Thursday, 29 May 2008
Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice: (Opening concert) London Sinfonietta / Diego Masson (conductor) Queen Elizabeth Hall, 1. 10.2007 MARK BERRY
Nono - Incontri
Schoenberg - Chamber Symphony no.1, Op.9
Nono - Variazioni canoniche sulla serie dell' op.41 di Arnold Schoenberg
Nono - 'No hay caminos hay que caminar ... Andrej Tarkowskij'
How wonderful for the South Bank Centre to be celebrating Luigi Nono! It is about time someone did, the only other major retrospective of his work in this country of which I am aware having been at Huddersfield in 1995. This series will reach its climax next May with the British premiere of Prometeo, his 'tragedy of listening'. For this concert, we were treated to three varied works, plus a masterpiece from his posthumous father-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg. Proceedings had commenced even before the concert, with a conversation between Christopher Cook and Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, the composer's widow (and Schoenberg's daughter). She provided an informative and at time moving insight into her late husband's beliefs and methods, not least his instruction from Bruno Maderna, who had encouraged him to compare responses compositional problems in composers old and new, for instance Gabrieli and Webern, Ockeghem and Schoenberg. Hermann Scherchen also emerged as a hero of the tale. We also heard a most sympathetic account of the heady days of 1950s Darmstadt, not as some quasi-totalitarian Ministry of Serialist Truth but as a place of openness, experimentation, and - perhaps most interestingly - as a meeting-place for those who had survived the horrors of fascism with the post-war avant garde. Tradition and its development played a much greater role than myths of a 'year zero' have allowed.
The concert began with a few words from the pianist John Constable concerning the recently deceased London Sinfonietta flautist, Sebastian Bell, to whom the concert was dedicated. Berio's brief Autre fois, composed for flute, harp, and clarinet, in memory of Stravinsky, was performed - most beautifully - in Bell's honour.
We then proceeded to the 'encounters' of Nono's 1955 Incontri, for twenty-four instruments. The two independent structures of which Nono wrote, emerged independently of one another, through differentiation of rhythm, melody, harmony, and timbre. And yet they came together too, unable to escape each other, and producing something more through their encounters. Post-Webernian lines and combinations, and extreme dynamic contrasts were well judged by Diego Masson and his expert players, both in terms of individual clarity and a whole that was more than the sum of its parts. This is partly a matter of mathematics - what music is not? - in terms of the ratios between the two structures, but also of development, of sympathy, of a refusal to repeat oneself which Nono shared with Schoenberg. One felt a true sense of musical and political unity, of the hope in social solidarity which Nuria Schoenberg-Nono had already spoken as a hallmark of Nono's oeuvre.
Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony has long been a Sinfonietta speciality. This was a performance which evinced long familiarity with a work that is for these players 'standard repertoire'. The confidence with which the string soloists projected their lines meant that there was no chance of one of this work's greatest pitfalls presenting itself, namely the strings being overshadowed by the piquant wind. (The opposite pitfall tends to occur in the later, inferior version for full orchestra.) In its contrapuntal clarity and the propulsion of its harmonic progression, this was a model performance, expertly guided by Masson. My taste often tends to veer towards Schoenberg performances that emphasise a little more his Romantic inheritance, but the bracing, relentless modernism of this reading afforded an equally valid perspective and, given the circumstances, was perhaps more apt. My sole cavil was that the 'slow movement' did not really emerge as distinctly as it might. If one thinks of the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, whose form Schoenberg's work so closely resembles, one realises what is gained by a stronger sense of four distinct movements within the one-movement sonata form of the whole. The conclusion, however, was duly thrilling, without ever degenerating into a headlong rush, as can often be its fate.
The interval afforded an opportunity to observe the progress of work from Kingston University students on a wall of protest in the foyer, inspired by the final work on the programme. We too were encouraged to offer reactions to the music in the guise of postcards for colouring, which would then be displayed. This certainly contributed to the buzz of the occasion, to a genuine rather than manufactures sense of the excitement of an event - which the beginning of this festival certainly should have been - so different from the often dreary conventionality of more 'mainstream' concerts.
Nono's greatest homage to Schoenberg, his Canonical Variations on a note row from the Ode to Napoleon, received an extremely fine reading. All the virtues of the Incontri performance were once again present, as was a definite sense of narrative progression, of moving towards and then beyond the final variation's statement of the row. Where 'Darmstadt', as we somewhat misleadingly and monolithically have come to call it, has tended to be portrayed as tolerating Schoenberg mostly for having prepared the way for Webern, here we heard an avowedly post-Webernian serialist employing the Webern inheritance - the sighs of instrumental fragments, the constructivist tension between certain intervallic relations - of earlier variations to build up to a more or less explicit tribute to one of Schoenberg's most unambiguously 'political' works. The almost Romantic beauty of the orchestra, albeit never without a necessary astringency - reminded us of Nuria Schoenberg-Nono's conception of Darmstadt as a continuation of European tradition. (Failure of many of the participants thus to root themselves, rather than outright antipathy towards Cage, was why Nono had eventually left, she explained.)
