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“Linea” by Luciano Berio – How to conquer the vibraphone / marimba part (without dying)

Linea by Luciano Berio

Linea by Luciano Berio is a piece written in 1973 for two pianos, a vibraphone and a marimba. It’s a nice piece… but also an enormous mess.

In May 2014, I performed “Linea” – the vibraphone part – during a concert from which a dvd was produced by the Italian label Stradivarius.

Today I’ll discuss how I prepared for this piece, especially considering what I already wrote in the three-article series “How to Study a New Piece for Marimba”.

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PART I – PRELIMINARY ACTIVITIES

TITLE

To better understand the title Linea, read the author’s comment to the piece, which can be found on the website of Centro Studi Luciano Berio:

The subject matter or theme of Linea is the constant transformation of a very simple melody into more complex, differentiated and independent articulations. It is rather difficult to define a melody, since this term always implies other functions; a melody by J. S. Bach – a monody, a simple line – implies not only a phrase structure and a rhythmic one, but also a harmonic structure. In a solo violin Sonata, polyphony is implied (and heard as such) even when the violinist is playing a single line… If I decide to use a melody, I must put all the implied elements into it: these elements are not taken for granted or given by history, but have to be invented anew.
Linea is exactly this – an exposition of the elements implied in a melody which is only apparently simple, and is destroyed by its own implications. At times, however, the melody reappears in recognizable form, like an object found again after an absence, and seen with different and maybe more penetrating eyes. Sometimes the four players (two pianists and two percussionists) meet on the same line, playing the same melody; sometimes they diverge and play different music, generated, however, by that ever-present melody.
I composed Linea in 1973 for Felix Blaska and his dance company.

I’ll be honest. When I read about “complex articulations” or “apparently simple” or “the four musicians play a music apparently different”, I became very curious but also very concerned.

Other than that, I didn’t worry too much. By reading the comment, I basically understood that:

  • the piece has a melody;
  • the melody changes in the course of the piece;
  • the piece is an enormous mess.

And that was enough for me.

 

LISTENING TO THE PIECE AND UNDERSTANDING ITS MEANING

YouTube offers several executions of this piece so, as soon as I accepted to participate in this production and I received the sheet music, I immediately began to check them out.

The first few times I listened, although I had the sheet music in front of me and I concentrated on the notes as hard as I could, I got lost on average 4-5 times in the 15 minutes of music.

Luckily, I received a recording of Linea which is, in my opinion, much more “authentic” and high-quality than the ones you can find on YouTube. I am talking about the version recorded by Ensemble Avantgarde.

As I continued listening to this execution, with the part in front of me, I began to gradually understand more and more, to comprehend the piece’s meaning, in other words, to find the “line” Berio was talking about. Hidden, disorganized, destroyed and rebuilt in the different parts. Once I did this, I also began to appreciate this piece more and more.

As far as the deeper meaning of this melodic line… what Berio meant by certain sequences of notes… or why he transformed them a certain way…these are all pretty useless questions. It would be like desperately trying to look for a metaphysical meaning in any of Bach’s solo pieces.

To examine this profound esthetic concept more in depth, listen to “Pure and Easy” by the Who.

 

STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS

Linea’s macrostructure is easy to identify because each of the 12 sections has a title: Manège I – Entrée I – Ensemble I – Manège II – Ensemble II – Manège III – Ensemble III – Entrèe II – Coda I – Coda II – Ensemble IV – Notturno.

Sister sections have similar characteristics.

  • The three Manège are the “healthy carriers” of the melody, which is introduced in the first measures of Manège I and is then clearly represented, even if somewhat transformed, in Manège II and III;
  • The various Ensemble are the “explosive” moments of the piece, when the density of notes is only proportional to the density of sweat dripping from the musicians’ forehead because of the difficulty of execution. In more formal terms, these could be classified as development sections.
  • The two Entrèes are the most suspended moments of the piece, especially the second one, the freest part of the piece, where the musicians get to play a sort of “coordinated” improvisation guided by very precise instructions included in the part.
  • The sections known as Coda are pretty self-explanatory whereas the Nocturne represents one last representation – transformed and calm – of the main melody.

The microstructure is also fairly easy to identify because each section is characterized by moments of homophonic dialogue alternated with rests of different length, changes in tempo, surges and collective “frenzies”, recomposition of the melody, texture changes, etc.

 

HARMONIC ANALYSIS

Talking about harmony for composers like Berio is clearly quite a challenge. It is instead much more interesting and useful to try finding the theme, the melody, which is the “multiform” protagonist of the whole piece.

Already present in the first few measures, the harmony is characterized by a minor third (C# to E).

Luciano Berio Linea

The first page of the score

By the end of the first section, it has already changed shape, it has transformed and has basically vanished.

It only reappears during Manège II, only faster and sort of “stretched out” in wider melodic intervals. Then it hides to make room for the “frenzies” of Ensemble II and again it returns slowly in Manège III.

Finally, it peeks one last time at the end of Coda I, during the vibraphone part (what honor!), trying to carve some room for itself within the rapid and aggressive dialogue between the two pianos.

The melodic line is dead and we collect the remains – all that is left – during the Nocturne, the last section which ends the piece as low and gently as it had started.

