punctuated by fast sprays of notes and sudden outbursts--shouts followed by flurries of percussion, incomprehensible narratives, choral ranting, laughter, wisps of jazz, electronic music, and a wide spectrum of noises occurring, Cage-like, as if by chance.

Berio called it a garbage of words. One heard, said Hewell Tircuit's review in the Chronicle, occasional fragments of meaning: "sin against nature," "I will have my orgasm," "San Francisco Chronicle." The audience loved it, the paper noted, shouting "bravo" and "encore" and offering a display of emotion not seen since the end of the Opera season.

It is, Tircuit concluded, "one of the greatest pieces of 20th Century music we have." In 1970, the Musical Times said it was "living speech" and that every measure communicated a sense of exhilaration. In the same year, Music and Musicians called it "devastating." In 1978 it said the piece was "fast becoming repertory." In 1982 the Musical Times said that it made its point with "brutal and inexorable" insistence.

By then, both Laborintus II and Sinfonia had become repertory items. Other widely-performed works written by Berio after his Mills departure included a new version of Epifanie. A massive expressionist piece for female voice and orchestra using texts by Proust, Machado, Joyce, Sanguinetti, Simon, and Brecht, it had first been done in 1960. The seven orchestral movements (one of which is dedicated to Mills department head Margaret Lyon) and five vocal ones come with suggestions for ten different shufflings of the movement order (providing a new example of the "elastic form" invented by Henry Cowell in his Mosaic Quartet, written at or near Mills in 1935).