'No hay caminos, hay que caminar ... Andrej Tarkovskij' represented late Nono (1987). Inspired by a mediaeval wall inscription from a Toledo monastery - 'Traveller, there is no pathway, only travelling itself' - this work triumphantly refuted claims that Nono's later work lost its political edge. There was still here the humanist emphasis upon creation and the utopian hope of a better society, no matter what difficulties life and this world might present, which had marked Nono's earliest works. What was new was the spatial experimentation, a product of practices old (consider Gabrieli) and new (think Stockhausen), with additional instrumentalists positioned around and in between the audience, responding to and furthering the 'main' orchestra on the stage. The slow, still Webern-like beauty of so much of this work received the fullest contrasts with the sudden eruptions from beyond. This was an unpredictable procession, for there are no paths, only travelling. The audience was compelled by the extremes of expression to listen more closely, and thus the smallest variations in timbre and pitch registered with the utmost forcefulness: violent and beguiling, the two attributes gaining in intensity through collision with one another (rather like the two structures of Incontri). This was tribute indeed to a truly committed performance from Masson and the London Sinfonietta. Their belief in Nono was truly infectious, in the best sense, and bodes well for the festivities to come.
Louis Lortie (piano), The Maltings, Snape,
This evening’s programme started with Salvatorre Sciarrino’s Perduto in una città d’aqua (lost in a city of water). It is extremely atmospheric, quite minimalist in the way the composer uses single notes, struck forcefully, so the sound resonates over stillness, so the boundaries of “played” music blend with “heard”, just as in Venice, city blends with sea. The music came while he sat with Luigi Nono as he lay, slowly dying, in his house on the edge of the lagoon. They communed in semi-silence. “The words in a sentence were often punctuated by strands of sleep, and the meaning wandered, towards dreams, towards that nucleus of warmth”. Structurally, it is based on a series of two note chords, but it is the reverberations between the notes that is fascinating. The sounds linger across the silence, the vibrations continuing after a note is struck. One set of chords is deliberately flat and hollow, like the mechanical ticking of a metronome, the passing of time, water drops, a frail heartbeat. I heard this in May 2006, played by Nicholas Hodges with rather more intensity, but Lortie’s understatement brought out other aspects.
There were other “Venetian” touches in the programme, such as Bacarolles by Fauré and Chopin and Liszt’s three pieces about the city. It was good to hear these together, despite the similar time signatures, because cumulatively they wove together well, enhancing the distinctiveness of each composer’s style. The three Fauré Bacarolles (no.s 5, 6 and 7) were particularly lucid. Lortie didn’t exaggerate the flourishes in Chopin, and shaped the Liszt with restraint, capturing the measured pace in La lugubre gondola. This dignity made his tribute to Wagner, who had just died in
Queen Elizabeth Hall
Webern – Six Bagatelles, op.9
Nono – Fragmente-Stille, an diotima
Schoenberg – String Quartet no.2, op.10
Arditti String Quartet (Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan, Ralf Ehlers, Lucas Fels)
Claron McFadden (soprano)
The South Bank Centre’s Nono festival continued with a concert from the Arditti Quartet, long the acknowledged standard-bearers for serious contemporary string quartet music. Each of the three works performed during this concert may justly be considered to have changed the face of twentieth-century string quartet writing, and indeed to have proved influential beyond the realm of the quartet or even of chamber music. Much, then, was promised, and the promise was fulfilled.
Schoenberg’s preface to Webern's Six Bagatelles has often been quoted, but I think it is worth quoting from once again, since it so perfectly – ironically, given the final sentence quoted – encapsulates the essence of this enduringly extraordinary work:
Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. Each glance can be extended into a poem, each sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a single indrawn breath, such concentration is only found where self-pity is absent. These pieces (as, indeed, Webern’s music in general) will only be understood by those who believe that through sound something that can only be expressed in sound can be said.
The Arditti’s performance seemed to me to have everything: pin-point precision was married to great depth of expression. Every note counted, as it must, both in itself and in terms of its relationship to every note around it, both horizontally and vertically. The mood swings of each of the ‘bagatelles’ – these are no more ‘trifles’ than those of Beethoven’s late sets – were registered, sometimes quite shockingly so, yet nevertheless without exaggeration. Perhaps most importantly of all, the underlying unified pulse was present throughout, irrespective of the subdivisions within the varied beat. This is as crucial to Webern as to Beethoven and Wagner, or indeed as to Nono and Schoenberg.