R.I.P. Linea.

 

PART 2 – LEARN THE NOTES

SIGHT – READING THE PIECE

Sight reading this piece is as much an impossible task as it is a necessary one, because it allows you to immediately identify the hardest parts on which you must concentrate your efforts.

If however, as it happened to me, you don’t have a separate sheet music for your part, the first thing you need to do is: create one.

How? Like this:

  1. photocopy the whole sheet music;
  2. cut strips of your part;
  3. glue the strips on a paper size A3;
  4. scan it and print the newly created sheet music.

Note: make sure to glue as many references to the other instruments as possible or rehearsals will become a nightmare.

After having glanced at the newly created sheet music four or five times, you can really start studying, beginning with the hardest parts. And there is definitely no shortage of those: when I did it, I decided to start from page 9 as I thought it gave me plenty to work on.

 

STUDY PHASE

Linea berio

4 fingers organizing for a Berio performance

Studying a piece like Linea is not different from studying any other piece for marimba or vibraphone: turn on the metronome (very very very slow) and follow, if you wish, the instructions I wrote in my post “How to study a new piece for marimba – Part 2“.

I have to admit that during the first phase I made a mistake. Since Linea is an extremely difficult piece, probably the hardest piece I have ever played, I took a very long time to fully learn the various sections. Especially since the piece was going to be recorded, I had to shoot for perfection. The result of spending so much time studying so thoroughly every section was that at the first rehearsal, although it had been scheduled a whole four months before, I was prepared only on the first 20 pages of the score and I had to sight read the rest. And with less than stellar results… As a consequence, besides having wasted my colleagues’ time, I had to hurry and study the rest of the piece before the second rehearsal, a few days later.

Lesson: even if the piece is extremely hard or if it involves an ensemble, try to come to the first rehearsal having read your entire part, even if you haven’t studied every section very thoroughly.

 

MEMORIZING?

Personally, it was impossible for me to read certain sections without looking at the vibraphone keyboard – too many notes, too fast – despite the fact that I was playing with two pianists in front of me and a marimba player to my side (this arrangement was indicated by Berio himself in the second page) and I therefore frequently needed to look at them to give/receive various signals.

In any case, memorization of the hardest parts has happened automatically and unintentionally because of endless repetitions during both the study and the rehearsal sessions.

 

SOUND AND PERFORMANCE

It is really interesting to witness how Berio maximizes the sound possibilities of each instrument chosen for Linea. In the case of the vibraphone, for example, there are certain parts that must be played using “dead strokes”. Even the use of the pedal cannot be given for granted and it is in my opinion, one of the hardest elements to “faithfully” reproduce on stage.

What can I say about the performance? As in many other pieces of contemporary music, the player is more involved in playing the right notes than in enjoying (and therefore in bringing to life) the music. However, once you are in the zone – in this case on the line – and especially after studying for months, performing this ensemble music becomes a real pleasure. I tried to truly live this piece during the live performance and the 15 minutes on stage really flew by, even though I am still not sure whether I was able to convey all of this in the recording.

 

LAST ADVICE

One last advice I can give you about the simple but very important aspect of page setting, I learned from my colleague Arrigo Axia (“Arig”), who played the marimba part. Instead of creating a custom sheet music “with the strips” like I did, cutting out many useful references to the pianos, he used his Ipad connected to a bluetooth pedal to turn each page.

In my opinion, with a 13 inch tablet (the same size as an A4 paper), like the ones sold today, Arrigo’s solution seems perfect. You should try it.

 

PART 3 – AUDIT AND PERFORMANCE

BEWARE OF MEMORIZATION

As I wrote before, memorizing so many passages from Linea was inevitable, but with all that ink on the paper (we are talking about pages and pages of sixty-fourth notes…), making mistakes in the learning process was also inevitable.

So after several weeks spent studying and rehearsing, I realized, by slowly reading the part with my trusted metronome by my side, that I learned two notes and a rhythm wrong. These things happen but they definitely need to be corrected, especially in the event of a recording.

 

RECORDING

As far as “recording yourself” during rehearsal or during the study phase, I preached well but did not follow my own advices. Despite all the rehearsals for this piece that I participated in, I never thought of recording myself to hear how I played. A real shame, because I could have corrected a few interpretation mistakes which instead I only noticed shortly before the day of the recording.

It would have been so simple. All I needed to do was turning on that damn smartphone, which I kept turned off in my pocket not to disturb, while I was studying by myself or while I was rehearsing with others. Maybe I was just embarrassed to hear how many notes I played wrong during the most difficult passages. A ridiculous fear since shortly after I would have recorded those same passages for a dvd production… A chance and time wasted.

 

PERFORMANCE

Finally the performance. For this part, I am leaving you, or at least those who wish to watch it, with the video recording of the concert published by “Stradivarius”. Besides Linea, the program also included two unpublished pieces, one of which, “Terza Algebra del Tempo” by Giovanni Albini, which was written for two percussionists, was also interpreted by me and the great Arrigo.

You find a trailer of the concert down here, enjoy the video!

 

Question: have you ever played Linea by Berio or a piece with a similar level of difficulty? If you have, what was your study method? Tell us about your experience!

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