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Kawin Watanasuchat

Discussion on Sequenza XI for Solo Guitar: Mode of Actions

Luciano Berio is one of the most important classical music composers in the Twentieth

century. He is famous for electronic and experimental music. Berio married with Cathy

Berberian, a soprano who performed many of his works including Sequenza III for Woman’s

voice. He traveled to the United States in 1951 to study with Luigi Dallapicolla. Being in us

raised his interest in electronic music very much so that he founded the noted electronic music

center Studio di Fonologia Musicale in Milan, Italy in 1954. Berio was the director from 1954 to

1959 then he went to teach at Julliard in New York City as well as holding many teaching

positions in different countries. Berio’s style of music is very broad. His music includes non-

serial, atonal, and even tonal. Berio often asks musicians to perform on the verge of their

potential and include nonmusical theatrical actions as he does in all his sequenzas.

The Sequenzas is one of Berio’s most important works. The word Sequenza itself means

sequence which the composer stated “the title Sequenza underlines the fact that the construction

of these pieces almost always takes as its point of departure a sequence of harmonic fields, from

which spring, in all their individuality, the other musical functions.” (Porcaro, Mark David 2,

para 2). Sequenzas are composed for solo instruments and voice in order to extend technical and

musical possibilities without breaking or changing the structure of instruments. Most Sequenzas

are composed for a specific performer and the composer work with them so that he can

understand more of the instrument.

Sequenza XI was commissioned by guitarist Eliot Fisk in 1982, finished in 1987, and

published in 1988, and premier recorded in 1995. Berio stated that Sequenza XI need a lot of
effort to complete in a 1989 interview with the New York Times (Porcaro, Mark David, 1, para


Sequenza XI is difficult for listeners to understand as well as other Sequenzas. According

to …… As being trained in classical music since my youth, I found that I instinctively seek for

specific tonality in music so that when I do not appreciate atonal music or any genre related as

much of tonal centered music. As listening to non-tonal music, this expectation seems to be

impossible to happen since there are no key center going toward stronger or weaker progression

and resolve back to its home like in tonal music. However, according to Porcaro, Berio states

“Almost all the Sequenzas have in common the intention of defining and developing through

melody an essentially harmonic discourse and…Here polyphony should be understood in a

metaphorical sense, as the exposition and superposition of differing modes of action and

instrumental characteristics.” (2, para 3) it is very interesting how he mentions “Mode of

Action.” From my understanding, mode in music theory means scale which Western Music took

two of them from original Greek mode. The mode of Action itself, I do not think it refers to just

action alone. Also as I read Hatten’s Interpreting Musical Gestures which talk about human body

gesture relates with perception and how these gestures react to different type of musical rhythm,

meter, harmony, etc. which means the written music score must contain some kind of gesture or

action that composers sometimes realizes or not inside itself. I am going to discuss that Berio’s

Sequenza XI is really a piece that the composer intends to extend virtuosity via the writing that

embodies set of different “actions” as he claims his term “Mode of Actions” and that delivers

what he wants performers to interpret without need to have Berio coached. These actions are:

1. Six-Strings Chords

2. Chords and Melodies

3. Arpeggiated or Linear Hexachords

4. Two Parts Counterpoints

According to the action I order from one to four, I do it in order of how strong it can create

tension. The possible reasons they are ordered like are possibly because:

1. Speed

2. Register

3. Duration of sound

4. Space between jumping from each interval

5. How big the gesture is

To put it simply, the more listeners tend to be aroused by looking at performer’s gestures.

However, sometimes weaker actions can also be greater in term of tension. For example, playing

Six-Strings Chords with Tambora technique, using right hand’s thumb flesh to hit and

immediately get away from string, is impossible to produce big sound. Playing linear Hexachord

with Fortissimo indicated can create more tension in this case.

Ex.1.1 The opening, page 1, first line

Action I Six-Strings Chords

Sequenza XI begins with all open strings of guitar: E-A-D-G-B-E. The “T” indicated on

top means to be played with tambura technique. Which is different from example 1.2 that

performer needs to use Rasgueado technique, using combination of right hand fingers to

continuously hit powerful chords. This technique is for sure comfortable for some players and

also not for some since the technique is more common for flamenco guitarists. Guitarists who are

trained as purely classical might have difficulty doing this clean and clear. I would say that Berio

might have aimed this as the first because he was writing for classical guitarist. Playing from

pianissimo tambora to forceful Rasqueado creates huge crescendo passage automatically

Action I as a main material

It is not absolutely correct to think that the action I is the main material since there are also other

actions appeared in the piece. However, action I exists the most in the piece as I illustrate the

graphic of all four actions below. We would see that the first action appear in almost every page

of the piece along with the third action. I would say also that other actions are important

material, but work as bridges between each action I to make the effect of tension and resolve.
How Action I develop its tension

Ex. 1.2 page 1, second line

As I mention before, mode of action is the main idea on Sequenza XI. In the second line

of the piece, the letter “R” which indicates Rasgueado to be played creates the most tension from

all four types of action. The opening section again starts off with open strings that does not

contain Tritone to chords that has tritone. This is a way Berio make more tension even though

Rasgueado with Fortissimo indicated must be the strongest in the piece. Luckily to Berio, Eliot

Fisk who premiers the piece is a very straight performer. He doesn’t hold back in order to keep

his power for greater musical tension afterward. Therefore, he used different combination of

right hand fingers, he goes from four fingers Rasgueado incorperated thumb, ring, middle, and

index fingers to just index finger sweeping chords up and down in the sixth and seventh page

(According to his performance in Boston GuitarFest 2011). It is possibly that just one finger

alone is more powerful for Fisk (For me it is opposite).

Ex. 1.3 Page 7, eighth line, Rasgueado passage that Fisk use only one finger alternated with
Action IV and Linear action III
Action I, the inevitable musical material that performer is forced to play with a lot of
energy without indication
What is interesting is why Eliot Fisk changes from four-fingers to one finger. Let look at Ex. 1.3,
Action I is interrupted by other actions, for sure the tendency to come back to strum chords after
playing single note passages must create tension for Fisk plus one finger is more comfortable to
play after executing single note passage. My point is, Berio himself writes it in the way that he
understands how guitar works and how guitarist has to do after playing specific passage. This
shows that Berio himself might focus a lot on playability and how to the most of performer’s
Examples of other three actions
Other actions are not as important as the first for me. However, it creates kind of resolution for
the first action.

Action II, Chords and melodies

This type of passage needs thumb, and index, middle, and ring finger top play. This action is the
most melodic material in the piece.

Action III, Arpeggiated / Linear Hexachord

Arpeggiated and linear (root position: B-C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F#) need combination of four fingers
like Action II, but need to play much faster. Even though the linear hexachord creates more
repetitive sound, they share the purpose of building up the tension between action I.

Action IV, two part counterpoint

In term of harmony, Berio writes this piece in very idiomatic way for guitar unlike how it

sounds like to listeners. We would see that he has common tone in almost all chords in

action I. According to example 1.1, the second chord has A, G, and E from previous

chord. The second chord is different from first not only notes, but type of intervals also.

In first chord, there are perfect 4th and major 3rd while the second chord contains triton.

Tritone, as we know by far, creates more tension and needs more attention to make it

resolved. Therefore, by performer’s consciousness or intuition, the second chord cause

performer’s body to be more tensed and energized. This might continue as far as tritone

appears. It is very clever how he embodies the tension in his writing that looks almost

like he just writes it without attention and this prove his quote stating that Sequenza XI

costs him a lot of work. It might be because he has to learn the guitar and check if it is

comfortable to play.
-Porcaro, Mark David, A Polyphonic Mode of Listening: Luciano Berio’s Sequenza XI for
-Wuestemann, Gerd, Luciano Berio's "Sequenza XI chitarra sola": A Performer's Practical
Analysis with Performance Edited Score