Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.
Some of the works on this list are a little more off the beaten track than others. Berio's Sinfonia is not, however, one of these. It is that rare thing – a genuine, indisputable postwar masterwork. I quite accept that many people might find early Penderecki too abrasive, Cage too disorientating, or Reich too featureless; but if you can listen to the whole of Sinfonia (recommended recording, and .ram sound samples, here) and not fall in love at least once, then you might wish to take a deep and long look into your soul.
The third movement is the famous one, the notorious one, the number one hit. But there are four other movements here, and they're not just filler. In fact, the whole work is a tightly woven web of allusion and self-reference – which explodes in the central movement's loosely hurled-together galaxy of quotation. The first movement opens with the 8 singers (originally the Swingle Singers) to the very forefront. Beginning with minimal instrumental support they begin to piece together fragments taken from Claude Lévi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked. In relating these tales, concerning fire, water and rivers and drawn from Brazilian mythology, the singers' music of swelling chords and metronomic pulses leaches into the orchestra, causing it to swell into greater and greater activity, until the voices are overwhelmed and all but disappear. The piano takes over the role of directing the music's direction, earning a solo at the end of the movement, only to be brought to a halt itself; the movement ends as it begins with the same sustained vocal chord.
Now, instead of instigating the momentum that swamped it the first time around, this chord cadences naturally into the second movement, a lament for Martin Luther King. This was also published as a separate work, O King. The singers change ring on the syllables of King's name with bell-like tones – supported closely by the orchestra. No actual bells are used though, and the effect is much sharper, more resistant, than simple funeral chimes. One can hear ethereal ascents in some of the string glissandi, or prayer in the softer incantations of King's name, but the sharp accents from horns, piano, clarinet and vibraphone never allow this music to subside into peaceful meditation (although it remains glisteningly beautiful), it forces attention. In the last minute of the movement, the steady – if lopsided – pulse of the music quickly frays and all disintegrates into another hushed vocal cluster as for the first time 'Martin Luther King' is heard in full statement.
The stories of Lévi-Strauss's study often concern the trials and ultimate deaths of heroic figures, and the relationship between the texts of the first and second movements seems clear, in addition to the fairly common musical ground they occupy. Within seconds this picture of coherency is destroyed. An ascending trumpet blast, some muttering voices, and a ghostly waltz emerging from the strings throws open the door to Stephen King territory. The waltz is taken from Mahler's 'Resurrection' Symphony, and in greater or lesser form runs throughout the entire Berio movement. The unease is sustained throughout by a running text from Beckett's The Unnamable, the only other reliable constant from beginning to end. Overlaid are dozens of quotations from Beethoven to Stravinsky, as well as many written texts. It is in one sense a composed-out version of Cage's works for multiple radios, a melée of sound, one of the earliest and greatest musical expressions of fractured postmodernity. But while it continually threatens to blow itself apart from sheer exuberance, it is also a masterclass in tugging heartstrings. If it isn't already, the third movement of Sinfonia should be on every young film composer's primary listening list. For all its multilayering, meta-music structure, the movement is also a carefully considered emotional tug. My old composition teacher, who was never a man to really get swept away in musical sentimentality, loved to declare that the moment 8 or so minutes in with one singer yelling 'Can't stop the wars …' over an orchestral swell probably lifted from Strauss always brought a tear to his eye. For me, there's a soprano swoop upwards into the stratosphere at about 5 minutes, with a lilting brass chorale, that always does it for me. The whole 12 minutes are indisputable proof of the powerful identity a few musical notes can retain in the midst of all chaos, and the considerable emotion such phrases can evoke. Any film composer worth the bucks can piece together chunks of pseudo-Strauss, sub-Wagner, neo-Górecki to support a film's emotional narrative; what Sinfonia demonstrates is the surprising complexity and consistency such patchworks can sustain.
The fourth movement returns us, mirror-like to the soundworld of 'O King', transforming Mahler's text 'O Röschen rot' into 'Rose de sang', which itself echoes the 'eau de sang' mentioned in the text of the first movement. Where the third movement bulged, and threatened to burst out of the closely self-referential world of the opening two movements, the fourth brings the circle around once more, reconsidering the third movement as an elaborate keystone and not the door into foreign lands.
Continuing the arch-structure, the fifth movement continues where the first left off, with the piano apparently continuing its aborted solo. The text once again is from Lévi-Strauss, but is even more fragmented than before, although the music is considerably more energised and self-assured. Once again though, at the very end all activity collapses into a hushed resonance, and the complete work ends in precisely the same way as its first movement. Meta-music has become meta-meta-music.
There are books to be written on Sinfonia – in fact, here's one by the excellent David Osmond-Smith. It's a stunning, beautiful, important piece of music. If, if, I were to recommend just one piece of late 20th-century music to someone who had heard none before, this would be it. It has moments that are achingly gorgeous, but not for a moment does it hide behind a veneer of saccharine religiosity, or pop-pandering as so many works can be accused of. It never pulls its punches, it's a complex, challenging piece, but it rewards every single second that you listen. This is the real deal.