The University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ Music@Watson series presented five works, each entitled Sequenza by late Italian composer Luciano Berio (1925-2003). Berio was an experimenter in the universe of music, and he composed in several styles, including musique concrete, in which fragments of other works (one’s own or another composer’s) are assembled in new and interesting ways, serialism (a.k.a. 12-tone music), electronic music and opera. His best-known work is Sinfonia, a 5-movement opus for 8 singers (the Swingle Singers) and symphony orchestra, dedicated to Leonard Bernstein and commissioned to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the N.Y. Philharmonic. It cites excerpts from over a dozen composers in its five movements and includes one movement dedicated to the memory of Martin Luther King entitled simply, “O King.”

There are 14 individual works by Berio entitled “Sequenza,” each followed by a number. Each is composed for a different solo instrument and each is complex in its own way, intimately related to the characteristics of the chosen instrument. There is much trail-blazing: new sounds requiring new techniques, and all of them demanding a high degree of technical virtuosity and musical intelligence.

At this recital we were introduced to five of the group of 14, including the first and last of the series, each played by one of the artist-faculty members of UNCSA. The original notation was unorthodox, making use of a system of proportional notation, which he revised for several of the works:

At the time I wrote Sequenza I, in 1958, I considered the piece so difficult for the Instrument that I didn’t want to impose on the player specific rhythmical patterns. I wanted the player to wear the music as a dress, not as a straitjacket. But as a result, even good performers were taking liberties that didn’t make any sense, taking the spatial notation almost as a pretext for improvisation. Certainly some sort of flexibility is part of the conception of the work. But the overall speed, the high amount of register shifts, the fact that all parameters are constantly under pressure, will automatically bring a feeling of instability, an openness which is part of the expressive quality of the work – a kind of “work-­in­progress” character if you want.– Berio’s conversation with American flutist Robert Dick, cited by Cynthia Folio and Alexander R. Brinkman in Chapter 1 of Berio’s Sequenzas, ed. by Janet Halfyard – Ashgate Academic Publishers.

Tadeu Coelho launched us into this new sea of musical experience in Sequenza I (1958), which focuses on extremes and opposites – extremes of pitch (very high and very low) of dynamic very loud and the softest I have ever heard from a flute), fast/slow, short/long, tremolos, key clicks, flutter tonguing, multi-phonics, echo-tones and more. Apparently, detailed analysis indicates vestiges of serialism, but this is hidden from the ordinary concert-goer, but not the stupendous virtuosity of Mr. Coelho, and indeed all the soloists of the evening!

Sequenza VI (1967) is for solo viola and very different that the preceding piece. To start with, the viola has four strings, which Sheila Browne seemed to be trying to play all together all the time, as fast as possible!  The result was a noisy wall of sound that varied from time to time, finally yielding to some muted passages with tremolo. And then col legno, in which the wooden stick side of the bow is used to make the sound, instead of the hair side, followed by more loud triple-stop tremolo, laced with pregnant pauses. The work concluded very satisfyingly with soft long notes at dissonant intervals, which, after the violence that preceded them, didn’t sound very dissonant at all.

Sequenza VII (1969) was originally written for oboe, but reworked in 1995 for soprano saxophone and given the distinct title Sequenza VIIb. The performance notes of Sequenza VII state that the pitch “B natural” should be played throughout the piece by an invisible source such as an oscillator or another instrument, in this case, one of three alto saxes who relayed each other so as not to have an audible breath break. The most interesting effect this ‘drone’ had was to produce very audible resultant tones which changed as the soprano saxophone, admirably played by Taimur Sullivan, landed on one or another note for a longer time. (“Resultant tones” don’t actually exist in the hall or room, but are created by our brains in a predictable pattern related to the over-tone series, dependant upon the sonic interval between the two “real” pitches.)

Sequenza XII (1995) for bassoon is the longest of the series Berio composed and required the most music stands to hold the music – eight stands were arranged in a semicircle the front of the stage while the soloist, Saxton Rose, stood facing each for 2-3 minutes reading the complex music and playing his curious instrument while the audience sat spell-bound. This time Berio worked with subtle minute differences of pitch and timbre and occasionally returning to the more familiar “Grandfather” role (from Peter and the Wolf) of the bassoon before again taking us to the unfamiliar realm of bending pitches, altering timbres (try to sing a single sustained note and slowly change the shape of your mouth from “ah” to “oh” to “rrrrrrrr” to “eeeee”), all the while using circular breathing so as not to stop the tone. This was fascinating.

The evening closed in a somewhat more primitive fashion as Brooks Whitehouse was encouraged to treat his cello as a talking drum, hitting, strumming, tapping and trilling on the wooden box, almost accompanying himself with percussive effects while plucking an arcane melody of sorts. A recurrent screech while sliding the left hand up the string toward the bridge while bearing down on the string with the bow was effective and led to an apt conclusion

The small but rapt audience applauded each work and virtuoso performer warmly. Several complained that the preceding lecture by Dr. Irna Priore would have been fascinating to hear, but that it hadn’t been well publicized. I concur – I missed it, too. Darn!