‘Brutalism’ has gotten a bit of a bad name over the years. This may be because its name is no good, at least not in English. For us, the word ‘brutal’ has fairly unalloyed connotations of physical trouble. But the term ‘Brutalism’ stems from architectural material (beton brut — raw concrete), not from any idea of assault. Though poured concrete has indeed produced some hardhearted architectural results (perhaps later architects felt compelled by the name itself to conjure up dystopian fortresses and bomb-proof hives of concrete), the idea of ‘raw material’ from which it arises is important and full of implications. In a form-follows-function sort of way, raw concrete gives a strong impression of economy, utility, and strength. Moreover, there are also more positive connotations to ‘brut’ in the French language: income is ‘brut’ before taxes; champagne is ‘brut’; and in artistic matters, ’brut’ materials have an opportunity to show their nature.
Which brings us to Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII for Violin Solo, which was written in 1977, no doubt a banner year for poured concrete. The 14 Sequenzas were written 1958 (flute) and 2002 (cello) as a means to explore the nature — the natur brut, one might say — of individual instruments and their possibilities. Berio provides his own notes for Sequenza VIII:
To compose Sequenza VIII has been like paying a personal debt to the violin, which to me is one of the most subtle and complex of instruments. I studied violin myself, while I was already learning the piano and before starting the clarinet (my father wanted me to practise “all” the instruments), and I have always maintained a strong attraction for this instrument, mixed, however, with rather tormented feelings (perhaps because I was already 13 – much too late – when I started my violin lessons).While almost all the other Sequenzas develop to an extreme degree a very limited choice of instrumental possibilities, Sequenza VIII deals with a larger and more global view of the violin: and can be listened to as a development of instrumental gestures.Sequenza VIII is built around two notes (A and B), which – as in a chaconne – act as a compass in the work’s rather diversified and elaborate itinerary, where polyphony is no longer virtual but real, and where the soloist must make the listener constantly aware of the history behind each instrumental gesture. Sequenza VIII, therefore, becomes inevitably a tribute to that musical apex which is the Ciaccona from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita in D minor, where – historically – past, present and future violin techniques coexist.Sequenza VIII was written in 1976 for Carlo Chiarappa.— Luciano Berio
For a violinist, it’s an opportunity to start from raw materials, starting with the note A. We tune to A. The A calls other notes, the A is in tune, it’s out of tune. It has overtones and undertones. It contains multitudes, it implies other notes, it can be long, it can be short, it can be lyric, it can show hidden passageways. And it seems to disagree with B. That in itself is quite a bit of material, through whose twists and turns, rooms and spaces, lights and shadows a violinist can think radically about the possibilities of the instrument itself.