Roger Marsh Composer

Piaf by Vic Hoyland

Piaf  was written for Melody Lovelace and Clap, taking advantage of Melody’s Berberian-like ‘chanteuse’ style of singing.  Accompanied by two vibraphone players with some additional percussion, the singer speaks, sings, mutters fragments from the repertoire of Edith Piaf and various related quotations, inventively transformed into more abstract musical gestures. The piece is heavily influenced by Bernard Rands’ ‘Ballad 1’, which does a similar thing with the songs of Judy Garland.  The notation is also similar: liberal use of time-space notation, a mixture of precise and free pitch notation (5 line staves mixed with three line staves), and ample use of ‘mobiles’ to create hazy non-directional harmonic clouds of activity.  The piece is very beautiful, especially the final section with its kaleidoscope of fast repeated notes on the vibraphones.  It is also quite enigmatic, though, and even listeners familiar with Edith Piaf would struggle to identify the source material most of the time. Occasionally a familiar word or phrase leaps out, but for the most part the ‘little sparrow’ is disappointingly concealed.  Dominic Gill, in the Financial Times, called the piece a ‘terrifying misinterpretation’ and a ‘grotesque insult’, ending:  “a short record recital and still shorter reading of any Piaf record sleeve, would have been a thousand times more effective”.  

It should be noted, however, that this was a familiar form of criticism in those years before ‘post-modernism’, when the use of quotation and incorporation of influences from the Italian avant-garde were met with suspicion in the UK.  Berio’s music, with which we were extremely familiar courtesy of Bernard Rands, was barely known in London in the early seventies.  Even in York there were those who labelled this music ‘dilettante’, and considered the music of both Berio and Maderna frivolous.  In London the quotations of whole passages from older music by Maxwell Davies in pieces like 8 Songs for a Mad King  were seen as ironic, and the reworking of renaissance music in both Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle as serious critical commentary; while the playful quotations in Berio were evidence of a lack of seriousness and described as ‘collage’.

check dates of berio concerts in London.