Berio was born in 1925 in Oneglia, on the Ligurian coast. His father and grandfather were local musicians and composers, and he grew up hearing and playing chamber music. At the Milan Conservatory (1945–51) he studied with G. F. Ghedini and met an American singer, Cathy Berberian. In 1952, after their marriage, he made his first trip to the USA, where he studied with Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood and encountered electronic music. All these experiences were crucial. Chamber Music (1953), written for Berberian, was a homage to Dallapiccola and also the start of an independent creative life, and that same year he made his first electronic essays.
Also in 1953 he met Maderna and Stockhausen, and began to take his place among the young radicals of European music. But though excited by innovation, he was encouraged by his friendship with Umberto Eco to feel a deeper cultural embedding. He created electronic music out of a recorded voice (Thema), formed the first of many monologues that spring from an instrument’s nature, technique and history (Sequenza I, for flute), and held onto qualities of suavity and lightness not widely found among the avant-garde at this point (Serenata I).
With Maderna he was joint head of Italian radio’s electronic music studio in Milan (1955-61), working there on Thema and Visage with Berberian, and in the concert hall with her on Circles (with harp and percussion) and Epifanie (with orchestra). He then moved to the USA to teach. Divorce and remarriage (in 1965) did not interrupt his artistic association with Berberian, continuing while he began exploring classical genres in his Sinfonia and first opera, Opera (1969–70).
In 1972 he settled near Siena; five years later he was married for the third time. Coro (1975–7), for a large assembly of singers and instrumentalists, was his boldest encounter with folk music, an abiding interest. The two operas that followed, La vera storia (1977–81) and Un re in ascolto (1979–84), explored new ways of creating stage narrative, being formed, as now his music generally was formed, from tissues of allusion, memory, cross-reference and challenge.
After a creatively disappointing association with IRCAM, he formed his own electroacoustic group in 1987, and worked with them on the projection and transformation of live sound in Ofanim (for female singer with children’s choir and ensemble) and the opera Cronaca del luogo (1998–9). Meanwhile he continued to add to his Sequenza series and to display his orchestral expertise, whether in original works, in arrangements or in such self-arrangements as the Chemins string of Sequenza-based commentaries. He died in Rome in 2003.
Profile © Paul Griffiths