For a Woman to Sing/To Build: Cathy Berberian’s Radical Femininity
Cathy Berberian changed the way we receive and understand vocal and intermedia performance in ways that remain to be adequately addressed or fully acknowleged. As part of her gift to contemporary music she incited new generative modes for the vocalist as composer/collaborator, and as interpreter, exposing performative expression as something more substantial than the framework for the vocal act. Vocal artist Carol Plantamura has observed that Berberian’s improvisations not only inspired but significantly shaped Berio’s early electronic works and his later works for solo voice as well. In Sequenza III, for example, Berberian’s studio improvisations emerge (scrambled yet recognizable after his tape manipulations) transcribed and returned to the solo singer. Berberian’s expressive body erupts within her singing. Sliding, sobbing, cackling and cadenza-ing in the hollow left behind by language, Cathy asserts her expressive presence – the frail, embarrassingly recognizable human body, and the defiantly authorial mark of her persona – in reciprocally evocative interplay with sound. Berberian’s hysteria is a radical hysteria of Helene Cixous and Elin Diamond; a vocalism that undoes language, which exposes and explodes truth-making systems. Berberian pried open the narrow and passive role offered to women vocalists in new music, the Charcotian spectacle of psychical fragmentation, which Schoenberg introduced. She initiated a specifically feminine authorship for classical/post-classical singers; one which is receptive and generative, internal and prosthetic, simultaneously empathetic and yet irreducible to a common tongue. Cathy Berberian redefined virtuosity for the vocalist, and in so doing incited a chain of riotous innovations within, beyond and between the disciplines of new music, new media, and live arts.
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