Since the Webern piece is close to unique in having in some sense prefigured Nono’s sole essay in quartet form, it provided a perfect introduction to Fragmente–Stille, an diotima. It should have come as no surprise that Nono’s preferred interpreters of the work – favoured over its dedicatees, the LaSalle Quartet – gave so fine, well-nigh definitive, a performance, but equally this should not detract from the Arditti’s achievement. Although the time-scale is utterly different from that of Webern, the concentration allied to a greater architectural span is not so very different. Once again, every note registered, but this is not straightforwardly pointillistic music; to register truly, there must be a sense of conflict between fragmentation and combination, and this was unerringly present. This was a performance that gave the lie to claims of political disengagement in late Nono, of which Fragmente–Stille may be said to be the harbinger. For the construction necessary from the Hölderlin-inspired fragments – Hölderlin’s letters to Diotima are quoted in the score, to be ‘sung’ inwardly but never outwardly by the players – is a perfectly political act, an act of hope, of forging a whole from the almost impossible fragments, from silence as well as from notes. Nono appears to be saying that, for there to be hope, which there must be, the string quartet, along with the symphony surely the most venerable of all Classical forms, must be rethought, rebuilt, and ultimately rejoiced in. All four players, individually and collectively, must engage in this enterprise – and so must the audience. For this to be possible requires a great technical and communicative achievement on the quartet’s part. The Arditti Quartet’s success was palpable, not least in the audience’s rapt attention. Throughout the thirty-five minute span of the work, I do not think I noticed a single cough or shuffle, let alone whispered conversation. Nothing was quite inaudible, but there is much to stretch our ears. Nono’s attempt to rescue the difficult art of listening was not in vain, for the work and performance that resulted were of rare beauty indeed.
Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet is, of course, one of the most celebrated works in the history of music, the work in which Schoenberg, feeling ‘the air of another planet’, bade farewell to tonality. A great achievement – perhaps too great an achievement? – of this performance was the sense of liberation imparted by the break with tonality. I ask whether this was too great, since Schoenberg, like Berg, though unlike Webern, did experience regrets, and there was something of a sense here of the first two movements at least being preliminaries to the undoubted triumph of the final Entrückung. There was nothing especially wrong with the performance of the first movement, but it seemed just a little generalised in its post-Brahmsian development. The second movement, marked Sehr rasch, exhibited a mixture of similarly slight greyness with more richly-coloured and daringly-shaped performance, ’cellist Lucas Fels shining especially in these respects. I have nothing but praise for the final two movements, in which the participation of the excellent soprano, Claron McFadden, really seemed to engage the players. Her pointing of the words and vocal lines, poised midway between Lieder-singing and a more operatic approach, seemed to me perfectly judged. The import, both literally and more metaphorically, of Stefan George’s words could not have been more strongly projected, without ever sacrificing musical concerns for ‘effect’. Likewise, the quartet sounded inspired both by her participation and by Schoenberg’s gradual move towards suspension of tonal processes during the Litanei and then the new world so unforgettably announced by the words, ‘Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten’. This was not, of course, a world that rejected the past, but one which incorporated it. The same could be said of the Arditti’s performance of the two vocal movements, so precariously and yet rewardingly poised between late Romanticism, Expressionism, and already hinting at something yet newer to come.
The South Bank series Luigi Nono : Fragments of Venice is an audacious act of artistic commitment and it takes real vision to promote innovative, non-mainstream music. This series raises the bar to a tantalisingly high standard, but the South Bank’s faith in their audiences is fully justified. The series is very intelligently put together, placing Nono’s music in the context of a great tradition and by expanding the virtuoso performances with workshops and student performance, its benefits will be very long term indeed: the better informed the audience, the deeper the appreciation. That’s how the Wigmore Hall built up its reputation and the South Bank is building up a core of good listeners (and performers) which will serve everyone well in years to come.
Much of this evening’s audience had come to hear Maurizio Pollini and for good reason, as he’s brilliant. Indeed, there were some very well known pianists present. Pollini's account of the Schoenberg Three Pieces for Piano op 11 was masterful, all the more powerful for being so understated. The Six Little Pieces op 19 came over like Webern miniatures, such was the haiku-like subtlety, the silences between notes intensifying the impact of what was being “actively” played. Berg’s Four Pieces for clarinet and piano op 5 seemed expansive in contrast. Alain Damiens executed the long lnes effectively, not a simple task as they’re jagged and angular at some turns. The passage where he has to tap the keys of the clarinet as if it were percussion, reflected in the piano where single notes tolled in succession. After an outburst from the clarinet and some dark, somnolent pedalling by Pollini, the crescendo rose and then suddenly deflated, the deceleration keenly judged.
