The Influence

Broadcaster and composer Andrew Ford discusses how Luciano Berio’s O King showed him how to start with the simple.

By Kate Holden.

Andrew Ford

Composer Luciano Berio.
Credit: Supplied

Andrew Ford has long been a familiar voice on the radio, as well as a major Australian contemporary composer. His compositions, which are either commissioned or arise from residencies with acclaimed ensembles such as the Australian Chamber Orchestra, range from sweet, simple songs to music theatre, opera, chamber music, sacred masses, waltzes and contemporary classical. They have been performed by schoolchildren, soloists and international stars across the world. He also lectures and writes prolifically, having published 10 books on music as well as volumes of criticism. A recent body of work is Red Dirt Hymns (2020–), a collection of songs in response to the Black Summer bushfires, made in collaborations with Australian poets and designed to be singable by anyone from children to sopranos.

For The Influence, Ford chose to talk about O King (1968), a short work for voice and instruments by the late Italian composer, Luciano Berio, inspired by the life of Martin Luther King Jr. 

Andrew, you’re known for hosting The Music Show on ABC Radio National, but can you tell us a bit more about yourself?

I’m a composer first and foremost. That’s the thing I’ve done since I was a teenager, and that’s the thing I do all the time. Even now as I’m talking to you there’s a little bit of me composing. And I write words, articles and sometimes books and – since 1995 when I stopped being an academic – I’ve presented The Music Show.

Can you talk about how the Berio piece came into your life?

I think I first found it as a score in the music library in Lancaster University when I was an undergraduate. I’d have been maybe 19. I was going to be a primary school teacher; it just didn’t happen. Instead I was a composition student, hardly a composer, when I encountered this piece. I had been putting dots on paper for three years. I had formed this little contemporary music group of my fellow students. I was conducting and I was looking for repertoire and found this piece, which is for one soprano voice and five instruments: flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. We had those instruments, we had the soprano, so we did the piece. So that’s how it came into my life.

It’s only a short piece, four or five minutes, no more. I started studying it because I had to conduct it, and that’s when it really started to lodge properly in my head, and it’s never really gone away. I think subconsciously I draw on this piece all the time: it really is an influence.

As a mood? As a template? As a phenomenon?

All of those things, actually. The things that are remarkable about the piece for me are that it’s full of paradoxes, contradictions: on the one hand, this is a piece for voice and five instruments, but it’s not actually for a singer being accompanied by an ensemble. The singer is part of the ensemble: it’s really a piece for six instruments, one of which happens to be a voice.

At the beginning of the piece on the score Berio writes under most of the instruments come la voce: like a voice. And under the vocal part, come gli strumenti: like the instruments. Then it’s both a dynamic and a static piece, simultaneously: it’s harmonically quite static, even when it suddenly rushes ahead towards the end. And then it’s a piece of glacial calm. Most of the time the instruments are playing as quietly as possible, but this calm is shattered every so often by explosive attacks from one instrument or another, always doubled by the piano. And again, he writes at the beginning of the score that double forte is the strongest forte possible regardless of clear intonation – in other words he wants those attacks so loud they’re going to distort. You’ve got these detonations happening in this sea of calm.

But even beyond all that, the thing that really has affected the way I’ve composed ever since is that the melody of the piece – it’s really just one long melodic line – leaves in its wake the harmony, a bit like the way a jet plane leaves a vapour trail. A jet plane moves very fast, but when you’re on the ground looking at it, it’s moving very slowly and you might not see it at all; you see what is left behind in the sky. What you hear in this piece is what remains after the little detonations. And that means not only that the line of notes is generating its own sound-world, its own sonic environment and its harmony, but the piece contains its own memory, and I find that fascinating. And that’s all in a four- or five-minute piece. So I found this a tremendously important discovery. I learnt a lot from it.

Fantastic: that’s like the Duchamp painting Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), showing each trace through time and space. It’s more than just melody or experiment. It’s metaphysical.

What I think is actually the most wonderful aspect of it is that the melodic line is comparatively simple. I think with any artwork, certainly any piece of music, it shows that you start with very simple materials and it’s really what you do with them that is the point. It’s a formal thing that I’ve learnt from Berio, as well as an aesthetic thing.

The other reason that it stays with me is that when I’m composing music, it’s the notes that interest me. Almost all of my pieces start from a sonic imperative. They may have fancy titles and appear to be about other things, but that’s usually tacked on later as a way of explaining the piece, perhaps to myself, certainly to an audience. But what interests me as a composer is putting notes together and having them make sense.

This piece includes text, the initials of Martin Luther King Jr, though etiolated and fragmented.

The voice has to sing something, but it’s not immediately obvious that the ee-er-ahh-ooo sounds she’s making are the vowel sounds of “O Martin Luther King”. They’re not even in the right order. And that’s all she sings right up to the end of the piece where the words come out: “O Martin Luther King”. It’s a wonderful, understated memorial.

You started as an English student. What about text in your work? And the voiced work?

I’ve set a lot of works to music, a lot to poetry. I read a lot of poetry, and I’m an evangelist when it comes to poetry because I want other people to hear the poems. I’m very interested in voices as well. I’ve done a lot of pieces that involve speaking voices, interviews, real people speaking: edited and then woven into the texture of the music. I like the way people speak, there’s music in the way people speak. It’s how you can tell if someone’s speaking the truth.

You speak of the vapour trail and the harmonic residue: this piece has left a trace in you. Do you still listen to O King?

Oddly enough I don’t listen to it much at all, because I know it. I prefer to listen to things I don’t know.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 7, 2021 as "Andrew Ford".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.