'Voci' recorded November 1999, ORF Studio, Vienna
'Naturale' recorded May 2000, Teldec Studio, Berlin
'Sicilian Folk Music'
recordings from the Ethnomusicological Archives
of the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome
2: Palma di Montechiaro (Agrigento) 1955
3: Favara (Agrigento) 1969
4: Terrauzza (Siracusa) 1961
5: Alcamo (Trapani) 1961
6.1: Barrafranca (Enna) 1960
6.2: Alcamo (Trapani) 1961
Despite the fact that Manfred Eicher's ECM New Series imprint has been issuing groundbreaking recordings for the better part of 20 years and has introduced the world at large to the music of Arvo Part, Hilliard Ensemble, and Eleni Karaindrou, among others (including the glorious technical mastery of violist Kim Kashkashian, who appears here), this new recording of Luciano Berio's masterwork Voci is among the label's most stellar achievements. Voci and Naturale are the full realization of Berio's deep, long-held fascination with and reverence for Sicilian folk songs and melodies. And while Voci was recorded before, with violist Aldo Bennici, it, and its companion Naturale, take on new meaning here. Berio's interviews over the past three decades have been rife with commentary of the influence of folk music upon his life and work, and his deep desire to somehow bridge the gap between them. That they might inform one another rather than stand in opposition. He has written with folk motifs before, as early as the 1940s and certainly in the 1960s, when his Folk Songs for Cathy Berberian won nearly universal acclaim. This work from 1984, however, uses the music of the ages, the music of working people as a metonymic device, to be referred to and evoked in the creation of something new. As a viola concerto, Voci is a work that meditates deeply on the wellspring of folk traditions by weaving a fantasia-like tapestry through them, with a wide emotional palette and one of the most expansive timbral terrains he's ever attempted to cross. Kim Kashkashian uses the notion of the human voice to accomplish her role as the interlocutor of the piece's heart and soul. Her recordings of Kodaly and Bartok have brought her in close touch with folk traditions, and she uses Berio's score to extract that necessary communal emotion, that communicative speaking pattern that crosses the wide tonal palette and literally sings. Davies conducts the orchestra as if it were the supporting chorus for these moments, holding fast to the color schemes Berio relates in the score for Voci and bringing Kashkashian and Schulkowsky into communication across the spatial plane of harmonic interrelationships and melodic constructs that eke their way through.
The score for Naturale, originally commissioned for a dance piece, is much different, wildly colorful, and evocative of a folk dance rather than song. It is more communicative in ensemble and Schulkowsky in particular uses her role as a co-soloist rather than as a support player. It is explosive, emotionally charged, and brilliantly executed, particularly in the woodwinds. This is not a complementary piece for Voci, but its most condensed realization in a sense, where the traditions are all at play at once, in concert and in context with one another, speaking in tongues that both unite them and highlight their differences. What unites the two works on disc are five Sicilian folk songs. They are actual field recordings from the ethnomusicological archives in Rome. They have been placed here not as a literary device to anchor motif and intention, but as a bridge in the continuum, a citing of difference and longing and the return of Berio's gaze to its source. It is a brilliant device that acts in concert with the package, which features two booklets that include a fantastic essay by Jurg Stenzi on Berio's native nanguage, which quotes the composer; a still from Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinema on the cover; photographs of the Sicilian landscape by Giuseppe Leone; a photo essay of the recording session by Roberto Masotti; and an interview with Kim Kashkashian about the project itself. Sonically, the new recordings are without compare, crystalline and pure, exactly what one would expect from ECM, and the field recordings have been cleaned up enough to reflect the totality of their meaning without being deadened by modern technology. This is quite a moment for Berio, and for the rest who take the time to open themselves to his gift.