I’d come to hear Nono’s …..sofferte onde serene…. written for Pollini as a token of the composer’s regard for him. This piece “is” Nono, in distilled essence, and the highlight of the entire series. It’s inspired by Venice, where waters lap against the land, and the horizon over the lagoon blends seamlessly into the skyline. It’s ambiguous and mysterious, the wave-like rhythms morphing into slow, tolling figures which perhaps evoke a distant bell half-heard across the water, its sound dampened by the mist. The dialogue here is between the pianist live and playing in real time and the sound of him playing, recorded in the past. It’s amazingly conceptual, expanding the whole idea of what music can express. If only time had stood still, so the music would not end ! But that too is part of the poignancy of this piece, for time changes, and everything we know is ephemeral, as the music’s tantalising half completed phrases and shifting balances seem to express. Please read Nono’s words about the piece in the footnote below.
Pollini must have known how important this South Bank tribute was to the enduring memory of Nono, his friend and mentor, for this was a superlative performance, even by his standards. André Richard played the sound projection as if it were an instrument, sensitively responding to what Pollini was doing and showing that there’s much more to this than simply playing a tape. This performance meant a lot to me, because I spent ages coming to terms with this elusive piece. I’ve heard it live with Hodges and Lortie, but this magnificent performance by Pollini, its greatest exponent, will remain shining in my memory for years to come.
Djamila Boupacha : Songs of life and love starts “May the fog of the past lift from my eyes. I want to see things as a child does”. This again is emblematic of Nono’s values, for he passionately believed in thinking beyond preconceptions and received ideas about what art “should” and “shouldn’t” be. Like Henze, Berio and most of the liberal thinkers of his time, Nono was a social idealist, who had faith that ordinary people could create and appreciate art outside the Establishment. Whether their engagements with socialist artistic experiments worked or not, that grain of faith is pretty fundamental. My first experience of Nono was in the 1960’s when, as if in a bizarre dream, his early La Fabbrica Illuminata emerged, disembodied, from a BBC broadcast. It changed my life. In those days I listened to everything, like a blackbird, absorbing everything from Amelita Galli-Curci to Cathy Berberian, without prejudgment. Hearing Nono was like a revelation, opening up infinite new horizons about what music can express.
Nono’s setting for unaccompanied voice to Boupacha’s text is pure and unadorned. The strange cadences reflect Arabic chant, but there’s a much darker side to the piece, which is brought out in performances like Barbara Hannigan’s where the intensity of her timbre showed just how disturbing the piece really is. Boupacha was horrifically tortured for standing up to the brutal colonial regime in Algeria. At once, Hannigan captured the child-like innocence of Boupacha’s words of hope and faith, yet activated the undercurrents of intense, but otherwise suppressed pain. It’s a haunting piece, all the more disturbing because it seems so simple on the surface.
Pieces like A foresta è jovem e cheja de vida grew out of the political turbulence of the 1960’s, but they remain universal. Indeed, I deliberately avoided reading the texts before listening, because the overall impact is what matters, not the specifics. Nono structures the piece quite skillfully so it moves between four-groups, the percussion quartet, the three voices, the clarinet/soprano combination and the recorded sound projection. The ensemble creates a huge panorama. One moment the voices are chanting texts from Frantz Fanon, the next an American voice floats from magnetic tape. The percussionists rattle chains around metal plates to create “anti music” sounds which express distressing images whose very hollowness reflects the mood of despair. Then the metal sheets are beaten, literally with the sort of hammers you find in DIY stores and in torturers' armouries, in itself a distressing comment on society. Nono never knew about Abu Ghraib, but he wouldn’t have been surprised.
Much of the time the voices are buried in a fog of withering noise, but this is as it should be, for the voices are those of the disempowered and oppressed : they rise out of the mass to sink back in again. Bel canto this most definitely is not: it is music expressing anguish and war. The words themselves are only snippets, elusively fleeting across and against the mechanical percussion and recorded sound. Nonetheless, this isn’t easy music to sing. It’s more like using voice as one of the many layers in the densely woven textures in the piece. It isn’t easy music to play or conduct either, so Beat Furrer, a very good composer himself, does an excellent job in combining and separating the divergent elements. The piece works because the interactions are so carefully judged. It’s a struggle between different sections, the voices often snatching half-finished phrases before being subsumed in the metallic fog of percussion and recorded sound - like guerilla warfare in aural terms.
Nono wants listeners to feel trapped and tense, so that we are receptive to ideas. One of the more distinct phrases, carefully and clearly modulated, says “Is ….this….all…we….can…do ?”. And the clarinet and soprano’s livelier moments seem to indicate resistance to the machinery. Yet, towards the end, we hear sounds vaguely like the hum of aircraft engines taking off. Is this the sound of a bombing raid - the piece refers constantly to the Vietnam War? Or is the circular drone yet another sound image of frustration and defeat ?
