On Jan. 28, the New England Conservatory Contemporary Ensemble performs Luciano Berio’s 1968 piece “O King,” in its original form for mezzo-soprano and instrumental quintet. Composed after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the text is simply the constituent phonemes of King’s name, isolated and rearranged into an atmospheric threnody. It’s a technique that Berio had used before: Both “Circles” (1960) and “Visage” (1961), for instance, are equally interested in the sounds that make up language. “O King” might seem just an occasional revisiting of that technique in a memorial’s guise. But soon after composing “O King,” Berio expanded it and made it the second movement of his “Sinfonia,” a large-scale piece for orchestra and voices, revealing it as part of a much deeper web of history and anthropology.
The third movement of “Sinfonia” is the most famous, a dense and intricate collage of quotation — musical and literary — superimposed on the Scherzo from Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. But it is the outer movements that establish the work’s thematic range and ambition. Both set passages — in carefully but radically deconstructed form — from “Le Cru et le Cuit” (“The Raw and the Cooked”), the first volume of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s four-volume anthropological study “Mythologiques,” in which Lévi-Strauss applied linguistic analysis to Native American myths in order to reveal their common, underlying binary structures, contrasting qualities in opposed tension. (The title charts one such opposition, between “raw” — that is, as existing in nature — and “cooked,” modified, manipulated, or otherwise transformed by human intervention.)
Lévi-Strauss intended the book to unfold like a piece of music — he even included musical epigraphs, from Chabrier and Stravinsky, symbolizing, respectively, civilized domesticity and primal instinct — but Berio’s use of the text nonplussed the author. And no wonder: In place of Lévi-Strauss’s methodical catalog is a fragmented and evocative play of textual and musical cross-references and echoes. Berio largely focuses on only one opposition, between fire — symbolizing the brief flicker of life — and water — that which both purifies and drowns. But Berio uses it to mirror heroic mythology. In one crucial change, Berio alters Lévi-Strauss’s original text from “Indiens tuant” and “Indiens tué” (“Indians killing,” “Indians killed”) to “héros” killing and being killed. King’s presence in the piece thus becomes the paragon of Berio’s additional mythological analysis, of the violence that persists beneath the veneer of civilization. “Péripétie: héros tué,” the work pronounces at its conclusion — in the final plot twist, the hero is inevitably destroyed.
The NEC Contemporary Ensemble, directed by John Heiss, performs music by Britten, Harbison, Berio, Heiss, and Schoenberg, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. in Jordan Hall. Admission is free (www.necmusic.edu).
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at email@example.com.