- Writing Like Music: Luciano Berio, Umberto Eco and the New Avant-Garde
Die Dichtung des Lyrikers kann nichts aussagen, was nicht in der ungeheuersten Allgemeinheit und Allgültigkeit bereits in der Musik lag, die ihn zur Bilderrede nötigte. Der Weltsymbolik der Musik ist eben deshalb mit der Sprache auf keine Weise erschöpfend beizukommen.
(The poems of the lyrist can express nothing that did not already lie hidden in that vast universality and absoluteness of the music that compelled him to figurative speech. Language can never adequately render the cosmic symbolism of music).Friedrich Nietzsche1
Powerful new influences on a shared artistic imagination and creative practice cannot always be traced to a single, foundational event. Luciano Berio and Umberto Eco’s collaboration at the Studio di fonologia musicale, however, appears to be precisely such an event: an extraordinary encounter between two ambitious and creative young men with important consequences for Italian literature and music in the second half of the twentieth century. As I hope to show in this contribution, serialism, electronic music, and especially Berio’s experiments with the human voice were important sources of inspiration for some of Italy’s most original and distinguished contemporary writers. From the mid-1950s, poets such as Edoardo Sanguineti, Alfredo Giuliani and Nanni Balestrini looked with great interest to the immediate postwar period and to its radical, explosive transformation of modern music, finding there a standard of uncompromising originality and artistic bravery, whose influence can be felt in many of their subsequent declarations regarding the subversive power of poetry. Like their musical precursors in Paris and New York – Pierre Boulez and John Cage – Sanguineti and his peers saw themselves as heirs to the cultural [End Page 81] wealth of earlier European avant-garde movements, but also as members of a new generation, untarnished by the compromises that had been forced on many artists during the years of dictatorship and war.2 Italian experimental literature, like modern music, prided itself on its sense of freshness, exhibited confidence and iconoclastic zeal, and took delight in what Luciano Berio called the ‘liberating effect’ and the ‘sacrificial and somehow clownish impulse’ of avant-garde culture.3 Optimism and the demand for a radical renewal of the arts were also at the heart of Umberto Eco’s influential study Opera aperta (1962), a book that was soon adopted by Italy’s neoavanguardia as its unofficial manifesto.4 Ranging from experimental literature to ‘informal’ painting, from Husserl to Heisenberg, and from non-Euclidean geometry to serial music, Eco’s ambitious investigation conveys an interdisciplinary interest and a sense of intellectual excitement that were characteristic of many artistic circles of the 1950s. Despite its unusually wide scope, however, Eco’s enquiry into ‘openness’ appears particularly pertinent to the methods and concerns of contemporary art: anti-realist prose fiction, computer-generated poetry, serialism and electronic music. Although Eco is primarily concerned with literature, his book opens with a chapter on post-Weberian music, in which the concept of openness is discussed in relation to the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Henri Pousseur, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio. ‘Openness’ and its related attributes –ambiguity, indeterminacy, discontinuity and polyvalence – are explained by Eco as ‘structural homologies’ (‘analogie di struttura’), which can be traced across different historical periods and in various forms of artistic expression.5
For the poets of Italy’s neoavanguardia, Eco’s emphasis on structural similarity prompted a new way of understanding the analogies between literature and music. During the early 1960s, musicians like Boulez and Berio came to be seen as more than just examples of a successful emancipation from obsolete artistic conventions: their concern with automatism, chance composition and ‘pure form’ also made them important models for a radical renewal of verbal expression.6 This is particularly evident in the neoavanguardia’s efforts to create a non-referential poetic language, which was supposed to provide the foundations for an ‘authentically critical art’ outside ‘the boundaries of bourgeois normality, namely its ideological and linguistic norms’.7 As an influential historian of Italian literature has recently shown, Italy’s new avant-garde was primarily motivated by theoretical demands for a literature without logical and semantic articulation...