It doesn’t matter as long as we notice and think about what we hear. This may be music inspired by events of Nono’s time, but in this day and age, when composers don’t seem to want to challenge the wars and oppression in modern life, Nono’s music is even more important.
Footnote: Nono on ….sofferte onde serene…..
“Sounds of different bells reach my home in the Guidecca in Venice, Venice, variously repeating, with various meanings, during the day and the night, through the fog and the sun. They are signals of life on the Laguna, on the sea. ….and life continues in the suffered and serene necessity of the ‘equilibrium of the profound interior’ as Kafka said.”……. “The formation of sound was explored including the use of the vibrations of pedal strokes, perhaps particular resonances in the ‘profound interior’. Not episodes that distinguish themselves in their succession, but memories and presences superimposing on each other ….merging with the ‘serene waves’ (onde serene)”
And here is a link to Mark Berry's review
La Lontananza is in many ways the quintessential expression of Nono’s brilliance. It’s more than “just” music, it’s a conceptual innovation which makes us rethink the very nature of music. For Luigi Nono, music grew from life, and enhanced life and similarly art didn’t need to be confined to any specific conventions. Form was just a “construct” to help frame ideas conveniently because the spirit of art lies beyond that, free and limitless as the creative impulse. Too much is often made of Nono’s “political” work, which so many of his contemporaries, like Henze and Berio also pursued but his real genius lies in pieces like this, which stretch the very spirit of art.
The South Bank Nono series wasn’t subtitled “Fragments of Venice” for nothing. Entire programmes were devoted to Monteverdi and the baroque masters for a very good reason. As a young man, Nono spent a lot of time in the many churches in Venice, staying for hours in their cool interiors. This was a completely different world from the hot, noisy streets outside with their endless bustle where Nono would have heard music performed with reverence, and in an atmosphere conducive to inner reflection. He learned things like polyphony, freedom of expression within ensemble, and the subservience of elements like text to overall meaning. More fundamentally, what he absorbed was the idea that music isn’t a fixed, rigid commodity but a human experience that draws from many sources, and has more possibilities than we can imagine. It’s no surprise then, that so many cutting edge composers today, like Ferneyhough, draw inspiration from the baroque, just as Nono did.
La Lontananza is performed in darkness, as if in an ancient, unlit and unheated church. This stills the mind, the better that we can focus on contemplation, free of external distractions. The first sounds we hear come from behind a screen, “masked” as it were – another aspect of the intriguing ambiguity that is so much part of the magic of Venice. It is only when Irvine Arditti quietly materialises at the side of the screen that you realise that the violin you’re hearing exists not in “reality” but on a recording, forcing the listener to ask, 'What is reality ? What is illusion ? ' and ' Why ? ' which is even more pertinent.
In a church, what you hear is literally shaped by space. In the nave, you’ll hear certain resonances not quite so clear in the wings. Even the height of the roof impacts on the way things sound. Yet all are part of the whole experience. Thus Nono has the violinist moving from place to place in the auditorium. Processions, and movement, are part of music in many cultures, not just in Christianity, but something we’ve lost in the fixed-platform approach that has dominated western music for the last 300 years. Thus Arditti makes a progress round the hall, playing at different stands. At first it seems to matter “where” he’s playing, but as the music unfolds, that focus no longer seems important. What impresses more is the seamless, surround sound quality of the experience. Gradually it no longer matters what is being played live and what’s recorded, for the human violinist blends with the electronic version of himself on tape with such seamlessness that reality itself blurs once more. Again, we have the image of Venice, half built on water, half on land, and of horizons where sea blends into sky.
La Lontananza has a sub title, “madrigale per più ‘caminantes’ con Gideon Kremer”. The different positions that Arditti plays in aren’t just for acoustic completeness, but reflect subtle progressions in the music itself. For Nono, the idea of movement, of “travelling” is fundamental. His music “goes somewhere” and is open ended. The theme of journeying recurs in works like Hay no caminar which itself exists in two versions, one growing out of the other. That title refers to an inscription Nono spotted in an old building. “Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar”. It means “Travellers, there are no roads, but we travel on.” The South Bank series wisely presented Hay no Caminar twice, first in its semi-orchestral version with the London Sinfonietta, and then in the version for two violins, before which Arditti led a masterclass. Arditti had studied the piece with Nono himself, so his insights were fascinating. He explained the significance of minute details so lucidly that even non-string players could appreciate what he meant.
This fascination with journeys connects to something quite fundamental in Nono’s music. He’s an explorer, seeking new direction and means of expression. The “journeying” also fills a spiritual purpose. Nowadays, we expect so much instant-access expertise, however superficial, that it’s easy to forget that in many cultures, the path to wisdom is through humble learning and experience. La Lontananza is a pilgrimage towards some undefined goal, a kind of atheist Stations of the Cross. Its quiet but firm traverse is a kind of meditation, making us listen patiently and examine why.
A friend who did a lot of the theoretical maths that’s behind modern sound technology used to say that our ideas of “mono” and “stereo” were hopelessly primitive, because sound is ambient, coming at us from all sources, and at all levels. It’s our brains that filter and process what we “hear” whatever the sound sources. It’s not surface 'noise' that makes music, but something altogether more elusive. Everything goes into the experience. Thus, if during this performance, we heard the sounds of workmen outside the auditorium, and coughs from the audience, it wasn’t a problem because this music functioned on many levels. Remember Nono, sitting in a church while a different world revolved around outside.
Each performance of this work is unique as it’s shaped by the spatial and acoustic properties of wherever it’s played. A church is a purpose-built “performance space” because its design and ornamentation extend the impact of the music. Even the cruciform shape is symbolic. The Latin Mass could be like total theatre, conveying meaning in many levels, so even if the actual words were in an alien language, the impact still came through. Architecture shapes sound. In a church, high vaulted ceilings make sound echo, and what you hear in the wings is different from what you hear in the nave. Yet it’s all part of the same “whole”, whatever the angle from which it’s heard. Nono’s use of the entire performance space thus breaks rigid boundaries of sound projection and creates a more flexible approach to what music can be. His use of recorded sound and snatches of mechanical sound or taped noises also expands the panorama of what we hear beyond the confines of “formal” music. Sound projection becomes an art form in its own right. André Richard, who has performed this piece since its inception, knows how to gauge a venue and its acoustic, and operates his instrument like a chamber player, sensitive to what’s happening around him and to his partner, the live soloist. The possibilities of creating music in space are still being explored: just this year, Simon Bainbridge premiered two pieces on this theme, Music Sound Reflection and Diptych, which incidentally was inspired by Venice.
Arditti’s violin is clearly venerable, for its tone is lusciously rich and resonant – even with a broken string. It would sound exquisite in any music, yet here he manages to coax beautiful new sounds which its maker might not have imagined. Here we heard Arditti, in music that’s still state of the art, yet his instrument would have been played by many other great virtuosos in their time and hopefully, it will serve other musicians in centuries to come. The performance juxtaposed past, present and future. Once again, the world of the baroque connects to the modern, in parallel just as in Venice, traces of the past co-exist with the present.
For Nono, history was important and he was immensely proud of what Venice had achieved. By humbly learning from its traditions, he could continue to build on them, in his own way : there is so much in La Lontananza that rewards patient “pilgrimage” into its many depths.
This is what I wrote about the London concerts May 9 and 10. 2008. More to add on rethinking....which is a sign of interesting music !
Luigi Nono , Prometeo, Tragedia dell’ascolto: London Sinfonietta, Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, Synergy Vocals, Klaus Burger (euphonium), Diego Masson (conductor), Patrick Bailey (conductor),). Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London. 9 and 10.5. 2008 (AO)
Other contributors: Caroline Chaniolleau (narrator), Mathias Jung (narrator), André Richard (spatial sound director), Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts, Freiburg, Michael Acker and Reinhold Braig (sound projection)
Luigai Nono as a young man - picture © Luigi Nono Archive
Prometeois so radically different that it’s almost incomprehensible heard from preconceived assumptions of what music “ought” to be. What we think of as music now stems from 19th century orchestral tradition, which suggests that music should fit standard formats, to be listened to passively, often as no more than wallpaper. Nono’s ideas were revolutionary, not just in terms of his politics, but because he wanted to challenge the way we listen to music. Nono addresses the very fundamentals of why we have music at all, and its role in civilization. To penetrate just how radical Prometeo is, we have to approach it on its own terms without prejudgement.
Prometheus brought fire from the gods to mortals. It’s no accident that Nono had been fascinated by the myth from his youth. The fire Prometheus brought to the world was enlightenment. The Gods were enraged because Prometheus had broken their monopoly of power, so they condemned him to suffer eternally. Prometheus is an archetype idealist, who is compelled to seek knowledge and share it with the world. But his fate is to be destroyed for doing so. What does that tell us about idealism ? What is the destiny of those who, like Prometheus are the bringers of change ? What is the role of music in civilization? What is the role of an artist in society ? Why do people persist in seeking enlightenment when there’s no reward? Why does civilization matter at all ?
Meaning matters in Nono tremendously. But finding meaning, whatever it may be, means listening pro-actively, engaging in what’s happening: this isn’t music to audit passively. Listening is part of the process by which it “becomes” intelligible and the more you put into it, the more that you get from it. The piece isn’t even something that can be judged in conventional terms because its impact depends so much on how a listener has synthesized what he or she has heard. We’ve become conditioned to assuming that music is something to be consumed, and categorized in judgemental constraints. Yet things weren’t always this way.
