Connecting the Dots: Musical Line in Berio’s Sequenza I

Matthew Allison | January 2010

    Luciano Berio’s Sequenza I for solo flute is a challenge for performers and scholars in a number of ways, mainly because of the spatial notation, precise rhythms, varied dynamics, and seemingly unrelated pitches. Although his music is often considered gestural, lyricism can be found if you know how to look for it. I wanted to find Sequenza’s overall shape and phrasing, and discovered that the combination of the temporal, dynamic, and pitch characteristics creates a musical line. In essence, you just have to connect the dots. I used the proportionally-notated 1958 version for the analysis.
    The first of Berio’s 14 Sequenzas, ours for solo flute, was written in 1958 for Italian virtuoso Severino Gazzelloni. As the other 13 pieces require command of their respective instruments, Sequenza requires a serious mastery of the flute. Although there are few extended techniques in Sequenza I, a complete versatility in range, dynamic, and technique is essential.
    Berio originally wrote the piece in standard notation with exceptionally fine detail. Because of the extreme technical demand and rhythmic complexity, Gazzelloni found it difficult to interpret the score, so Berio reworked it using proportional notation. Sequenza I thus became the hallmark of post-1945 notational practices. The unbarred edition was published by Suvini-Zerboni.
    Berio later reworked Sequenza I again, because he was dissatisfied with the freedom and rubato that flutists were taking. In 1992 the revised version was published by Universal Edition. Berio indicated that, because there are no implicit codes of interpretation, as in Mozart’s music, composers have to notate everything.
    In the proportional 1958 edition, the note-heads indicate pitch only; the note beams indicate legato and duration, and the distance between the little hash marks found through the top line of the staff indicate tempo or speed, as determined by the metronome markings. In the preface Berio writes that unbeamed eighth notes should be played sciolte or separated, without slurs or phrase connections. Notes that are beamed together should be legato and last the length of the beam, until the next pitch or silence.     Therefore, using the presence or absence of beams to determine  musical line is not an option. 
    What results is an opera aperta or open work. Open works allow unlimited possibilities for distribution of the written elements. Italian writer Umberto Eco indicates, “the performer is free to choose how long to hold a note inside the fixed framework imposed on him.” As sequenza is the Italian word for sequence, the name implies that this piece is a sequence of events.

    Berio unifies Sequenza by using four types of musical tension: temporal, dynamic, pitch, and morphological. (Morphology refers to form or structure, in this case sounds or forms that do not present the flute in its normal way.) Temporal tension is created with articulation speed and note durations. Dynamic tension is increased by moments of intense sound energy and sudden or unexpected shifts of extreme dynamic contrast. Pitch tension occurs when Berio uses dissonances, such as minor seconds and tritones, and large leaps between the high and low register. When the flute sounds least like the flute we know, Berio is using morphological tension, which includes key clicks, flutter tonguing, harmonics, and multiphonic double stops. In Sequenza I, at least two of these tension creating modes are in use most of the time, which subsequently creates forward motion, even through the silences. This makes the melodic writing very dense.

Tempo as Phrase Indicator

     In the score, Berio indicates that a certain amount of space takes up a certain amount of time. In the 1958 version the distance between hash marks is 70 on a metronome. The length of the note is determined by the length of the stem, and notes that are not connected by a beam have some degree of silence and separation between them.
    The first line of the score has three unconnected notes followed by a space, another cluster of notes and another space, and so forth, ending with sustained notes. Many flutists play this first line as four or five short non-related phrases, because they are only taking the MM=70 marking into consideration. Berio creates a kind of sequence out of these seemingly dissimilar groups of notes.

In the proportionally-notated version, space gives some indication of rhythm, and you begin to identify certain recurring gestures or rhythmic motives. This is one way that Berio creates a unifying whole out of seemingly random elements. The opening motive of the piece (shown on previous page) is almost exactly transposed in lines 4 and 5, as well as later in the piece.

Pitch as Phrase Indicator
    Sequenza I has no tonal center, but there are several places where Berio draws attention to a certain pitch by repeating it, returning to it frequently, or sustaining it. He seems to favor the pitch C at times, by giving it the largest interval and dynamic changes. Phrases often begin or end on C, and on page four in lines 32 and 33, he repeats the B and C to draw attention to that tonality. The B-flat that follows is shocking because of the tension that is created.

  There is also a sense of tonal center around the E in lines 3-6, where there are extreme dynamic and interval shifts, as well as a longer note value. The emphasis on the E is exaggerated by the G sharp and B (a major third and perfect fifth above E) at mid-phrase high points. The E is also highlighted in line 11 in the pp melody E-F sharp-G-C-E.