All Music Guide
Superb performances by Kim Kashkashian distinguish this exceptional recording, on which the violist plays Luciano Berio's "Voci" and "Naturale", masterworks inspired by Sicilian folk melodies. The compositions are connected here by authentic field recordings from Sicily, making evident some of the sources that have long fired Berio's imagination. "My links with folk music are often of an emotional character," he has said. "When I work with that music I am always caught by the thrill of discovery. I return again and again to folk music because I try to establish contact between that and my own ideas about music. I have an utopian dream, though I know it cannot be realised: I would like to create a unity between folk music and our music - a real, perceptible, understandable conduit between ancient music-making, which is so close to everyday work, and our music."
Berio's interest in traditional music is reflected in some of his earliest compositions including his "Tre canzoni siciliani" of 1946/67 and is at the centre of the widely acclaimed "Folk Songs" written for Cathy Berberian in 1963/64. But as Paul Griffiths noted in Modern Music and After the nature of Berio's relationship to folk music has changed over time: "As he involved himself more deeply with past languages, so he began to use folk melodies as memes, as bearers of meaning to be analysed, brought into contact with one another, mused upon, imitated ... In the viola concerto 'Voci' (1984), Berio created a fantasy portrait of Sicilian folk music, which is 'certainly the richest, the hottest, and the most complex of our Mediterranean culture' ... His fascination with folk cultures that are not his own (he was born in Liguria, not in Sicily) is part of a wider fascination with musical traditions - wherever they spring from - as codes and manners of musical communication, both between people, and between people and the world."
This recording draws upon a network of long established relationships. Berio and conductor Dennis Russell Davies have been friends since the 1960s when they co-founded the Juilliard Ensemble, and Davies and ECM producer Manfred Eicher have collaborated since the 1970s. It was also Eicher who brought together Kashkashian and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, thereby initiating a duo in existence now for 11 years. Kashkashian herself has been recording for ECM since 1984; she has also worked extensively, in both concerts and recordings, with Dennis Russell Davies.
Below Kim Kashkashian talks about her recordings of "Voci" and "Naturale".
An Interview with Kim Kashkashian
Were you in contact with Luciano Berio while preparing the pieces for this CD'?
One would always try - if the composer is still living and working and perhaps even changing things - to get in close contact. If you look at the written text you don't always get all the information that you need, or that they intend to convey and so it's always wise, as well as fun and challenging, to work directly with the composer. Also, what in the case of Berio is very enjoyable is that he likes to sing, so we do some singing together, and he is also quite expressive with his voice, so one gets a better idea of exactly what is intended by those little notes on the page.
Did you talk at all to Aldo Bennici, the viola player of the premiere recording?
I recently had the chance to sit down and talk to him and it was also a wonderful event. The man is quite a theatrical person and in fact firmly believes that new music and theatre must become one. So he has an interesting perspective on all of this. He is Sicilian himself and did most of the searching and finding on the old melodies and he was able to tell me quite a lot about, first of all, the initial impulse behind the piece and, secondly, what some of the songs actually are conveying. So some very interesting and heartbreaking words and texts for these old songs. And one of the things he said to me, kept trying to say over and over again in different ways, is that the Sicilian personality is highly touched by the degree of intense sunlight in the land, and that that produces actually a shadow side to the personality so that there is a constant preoccupation with death. So there is this...it is like the two flip sides of a coin. And he says that the Sicilian personality shows both sides all the time, this parallel is always apparent in the personality. So that is an interesting perspective on all of these songs, as well as, of course, on the constructed pieces that Berio made out of the songs. So for example: one of these very simple and beautiful songs has a heartrending text, which is, the mother is saying to God, "Please, give my child a home, take my child". The implication being that "I cannot care for this child here, I don't have food, I don't have the ability to take care of this child, my baby, please give my baby a home in heaven." So, she is basically saying this child should die because it will be happier. So the melodies sound relatively harmless compared to the depth and the dichotomy that is apparent in most of the text.
"Naturale" and "Voci" seem to be very different pieces, would you agree on this?
Well, they are quite different in the montage, they are quite different in the affect therefore, but the - I can only think it in German, "Ausgangspunkt" - point of origin is, in a sense, the same. But what carries the piece "Naturale", because it's got the precision of colour with only the viola, percussion, and the vocal reproductions - it's in a sense a much more compact and intense experience. The piece was originally intended as a theatre piece, as a piece for dancer, and Aldo Bennici says that when the piece is to be performed it is best when you're actually - on the viola - gesturing and doing some of the theatre yourself to provide some of the missing element there.
The other work by Berio, "Voci", is perhaps more constructed, there is more Berio there, because of course his great strength is orchestration and the orchestration is phenomenal in this piece. It gives not only the reflection of the songs but a kind of amplification of the songs, to have so much constructed around them with such fantastic orchestration.
In a number of interviews and articles your way of playing the viola is compared to singing. Is that the feeling you have, too, and if so, how did that influence your way of interpreting these pieces?
The fact that the actual sung reproduction is not heard in "Voci" is not important because the melodies are completely played by the viola, in both pieces, actually, so that's a colour factor more than anything else in the "Naturale" piece. To try to answer the question about where the impulse comes from when one sings on an instrument, I will again loosely quote Aldo Bennici, who recently sat in a room, looked at me and said, "When I started to play the viola what I wanted was a sonority, and the reason I wanted a sonority was because I thought I could speak to God." So he wasn't being pathetic, he was saying that as a child he was religious, as all Sicilians were, and he thought that was his best way to converse with God was through the sonority of the instrument, through the voice. And he - and I would agree - makes a complete parallel between the vocalisation on the instrument, what kind of sonority comes out of the instrument and what would come out of the chest and vocal chords, should we have the good luck to have that kind of equipment, which a lot of us don't. However the impulse is identical and in the best case remains so.
You recently recorded Bartok's viola concerto for ECM. Bartok is surely the composer one would immediately think of when talking about the influence of folk music in 20th century music. And now you have recorded these Berio works: Is the folk music influence an element in composition that attracts you in general?
I am going to answer this in two parts, because Bartok and Kodaly were two people who were well-known because well-documented in their research of old folk music or "country music", as Bartok describes the difference between "country music" and "city music" or "art music". But again, the origin for a lot of composers, the point of origin, must be the folk music of that nation, the folk music of that culture and sometimes in a very conscious way, as with Bartok, and sometimes in a not so conscious way. But true for many composers, certainly true for Brahms, certainly true for Schubert, so I wouldn't like to isolate Bartok except in the sense that he made a very big and well-documented study of folk music and it was for him a very important, perhaps even more important, aspect of his work.
Now, the other thing you asked me is a little bit harder to get around. The music as we look at it, the music of the 20th century gets, on the surface, further and further away from what we would recognise as folk melody, or what we would recognise as organic human rhythm or harmony, and becomes perhaps more and more identified with the objective, what is outside the human being. However, the point of comparison, the point of reference for the musician, for the interpreter and for the listener, remains that subjective element of "What can I sing'".
Can you say something about your partnership with Dennis Russell Davies, with whom you have worked on a number of occasions?
As you can see, if you look at the catalogue of our repertoire, I enjoy working with Dennis, and particularly because he does understand this singing element or the need to breathe, and is an incredibly good supporter of that quality. Also, he was a student of Berio's, he studied with Berio, and therefore there is a very strong connection and a good understanding, again, of what the text actually implies and how one can best bring it to fruition. So that was also for me a very important factor, that the two of them have such trust in each other.
And Robyn Schulkowsky, you also worked with her quite a lot.
We've had a long and fruitful relationship and hopefully one that will continue, and I think that the "Naturale" score, as it stands on paper, is not quite the same as what Robyn made out of it because, again, the percussion role in the theatre piece was perhaps more of a supportive role, and as we made the recording, it took on a much more lively and elemental role. So she was a very important part of the picture, part of building up our picture of that piece.
interviewer: Tina Kohn