CATHY BERBERIAN - A MUSICAL COLUMBUS
On what would have been
Cathy Berberian's 80th birthday,
JENNIFER PAULL explores the life of
the artist who died way too soon
Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. - Henry David Thoreau, naturalist and author (1817-1862)
Cathy Berberian was a musical Columbus. She died way too soon, having re-channeled the trade winds of the world of music and marked continents of thought (as well as geography), indelibly. Of course, her collaboration with Luciano Berio immediately springs to mind. However, without clay there could never be clay sculpture. Without Cathy, Circles, Sequenza III, Visages and so much of Berio's oeuvre that the list would overspill many a page, would simply never have existed. She it was who taught him English introduced him to James Joyce and her own incredible, vocal prowess and imagination. What gifts! Cathy was as much responsible for Berio's works written specifically for her own capacities and intelligence, as those generated by his exposure to her having introduced him to such amazing ingredients and possibilities. The laudatory lens of musical history has not been angled with accuracy of focus. The 'BerBerio' marriage was a real chicken and egg dilemma. Without her, the stave-stenciled radar screen that was Berio's mind could not have picked up and subsequently ingested many vital stem cells. Cathy was and remains, unique. Without Berio, endless, innovative ideas unquestionably did enter hers sans the scaffolding of his imprint.
The experimental use of her vocal technique at the Studio di fonologia musicale in Milan was strenuous, often totally incognito and non-remunerated. Reinforced musique concrète was held together by 'Cathy cement' and nerves of steel upon innumerable, unacknowledged occasions. She improvised, created and worked her vocal chords to a frazzle, dashed home and prepared dinner for the intellectuals who came repeatedly to Mrs Berio's table. She was also a star de cuisine and sometimes banished to it whilst the men talked shop.
Cathy Berberian. Photo courtesy of Ervant Berberian
This was macho Italy in the 1950s and early 60s. Like Dorothy Parker and other lady trailblazers of razor-sharp wit and intelligence, Cathy was way ahead of society's according equality of stature to a capable, strong, attractive female; graciously, if at all. A flurry of festering, film footage and voluminous vats of vindictively-versed printing ink bear witness to the lamentable fact that half a century later, little has shuffled forward (let alone barrier-crashed) in this particular, non-respected respect. Her role is generally hugely underrated in the part she played in Berio's artistic development and career. Women walked behind men and liberation was not even a faint mirage on a caliginous, feminist horizon for un' Americana in post-war Italy. The spotlight needs serious readjustment. Many spotlights do.
Copyright © 4 July 2005
Jennifer I Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland