<< -- 3 -- Jennifer I Paull CATHY BERBERIAN - NEVER KNOWINGLY MISUNDERSTOOD
One lovely story Cathy used to tell was of a bad-tempered customs official at LaGuardia Airport in New York. She was using her Italian passport and the American-sounding, utterly glamorous lady with breathtaking Armenian eyes just happened to fall upon some wise guy who said 'Well, if you're Italian, start reciting Dante's Inferno in the original!' -- which of course, she did. The person who could outwit Cathy just wasn't born.
I shared a pretty close call with her during the famous occasion when she premiered her A la recherche de la musique perdue recital at the Berlin Festival, in 1971. She absolutely wanted to go through Checkpoint Charlie to have a coffee in the famous Unter den Linden. I must admit that I was not exactly calm as she pushed me ahead of her. The East German guard's expression would have curdled milk in the udder.
Cathy was very short sighted and she regularly wore glasses during part of the day to save her eyes for the contact lenses she would use when it was most important. The guard ordered her to remove them (Brille abnehmen!), to compare her with her passport photograph. There was a pregnant silence during which nothing moved. I had that blood pounding noise in my ears and a vision of our both spending the next year (at least) in a cell. She was wearing a black trench coat, tied tightly at her wasp waist, which made her look like Pamela Anderson (for which genes and in-built gravity blockers as opposed to creative surgery, had sufficed). Her left hand on her hip, her right to the side bar of the offending object, she slowly slipped the lenses down her nose and took them off, spreading her arm wide and swinging them casually -- very striptease and very cabaret. 'Baby, it just couldn't be anyone else!' I swear I felt the floor sag and heard traffic come to a screeching halt for a hundred metres in all directions; but somehow we made it through and back.
For Cathy, words were paramount. The voice in all of its guises and expressions was her apparatus for conveying her art. The sounds of living, onomatopoeia and words, were the purpose of that voice. What was uttered, said or sung was not purely a resource for making a beautiful tone quality, but a way of conveying thought, ideas and intensity. Singing was one manner of using the voice: a book has more than one chapter; a rainbow more than one colour, a scale more than one note.
In the beginning there was the unbelievable and liberated voice -- Cathy. Then with what she could do with it, there came Aria (1958) by John Cage -- and then there came Berio and others who wrote for her and Cathy, who wrote for herself.
Copyright © 18 August 2005
Jennifer I Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland