Vic Hoyland

Laborintus II programme notes

Scan of programme notes: 1
Scan of programme notes: 2

Laborintus II, Berio

In Memoriam W. M. Colleran (Director of Universal Edition (London) and David Osmond-Smith (Berio Scholar)

"Ritual and Ceremony can happen anywhere at any time,"
Anna Halprin.

In the audience for Halprin's The Five-Legged Stool was the then young, leading Italian composer, Lucian Berio; this was 1962. At this time, Berio was a guest-teacher at Mills College in Oakland; he had first met Anna, two years before, but it was this performance of The Five-Legged Stool that caused him to praise her theatre work as the "most interesting and alive approach to theatre today." Berio sent a postcard to Edoardo Sanguineti his friend and Dante scholar (at Via Vespucci, 25, Torino - 7 June '62). Berio says simply: "A great artist is going to work with you in 1963 for the Venice Festival, Can you write something for her, and for me? After Passaggio naturally."

It was precisely at Mills College, during an intensive period of teaching, that Berio began writing Laborintus II, sometime in 1963. This Californian period seems to have been exemplary for the diversity of his activities and the width of scope of musical influences. He not only would teach, but also engaged in political debate, enjoyed driving along the sun-kissed boulevards in his white Buick convertible and socialising with students at avant-garde and jazz concerts, even attending a rock conference hosted by Mills College and engaging in musical experiments with his ex-students in the Grateful Dead.

However, and before Laborintus II, there came the project with Anna Halprin and Sanguineti, which was requested by Berio: Esposizione. It was not a happy collaboration (Ann seemed to have no wish to finalize the production, or to polish the results for public presentation, and Berio withdrew the piece after the first performances which were given at La Fenice Opera House, Venice. Laborintus II soon followed (Sanguineti tells us that a significant amount of text was rescued from Esposizione, especially the long lists, and the whole project was radically revised and metamorphosed into Laborintus II). The transformation was completed in 1965 to an ORTF commission for a Dante Day. Berio gives us only vague ideas of how Laborintus ll might be staged. Something of its spirit might be deduced from Esposizione.

There is a lively description, given by Anna Halprin, of this lost work in "The Theatre of Mixed Means" by Richard Kostelanetz:

In this evening long work, each performer was given one task to do throughout the entire piece; for example: to transport an enormous amount of litter from one point to another. Along the way, from point to point, were placed the most outrageous obstacles. Three starting points were chosen (one, for example, was the top of a cargo-net forty feet in the air) for six different performers, and they all eventually moved to one goal (everyone's final goal was exiting off stage). Obstacles included five tiers of balconies the orchestra pit, the large imposing cargo net, which acted as a screen, and a ramp which slanted to the floor. A space restriction was established and Berio created a time score, and activities might range from frantic and hysterical to slow and laborious. Lighting controlled what the audience might or might not be able to see at any moment.

Sanguineti's early poetry (from 1951), titled Laborintus, consisted of a working-out of a struggle between order and disorder, through a complication of the mind undergoing something like a nervous breakdown (or mid-life crisis) to an eventual simplification (a purification and salvation). The opening of his collection is titled Palus Putredinis (Stinking Swamp). He describes the procedure as "hurling oneself straightaway headfirst into the labyrinth of formalism and irrationalism, into the Stinking Swamp, in fact, of anarchy and alienation, into the hope of then truly emerging from it all with one's hands dirty, but also with the mire (mud) once and for all behind one." In these days of cynicism and despair it may be worth recalling that the neo-avantgarde Sanguineti saw the modernist procedures as a means to an end, as a vehicle which might eventually lead to a hoped-for liberation. His third volume of poetry ends with: How do you justify yourself? .... But do you see the mud behind us? And the children sleeping.... Dreaming now: Purgatory of Hell. These same words of poetry are whispered at the end of Berio's Laborintus II. Death leading to rebirth is Sanguineti's recurring topos.

"Tutto tutto tutto", from this to that: Sanguineti's libretto, besides his own texts, uses as its greatest part, additional materials from Dante (Divina Commedia, Vita nuova, Monarchic, and Convivio); there are also encyclopaedic lists in the manner of Isidore of Seville, and the Bible, with snippets of Ezra Pound (Cantos) and T.S.Eliot (the Four Quartets), and typical 1960's "chatter". We get cultural, verbal, and information-overload, and the emotionally dramatic shout, in response to all this, is for SILENCE.

Berio's composition is a no-story piece of music-theatre. However, far from being mere verbal or virtuosic vocal expression, it draws on his seemingly innate Italian gift for a dynamic sense of theatre. An electronic tape plays an important role about halfway-through the 35 minutes of the performance; it comes at the point when Dante's extraordinary lines are spoken: "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here". The beat-like cut-up of text lines (this was the time of Allen Ginsberg and HOWL) produces a number of central themes including memory; being lost and not knowing the way; all the sins against nature; with USURA and Banking the worst of all; and crawling in the mud while dreaming of Paradise. The music is at times highly dramatic but can easily twist into a light-hearted jazzy or even funky swing feel not unlike cheap sixties, Italian thriller movies. It surprises and disappoints me that Berio never worked with Fellini or Pasolini!

It maybe that "ma seguimi oramai" (but follow me now) which is also spoken at the closing moments of Berio's Laborintus II, refers to Canto XI of the Inferno from The Divine Comedy, where Virgil encourages Dante to get a move on (Dante always wants to linger!). The following Canto is indeed the Labyrinth where the Minotaur, like a mad dog, tries to bite and devour itself alive. Fortunately, Laborintus II ends at this point.

Luciano Berio wrote Laborintus II over the period 1963-65 and first performances (to celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante's birth) took place in Brussels(1965), France and Italy, winning a number of prizes, including the Prix Italia Palermo 1966. When it was first performed at La Scala, Milan, Sanguineti produced it and Berio appears to imply that, in his opinion, this was a mistake. "I have nothing against genitals, but I did not like the spectacle of giant plastic phalluses slowly erecting on stage." The first acknowledged full concert performance took place at Mills College, Oakland, California with Berio conducting, 1967 (the same year as a photograph of Stockhausen appears on the Beatles' album cover for Sgt Peppers Lonely-Hearts Club Band).

Vic Hoyland © 2010