Thema (Omaggio a Joyce)
1958. For mezzo-soprano and tape. (8:12)

Luciano Berio's Thema
Realized in 1958 at the Studio di Fonologia, Thema is one of Berio's electronic/tape pieces, and takes the "Sirens" chapter of Ulysses as its source material.
The work opens simply, with Berio's wife Cathy Berberian reading the opening text from "Sirens." Eventually her agile voice is subjected, at first subtly, to amplification and slight distortion, until her final "hissss" opens the doors fully to Berio's technological manipulations. Although there are no electronically generated sounds per se, her reading is used as the material for a bizarre fugal exploration that eventually renders the text unrecognizable. The applied effects are myriad: distortions, echoes, stutterings; the tape speeds up, slows down; multi-trackings and splicings modulate her voice from incoherence to layered beauty. At times it achieves a spooky otherworldliness; at others it sounds like a tape machine having a particularly bad nightmare. To modern ears, used to Pink Floyd, trip-hop and electronica, it seems almost quaintly outdated; but nevertheless it is certainly due respect, for both its avant-garde spirit as well as the ingenuity it expresses in its limited medium. And even given its technologically dated nature, it's still an impressive accomplishment, and makes for a bizarre and intriguing listening experience, blurring the borders between language and sound.


Thema (Omaggio a Joyce)
Text by James Joyce
From the "Sirens" Episode of Ulysses


Chips, picking chips off rocky thumbnail, chips. Horrid! And gold flushed more.

A husky fifenote blew.

Blew. Blue bloom is on the

Gold pinnacled hair.

A jumping rose on satiny breasts of satin, rose of Castille.

Trilling, trilling: I dolores.

Peep! Who's in the... peepofgold?

Tink cried to bronze in pity.

And a call, pure, long and throbbing. Longindying call.

Decoy. Soft word. But look! The bright stars fade. O rose! Notes chirruping answer. Castille. The morn is breaking.

Jingle jingle jaunted jingling.

Coin rang. Clock clacked.

Avowal. Sonnez. I could. Rebound of garter. Not leave thee. Smack. La cloche! Thigh smack. Avowal. Warm. Sweetheart, goodbye!

Jingle. Bloo.

Boomed crashing chords. When love absorbs. War! War! The tympanum.

A sail! A veil awave upon the waves.

Lost. Throstle fluted. All is lost now.

Horn. Hawhorn.

When first he saw. Alas!

Full tup. Full throb.

Warbling. Ah, lure! Alluring.

Martha! Come!

Clapclop. Clipclap. Clappyclap.

Goodgod henev erheard inall.

Deaf bald Pat brought pad knife took up.

A moonlight nightcall: far: far.

I feel so sad. P. S. So lonely blooming.


The spiked and winding cold seahorn. Have you the? Each and for other plash and silent roar.

Pearls: when she. Liszt's rhapsodies. Hissss.
Excerpt from Timothy Murphy's "Music After Joyce: The Post-Serial Avant-Garde"

Luciano Berio's encounter with Joyce had less traumatic but no less profound effects than Boulez's encounter did, though it came around the same period. Like Boulez, Berio was also born in 1925, in the Italian city of Oneglia. Berio's first attempt to come to terms with Joyce came in 1953, when he set three poems from Chamber Music to music patterned after the melodic serialism of his teacher Luigi Dallapiccola (Berio, Two Interviews 53); although these songs show early signs of Berio's uniquely lyrical approach to modern compositional innovations, they cannot be considered mature works either in their melodic structure or in their approach to the music/text relation. His second Joycean experiment, however, is much more significant, both for Berio's own work and for the course of modern music. Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958) is, along with Varèse's Poème electronique (1957-58) and Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), one of the classic works of electronic or "electro-acoustic" music, music composed directly on tape using pre-recorded and manipulated natural and electronic sounds. Constructed in collaboration with Umberto Eco, who had introduced Berio to Ulysses, Thema takes its point of departure from the opening "overture" of the "Sirens" chapter of Ulysses (U 11.1-36). Berio cites Joyce's own claim that the formal structure of "Sirens" transposes the fuga per canonem (Berio, "Poésie" 27, Ellmann 462), though he notes that "the Joycean polyphony, naturally, refers only to the network of facts and characters: a reading voice is always a 'solo' voice and not a fugue" in itself (Berio, "Poésie" 27). Berio's tape piece, on the other hand, is a literal fugue that "render[s] real the polyphony attempted on the page" by superimposing or overdubbing the voice of his then-wife Cathy Berberian onto itself three times (Berio, "Poésie" 28-29).
Thema uses only these voices and no electronic sounds, because Berio's intention was "to produce a reading of Joyce's text within certain restrictions dictated by the text itself," and more broadly to

establish a new relationship between speech and music, in which a continuous metamorphosis of one into the other can be developed. Thus, through a reorganization and transformation of the phonetic and semantic elements of Joyce's text, Mr. Bloom's day in Dublin...briefly takes another direction, where it is no longer possible to distinguish between word and sound, between sound and noise, between poetry and music, but where we once more become aware of the relative nature of these distinctions and of the expressive character inherent in their changing functions (Berio, liner notes).

Berio goes on to describe the formal restrictions and transformational rules used to create this piece as follows:

Once accepted as a sound-system, the text can gradually be detached from its frame of vocal delivery and evaluated in terms of electro-acoustic transformational possibilities. The text is thus broken down into sound families, groups of words or syllables organized in a scale of vocal colors (from 'a' to 'u') and a scale of consonants (from voiced to unvoiced), the ordering of which is determined by noise content. The extreme points of the latter scale, for instance, are constituted by the 'bl' grouping (from "Blew. Blue bloom..." [U 11.6]) and by 's' (from the last line of this exposition...: "Pearls: when she. Liszt's rhapsodies. Hissss" [U 11.36]). The members of these sound families are placed in environments other than their original textual contexts, the varying length of the portions of context establishing a pattern of degree of intelligibility of the text (Berio, liner notes)

Each element of the text thus broken down is systematically transformed according to three processes whose application is determined by the original nature of the element itself. Elements marked by abrupt breaks or sonic discontinuity (such as "Goodgod henev erheard inall" [U 11.29]) are converted into periodic or pulsed ones, and then stitched together into continuous lines of sound. Elements that are initially continuous, like sibilants (for example "Hissss" [U 11.36]), become periodic and ultimately discontinuous through electronic manipulation and transformation. Finally, periodic or rhythmically repetitive sound elements (like "thnthnthn" [U 11.2]) are rendered first continuous and then discontinuous. All these transformations are carried out by tape editing, superimposition of identical elements with varying time relations (also called "phase shifting" and associated later with the work of Steve Reich), wide frequency and time transpositions, and filtering (Berio, "Poésie" 31-32, liner notes). The original text is often not easily recognizable because of these extensive but very precise transformations.
In Thema, Berio claims, "we pass from a 'poetic' listening space to a 'musical' listening space. This musical listening space is based on the poetic material, on an object which is transformed and becomes music" (Berio, "Entretien" 63).

--Timothy Murphy
You may read the full text of his paper at Hypermedia Joyce Studies.

CD Information

Thema is a hard work to obtain, and various CDs that have featured it have been deleted. The most recent version was 1998's Luciano Berio: Many More Voices, from BMG/RCA Victor (09026-68302-2). It is still available from

Luciano Berio - Many More Voices / Berberian, et al
Luciano Berio(Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 1998

More Berio

Chamber Music -- (1953) Three songs adapted from Joyce's Chamber Music poems

Epifanie -- (1961) A vocal setting of five literay texts, including a passage form Portrait.

Berio and Beckett -- This is the Luciano Berio page at Apmonia, which details his Beckettian composition Sinfonia.

--Allen B. Ruch
1 June 2003
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