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David Osmond-Smith
Research Professor of Music at the University of Sussex, UK

Cathy Berberian: singer and score

The distinctive kaleidoscope of vocal personae that became the hallmark of Cathy Berberian’s performance style during the 1960s demanded a carefully calibrated relationship between composer and performer. Although Berberian could improvise and indeed compose in this idiom, she repeatedly insisted on her preference for a division of disciplines between the making of scores and the making of performances – a division brought to a radical and often explosive extreme in her creative relationship with Luciano Berio.

This paper seeks to explore the complex potentials unleashed by that game of mutual provocation and trust. It examines the ludic convergence of performance features fostered by John Cage’s benign cult of will-less contingency and of Berio’s appropriation from Brechtian dramaturgy – a dramaturgy designed on the contrary to undermine empathy and unleash critical action - of a set of challenges to the performer that Berberian resolved into an inimitable performance practice. That each felt confident in imposing on the other a high degree of creative risk pushed the traditional rapport between composer and performer to new extremes, and provided the archetype for the exigent rapports that Berio established with other solo performers over the next four decades. But it also demanded from Berberian a singular, and highly disciplined control of her rapport with her audience. The chain of eagerly accepted power-games that thus linked composer, soloist and listeners were dynamised by what was for Berio an obsessive fulcrum of his work with Berberian: female laughter.

David Osmond-Smith is Research Professor of Music at the University of Sussex. He has published two books on Berio’s music - along with a wide range of essays on 20th century music. He has chaired the British Section of the I.S.C.M., and acted as Music Commissioner for the Venice Biennale. He lectures regularly for Glyndebourne Festival Opera, but also in France, Scandinavia and Italy.

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