Thomas Stevens

Berio Sequenza X (Part III)

  • For Trumpeters Only

A History of My Participation in the Berio "Sequenza X(Part III)

The regular orchestra schedule during the two Berio weeks was a busy one; so, the rehearsals for the Sequenza X had to be squeezed in among other services.
The artsy "augenmusik" notation notwithstanding, the Sequenza X is not one of those cutting-edge virtuoso vehicles as were many of the previously written Sequenzi. Indeed, the technical demands represent very standard, conventional stuff, with the only serious challenge being one of physical endurance. The doodle-tongue segments, inspired, according to Berio, by the work of Clark Terry, are a kind of oddity, but they were not carefully thought out. Indeed, to this very day I have never heard any trumpeters, including the piece’s leading practitioners, capable of articulating them as Berio wrote them and sang them to me (specifically the ones notated as staccato-the others are not a problem) by way of musical example, which was a clean, light, machine gun-like staccato*. (Clark Terry did not play them in that manner!) There was no possible way I could produce that articulation, and thus far, apparently no one else can, either. What one usually hears in performances and recordings is contrived, quasi-"doodled" tonguing, a derivation of what some have named the “tiri tiri” early music period tonguing/articulation, or perhaps some other kind of imaginative fakery, which all work well for the regular doodle-tongued figures, but not for the staccato segments. At the time, I thought the idea of doodle-tongue in staccato was nonsense and said as much to the composer. My opinion remains unchanged.
Secondly, the controversial pedal “Db” was originally notated as pedal “C.” Berio told me he wanted a disruptive “C” (perhaps one that would be the sonic equivalent of a Bud Herseth or Doc Severinsen fortissimo third space treble clef “C”-my words here), which I couldn’t produce, but, as I demonstrated to him, I could play very loud and nasty sounding artificial pedal tones on “D” or “Db.” Since neither of these pitches would accomplish the composer's goals relative to the pitch orders/hierarchy of the modules (aka "fields") of the work, he thought about it overnight and the next day announced it would be “Db.” The pedal “C” is played routinely these days, and this is correct according to the composer's original notation and intentions, but, once again, I have yet to hear any performer deliver a volume of sound on that pitch any more powerful than mine, which was pathetically and unacceptably weak at the time, (as well as exceedingly low in pitch). Berio later either acquiesced and begrudgingly accepted the problems posed by (his concept/understanding of) the staccato doodle-tongue and the non-powerful pedal “C,” or he decided to stay the course with the expectation some day trumpet players would be able to execute them as per his wishes.
During the rehearsals, the aforementioned doodle-tongue and pedal-tone issues notwithstanding, Berio spent almost all of his time dealing with the pianist, Zita Carno, and piano resonance issues. The trumpet part, at least at the time, was treated as being almost incidental to the piece, an obvious reminder that the composer had often expressed the opinion he was not interested in doing a trumpet Sequenza. Indeed, at the time, a well-known composer friend who had observed most of the week’s proceedings had speculated that Berio had been totally immersed in studying piano resonance issues when the trumpet commission came due; so, he combined the two projects. My composer colleague also pointed out that the pitch choices/sets in the solo trumpet part were derived from experiments Berio had done with piano resonances rather than being related to the trumpet in any way.
The work as premiered existed for the most part as it does in the current published version; however, it was not as tightly organized and refined. Moreover, what passes for a de facto coda was added/edited for the final (published) version and was not included in the work used for the world premiere. Consequently, if memory serves, at least 30% of the material was different from the version as premiered, with some of the original melodic offerings being excised from the final version. Unfortunately, my (“illegal”) photocopy of the original was given to a composer friend to study, and he misplaced it. The other copies ("evidence") were summarily retrieved by Luciano following the premiere and hustled out of Los Angeles (or to the nearest dumpster). There are rumors of the existence/performance of a second version, but I have never seen it. Hence, the published version of the Sequenza X is, in fact, the third version of the work, and then there also is the Kol Od, the subsequent version of the same solo trumpet material, with some minor editorial changes, in different sequential order as in the Sequenza X, with orchestra.

The premier performance was a cutting-edged masterpiece in disaster avoidance. All of the correct notes were played in the right places, at the proper strength, and with the trumpet bell direction relative to the piano always as designated in the score. In terms of the work’s structural elements, as with most who have performed the piece, the obvious differences between those sections that were in-or-out of perceived or relative tempo were relatively easy to differentiate and execute, even though they were not specifically notated as such. Beyond that, there was absolutely zero musical comprehension on my part. Zita Carno and I proceeded to the stage, began the piece, as it is said, in the upper left-hand corner and proceeded to the lower-right, non-stop, and, since we arrived at the end of the piece at the same time: Success!
Following the performance, Luciano Berio stated that he wanted to revise the piece because he was pleasantly surprised at how effective the trumpet was in the context of the piano resonance concept! In other words, the experiment was successful, and he was then ready to get serious about the piece. My personal opinion, based on my observations of his work and comments during rehearsals, is that he believed the trumpet, a cylindrical instrument capable of producing a rifle-like directionality of concentrated sound, especially at that sound's point of origin, could be effectively utilized to "set-off" the piano responses, but he needed verification of this, which the premier performance provided.

During the weeks/months that followed the world premier, the composer went about the task of making some revisions and trying to organize some performances of the work in Europe, including a European premier. We also reached an agreement in principle to record the work for the Harmonia Mundi record company (France) as part of a project in which all of the Sequenzas written as of that date would be recorded by the dedicatees. Both projects eventually died unceremonious deaths due to scheduling difficulties, and subsequent efforts to reschedule them dragged on and on until I personally lost interest in the project, mainly because I never liked the piece very much in the first place, and also because of my preoccupation with a demanding Los Angeles Philharmonic work schedule as well as other contractual obligations.

That's All, Folks!