Listening to an album repeatedly must do something to the autonomic nervous system akin to falling in love; both acts of devotion share the same physiological playground. Same slide, same swings, same staking of territory in the sandbox, same scraped knees.
Cathy Berberian’s recording of Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs was my first singerly crush. I’d had plenty of instrumental crushes: Gould playing Bach fast or slow, Horowitz elegantly attacking Scarlatti — demonstrating how to be more Italian than the Italians through all ten of his Russian fingertips. But, Cathy was the first singer I truly fell for.
When British opera and theatre director Richard Jones told me in 1984 that I should listen to Berberian singing Berio’s Folk Songs I didn’t know I would eventually sing them under Berio’s baton. I can’t tell you how many times I put needle to vinyl and a headset over my ears to submerge myself in this couple’s glorious creative passion. (The recording I listened to in our school’s basement was with the Juilliard Ensemble and released in 1971.) Still, in the privacy of this rich and intimate acoustic space, I didn’t know how or why they had divorced more than a decade earlier, or that Cathy had died of a heart attack just shy of her 58th birthday (approximately one year before my first hearing of the songs), or that this suite was thought to be a love offering made by Berio to Cathy as their relationship unraveled.
The Folk Songs are 11 songs from 7 cultures … except, of course, the 2 Italian ones which were completely new musical cloth composed by Berio using traditional lyrics. Oh, and yes, the 2 American melodies — Black is the colour and I wonder as I wander — which were composed by the classically-trained singer and folklorist from Kentucky, John Jacob Niles.
The 3rd — Loosin Yelav — is an homage to Cathy’s Armenian heritage and the final song, an Azerbaijan love song, was transcribed by Cathy herself from a recording. When I took the song to an Azeri in Berkeley California in the mid-80s he did his best forensic work to render the lyrics sensible – but really the song remains in the land of the senses. A party song with party feelings … end of the night party feelings.
Like love, an imprint is made when we listen with care to music, let a particular piece or performance affect us to the core, or influence our imagining of the world. This is true when two artists really hear each other, especially when they co-create something brand new.
The depth and breadth of Cathy’s singing and Luciano’s adroit fleshing out of each song’s context ignite through a shared fascination with colour and texture. Both artists are musically and structurally sound, have studied the economics of Classical Music: exquisite airflow and chest/head balance for Cathy, plus no-more-instruments-in-a-song-than-necessary for Luciano. When they “adventure” you can feel the muscularity of each artist’s mind, and a kinaesthetic appreciation of how music lives from the neck down.
Cathy’s expansive, imaginative, and shape-shifting inhabitation of these songs set the course for my creative career. I was in the two-year Music Theatre Studio Ensemble – a contemporary opera programme at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. The other eleven students in my year had undergraduate singing degrees from the US, the UK, or Canada, but I was essentially untrained. (I was a baker in my early 20s.) Cathy’s way of transforming the inside of her vocal and emotional being sat so well inside my unruly throat and mouth. The shortness of the folk song phrases made sense to the rise and fall of my chest, and Cathy’s pleasure in each language’s contours thrilled me to the core.
Classical singers are expected to sing in a multitude of languages – Italian, French, and German are more common than English even for an English speaker. The slightly more exotic Slavic languages take us away from the comfort zone of Europe and allow for a little steeliness or edge in the sound. The Folk Songs ask for Appalachian, Armenian, Old French, Sicilian, Italian, Sardinian, Auvergnat, and Azerbaijan linguistic inhabitations. This kaleidoscope of body, throat, and mouth space was so judicious in Cathy that it was truly intoxicating to hear her transform.
Berio’s arrangements are also astonishingly nuanced. The ensemble version (1964) was his original and preferred imagining of the songs because it was so stripped down … At least that’s what he told me driving around Florence one day. Luscious without an ounce of excess. Though there are only seven instrumentalists in the suite he uses fewer still per song combining them in ways that reveal the sorrowful ache, innocent flirt, or raucous scrabble underlying each emotionally resonant melody. Comfort and discomfort ride a very fine line when performing Berio or sitting in his passenger seat.
In all of the songs, multiple musical actions happen simultaneously, but not strictly together, beginning with the raw double stops of the viola in the first tune’s introduction and interludes. The viola player is asked to play “like a wistful country dance fiddler.” There are no bar lines. Rhythmic independence from the voice creates an insistent, turbulent, circular motif – a prickly cushion for Cathy’s plaintiff, naive delivery of the three verses. The idiosyncratic pulse of the harp’s ever-changing ground bass throbs in me as a commentary on love’s obsessive, bittersweet complexity – its ups and downs, ebbs and flows.
As a young singer, the rogue brilliance of Berio and Berberian’s collaboration in the Sicilian and Sardinian tunes shocked and thrilled me most. In the fifth tune – the Sicilian one – the percussionists wallop two huge coiled automobile springs. The brazen wonkiness of that vibration threatens to render each orchestral chord a stroke of fate. The singer’s words are a wife’s plea to God that He keep her fisherman husband safe at sea. Cathy’s voice is rough, angry, urgent. Surprisingly, she relaxes into this state – broadening her throat, allowing voice box to slide down to a place where resonance rumbles behind her sternum’s bony plate. Rage finally breaks during the last few phrases into the gentlest hint of a sob. The flute picks up on this vocal catch gifting us with a tender slice of silvery interlude. Her love is sweeter than her fear.
The eighth song – the Sardinian – is my favourite. The eerie dissonance of the instrumental texture and tone, the lack of discernible rhythm, and the interrupted, fragmentary nature of the melodic motifs splay out a dry, bereft topography. Cathy pulls down her soft palate to map the physiology of mourning, the small space behind her nose brings to life the forlorn call of a nightingale’s two tiny syrinxes. The piccolo exacts birdsong too. Sorrow’s inner and outer dimensions are strung out through time infinite.
It is now 35 years later. I have sung these songs with Berio (the magic of that!), on four continents, and finally recorded them in Vancouver with conductor Owen Underhill and the Turning Point Ensemble in 2016. Over the years I have considered the singing of these songs as an act of artistic empathy – an opportunity to know other ways of being through adopting the insides of various women’s mouths. I’ve argued with vocal coaches that another culture’s sung sounds cannot be formed using ‘bel canto’ alignment. I sought out native speakers to deepen how each language sat inside me. I thought I was engaged in a revolutionary act within the sexist world of traditional opera.
Dwelling inside the album between 1984 and 1986 led me down a path that was fearless in relation to how I perceived voice within culture and empathy within artistry. But despite what Cathy’s mind-blowing interpretation offered me on every level, today I wonder if composing and singing this suite were acts of appropriation? What is the line between mine and yours? What is common to us under the skin as a species? What is our shared vocal landscape and what does culture’s shaping of breath and timbre mean? What is its value, purpose, context?
Looking back on the unfolding of my own path — the choices I made and had the luxury of making — I am now reevaluating action and empathy. Privilege. I’d like to think the Folk Songs were about community and identification but are they actually a mid-20th century extension of the exoticism that birthed Madama Butterly and Turandot in the early 1900s? I now see that this collection of folk songs houses a tantalizing “otherness” through its use of “the people’s songs.” How to square the external formalizing of something owned in common?
I look to Berio’s words to make sense remembering that he was political in a grassroots way that did not square with his serious music contemporaries. “Music is not a commodity or a form of merchandise you can chop up and divide; music is a very deep, global experience, and what you do carries the weight of what has been done before you.” This was the impetus behind his musical quoting of long-dead composers, his recycling of his own compositions, his love of folk song.
We sing our identity, whether free or restricted. The voice fights to find a balance within states of bound and unbound. So do culture, religion, politics … any of the ways we come together as human beings. Who am I? Who are we? Which “we” are we talking about here? Where do I stop and you begin?
Is it okay to appreciate the inner imagining and reworking of human flesh and spirit when taking on these songs? The ability to feel another’s state is part of how we are wired; it is something the human-animal is good at when given the chance. This is the action of empathy.
