Chopin made the etude famous. Liszt made the etude flashy. Debussy mad the etude inspiring. And Berio made his own etude—the Sequenza.
Perhaps Luciano Berio’s “Sequenzas” aren’t made to serve as etudes, but it is difficult not to think of them as etude-like; they are for solo instruments, relatively short, explore different techniques, and certainly make the musician sweat a little. The word “sequenza” in Italian means “sequence,” and these pieces are exactly that, sequences of procedures and unique methods on the instrument.
Berio’s “Sequenza V” for trombone is a five-and-a-half minute gaze of confusion, but in an emotional sense, not a musical one. I say “gaze” because the piece brings to mind a naive child in an unusual environment, looking up at an extraordinary, and strange, world. This could have been Berio’s goal. The famous exclamation, “Why?” meant to be said by the trombonist is a memento from the composer’s childhood.
Grock the Clown
Berio, around age 11, saw Grock, a legendary clown, perform in his neighborhood. In the middle of the clown’s performance, he turned to the audience and said, simply, “warum?” meaning “why?” in German. Berio said, “I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, I wished I could do both of them.” Traditionally speaking, “Sequenza V” is not the type of piece that would bring tears to the eyes (or laughter… to the mouth?), but it certainly parallels the emotion Berio felt during Grock’s performance. Why must the trombonist sing and play at the same time? Why is the mute tapped against the bell? Why am I listening to this? Because pieces like these hold our interest. They aren’t the type of works we can predict, capricious like the emotions we will experience in our lives.
The piece begins with short, accented notes and quickly dives into phrases with uneven stressed and staccato notes. The multiphonics begin almost immediately as well. The question is presented to the listener about one minute in—it grabs a hold of you early and doesn’t let go. This question is followed by a low B♭ which morphs into a growling dog or airplane. It’s around this point in the piece you start asking yourself the same question Grock asked the audience, but Berio doesn’t seem to care—he keeps going with these rattling notes and even throws in a short reveille-like passage. The last few minutes of the piece wind down, down, and down. The trombone exits with a subdued E, making an eerie triad with the other fermata-ed note.
These words I have been writing simulate a review, right? But the only thing that is missing is criticism. I’m going to stay out of that realm for now, though. Berio’s “Sequenza V” for trombone so accurately captures the emotion of confusion, and criticizing it, to me, seems hypocritical in a sense. Sure, there may be people who will find flaws in it, but who am I to say what is wrong with a portrayal of an emotion?
So, let’s all go outside, stare at the confusing world, and ask ourselves, “Why?”