The South Bank’s Fragments of Venice series was very well planned because it placed Nono’s music in context with Monteverdi. Why Monteverdi ? That’s a good question. Nono came from Venice, a city where water, land and sky converge seamlessly. Moreover, in Venice the past co-exists with the present. Wherever you go in the old quarter, there are vestiges of Venice’s glorious past as a centre of the then “civilised” world. As a young man, Nono would listen to music in Venice’s ancient churches : an unworldly haven from the hot, bustling clamour outside. Long before the western symphonic tradition developed into what we know now, that was how Europeans experienced sophisticated music.
Prometeo connects directly to that pre-modern approach to music. The primary function of church music was to inspire heightened spirituality. Whether audiences were religious or not was (and still is) beside the point. Church going was a profoundly artistic experience. Elaborate gothic and baroque decoration served to glorify the message of God. Wealthy merchants paid, but the beneficiaries were ordinary church goers for whom the church was a dazzling blaze of colour, sound and scent quite beyond their grim normal lives. The Mass was theatre. So Prometeo follows that deeper tradition, cloaking deep spiritual content with music.
Medieval and baroque polyphony are also the seeds of Nono’s approach to text. Most of the congregation didn’t understand Latin, but all knew the basics of what the Mass was about. They didn’t need to know every single word verbatim, but instead, meditated on spiritual meaning. So Nono uses fragments of text in many languages, spanning centuries of cultural history, from the ancient Greeks to Walter Benjamin. He breaks words down into the tiniest fragments. Syllables and even single letters are intoned in different progression. Such “lines” as they are, are sung by different voices in layers, so sounds overlap and modify each other. This is deliberate. We have to listen more carefully than ever to what is being conveyed. It’s supposed to be a challenge. We’ve become too accustomed to assuming that if we “hear” something we know what it means : hence the deluge of trendy jargonese we hear so much today which sounds good but means nothing. Nono makes us concentrate intensely on what we hear, or think we hear. Words are only shorthand for conveying ideas often can’t be easily expressed. André Richard (spatial sound director) apologizes for talking in four languages at the same time, but that’s exactly what Nono is doing. It means forming ideas with more care and listening more intently, because there is so much more outside the box, beyond linguistics.
There are quotations from Hölderlin’s Schicksalslied, "Doch uns ist gegeben auf keine Stätte zu ruhn……” the fragments of sound curling over and over in restless turmoil. Then, brilliantly, Nono uses the images of water being hurled from cliff to cliff, shattering into spray and yet re-forming into waves which again shatter, endlessly, “blinding wie Wasser von Klippe zu Klippe”. They hurtle ever downwards, “Hinab ! Hinab !” This is powerfully expressed in the spiralling downward flow of the music. Indeed, the flow goes “underground” for a while emerging later, to be glimpsed in tiny snatches of “hinab!” or fragments of the word which occur later in the piece. Following with the text actually limits the understanding that comes from real listening. Conventional narrative this isn’t, but you need to know Nono to know.
This fragmentation also has meaning in itself. Prometeo works on many different levels. There are short, elusive references to other texts, other music embedded throughout. You certainly don’t need to recognise them all at once, but again, that’s the concept. Like pop ups in Windows, the references can lead you to read further, listen further and learn, far beyond the confines of the piece itself. It’s a panorama which opens other panoramas. Indeed, Nono even builds into the score comments and quotes which don’t appear in the performance, but exist to inform the performers about interpretation. His instructions even include marking some letters in capitals, even within words, like “HiNaB”. What you hear is only a point of entry. The deeper you go into Prometeo, the more there is to learn, if of course, you want to. We have a choice. When Prometheus brought light to mankind it was a precious gift, to be cherished. It’s important to approach Prometeo without any prejudgement, but once one is aware that there is meaning within, it’s not wise to ignore it. The explosion in information technology gives us tools, but do we use them wisely ? “Non spederla ! kei pleistôn (do not lose it, this weak messianic power!)” goes the First Interlude, which acts as a kind of commentary on what has gone before. Civilization wasn’t won easily, but can so easily be squandered.
Nono died before the revolution in information technology that is the internet. Nowadays anyone can play with a search engine and produce “instant erudition” which looks impressive, but is in fact superficial if not downright fraudulent. Instead of real learning, we have “google intellectuals” whose superficial expertise makes a mockery of the real business of learning, which is to assess and process, and create original ideas. So the Second Interlude is entirely instrumental, beyond words at all. Crucially it’s positioned between the Three Voices, where we’re reminded of the “la debole forza” (the “weak power”) of enlightenment, and the final Second Stasimon, which reaffirms Nono’s faith in the imperative of civilization. Words matter desperately, but words can also be noise. For a few minutes, they disappear, so when they return, we absorb them more effectively, remembering that their absence.
Much is made of Nono’s use of space. Again though, spatial arrangements aren’t an aim in themselves, but integral to the meaning of the piece. Nono is reminding us that sound is ambient, it comes from all around. It is up to us to process, from whatever position we may be in at any given time. This too subverts the conventional notion of music as a commodity to be consumed passively. Prometeo subverts the very idea that what we hear should be fixed in any given form. Rather it makes us realise that what we hear comes from one perspective among many. The four compact orchestras are placed in different places around wherever the performance is held. Each performance will differ according to where it takes place. There’s always an element of spontaneity, of using resources where they are found so there’s no “definitive” setting. On this occasion, the Royal Box provided an excellent place to position the string unit, between the main orchestra in the front, back and side. Other boxes were used for the euphonium, for the glass instruments, for the voices. These days when most of us get our music through recording, it’s easy to forget that recordings are only snapshots in time, frozen forever by mechanical means. Music, in the real world, is something far more alive and fluid.
What was impressive about these performances, particularly the one on the 10th, was the feeling that dynamic energy was flowing between the disparate groups of performers. Nono uses sound as sculpture. Although there are two conventional conductors, André Richard is the sculptor who pulls everything together, giving four dimensional shape to what we hear, from whatever position we may be in. The score is amazingly complex: the sheet music is a metre long and almost as wide, to incorporate the detail. There are sounds here made by unusual instruments, by unusual techniques and sounds which exist only in electronic mediums. Yet Richard made it possible for us to hear all the fragments, from the circular rubbing of the glass bowls to the faint but insistent tapping of bow on violin. Precision is important – the singers use tuning forks to keep them on pitch. Sometimes they cup their hands to extend their voices like miniature wind instruments, often they whisper barely above the threshold of audibility. Yet again, this quietness, throughout the piece, is its soul. There are moments where Nono marks the score pppppp, where the “music” reverberates in the imagination of the listener. Nono writes “islands” in the music and in the instrumentation, but islands don’t exist in isolation. It is Richard who creates the flow that keeps the islands connected. We don’t, yet, have enough music vocabulary to describe what he does, but it is a new dimension in sound creation, a new form of musicianship.
As someone in the audience noted, The Royal Festival Hall is a strange place to hear such disturbing music. The original performance was held in a disused church in Venice, which is now which is now closed to the public. The performers were placed in a huge wooden structure designed by the architect Renzo Piano like the inside of a violin, so the sound would resonate inside the structure, and then inside the church and beyond. At a workshop on Prometeo held on 4th May, Enno Senft, bassist of the London Sinfonietta, recalled how the shaky structure added to the performance because it gave a sense of danger, as if the structure could collapse at any time. Yet this, too, is relevant to meaning. Piano’s structure embodied the idea that civilization is fragile. Stability can’t be taken for granted. Health and Safety regulations now would make it impossible to recreate that first performance, so perhaps its memory should remain in our minds. The first performance remains as a ghost, just as the ghosts of ancient Venice live on in the present. Nono didn’t plan this strange juxtaposition of time and place, but it’s a valid way of thinking about Prometeo and its panoramic vision of human experience.
Prometeo’s subtitle is “The Tragedy of Listening”. This refers to the Greek notion of tragedy yet also to the modern sense of the word. Prometheus brings light to the world but suffers for having done so. Is the fate of Prometheus that of anyone who brings about innovation, even if it’s for the ultimate benefit of others? Are mortals fundamentally incapable of appreciating art, innovation and civilization? Or is barbarism inevitable? Yet for Prometheus and for idealists like Nono, there is no other choice. It’s their destiny to strive for enlightenment no matter what the personal cost. They are driven, like the forces that create the waves that shatter against the cliffs. The faint flame of faith in the ultimate value of learning is kept alive as long as there are those prepared top listen. “Ascolta ! Ascolta ! (listen ! listen !). We may not understand, and may never understand, but if we don’t even try, Prometheus’s gift and what it symbolizes, will have been in vain.
Congratulations to the South Bank for having the vision to make these performances possible. Prometeo is’nt easy listening, and it isn’t cheap to produce. But its cultural signifigance is very great indeed, and quite likely won’t be appreciated fully in our time. There have been 60 performances in Europe but this was only the first in Britain. Yet, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what popular reaction might be. Like Prometheus, it is enough that someone has enough faith in the fundamental value of art, whether or not it pleases mass audiences. This is why the South Bank matters. It has the courage and foresight to recognise Prometeo and bring it to Britain at last.
Please see the review of the recent Col Legno SACD recording of Prometeo.