    In lines 8 and 9 Berio emphasizes C with an accent, forte dynamic level, and dramatic dynamic range in line 10. Leading into line 27, he crescendos from ppp to suddenly fortissimo on a C, followed by as pianissimo as possible on a harmonic, which creates a sudden color change as well. He also ends the piece with a charming return to a short, seemingly thrown-away C.
    These spots are all moments of great tension and indicate forward movement because of their dynamic register changes and pitch repetitions, as though moving through a musical phrase to a release of the tension. Notice the closely related intervals and wide leaps. The two opening gestures of the piece are a good example. The first group of 3 notes is a unifying set in this piece. The half-step related gesture is prevalent throughout, recurring as a kind of main theme.
    Another common feature is the frequent use of the tritone (augmented fourth or diminished fifth, half of an octave). Today a tritone is considered a neutral interval, and it is often used in modulations to distantly related keys, but historically it was considered dissonant or even evil. Most gestures in Sequenza either include a tritone or are built upon this interval completely. Berio regularly brings attention to this gesture.
    The phrase in the third line begins with a huge dynamic shift on a low E and ends fortissimo with a B flat. The relationship is not only a dynamic one, but the interval between the first and last pitch is a tritone. Even within this short phrase there are two more tritones: the F sharp-C-F sharp   mf   to pp gesture creates tension in tempo, dynamic, and pitch as well, and the G sharp -D separated by space uses a more subtle dynamic change.

    Berio was clearly influenced by total serialism, but he barely uses the twelve-tone system in Sequenza. There is one example of a full series of twelve pitches – A sharp, C sharp, D sharp, F sharp G, F, D, E, C sharp, B, C, A, A flat – that appears three times. The first example occurs in line 4, the second in line 17, and the third in line 42.
    There are a few indications that Berio used this tone row to develop other lines. Line 13 begins with F, F
sharp, A, G, A flat, B flat, C sharp, B – a segment of the retrograde of the initial tone row. Most other allusions to this tone row appear in very short sets of only three or four notes.
    Short groups of chromatic notes appear in other places. For example, in line 45 the set G, A, C, B flat, A flat, B, F
sharp, F, C sharp represents nine of the twelve chromatic pitches. Line 44 contains a series with F sharp, C sharp, G, D, E flat, C, E, F that includes seven non-repeating, separate chromatic pitches. When reordered, they are both chromatic.
    Berio also uses intervals in clever ways, such as in palindromes, inversions, transpositions, and retrograde. Example 4 (see above) also contains a palindrome-like gesture. When he does this, he is using the basic interval building blocks of his work but creating variation.

Dynamics as Phrase Indicator
    You can use dynamic markings as a kind of road map to indicate phrases of the piece. This is complicated by the fact that each and every note has a specific dynamic level. Berio’s aggressive use of dynamics shows the influence of post-World War II serialism. To analyze the dynamics, I gave each one a number and then looked for a connection.
    He uses a 6 (or ff) most often on the first page. The most extreme dynamic changes almost always occur between a 6 and 1 as shown below.

    A figure that acts like a cadence can be seen at the end of the first line, where the interval between the ff  B and piano F is followed by silence and space. This shows Berio’s favored interval of tension, the tritone, accompanied by a huge dynamic contrast.
     There are a few cases where the dynamic tension is larger, with a leap from 6 to 0. This dynamic leap occurs almost always within tight rhythms or areas of other temporal tension. In these cases, the line moves forward dramatically through a phrase, not beginning or ending one, because of the increased excitement. Most 7 to 8 degree sudden dynamic changes indicate more of a change in tone color than direction of sound.

Applying these Observations
     As mentioned earlier, many flutists play this piece as if the mini, 3-note groups were phrases. I humbly suggest these small groups should be played as sub-phrases strung together to create a larger overall shape. In Luciano Berio: Two Interviews, edited by David Osmond-Smith (New York: Marion Boyars, 1985), Berio talks about the four dimensions of tension and how to use them. I think he intended for performers to lead to the biggest overall change in tempo, pitch, and dynamic.
    The first line then becomes one or two phrases, as opposed to the four or five often heard in performance. The first phrase could be considered the first three seconds of music, beginning on the A and ending on the D sharp. This overall interval represents a tritone, and is followed by a short silence. However, because only one element of tension (pitch) is used in those first 11 notes, I think the phrase continues to the end of the line, when the dynamic drops drastically from forte to piano, and the gesture is half-step, whole-step, tritone, whole-step. These intervals are interesting in themselves, because they function the same in inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion. A tritone pitch change accompanies the dynamic shift and is followed by silence, which is itself a dramatic element. The final accented fortissimo B to the piano F in the first line is another example of Berio’s use of more than one type of tension – in this case a large dynamic change and a tritone.
    The second line of music is much the same. The pinnacle of the this phrase is a fast-tempo grace note E flat to F, which is often seen as the ending of the second phrase, but I belive that, due to the tritone between the first G grace note and the low D sharp at the end of the line,  the phrase includes the entire line. This is additionally supported as the G to G sharp creates a seventh accompanied by a dynamic shift – two factors that create tension (forward motion).
    You have to decide whether the final F at the end of line 2 is a pick-up to the third line or the last note of the second phrase. If we end the second phrase with the F, the tritone relationship discussed earlier is weakened. But the octave and space also create two levels of tension, making a strong ending. The F could arguably be part of either phrase, reminding us that this work is an opera aperta. Finding these multiple tension layers helps us create longer musical phrases.

Giving Shape to the Piece
    With a way to find longer phrases, Sequenza I sounds more connected and the entire piece now has shape as a whole. Although there is not a clear beginning, middle, and end as is often seen in tonal music, Sequenza is sectionalized in subtle ways.
In Berio’s Sequenzas: Essays on Performance, Composition and Analysis, Janet K. Halfyard describes Sequenza as, “a rereading of a pitch sequence.” A good example of this is the opening gesture which is almost identically transposed into the fifth line. I consider these two sections, as they are similar but not the same, to be A and A1.
    The second page begins with several pianissimo, slow, sustained gestures, that act as an interlude of contrast to the B section. In the B section, there is variation, with faster moving notes and larger intervals after only two lines. However, a pattern quickly develops of two-pitch groups. By line 14, these two-pitch groups are related to the interlude by tempo. One of the two notes is sustained, although not to the extent of the beginning of the section.
    Some of Berio’s greatest tension levels occur in this section. In line 9, he uses all three tension dimensions: tempo, pitch, and dynamic. The pianissimo to fortissimo attack immediately creates tension. After the long, sustained C with dynamic decay, sudden fast-moving grace notes crescendo immediately to the fortissimo F sharp. The interval created is a tritone, the dynamics range from 1 to 6, and the tempo varies from extreme sustain to extremely quick.

    The interlude returns in line 16, but here Berio takes the exact melodic material from the opening of the piece but changes the tempo and dynamic. The first series of notes (A, G sharp, G, A, G sharp, F sharp) are identical, but the duration and rhythmic change give it a new characteristic. The listener might hear this as familiar, and if the opening motive is recognized, it is likely that the listener is made uncomfortable by the changes in the tempo and dynamic dimensions.
    The A-section rhythmic motive is repeated at this time, but again transposed. The next variation speeds up and includes rapidly articulated repeated pitches. With the exciting repetition, Berio still uses the pitch dimension for added tension. The first group of repeated notes is in the flute’s third octave and starts on C and ends on F
sharp. The second group of rapidly articulated pitches starts on D in the low register and ends on G sharp. Both intervals are tritones!
    The C section uses harmonics, flutter tonguing, and a multiphonic. The phrase in line 20 not only contains Berio’s first use of morphological tension, but also one of the greatest dynamic shifts in the work.

    There are several references to the opening pitch sets in the C section. In addition to the opening {0,1,2} of the section, the {0,2,3} strongly appears in line 25. The two pitch sets are then paired, one after the other, in line 27. This clearly represents Berio’s favoritism for the two sets of pitches and feels almost like a recapitulation.
    Another sustained note that is reminiscent of the interlude in line 16 follows the C section and leads into the final section, which is a culmination of all of the previous sections. Immediately, the {0,1,2} and {0,1,3} relationships are visible in this final section, but there are very few of them and they have subtle pitch relationships. However, the temporal and dynamic dimensions are exaggerated. The rhythms are regularly faster, and the dynamics are steadily quieter than the rest of the piece. The two F#s in the first half of the section are the only fortissimo pitches. Berio ends the piece with a long, sustained low C# with a sforzando-pianissimo attack that resolves with a nearly silent leap to a second-octave C.          

    Luciano Berio wrote Sequenza I with sequences in mind. There are relationships between tempo, pitch, dynamics, and morphological dimensions throughout. By analyzing these relationships, and discovering which combinations create the maximum tension and release, players can create a more meaningful, complete, connected performance.
    In considering tempo, excitement is created by accelerating and decelerating the rate of pitch changes. In terms of pitch, intervals such as the tritone as well as tone rows and pitch sets create a connected feel. Just recognizing them helps players perform them in a way that audiences will grasp. The majority of large dynamic shifts accompany important musical phrase beginnings and endings.
    The morphological dimensions of flutter tonguing and multiphonics generally drive forward to the end of a phrase. You will create the most convincing performance when you considers all of these elements, not independently, but working together to create tension, release, and direction in the musical phrase. Look beyond the obvious melodic material to see the polyphony that results from the use of independent textures.

Benedict Weisser, Notational Practice in Contemporary Music: A Critique of Three Compositional Models (Luciano Berio, John Cage, and Brian Ferneyhough) (dissertation, The City College of New York, 1998), p. 29.
Luciano Berio, Luciano Berio: Two Inerviews, ed. David Osmond-Smith (New York: Marion Boyars, 1985), p. 98.
Janet K. Halfyard, editor, Berio’s Sequenzas: Essays on Performance, Composition, and Analysis (London: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), p. 8.