Suspension

berio-wasserklavier
A meditation. © Charles Thibo

A silent park. A pond. Trees. A leaf floats in the water – suspended. Too heavy to stay on the surface, too light to sink to the ground. Suspended. A piano. A meditation. Water. A look into a mirror. The world reflected, suspended for a little over two minutes.

Water – the mirror

The Italian composer Luciano Berio wrote in 1965 an exceptional piece for solo piano he called Wasserklavier (Water Piano). With the four elements in mind, he wrote three other pieces as a complement: Erdenklavier (Earth Piano), Luftklavier (Air Piano) and Feuerklavier (Fire Piano). The four pieces are part of set published in 1990 under the title “6 Encores”. I heard Wasserklavier for the very first time in October 2016 as an encore performed by the pianist Hélène Grimaud. Beautiful.

Berio lived from 1925 to 2003; he was one of the pioneers of electro-acoustic music and a strong promoter of contemporary classical music. He composed multiple pieces for solo instruments and while Berio wrote Wasserklavier in a distinctively modern musical language, it echoes the intimacy of Johannes Brahms’ late piano works.

Schönberg and Stravinsky

He was born into a family of musicians and quickly learned to play the piano. As a teenager he started to compose small pieces, but World War II had unforeseen consequences. During military training as a conscript he shot himself in his hand and it quickly became clear that he could not become a professional pianist. At the conservatory he studied composers of the late 19th and early 20th century; Arnold Schönberg’s works impressed deeply upon him.

His composition studies and the works of Igor Stravinsky and Luigi Dallapiccola, Italy’s pendant to Schönberg and a promoter of Twelve-tone serialism* pushed him so to speak into the arms of the Neue Musik. In 1955 he became the co-director of the newly created Studio di Fonologia, an electronic studio at the Italian broadcasting company RAI, later he taught at the Julliard School in New York.

Art as an open work

Another important element nurturing his musical style came from the world of philosophy: Umberto Eco’s theory about art as an open work (i.e. a work that has no inherent meaning but develops its meaning through the eye or the ear of the public) explains Berio’s fascination with instrumental and vocal gesture. According to Eco, modern art invites the public – the spectator or the listener – to complete a specific piece of art and to give the elements provided by the artist an individual meaning leading to a constant re-interpretation, a never-ending dialogue with the artist.

I listened to Wasserklavier, recorded by the pianist David Arden, over and over again and each time it evokes the ideas of translucency, calmness, clarity – an honest introspection, resting in myself and seeing myself the way I am. Those were no random thoughts, because they came back every time I listened to the piece and only now, when I have given Wasserklavier its final-personal meaning, can the piece be considered as finished. I would be interested in hearing your interpretation…

© Charles Thibo

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