The fight in the body when singing is not only the fight to be heard in both glory and anguish — it is the fight to be perceived honestly and fairly while remaining vulnerable and transparent. Our understanding of appropriation was different when the Folk Songs were written and recorded, and when I first heard them in the 80s, the same decade I learned to throat sing from an Inuk elder in Igloolik, Nunavut. Today we know that it is crucial to make space for each person’s song, to not take anything away from another through our own excitement, or sense of discovery … not intentionally, not accidentally. I don’t throat sing anymore, but am grateful for how those multi-phonics felt in my body way back then — how they taught me to champion the female body.
We are the same species. We function under the skin in surprisingly similar ways. But this is an important moment in our evolution to reckon with just how badly we are capable of treating one another. There is no time to waste when it comes to changing our relationship to any form of “taking.”
The final song in Folk Songs is Azerbaijan and was culled phonetically from a Soviet-era 78RPM recording by Berberian, an American-Armenian. Given 2020’s devastating Armenian-Azerbaijan war over Nagorno-Karabahk, it is worth taking a moment to consider Cathy’s artistic act of “lifting” a song, and Berio’s setting of it. By today’s standards, the use of these phonemes and traditional melody is appropriative, as was my throat singing … naive, heartfelt attempts to get under another culture’s skin before our collective language became more aware, more refined, more aligned with the sanctity of each person, culture, race, identity.
I don’t mean to discourage you from listening to this recording. Cathy is inimitable. Berio is sublime. You can also watch Berio and Berberian perform Folk Songs on Youtube. Or check out the fifth episode of Berio’s 1972 TV series C’è Musica & Musica. Catch Cathy’s eye roll when her ex goes on about something that she must have experienced differently.
The breadth of Cathy’s private sourcing and the breath of her public generosity when singing the Folk Songs altered my sense of self. Her voice brought to life the elusive, mutable space between lover and beloved through a myriad of musical folk styles. Berio’s musical contract managed the alchemy needed to en-corporate love’s invisible and often perilous territory of gain and loss.
My raucous prayer is that I attempt to understand someone other than myself. That we all share resources and abundance without feeling a threat to either identity or survival. That “in-kind” is based in kindness. That singing each other’s songs together provides a path through contested ground.
Back to Berio, “The concept of memory in music, of what has come before us, is very important and cannot be discarded— if you try to shut it behind a door it will come back through the window! If I write something now, for example, it is a continuity of what I have written before. One work comments on the other; another work is a refusal of something else: there is a dialogue between everything you do, so the idea of a blank page or a germinal idea cannot make any sense when applied to creative behaviour.”
I am not giving a recently dead composer the last word: I am looking for what lies beneath the surface of his choices; giving space to his sense of musical legacy; noting that borrowing impulse affects breath, emotion, and sound regardless of time or location. Where does Berio’s assemblage of these folk songs take me, what do Cathy’s sounds open up, what happens to my body when I sing them too?
FIDES KRUCKER is an innovative interpreter and creator of vocal music in Canada and abroad. She founded the interdisciplinary ensemble URGE; their final work was published by Playwrights Canada. Her company, Good Hair Day Productions created and produced the groundbreaking lyric-theatre pieces: Girl With No Door On Her Mouth (Bartley/Carson); CP Salon, an r n’ b love and disability show with Kazumi Tsuruoka, now an NFB film; Julie Sits Waiting (Dufort/Walmsley), a sexual catastrophe, electroacoustic opera nominated for five Doras; and In This Body, an emotional landscape of Canadian pop songs, danced by Peggy Baker, Laurence Lemieux, and Heidi Strauss. It is available on CD with musicians Rob Clutton, Tania Gill, and Germaine Liu. Fides has created vocalography for renowned choreographer Peggy Baker’s company, receiving composition nominations and a Dora win. Her recording of Berio’s Folk Songs on the European label Orlando was noted for its “blazing theatricality and playful brilliance.” Fides teaches voice at Humber College and facilitates a wide range of Toronto dance and theatre artists as well as Chicago’s Walkabout Theater. Her book, Good Girls Don’t Sing: Women and Voice were researched with the assistance of a Chalmers’ Arts Fellowship.
Make sure you check out the 5 Questions interview that Fides Krucker and Tim Motzer did together here on Esthetic Lens.