Thema (Omaggio a Joyce): a listening experience as homage to Cathy Berberian
In Luciano Berio’s own text “Poesia e musica - un’esperienza” (1959) on his composition Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958), as well as in many liner notes and articles by others, the fact that this electroacoustic composition is made of a recording of Cathy Berberian’s voice, is not mentioned at all; and neither do these texts mention the sound and the musical quality of her voice in this composition. Berio describes compositional procedures that he applied to Joyce’s text (a section of the Siren chapter of Ulysses), and others often analysed and interpreted this composition in similar terms. Also remarkable is that the two-minute ‘ouverture’, a ‘pure’ recording of Berberian’s reading-performance that forms the first part of the composition, is not included on several LP/CD publications.
I will argue that this negligence of Berberian’s voice is questionable in relation to both the production of this work and to the music itself; and that such negligence subscribes to gendered dichotomies as composer – vocalist, composition – sound, structure – material, art – nature, innovation – convention. Moreover, in Berio’s text (a.o.) a ‘patrilineal’ descent of the male authors Joyce and Berio is constructed.
I will offer an alternative interpretation of this composition, focusing on the female voice, language, technology, gender, and the Sirens. As an electroacoustic musical object, this tape composition has become separated from both the original female vocal subject (Cathy Berberian) and the original male listening-composing subject (Luciano Berio). Thus, the call of the Sirens is not an inner experience of a solitary male hero anymore. Sound technology can help to reconsider the traditional reflex of abjection of the female voice.
Only men heard, and were attracted and destroyed by, the Siren voices. By way of a rational trick, putting wax in his ears and letting him be chained up, Odysseus could experience these voices and survive, thereby strengthening his self-consciousness and identity. But what could the rational trick of sound recording, the écriture, objectification, repetition, dissemination and reinterpretation of the voice mean for a female listening subject and for a female Siren voice?
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