Nena Beretin

Tracking the Creative Process in Music: Luciano Berio’s use of gesture to enhance the reception of his Sequenza series

Luciano Berio’s music is highly gestural, and the fourteen solo Sequenzas that he composed between 1958 and 2003 are no exception. These innovative and virtuosic works are important additions to the Western art music canon in their respective instruments. Each Sequenza calls for the musician to ‘step outside the box’ of her/his instrument’s established repertoire, history and physical structure. These works require high levels of musicianship, technical proficiency and physical prowess, as well as a passionate musical personality to ‘pull off’ the performance. For the listener, a significant factor that contributes to the ongoing acclaim of the Sequenzas lies within their expressive dimension.

Musical gestures are fundamental to Berio’s compositional processes. This paper focuses on the ways the composer tailors the musical gestures to enhance the communicative function of his Sequenzas. In turn, these highly expressive and theatrical works resonate with players and as a result, the Sequenzas are often performed, and increasingly often recorded. Another area of discussion focuses on the manner in which musicians tackle the musical gestures and the theatrical elements of the pieces to enhance audience reception in the performance realisation.

Musical gesture exemplifies human expressivity and represents an implied level of communication, in which a musical phrase signifies a gesture. In this way, gestures become the key to understanding musical meaning. The musical gesture is a cognitive phenomenon that emerges in the mind in response to musical priming. In listening to music, we hear an auditory stream, which is subsequently processed by our auditory perception. To economically and effectively process this sonic stream of information, our cognitive apparatus requires the organisation of the input into ‘chunks’ of a certain size that are represented amodally in the mind as gestalts.

The theoretical framework for this analysis is the context and parameters of ‘semiotic gesture’ as defined by musicologist Ole Kühl. He positions musical gesture as stemming from the generic level of our perception and being joined to gestalt perception, motor movement and mental imagery. Berio aims for a multilayered character within a work that includes not only the process of composition but also of listening. I draw on Berio’s choice of pitch-class sets, intervallic structures, rhythm, tempo, meter, texture, dynamics, timbre, articulations as well as theatrics to create gestures. I argue that tracking the creative process of the Sequenza series within the conceptual parameters of Kühl’s criteria offers new insights and provides a listening strategy for these complex works.


Phoenix Theatre, Australia

Is Artistic Director of Phoenix theatre in Sydney, Australia. The theatre is funded by philanthropist Judith Neilson to nurture, develop and showcase talent across the performing arts. Nena holds a PhD in musicology from the University of New England (Australia) having completed a Master’s degree at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Nena is also a radio presenter and programmer of classical music at Fine Music 102.5, a Sydney based FM and Digital broadcaster.