Crossing over from the other side

Laborintus II: Mike’s Pattern

Now here’s something interesting.  Last year, a new recording was released of Luciano Berio’s masterful oratorio-cum-pantomime-cum-kitchen-sink Laborintus II.  For the Berio fans among us, this would normally have caused a stir: performances of Laborintus II are pretty rare, and recordings of it rarer still.  In fact, since the piece’s composition in 1965 only two other recordings have been released officially: one conducted by Berio himself, and another (now out of print) recording by Giorgio Bernasconi.

So the prospect of a brand-spanking new recording featuring Belgium’s Ictus Ensemble should have been a pretty big deal.  But here’s the funny thing: this uncompromising 35-minute slice of postwar modernism can’t be found in the classical section of your local record store. Instead, you’ll find it under the Metal section.

At least, that’s where I found it.  You see, the man behind this particular album is one Mike Patton, best known as the lead singer of pioneering rock/alternative/metal band Faith No More.  In 2011 he was invited by the Holland Festival to take part in a performance of Laborintus II, in which he would recite the Italian-language text by Eduardo Sanguinetti that wends its way through the piece and holds it (more or less) together.  He accepted, the performance was recorded, and the ensuing record was released as the latest Mike Patton solo album.

You may think that Patton devotees would have been caught off guard, but this is a man who has already released ten-minute long avant garde tape collages as part of his Mr. Bungle side project.  Nonetheless, it was still critics at Q and PopMatters, rather than Gramophone, who penned the reviews.  Q may have called it “disorienting and immensely tedious”, but the album nevertheless charted at number 23 on the Billboard Classic Albums chart.  Classic Albums, mind – not Classical.

I find this all pretty fascinating.  When we think of crossover, we usually think of classical (or quasi-classical) artists covering pop songs.  The results are frequently dire (although there are exceptions).  This, however, is something different: a rock singer performing classical music entirely according to the letter of the score.  The closest precedent I can think of is Jeff Buckley performing Britten’s Corpus Christi Carol (rather touchingly) on his debut album Grace, but even that’s an arrangement.  This is the real deal, Berio’s score complete and unexpurgated, and even if it doesn’t quite match the two previous recordings of Laborintus II in terms of quality (the sonics are a bit bass-heavy, and the performance a less dramatic than either of the earlier examples), it nevertheless deserves a place in every Berio fan’s collection.

You can watch the first part of Mike Patton and co’s life performance of Laborintus II at the Holland Festival here: