Gregor’s Bed – Laborintus II

Recent Discoveries from the Realm of the Experimental and Avant-Garde

Album: Luciano Berio, Laborintus II (Ipecac Recordings 2012)

Artists: Ictus Ensemble with Mike Patton

?But follow me
but see the babies, chattering as they dream
but follow me at this point,
but see the mud at our backs
and the sun
and the sun between the trees
and the babies asleep
chattering as they dream
but so restless.?

English translation of a passage from the poem Laborintus by Edoardo Sanguineti

Two Italians and an American Are Sitting at a Bar, and One Italian Says to the Other, ?I Just Wrote This Book of Poetry and . . .?

Whose idea was this, anyway? Mike Patton, an alternative pop culture icon dabbling in the widely disparate fields of heavy metal and serious avant-garde music, has just produced and performed in a recording of Laborintus II, a work by the late Luciano Berio, an avant-garde composer with historical ties to pop culture icons.

Berio’s three-act storyless opera was first performed at Mills College in California in 1967, the same year in which Berio appeared on the cover of the Sergeant Pepper album.

Berio is fondly remembered by those who count: ?I spent a lot of time listening to avant-garde artists and going to places like Wigmore Hall where I saw composer Luciano Berio (I remember meeting him afterwards, and he was a very unassuming bloke),? says Paul McCartney in The Beatles Anthology.

We can assume that Berio left his mark on the Beatles during their experimental phase, but his was often a hands-on influence; when not teaching music, he liked hanging out with young bohemians at avant-garde and jazz musical events. For example, he would talk politics and sometimes engage in musical explorations with members of the Grateful Dead, who were among his former students.

By this time Berio had already composed Laborintus II, using a libretto written by his pal Edoardo Sanguineti, a poet, Dante scholar, and polyglot. Berio scored the opera for tape, vocalists, a narrator, and an ensemble that included a jazz drummer.

It’s mostly in Italian, with original texts by Sanguineti, but also assembles (in a strangely well-integrated bricolage) snippets from Dante, the Bible, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound?passages condemning usury, of all things, and drawing on Dante’s theories about music.

The usury theme is one element that grants this text a prophetic relevance in light of the current financial?and thus cultural?crises. There are references to labour struggles with sounds of protest and heated argument. Passages from this opera sound eerily like news footage from the Occupy Movement demonstrations.

It’s apt that such a piece be narrated and sung by Mike Patton, a Californian singer-songwriter, musician, producer, and actor who’s been a member of a number of important alternative rock acts and worked with experimental pop culture luminaries like Bj√∂rk. Incidentally, this isn’t the first time that Patton has performed Italian opera.

Yes, the album has the incredible dissonance and unfathomability common to serious avant-garde music, complete with demonic intervals and paranoia-inducing laughter and whispering. But Laborintus II is strangely beautiful in its pristine purity and delightful allusions. The blend of traditional instruments with experimental sounds (check out the R2D2 blips and bleeps in Part II) is seamless, and Berio artfully combines traditional operatic elements with his own startlingly original musical ideas.

This piece takes an embittered stand against capitalism, yet I had to buy it from iTunes, part of a multinational corporation whose stock value has just reached the highest of any company in history. The crushing truth is this: artists must eat to create, but capitalism, communism, and religion silence and deform art. The irony is that railing against this ugly truth has produced some of the best art known.

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.