[Essay] Luciano Berio and Fragmentary Composition — Jack Sheen

Sound, like any object, can easily become fractured, even if it lacks a solid materiality. As an art that practices in sound, music employs or results in notions of fragmentation both in itself sonically, and in the contexts within which it simultaneously takes shape and functions. Music has toyed with the notion of fragmentation to various ends for hundreds of years, to the extent of establishing itself as a technical institution in its own right. Much music of the classical era employed various techniques which deliberately broke down material into smaller and smaller parts; musical phrases by composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are littered with motifs that are gradually deconstructed to give the music a sense of forward momentum before its conclusion. As musical modernism developed throughout the late 20th century, sonic fragmentation became stylistically and ideologically prevalent, especially as modernism itself gradually ruptured into postmodernity. A pillar stone in post-war music, Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1968-1969) is generally recognised as the ultimate postmodern musical work in its simultaneous extension and rejection of modernist aesthetics. Sinfonia’s apex is its central third movement, a sublime collage of musical quotations sourced from Western music’s rich and diverse heritage from J.S. Bach to Pierre Boulez, crashing on top of each other in a near indecipherable haze, commentated by eight singers/actors who quote works by Lévi-Strauss and Beckett. This is itself woven around Gustav Mahler’s scherzo In ruhig fließender Bewegung (With quiet flowing movement) his mammoth second symphony entitled ‘Resurrection’ (1888-1894), which subtly runs throughout the entire 12 minutes of Sinfonia’s third movement.

Quotation here is clearly working on numerous levels and to various affects. This entire third movement could be seen as Berio’s own surreal symphonic scherzo, harkening back to a long tradition of music, emphasised by the ever present third movement of Mahler’s own epic symphony. Yet the level of quotation in the piece transcends the norms of the musical referential tradition present in earlier musical periods; clearly, Berio’s total commitment to the re-appropriation of other composers’ and writers’ work attempts to mark a new chapter in musical development, vehemently dismissing modernist tendencies which rejected the musical traditions of the past in a search for a new, meaningful and sincere language. However, here, we reach a clear tension in matters of musical postmodernity. Whilst claiming to renounce the tradition of modernism which had by the 1960s become institutionally established, postmodern music harboured the very progressive, dismissive traits of the modernism from which it was attempting to distance itself. The idea of post-modernism as opposed to simply an continuation of modernism can therefore be questioned, and this ambiguity drives Sinfonia, which wrestles with the harsher edges of a modernist sound as well as the pluralistic aesthetics associated with postmodernism – a plurality manifest in the morsels of music pasted together to make this stream-of-consciousness-esque Sinfonia movement.

If fragmentation appears only superficially in Berio’s Sinfonia, it is employed more rigorously at the heart of John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape no.4 (1951). Scored for 24 players and 12 radios, the work is performed by changing the volume and FM frequency of the various radios at certain times. Amongst bursts of hiss, fragments of music and speech appear and reappear as if they were being treated as musical notes in an amorphous melody. Each performance of the piece is totally unique, as each one will utilise different radio stations, fracturing both the works sonic appearance as well as its socio-cultural significance. Imaginary Landscape no.4 ’s meaning is essentially fragmented, for example, when the piece manifests in different social settings, its FM found sounds change to those pooled from a different, highly localised socio-cultural vocabulary, allowing for its semantic content to fluctuate between communities and persons. The piece can be seen as a suitable appropriation of Frederic Jameson’s musings on television’s role as the ultimate mediating tool of postmodernity, carrying its relentlessly, semantically disjointed aura through its pictures and audio. Although constructed out of radios, their deployment is clearly motivated by Cage’s desire to bombard his audience in a similarly fragmented way sonically and semantically via its indeterminacy. Like Sinfonia’s third movement, the extent of the audial inconsistency in Cage’s resulting piece, perhaps ironically, eventually plateaus into a comfortable steadiness, where the lack of cohesion bizarrely coheres into an expectation of the unexpected as its obsessive dynamism neutralises itself.

This same indeterminacy deconstructs the notion of Imaginary Landscape no.4 being a unified ‘work’ in and of itself. Music’s ontological status has always been ambiguous due its lack of materiality, in contrast to physical artworks such as paintings, sculptures, and to some extent, films, whose unique, material appearance and existence differentiates them from other artworks and copies. Generally, compositions retain their identity via similarities between their numerous performances: Stravinsky’s ballet score Agon contains a recognised ‘sound structure’ which must be reconstructed in a performance. Here, Cage eludes this sort of classification by designing an indeterminate work which by necessity cannot reconstruct a set sound structure. Imaginary Landscape no.4’s innermost essence as a piece of music is thus one defined by fragmentation, as it holds no consistent sonic or semantic identity.

One composer whose work can be seen as an authentic investigation into musical fragments is James Saunders, whose #[unassigned] (2000-2009) series explores notions of flexible modularity in its musical construction. #[unassigned] is a vast collection of musical modules, some lasting only a few seconds long, which are to be assembled in any way performers choose, creating totally unique yet cohesively similar pieces of music on each performance. The piece deals with fragmentation in its lack of set out, composed linearity, instead replacing it with small units of sound which can be freely constructed, which Saunders claims took its starting point from Jacques Lacan’s notion of ‘rings of a necklace that is a ring in another necklace made of rings’.

However, if fragmentation is at the heart of the composition and performance of #[unassigned], its aesthetic is one of startling unity: each module is written from the same sonic palette of quiet, temperamental sounds, often utilising delicate, unusual extended techniques of playing. In contrast to Sinfonia’s third movement and Cage’s Imaginary Landscape no.4, fragmentation, despite being used most extremely in musical composition, results in the most cohesive ongoing set of pieces. Even a cursory comparison of three very different pieces shows how the play of fragmentation in the composition of post-war music can yield suitably fragmented stylistic and ideological results.


Jack Sheen is a conductor and composer from Manchester, U.K.

In 2017 at the age of 23 Jack became the RNCM’s youngest ever Junior Fellow in Conducting, appointed by Sir Mark Elder, during which time he worked with orchestras across Europe including the Hallé, the London Symphony Orchestra and Guildhall School Symphony Orchestra, and Halberstadt Orchestra.

Awards include a Rovaumont Voix Nouvelle Composition Prize (2018), Royal Philharmonic Prize for Composition (2016), an RNCM Gold Medal (2012) and BBC Young Composer of the Year (2011). Between 2016-17 Jack held an Artist Fellowship at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, after completing a Masters at the School with Distinction.

Jack is one of the curators behind London Contemporary Music Festival and is the Director of the experimental music group An assembly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s