O King: A Memoriam

Luciano_BerioThe first piece I’d like to look at is one I spent a great deal of time on last semester: the second movement in Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia.  Titled, O King, Berio wrote this work in 1968 as a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He composed it originally as a piece in its own right, re-orchestrating it later that same year to fit within his Sinfonia. Give it a listen: initially it may not seem super interesting, but at least it’s not prohibitively atonal.

 (not my favorite but the best version I could find on YouTube)

Quick Look

Listen for:

  • progressive build-up of noise and volume from beginning to end
  • voices (on vowels) and instruments sounding as one collective instrument
  • his instrument choices for different moments and effects
  • sustained sounds moving to iterative (disregarding the bell-like sounds)
  • increasing use of consonant sounds in voices

Musical Meaning:

  • eerily quiet combination of voices and instruments sounds like a collective “wail” of mourning voices
  • impulsive sounds are bells tolling for the death of a great man
  • increasing noise component as well as the gradual build of volume represents the increasing intensity of mourning and the progression of the grieving process
  • the last great tolling of the bell (climax) can be seen as the moment of acceptance
  • confusion and cacophony following the climax mimic the confusion and loss felt by the Civil Rights movement: they must find a new leader and rebuild

I could sit here all day and talk about all the cool and “intelligent” aspects of this piece, like how Berio used tone rows, rhythmic rows, and even vowel rows to compose O King.  But as interesting as all those things are, they don’t really offer a compelling reason to listen to this as a piece of music.  Mathematical constructions of tones may be beautiful and brilliant, but they rarely move us to tears. And even though the work is strictly arranged by rows, it is also organized in a musical manner by timbre.  Timbre can have all sorts of definitions when applied to music, but here it will describe the total sound. It is through timbre that one can best understand the musical meaning of the work.

I believe the best way to define Berio’s organization of this work is by noise. Noise, in this context, refers to the non-tonal part of a sound. If you clap your hands or bang on a drum, that’s noise. If you play a note on a flute, the noise components are the initial “attack” sound of blowing air, the click of the key, and any rasp or breathiness in the tone. O King devolves gradually; it begins with sustained sounds in unison, then moves to layering increasingly dissonant instruments and pitches, then finally, following the climax, tonal components hardly matter at all: the sounds we hear are mostly non-pitched.  One can see this in the spectrograph analysis of O King. The spectrograph charts the sound that it picks up through time. The horizontal axis is time, the vertical axis is frequency (Hz), and the colors represent intensity (volume) of the sound being charted.  Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 5.56.01 PMThe farther along in the work one looks, the fewer horizontal bands there are (vertically stacked horizontal bands mark pitches and their upper partials) and the more noise appears (noise being all the material not organized into horizontal lines). Here are some snapshots of various places in the work:

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 6.02.10 PM

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 6.02.02 PM

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 6.01.56 PM

Screen shot 2013-01-09 at 6.01.49 PM

It is very easy to tell where one is in the work by examining the noise component of a particular moment on the spectrograph.

Another really interesting way Berio organizes this work by noise is in his use of vowels and consonants. The vocal material in this work is derived entirely from the sounds in the name “Martin Luther King.” Berio begins by using only the vowel sounds. Then he adds more and more consonant sounds, beginning with the ones that are the least noisy (the nasal consonants like “n” “m” and “ng”) and progressing until the climax of the work on the very noisy “k” sound of “King.” Following the climax (when the piece descends into a cacophony of noise) the voices begin to layer consonant sounds on top of each other. The very end of the work marks the noisiest vocal moment as, for the first time, all voices simultaneously sing a different syllable of the name.

It is impossible to touch on all the amazing aspects of this work here, but I would highly encourage you to listen for yourselves and see what you can pick out! Though this work has not been organized in a traditional form, nor can it be considered melodic or even tonal, it nonetheless offers a moving musical message. You just have to know where to look.

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2 thoughts on “O King: A Memoriam

  1. Joseph Schillinger did a lot of work on all this in the 30’s and 40’s. You might find it interesting but I’m not sure if the books are still in print. He devised ‘sonic symbols’.

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