Largely trained at home in his youth – his father and grandfather were organists and composers – Berio entered the Milan Conservatory in 1945. A hand injury sustained while training as a conscript in Mussolini’s army prevented him from pursuing a career as a performer and he began to concentrate on composition, studying with Giorgio Federico Ghedini at the Conservatory and, after graduation in 1951, with Luigi Dallapiccola at Tanglewood. On his return to Milan, Berio began to work for Italian radio and television (RAI), and he composed his first piece for tape in 1953. Two years later he and Bruno Maderna opened the Studio di Fonologia for the creation of electronic music. Work with Maderna and others at the studio developed Berio’s taste for collaboration, which he quickly extended to artists in other disciplines, including writers such as Umberto Eco, Edoardo Sanguineti, and Italo Calvino.
Maderna died in 1973, and the following year Berio composed Calmo in memory of his friend. (Maderna and Nono were also close associates for many years.) Berio suggests much of the sound world of Maderna, a masterful orchestrator (and accomplished conductor), and he incorporated texts that Maderna also set, from anonymous Greek lyrics and the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi Shirazi, as well as Homer, Sanguineti, and the Song of Songs.
Berio revised and expanded the work in 1989. The singer is almost constantly in voice, and when not continues to participate in the plaint with bells on wrists and ankles. Though there is nothing histrionic or overwrought about Calmo, the intensity of the lament is overwhelming, a paradoxically spontaneous ritual of expressive passion and craft.