The Massachusetts-born, New York-based singer earned renown with her immensely quirky, unusual style, pushing the boundaries between high and low-brow culture. Following a training in theatre and music at the NYU and later at Columbia, Cathy Berberian went on to collaborate with the best-known composers of the 1960s and 1970s: John Cage, Igor Stravinsky, Anthony Burgess and the like. As to her main prerogative – she used classical music to create farce. Don’t believe me? Catch clips, interviews and archive recordings of her work at the Unexpected Subject, a recently-opened group show at the FM Centre For Contemporary Art in Milan.

“The best form of government is not government at all” goes the lyrics of Song Books, the 1970 collaboration between Berberian, Cage, and Edward Estlin Cummings. Despite the blatant anarchist sentiment, the first thing to strike you is the sense of absurdity inherent in the song. Following the recital of the above opening line, Berberian goes on to perform a form of onomatopoeia, imitating noises made by inanimate objects. The best part of the piece? Towards the middle, she launches into a masterly aria, only for it to be swiftly interrupted by her own, accidental giggling. Intriguingly, the two sit together perfectly – and the sudden transgression of order is presented as just another part thereof. Song Books leaves you wondering if there was any gag Berberian couldn’t pull off; if there were any sounds that would have been considered as less valuable within her oeuvre.

Then there are songs that make people laugh, without a fail, including Berberian’s remix of Beatles anthems such as Eleanor Rigby, Ticket to Ride, Yellow Submarine, and I Want to Hold Your Hand. Combining the original lyrics and melody with special vocal exercises, Berberian achieves the impossible, turning all-time pop classics into the stuff of dagger-sharp satire.

Her own compositions, the 1966 Stripsody and the 1969 Morsicat(h)y are drenched with humour just the same. The former features noises that’d make the industry-first BBC sound archive seem like a flimsy collection of titles, the sound of someone sneezing, people kissing, car tyres screeching, ghosts looming around, chicken clucking, cat meowing – all juxtaposed with arias that’d pose trouble to the highest-trained opera singer. A similarly playful, experimental attitude can be evinced in Morsicat(h)y, a piece to be performed with the right hand only, geared to create a perfect impression of somebody typing up an-ever-so-baffling sequence of Morse signals.

Berberian’s legacy partially lies in paving the way for female composers to take courage and write their own music. As a teacher at the Berkshire Music Centre, the University of Vancouver, and the Rheinische Musikschule in Cologne, she had exerted a great deal of influence on future generations. Much more importantly, Berberian dared to challenge the increasingly-obsolete, hard-wrought conventions of traditional operas, paving the way for the emergence of an era in which the genre became more open to more pop-culture-related references; to allusions depicting everyday life in a mass consumerist society. It’s no wonder Berberian had proven so popular amongst her contemporaries: from William Walton to Hans Werner Henze and her husband, Luciano Berio, there was hardly anyone who didn’t initiate collaborations with her. These projects demonstrate best just how versatile Berberian was as a singer. Whether it be about a dance macabre, jazz, or a special reinterpretation of the socialist anthem, the Internationale performed on occasion of the Karl Marx Year in 1983, she never failed to deliver exceptionally exciting performances.

Berberian’s contributions to pop culture don’t stop at music either. Towards the end of her career, she began to work as a translator on works by Umberto Eco, Woody Allen and the like. The much-renowned Italian writer even gave her a nickname that would go on to become the title of Berberian’s most popular album: MagnifiCathy.

Cathy Berberian’s work is being currently exhibited under The Unexpected Subject 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy, a retrospective show at FM Centre for Contemporary Art, Milano.

Words - Leila Kozma

Exhibition View Images - The Unexpected Subject 1978 Art and Feminism in Italy, 2019 at FM Centre For Contemporary Art in Milan.

Cover Image - A portrait of Cathy Berberian. Photo source: BBC